No Pressure Driving
by Donn Hewes of Marathon, NY
It’s always hard to find words to describe something that is all about feeling. The art of driving is just such an endeavor. Over the years, as I have developed as a teamster, I have always challenged myself to continue to improve my skill with the lines in my hands. The amazing abilities of the animals I have worked with could not have asked for less.
For about the last two years I have been pursuing something I call “no pressure driving.” It is not a new idea, and I know Steve Bowers, as well as others, talked about the same principles. I would like to lay out what it means to me, how I go about it, and what I think the benefits are.
Simply put: there is no pressure on the lines that is not intended to be a signal to the working horses or mules. Many of us have been taught (myself included) that a certain amount of constant pressure is needed to successfully drive workhorses. Over the years we sought ways to teach our animals to work with a ‘light’ mouth. It was easier on the arms, it seemed nicer for the horses, and it made driving more accessible to folks who may have been told they weren’t strong enough to drive work horses.
As I started to train my own animals for work I learned about the basic concept of “pressure and release” training. It is a foundation of almost all the training we do. Pressure is carefully applied in such a way to challenge an animal to try something new or accept something it is unsure of. When the animal’s behavior matches the goal of the trainer the pressure is quickly removed: that is the release (reward) for doing the right thing. That is an oversimplification because to use it as a training technique one must learn how animals will respond to a wide variety of pressures and the timing of the release is critical to its success. One of the cool things about using pressure and release training is that while a horse is learning to put its head down or lead and stop as directed, it is also learning to learn. As its training advances the animal begins to anticipate pressure and release methods. It just needs to find the magic button to get the release from pressure. The pressure you need to use steadily decreases.
I started to ask myself how “pressure and release” related to how I drive. I certainly use the pressure side of the equation to steer the animal, to slow it, to stop it, and to ask it to back up; but for the most part we never give it the full release while moving. I could not, and still cannot think of a good reason not to release all pressure while an animal is walking at the speed I desire in the direction I wish to go. I keep thinking about how I taught them to believe that pressure was a signal that I wanted them to change something they were doing.
As I have incorporated this technique into my driving over the last couple of years I have learned a few things. The horses and mules that you have been driving will need to be retrained and you cannot expect them to make this change overnight. Equally important, however, I don’t think the best or easiest way to go about it is to try and gradually lighten the pressure. Just start them on simple tasks that they are very familiar with and say “look, we are using a new driving approach, take your time, but figure it out.”
At first you’ll want to exaggerate the release of pressure to make sure they feel nothing when they walk as you asked. Be ready and quick, but also gentle to remind them when they start to accelerate and equally quick to give them a full release as soon as they slow. I like to use a light pulsing pressure for many signals. I think those pulses fit with the movement of their heads as they walk. I also think the pulses give you a lot more ways to adjust and vary your signals besides just pulling longer or harder. If the animal didn’t respond to the first three, give three more pulses a little louder. I gradually keep working with them to include all the tools, sounds, and drafts that they are familiar with, but now asking them to do each task without the line pressure they were used to. When loads are increased they may want to fall back to the old habit of working with pressure, be firm and make them do it as asked. Remember you are retraining yourself as much as them. When you feel you are lapsing back into driving with pressure, ask yourself what signal you are sending at each second. Try to translate every pulse into a word, as if you were talking through the lines. When you steer, add pressure to the side you want and be sure to continue to release the other side.
Now I start to practice giving a full release without giving slack. Right away I realized one of the possible drawbacks of this method and the challenge it creates. With the full release of pressure it is easy to lose contact. It is important to remember the danger that slack in the lines represents. It is the same as taking your hands off the steering wheel. Not a good idea. This has convinced me that this method of driving is a little harder to learn and a little harder to teach. For me, this has not been a reason not to go forward. The horses are the ones walking around with the bit in their mouths. Why shouldn’t I challenge my hands to learn a new form of subtlety that can better convey to the animal what it is I want? Years ago I learned a teaching method from Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters that used a pair of single lines and insulated fence handles to teach people how to find the perfect tension in the lines. I have adapted this method to suggest we are seeking the same point of contact, but rather than putting pressure on the springs and then releasing it to find the right tension, practice taking all the slack out of the lines but without ever stretching the springs. It is like driving a late 1960’s pickup truck down a long straight road. Contact was at 10 and 2, but to go straight you had to let your wheel rock back and forth between the two positions. You couldn’t let go and you couldn’t stop rocking, if you wanted to turn you just applied a little pressure on that side. You had to relax to make it work right, applying any pressure would just put you in the ditch. Unfortunately that great analogy was lost on the young farmer I taught to drive this summer.
