Preventing Wrecks with Horses

Preventing Wrecks with Horses – Further Thoughts

Dear SFJ,

I always enjoy Dr. Hammill’s articles on safety and training for workhorses. His words are invaluable encouragement and protection for beginning farmers and their horses. I generally agreed with everything he said in the “Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses” article in the Fall 2006 SFJ (30-4). I would like to add a few further thoughts on some of them.

#8 Don’t let go of the lines and trust your horses to stand.

Simply put, this solution is not practical for the every day horse farmer. Having said that, the problem is still very real. Here are two suggestions that, used together, can help. First, teach your animals to stand. A friend once told me his horses didn’t stand like mine. It turned out that on his market garden farm most tasks took one or two hours and the horses were back in the barn waiting to unhook from one thing and then hook to the next. I suggested using contrived ‘waiting’ to help them learn. Hang the lines on the hames and stand right in front of them. Pretend like you are untangling some thing important. Correct them if they move, and when they relax and stop paying attention to what you are doing, go on about your business. I never turn down a chance to visit with a friend while my horses and mules wait. Depending on the team, I may be holding the lines, standing in front, or along side. I never stop watching them and correct their mistakes immediately. Rubbing their head or moving their foot will get a cough or a growl because I already told them whoa once. Gradually their ability to stand patiently increases.

The second part is what the skill is used for. Some mistakenly think that the further you go from the horses the better they are standing. The purpose of this skill is to make it easier and safer to work around your team. Hooking and unhooking from equipment, logging, and resting horses, all require animals to be able to stand quietly. Never leave harnessed or hooked up teams unattended without tying them up. The purpose of this skill is not to answer the phone or get a drink of water.

Another tool for teaching your horses to stand is to head them. It is also an important safety feature for young animals or green teamsters. To help them learn you need to head them properly. The goal is for them to stand and relax. Don’t hold the lines or bridle, as that may send the wrong signal. The correct signal from the lines for ‘stand and relax’ is slack lines. Hold the halter, lead ropes, or if the horses are ready for it, hold nothing. Stand in front of the animals and relax yourself, set a good example! Standing a few feet to one side does not support a horse that is unsure of what it should be doing.

An experienced teamster hooking a quiet team to equipment by themselves should still use some good safety practices. Put the lines down behind the horses, either over the tongue or over the rail of the forecart. When you go to hook up the neck yoke you are essentially heading the horses. Returning to hook up the butt chains you are returning to the lines. Always hook the inside tug then the outside. Never step over the tongue to hook the second horse. Instead walk around the front again and hook the other horse.

#7 Using a ‘butt rope’ when ground driving.

Yes, a butt rope is a valuable training tool for a young horse. On the farm, however, horses and mules are ground driven to and from equipment almost every day. I expect these animals to learn their jobs and do them quietly. When a team that is standing or backing starts to spread apart and you are not using a butt rope you have one option. You need to drive the team forward. This will re-align them. Asking them to continue backing or even “whoa” will not solve this problem. I usually go around in a circle and ask them to do the right thing again. Often I will seek an assistant that can encourage the turning animal to stay where it belongs. Remember: when the horses start to face each other – go forward.

#10 Sitting on the lines.

While this may work well, I have never tried it. My only concern would be if long lines ended on the ground. These can easily get wrapped around wheels, rake teeth, harrows, or PTO shafts. I use a method that others might disagree with and I will tell you its benefits and weakness. I almost always tie my two lines together at the end. First off if I drop one, which I have done, all is not lost. My horses may be turning in a circle but follow the remaining line to the center and I am back in business. On a cart or implement I hang or clip this knot on the rail or handle in front of me. It stays there while I work. The danger in tying your line this way is stepping into a loop or bight while ground driving. I have trained myself to keep extra line in my hand or on my shoulder. This works for me.

Along the same lines (great pun), don’t work with lines too short. I once tried walking beside a pasture harrow because the lines where not long enough to easily walk behind it. If the animals get going, you end up in the middle of the harrow – ouch! Or you let go – ouch for them. Working with the last two feet of line is asking to drop one. Walk behind the harrow and use rope if need be to make the lines longer.

Again, I really appreciate the work Dr. Hammill has done to keep us and our horses safe and happy. Lynn and Doug have always espoused an attitude that we can and must prevent ‘wrecks’ through thoughtful attention to our work. That is the best safety tip of all.

