LittleField Notes: Spring 2014
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty
Stallion: term instituted under Henry VII meaning “stalled one” after it was forbidden to turn uncastrated male horses loose on the commons in an effort to improve English stock.
“I feel strongly that the breed is deteriorating through the stallions not working.” – Geoffrey Morton from Horse Power and Magic by G.E. Evans
I’m thinking of Mr. Morton’s words as I continue the daily work of training our young Suffolk stallion Donald. In my travels to farms I have yet to see a working stud horse. It always struck me as a bit sad to see a magnificent Suffolk Punch stallion, bred for a life of work in the fields, standing in a pen alone, hooves splayed out, his tremendous muscles lacking the tone that only a life of work can provide. How much more fitting to see him put to the plow, or at work in the woods displaying the very characteristics we wish to see passed on in his progeny: a gentle disposition and a willing work ethic. And if we are breeding for work, what can we know of a horse who has never stood a day in the furrow?
“This sounds great on paper,” you might reasonably point out from the other side of the fence rail – “the countryside filled with working stud horses. You talk high and mighty, but who really wants to mess around with a working stud anyway. Sounds like a wreck ripe for the happening.” Fair enough. The task of training a stallion is not a project for a beginner; nor a job not to be taken lightly even by the most veteran of horsemen or women. A stallion is a force to be reckoned with. He’s two thousand pounds of testosterone-fueled energy with built in over-drive and the very real capacity to hurt humans, other horses or himself in the blink of an eye. He doesn’t have to have a specific vendetta against you either. All he needs is that procreative energy and biological aggressiveness common to all intact male farm animals. We must tread cautiously and smartly around stallions just as we would around the bull, the ram, certain roosters and tom turkeys. I’ll never forget the little red holes bored in the back of my oldest son Rowan when he was 3 years old after a big Araucana rooster named Fernando took after him with his spurs. That was the first and last time that old rooster attacked a child. Of course we can’t put a stallion or a bull in the stew pot, and must therefore carefully consider how to manage these potentially dangerous animals.
A horse will include us in the pecking order that all herd animals naturally establish among themselves. Our place at the top needs to be continually reinforced. In a wild horse herd with more than one stallion, the males will fight to determine dominance. When a stallion comes to the farm he will necessarily want to be the alpha male. If given a chance he will include you in that pecking order and will expect you to be subordinate to him. This is where firm but gentle daily handling comes in. The stallion must have respect for the people around him and understand that he has to keep his head about him while he is in our company.
In the days before chilled semen and gooseneck trailers, stallions would either be hitched and driven, or at the very least led around the countryside in order to service mares at farms in a particular region – in the case of the Suffolk-East Anglia. Traveling got stallions out of the barn and out of isolation. It afforded a chance to display his manners and carriage around other people and horses. It gave potential breeders a good look at his movement, disposition and temperament.
This line of thinking led me to the conviction that buying a very young horse and training him in harness would be an effective way of establishing a comfortable relationship with a stallion from the outset. And so after Donald came to the farm I began the long process of training him in harness. I am grateful for his youth. His young mind is quick to learn. A young stallion’s stature is smaller than it eventually will be, leaving me at least with the illusion that he is more manageable at this tender age. Also, any bad habits he develops will be my fault alone. In other words, I won’t have inherited anyone else’s mistakes.
Donald came to me with a very solid foundation. He is naturally trusting and not overly fearful. Once we got started the groundwork in the round pen proceeded beautifully, each day building a little on the previous. All was progressing well. Soon I was ground driving him out of the pen dragging an old wooden corner post.
Eventually we began making laps around the waterfall field. Here is where our first setbacks occurred. Donald would go along just fine and then suddenly decide he might rather be back at the barn and throw a little fit. He would crow hop, dance and likely as not, get a leg over a tug and I’d have to sort it all out before carrying on. Finally one day my ever-astute wife, Liz said, “Why don’t you bring him up to the house and drag the mole hills in the yard.” I needed a fresh approach so I took advice and reconfigured the hitch so as to drag the square wood post perpendicular to the horse instead of parallel and in this way use it to effectively flatten molehills. Donald took right to it. He seemed to love having a purpose. We went around the yard in between the fruit trees, obliterated every molehill and cruised back to the barn without incident. That was a turning point in his education. He progressed quickly from pulling the post to a single section of spike tooth harrow.
I now have him going single on the forecart pulling the spike tooth as we go about the annual spring task of knocking down the thousands of molehills that pop in the hayfields over the course of a typical winter. Yes, it is training, but it is productive and necessary work too. Once I am past the groundwork phase with a horse, I really prefer to educate a horse while doing actual work; and how fitting for a Suffolk, a true work horse of the old school. This emphasis on work is what initially drew me to the Suffolk. He is a horse “bred for the furrow,” a farm horse through and through.