When teaching someone to drive using no pressure driving, you must insure they don’t get hung up on the “no pressure part.” As you sit next to them and go faster and faster, you need to explain that in pressure and release training, timing is everything. The first foot out of place should receive a comment from the lines. You have to encourage them to use pressure to direct the team. For an experienced teamster it is easy to lapse back into driving with some pressure, but for a beginning driver it is much easier for them to lapse into no contact and not providing enough direction for their team.
I have driven a few different teams of horses and mules in the past and they all had different ideas about what the right line pressure was. Some of that was caused by the way the animals had been trained, their temperament, and some by the way I drove them. In the last three years I have been working with a middle-aged team of mules that were pretty hard mouthed when I brought them home. They were used to being bitted down (using a levered bit with a curb chain) and one of them was always a little high strung. They have been involved in a couple runaways that I know of. Both runaways were not wrecks in the sense that the teamster stayed with them and stopped them, but nonetheless, it tells you a little about the limits to their training and their lack of overall confidence. After my first year with them, and many successes and a few setbacks, the mules had changed a lot. They were willing to accept me as their leader, they were more comfortable in most farm work, they were calm when waiting or resting. The wary one still didn’t relax completely, her ears didn’t flop back and forth while working like a relaxed mule’s does. She is one of those animals that is on the lookout always, nothing will ever sneak up on her.
I tried to teach her to drive with a lighter mouth, but only had limited success, I tried different bits but kept coming back to the levered bit. Then I started using no pressure driving with them. Of course it came as a bigger shock to the wary one, while the rest of my horses and mules really took it in stride. As my skill and consistency increased, I started to see changes in that mule’s behavior. Not just backing off the bit and allowing herself to work without pressure, but also the head coming down and the ears starting to flop! She is still a wide awake mule, the first to pull, and the first to stop on a whoa, but she is able to relax while working for the first time. She is still the first one to hear the school bus, and I am sure she would let me know if any sound of a haybine, or baler was not right. But still she has become one of my favorites.
I think there are several benefits of this method of driving. Right away you realize you are not as tired after four or six hours of driving. I think this is a huge advantage of this method. Don’t worry about not getting your exercise, there is still manure to fork and hay to stack. Anyone with full mobility is strong enough to drive horses this way.
Contact between the teamster and the team needs to be constant. But that doesn’t have to be in the form of pressure on the lines. It is important for them to know I am there, I am the leader, and that I will support their efforts. You do this with the communication from the lines, also with your voice, and also with your awareness. My animals know I am there because I know when to stop, when to start, and when to correct them when they are out of line. I believe the effect on the animals is a greater sense of confidence. They realize they can do this job without a restraint. Support yes, but restraint no.
No pressure driving will work with any bit. I use Liverpool bits with the lines attached in the middle of the lever. Because of this people have asked me if the horses aren’t still working with the pressure from the bit, and it is just the teamster getting the relief. This would be true if you were driving them on ‘light lines’, and then the bits use leverage to apply that to the curb chain. The difference is seen while they work. With no pressure driving the lines have a bow in them, and the bits rest in their mouths and the levers point forward.
I am not suggesting that this is for everyone, but only to share my experience. I really believe that words are inadequate to describe what is really empathy and understanding translated to a physical action. I know that my horses and mules are worthy of any effort on my part, and especially to improve my skill with the lines, that will make their work easier, safer, or more comfortable. If you took three old-time teamsters and set them in a room you might get three different ideas about driving and line pressure, but if you took the same teamsters and put them in a field with three good teams for mowing, you would see the quiet way they use their hands to guide their animals.