by William Castle of Shropshire, England
It was thirty years ago that I drove a horse for the very first time; I still remember the strange but exciting feeling of having this great animal ahead of me, knowing that I had to try to get him to move, the only connection between him and me being the cords from his bit, passing through rings in the back band to my hands. Being a well-trained horse, I actually got him to start easily enough, then after a few yards I pulled on the right cord, the horse turned to the right, sharp right, and walked back down the tight cord straight towards me, until I took hold of his bridle and he came to a gentle halt! Luckily, I’ve improved a bit since then, but from that day on I learned to appreciate good horses.
My early training continued with driving a dozen other horses, horses that knew what to do in most situations, because unlike me, they had experienced most situations. Although it would be wrong to downplay the value of the instruction I was given, in many ways it was those good horses that taught me what it was to be a horseman.
Spending days working with horses, I have been in the right place to witness many natural events; barn owls patrolling the hedgerows, kestrels plummeting to catch prey exposed by the mower, and frogs hopping out of the way of the horse-drawn tedder. I have ploughed, cap pulled right down, in freezing rain, longed for the half-hearted sun to burn away the fog of a chill October morning, and, standing on a load of corn at the end of a long day’s harvesting, welcomed the long shadows creep over the harvest field, casting elongated images of the horses and stocks against the stubble. In all these pictures, the horses were the central focus, sometimes standing like statues, more often moving purposefully forward, clean work-hard shoulders leaning into well-fitting collars, ears forward, at ease with their life.
To a bystander, it all makes a picturesque scene, a camera-worthy image to try and capture the magic. Being part of that picture, however, is altogether different; it is an all-inclusive experience, as you focus on to the horses’ movements, watch the ears, glance at the traces and swingletrees, listen to the implement, feel the soil beneath your feet and their mouths through the lines.
The magic of doing work with horses is in the doing; you can’t capture it with a camera because it is fleeting and dynamic. Some of the magic stems from working with natural processes, working outside the normal human realm, from doing something which is hard yet is also easy, restricted by the limitations of the horse but broadened because you are using horses. But mostly the magic lies in the relationship between the horses and the human, sharpened by the need to do a job and the cooperation necessary to accomplish it.
When we talk about the relationship between man and horse, most of the time we focus on the horseman or woman being in control of the horse. Indeed, I would be amongst the first to criticise when a driver doesn’t give the horse clear instructions or does not insist a horse stops on ‘whoa.’ But our relationship with horses at work is actually more complicated and subtle, because the communication goes both ways. It might only be the fact that you choose to stop when you can see that the horse wants to stop anyway, though conversely, you may urge him on because you don’t want him to stop at that moment. Or you may permit a pair of plough horses not to start the instant you say ‘giddup,’ because you know that after they have looked at each other they are going to start simultaneously and smoothly in four seconds time. Nor will you mind if they suddenly stop, because there may be a good reason.
On one occasion when this happened to me, I was tedding hay, driving clockwise round the outside of the field, when my Percheron mare, Molly, came to an abrupt halt. She had just noticed the muck heap [which she had put there, but perhaps she had forgotten!] or perhaps it was something near it. There seemed nothing to worry about, so I clicked my tongue and off we went again. On the next round, this time driving anti-clockwise, she stopped at the same place for no apparent reason. ‘Go on,’ I said a bit crankily, she took one more step, then stopped again. This provoked me to have a proper look, because although I was keen to get the hay turned, I know that when there is anything wrong, the place to fix it is when everything is stationary and calm. So, unless it is an avoidance mechanism, I don’t mind a horse that stops. Anyway, my better look, which must have taken all of two seconds, revealed that the back chain had come undone, so the shafts were too low and were hanging on the tugs. Molly knew this didn’t feel right, and I learnt that I should have ‘listened’ to her one step sooner.
Although this example is scarcely earth shattering, on other occasions I have had traces come undone, buck rake tines stick in the ground and threaten to break, and other instances where something has not felt right. Often the horse’s decision to stop has prevented something worse from happening. Of course, sometimes when they stop they are wimping out when a load gets hard. This is where the horseman’s judgement comes in, deciding whether there is in fact something wrong, or whether the horse just needs a bit of encouragement, perhaps with a change in direction to make the load easier to start.
Once we acknowledge that horses have greater capabilities than merely following orders, we allow ourselves to reap the benefit of their contribution. I came acutely aware of this possibility within a month or so of starting to work with horses. I was harrowing a field with four horses: a young Ardennes/Shire cross gelding on the near side, a big Clydesdale gelding called Swale next to him, and two reliable Shires on the off side. We harrowed all morning, then after dinner I drove the horses back, driving diagonally in front of the harrows, to get them into position to yoke them up. I stopped them, then attempted to swing them round to line up with their own swingletrees. The three older horses were happy to do this, the off-side pair stepping back a step, but they couldn’t finish the manoeuvre because the little gelding wouldn’t move his back end over. Now I can think of three remedies to the situation, but back then my efforts proved unsuccessful and I started to get quietly frustrated. Then very deliberately, Swale slowly lifted his back leg and gently kicked the little gelding, who did a deft side step, which put him directly in front of his own swingletree. The others could then be moved into position, I yoked them up, and off we went. You may think it was just a coincidence that Swale did what he did, but I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what needed to happen, and he made it happen.
Having written this down I must admit to a slight embarrassment. It is not because I worry about admitting to a lack of skill, or fear being seen as a romantic. It is because some of you will have similar stories, perhaps more impressive stories, as this is just the sort of thing that happens when you spend enough time with horses at work. It is at once normal, but also extraordinary. Most of the time, however, the joy of working horses comes from smaller things; the low nicker as you come out of the house, seeing a young horse settle into its work, or watching steam rise from the horse’s back as a shaft of sunlight bursts through the trees. Or like me, you may get a gentle buzz from seeing your equine companion dip his head through the collar, or, with just with a word, push the cart back just one step.
In themselves these are all seemingly insignificant events, but they don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They are developed over time, through good working routines, gentle persistence, observation and collaboration. Although each experience may appear unimportant, each tiny lesson learned reinforces or refines what has gone before. It is the layering of such experiences, building confidence and acceptance, which results in good horses, and, providing you have been paying attention, good horsemen too. The relationship between the horseman and the working horse is undoubtedly a remarkable thing. For me, thirty years on, it is still as intriguing and fascinating as it ever was.
I can’t think why everyone wouldn’t want to do it!