by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
It is too easy for we editors to forget that our readership includes folks of every experiential stripe. Speaking here of working horses; included in the group that might read these opening words are folks ranging from no experience whatsoever all the way to the most capable master teamsters. What I wish to share here are words that take aim across the wide spectrum, but which are most certainly aimed directly at what it means to successfully depend on your horses or mules to get the work done.
Successful dependence on draft animals as a power source takes three parts good mechanicals and one part guided intuition. It also takes positive expectations and less thinking. It most certainly includes determination and patience. That’s lots of parts; in fact that’s way too many parts. So many, in fact, that we are prone to get in the way of our success.
The best teamsters just are. And they are because they spend a lot of time doing it. They DEPEND on their animals in harness. The work HAS TO BE done. For them it’s not a parade, it’s not a joy ride, it’s not a play day exercise, it’s not a ‘foo foo’ moment.
There is NO ONLY WAY to work animals successfully. For every individual’s absolute rule for successful teamstership, there is a master teamster who does it just fine ANOTHER WAY. It may be possible to ‘logically’ show that one system for working animals is more time efficient than another but that does not make it intrinsically better. Many people prize the intangible rewards of working their horses and put that above so called logic. Working horses is an arena of craftsmanship which embraces contradiction as the norm.
As I write these words I am thinking about living working master teamsters which I know personally, people who actually work their animals day in and day out. A cascade of images, faces and hands, cross my mind. They include those of Les Barden, Mike McIntosh, Jim Butcher, Kenny Russell, Jimmy Klein, Lise Hubbe, Mike Adkins, Bob Olson, Judson Shrick, Don Super, Chuck Baley, John Erskine, Luke Vastine, Eric Nordell, Donn Hewes, Bob Donley and so many many more. But I name those specific people because they know what it means to get work done with animals in harness AND because each and every one of them have absolute rules and methods which differ to varying degrees with everyone else on that list. Some of them put themselves out there as teachers, some don’t. Although the goal is the same, to get the work done, they have differing expectations. Some won’t work mares, others prefer them. Some would never think of leaving a halter on under a bridle, while others always do. Some keep their horses barefoot, others shod. Some feed grain supplements, others won’t do it. Some roach manes and forelocks, others won’t. Some prefer docked tails other don’t. The list goes on and on. But all of that said and recognized you cannot argue with the simple and determining fact that these people KNOW what they are doing and their knowledge comes from long earned experience.
Thinking back over my last forty years, across a human and horse landscape that numbers in the tens of hundreds, I am struck by how very different things are today; different in the world of working horses. Some of that is good, and in my opinion some not so good. Yes, we can see thousands of folks who have grown into exceptional working teamsters, and that I might add in spite of a wide spectrum of silliness offered up on the internet, in books and even in magazine articles and videos. But we also see silly half-measures, complete failures, pompous neophytes, and wreckage. Add to that what I see to be the most troubling – way too many horses who have been rendered worthless because shade-tree equine psychologists have messed with their horse’s heads. And even more wasted horses because arrogant individuals pretended to know what they were doing and set the stage repeatedly for accidents and mishaps.
If you find yourself having to bridle the same animals five or six days a week for a year, if you find yourself having to hitch a team that many times regularly, if – a dozen times a day – you look down the sides of your working mates trying to determine if they need a moment to breathe, if you automatically run your searching hands over the animal’s shoulder, if you do these things you have discovered that most of the ‘how-to’ checklists for beginners have fallen away or morphed into your own natural awareness. You’ve joined the work and the animals.
Some would observe “so, what are you trying to say?” Just this; I fear that we have been excusing ourselves our thickheaded, nit-picking, overthought, new-age group-grope infusions into the realm of humankind’s long and splendid direct relationship with working animals. We think too much. We talk too much, we criticize each other WAY too much. We don’t spend nearly enough time actually doing the work with the horses. You can plow a little with a team as an exercise towards training them OR you can just go get the darned plowing done. My point is that the driving for training purposes is worse than a waste of time. If the work has a point to it, an objective, say like preparing a field to plant or mowing a field of hay, that work results in both better horses and better teamsters. The training exercise too often ends up curtailing most of the repetitions and tedium that result in honest expectations and the effective patience of the whole unit.
Twenty years ago, I had a master teamster from Missouri, Leonard Mothersbaugh, tell me that there was no secret to training good work horses. All you had to do was successfully hitch them up and go do some jobs, and do that seventy times. After seventy times hitched, he said, they are not only well broke they know how to work. “I don’t want no nag whose well trained if she don’t know how to work. For me it goes hand in hand.”
As for my reference to the hazards of messing with your horse’s heads: Thirty years ago, I met and worked briefly with a man who did specialty acts at horse shows. He had an Appaloosa stallion he rode without a bridle; used him to jump through flaming hoops. Every single day he would ‘reinforce’ his training of this horse by all sorts of nasty gimmicks and mind wrestling. He used a round pen as a weapon of control. He used slight little repeated touches on sensitive areas until the horse went nuts, then he whipped him. He would tease the stud with possible access to grain and treats until the horse would complete some action. Then he would refuse the prize. Always holding it over to another time when nothing was expected. He would taunt the animal by stroking him and whispering nice words then push him away. When I asked about all of this, he answered that he knew what he was doing and that it worked. Twice I witnessed this animal try unsuccessfully to kill his owner. The man laughed it off and said it was clear evidence that he had the stallion’s full attention. A couple of years later I heard that the animal had to be destroyed.
This is an extreme example of what I am talking about but it does illustrate the point I want to make. We take great risk when we ‘play games’ with the equine, games which we ‘think’ will result in better control. And those games need not be cruel physical punishment to mess up the horse’s mind. Often the brightest animals are the most difficult to train. They also can be the most prone to confusion in the hands of someone who has decided to ‘push the envelope’ and get inside that animal’s mind. Besides being manipulative, mean-spirited and disrespectful, its ridiculously unnecessary. Treat them like you would want to be treated, leave their minds alone, and just go out and get that work done – together.