Donn Hewes
Northland Sheep Dairy
Cortland, New York

Hey Donn,

Thank you very much for your important response to these concerns. Please permit me to make a couple of observations which I hope will broaden the discussion even further. Those of us who have truly worked horses for some time evolve our own safety routines. Those of us who are new or relatively new to working horses are sometimes, right nor wrong, dependent on simple devices and taboos. Both extremes worry me somewhat. I have learned from years of teaching workshops and doing demonstrations that certain critically important aspects of the working-horse/teamster relationship are quite difficult to communicate to the novice. But we must keep trying. This is why I appreciate so much your insights and willingness to share. Here I must repeat myself and say that I am one who believes there is NO only way.

Relationships with the working horse are BUILT over time. They can be the result of chance or they can be orchestrated, planned for, even designed. Horses are highly teachable if we would but teach them. Horses are individuals and bring relative intelligence and experience to bear with everything we ask of them. With every moment we share there is a lesson being learned, no matter how old and experienced the horses. If we lose sight of this there is always the risk, day in and day out, that we inadvertently are training our horses, by way of neglect and allowance, to become something other than what we want and need.

The horses must be taught to willingly and comfortably stand, untied. This is central to being able to get the work done safely. If we must continually tie our horses up, or have someone hold them, in order to hitch, it will always be so. For when we have the horses held or restrained we are teaching them that they do not have to stand quietly unless ‘held.’ As the training and experience of our horses evolves, the sooner we can gradually remove all restraints, including heading, the sooner we can move to that plateau where we ‘expect’ our horses to stand, and they listen to us.

Many people take issue with me when I use the comparison but I feel it is apt: when we train dogs to ‘stay’ do we do it by tying them up or having someone hold them? No, we do it with little lessons of ‘insistant’ command done at gradually greater distances. And we don’t do it when there are myriad external distractions and working demands confusing the animal. The time to train horses to stand quietly is BEFORE they are ever in harness. Repetition of little lessons until the whoa command (I add the word ‘stand’ with insistance) result in a horse that understands that ‘relaxed acceptance’ long before being taken to the pole.

When hitching a team to a pole, yes I keep the lines in hand. And I always hook BOTH inside tugs first. This is because, should the hitched horse step ahead slightly, the double tree won’t slam back into the implement and set up a confusing situation for my horses.

For beginners, both horses and teamsters, the butt rope (or what Mike McIntosh and I call a ‘Rachel strap’ – a short strap with snap on both ends affixed to the inside forward brichen rings) can save a lot of confusion and difficulty. But I agree with you, Donn, in your suggestion that this denies us the opportunity to make the horses and ourselves ‘get it right.’ Tied together in this fashion teaches our horses nothing.

As for sitting on the lines. I am frequently at fault for taking this easy way out. And that is how I see it. The master teamster Gary Eagle once told me thirty years ago, and many another master has proven it to me since, ‘good hands make the team.’ He believed that a big part of that ‘good hands’ business had to do with our ‘learning’ to carry all of the line in hand. I have learned that when I do a folded coil and make myself carry the excess line in each hand, the complexity of the practice keeps my hands ‘thinking’ and I am far less prone to drop a line.

Such things as learning to carry all the excess line in hand, or training horses to stand, may be far beyond the capability of the beginning teamster and only understandable for the more experienced. But that does not mean we shouldn’t keep such things in mind when we work to try to improve our skills.

Donn, please accept my few comments and fuel for the ongoing discussion. I am not disagreeing with you or Doc Hammill so much as I’m reinforcing my belief that there are many ways to get this business right. In my lifetime I have known and watched outstanding effective teamsters, with great animals, do things which seemed dangerous to me, things I would never dream of doing. That doesn’t make them wrong nor any less effective. Just wrong for me. And I have watched many true horsemen do things I figure I should do but don’t have the patience or skill to master. That doesn’t mean I’m a poor hand with the equines.

My good friend, master teamster, Les Barden, might argue a blue streak with me when he reads this, but I insist that when we see him and his outstanding teams at work we are watching far more than a great harness function. When we watch a truly remarkable teamster like him, with truly remarkable horses, we don’t see gimmicks, restraints, obvious caution, nor anxiety. We see fluidity, comfort, communication and union. And that’s what I keep shooting for. Thank you Donn, Lynn Miller