Donald is the first colt I have ever hooked up single to a wheeled vehicle for the first time. I chose this approach rather than hooking him with a veteran because I didn’t want him distracted by his ever-pressing and all important social life with the other horses. I want his entire mind on the business at hand.
With the training of Donald and the recent befuddlement of a friend trying to house train a new puppy, I have lately been thinking of the basics of animal training. Let me say at the outset – I am no horse whisperer. I have no special sixth sense or psychic ability with horses or any other animal. I have, however trained a fair number of horses over the last 20 years for saddle and harness. My horses won’t play dead, rear up on command or turn left or right with hand signals alone. They will stand quietly, go forward or back when asked, stop, gee and haw with voice commands and steadily pull a load for long periods of time. In short, everything a good farm horse should do. Here is a rundown of some the basic tenets that I keep in mind when training a young horse.
A Horse is a Horse – A horse is not a human. He doesn’t think like you, he doesn’t reason like you, he doesn’t speak English like you (though he will learn the 5 or 6 words you will teach him), and he won’t understand you better if you raise your voice.
Patience – Because a horse is not a human, it takes him a lot longer to learn something than you may think it should. We will ask him to accept many things that a wild horse living on the steppes of Mongolia would never have to: an iron bar in his mouth, a suite of harness, the confines of the traces and the pull of the plow. Do not get in a hurry when training. Let the colt set the pace.
Baby Steps – Since the horse will set the pace, we need to be observant and sensitive to his progress and know when it is time for the next step. Proceeding too quickly will likely get someone hurt, or cause setbacks requiring remedial steps to correct. End on a Good Note- Always look for a positive note on which to end a training session. Sometimes a session will be very brief because a step that has been difficult suddenly goes smoothly and you’ll want to end it right then and there. Though sometimes after a successful first step you will want to immediately put him through the same paces several times in a row in order to cement the lesson in his mind. There are no hard and fast rules here. You will need to develop good judgment through practice, prudence, instinct and experience.
Attach a Command to What He Does Naturally – One basic tenet of training any animal is to catch him in the act of doing what you want, reinforce it and if necessary put a command to it. If a pup is on its way over to me wagging its tail I’ll take the opportunity he has just given me and say “come.” And of course I’ll love him up when he arrives. He won’t get it on the first go, but after a number of repetitions he will start to associate your word with his action.
One common example with horses revolves around the all-important issue of starting and stopping. Once a horse is going well and the fear of clanking-moving-objects-behind has subsided, one of the first challenges encountered is that of the horse wanting to stop and start of his own free will. In his natural state if he wants to stop walking and nibble some grass, he does. If he decides to move on, he moves on. Now all of a sudden he has to accept that you alone will decide when to start and stop. To handle this situation you will need to hone your horse awareness skills and put on your anticipation hat. If you are paying attention he will tell you before he stops- with his ears and body language. You have only a split second, but he will tell you all the same. The instant you sense him stopping, say a quick “whoa.” He will stop and hear you at the same time. Though he will probably think it was his idea, you’ve planted the seeds of doubt. If he stops and you miss your chance for a “whoa,” get him going right away. There should be no reward for him stopping on his own. You’ll do the same thing if he wants to step out without you asking. In the split second you sense him going you’ll cluck to him or otherwise give your “let’s go” command. The goal here is to very gradually increase the time he stands and also increase the time he travels before trying to stop off on his own. Eventually he will settle in to the idea that you are in charge of all movement.
Be Consistent – It doesn’t matter if the six words you want to teach your horse are in Mandarin, Spanish or English – just consistently use the same words. Same with expectations – don’t let him start out sometimes without you asking and at other times make him wait for you to say the word. Be consistent in all you do and your horses will reward you for it. Animals appreciate constancy and routine.
Little Rewards – Offering little rewards positively reinforces the behavior we seek. I can best illustrate by using the example of teaching a horse to stand quietly. Say you are driving around the field and you say “whoa.” Your horse stops right away, but instead of standing quietly he noodles around, prances a bit and is generally impatient. Reward him by giving him what he wants- an opportunity to walk on. Wait and watch until he finally stands quietly, say “git up” and away you go. The first few times only expect him to stand for 1 or 2 seconds. On successive tries gradually increase the time he stands until eventually he will stand indefinitely, patiently alert for your command to go.
Be Kind – Be kind, but firm and you will be well on your way to establishing a fine relationship that will reward you with many pleasant working days in partnership with your equine companions.