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Working Horses Successfully
Working Horses Successfully

Working Horses Successfully

Excerpts from the Horsedrawn Circle Letter

compiled by Eric Nordell

The following excerpts from The Horsedrawn Circle Letter1 describe the deeply satisfying and humbling process of developing a right relationship with our work animals. None of the members of this circle of teamsters grew up farming with horses. Consequently, we have all had to learn work horse behavior the hard way, retraining our teams – and retraining ourselves – when faced with the unexpected antics of our partners in harness.

Over the course of three rounds of the circle letter packet2, the horsedrawn scribes have documented some of the important changes in Perception, Attitude and Approach necessary “to get the job done” with work animals. The ongoing learning curve described here may not always sound pretty, but for that very reason it may be the most helpful contribution this circle of horse farmers can offer to new teamsters.

The circle letter excerpts also contain insights into the practical and emotional aspects of working horses successfully. They include: the best hitch for starting young horses, a succinct comparison between three different horse training methods, the influence of ones expectations and attitude on work horse performance, and the recurring admission that most behavior problems begin with the teamster. Poorly fitting collars, too short a check rein, a battle of wills, or even a case of mixed signals – these are all cited as examples of teamster neglect, and reason enough to deter a good horse from working up to its potential.

During the last round of the packet, a related consideration surfaced: it is often easier to create positive work experiences for animals when time is not a factor. In this light, working horses successfully may have as much to do with the pace of our lives as good communication skills and proper harness adjustment.


  1. The Horsedrawn Circle Letter has involved twenty plus teamsters over the past ten years. On occasion, one of the teamster-scribes has suggested a topic for discussion to be shared in the pages of the SFJ. Previous contributions include: Getting Started with Horses and Mules,” Winter 1994; “Preparing for Spring Work,” Spring 1995; “Blinders, Bits and Bar Training,” Summer 1995; “The Great Potato Trials and Tribulations,” Summer 1996; “Getting Started Behind the Plow,” Summer 1998; “Harness Care,” Fall 1998; and “Essential Tools for the Modern Day Horsefarmer,” Winter 2001.
  2. In many plain farming communities across North America, circle letters are a popular way for people of like minds, or in similar circumstance, to stay in touch with each other. In many cases, the circle letter serves as a social outlet, information pool, and support group for its members. Circle letter maintenance is pretty straightforward: each time the packet of letters arrives in your mailbox, you take out your old letter and replace it with a new one before sending the packet to the next member in the circle via pony express. That’s it! Initiating a circle letter can be more of a challenge given the difficulty, in this age of instant communication and gratification, of finding a group of like-minded letter writers who are committed to keeping the packet moving around the circle.

I have a thought for another circle letter discussion. I would like to hear what folks feel it takes to work successfully with horses. How folks deal with their horses in all their moods and in all the different situations presented to them. When I started driving I found the hardest thing for me was working with my horses when things were just not quite right. Many of my attempts seemed to make things worse, though we would always seem to get through the day. I found my ideas on what it takes to drive horses successfully to be changing almost daily as I feel I am slowly stumbling onto an approach that works.

Ken Akopiantz

As far as working horses is concerned, I just never doubt that the horses are the ones that are going to get the work done. If they start being brats about it that’s exactly how they are going to be, but it doesn’t change anything, the work still has to be done, and they still have to do it because I can’t do it, or I would. They don’t generally work for long periods of time at any one job because I don’t work that way, but we plow when it needs to be done, not for a lark. When we go joy riding for a lark, that’s what we are going to do because that’s the next thing to be done. It’s an attitude. There are a lot of times when I tailor the workday to the horses, for example, only half of the potatoes get hilled because the stallion is grumpy. Of course he’s out there bright and early the next day to finish. If I can’t work the next day because it’s market day, I tell him so just as if he understood English. By now I know he isn’t a lazy horse, and he doesn’t hold a grudge either but the work has to get done and he has to understand that. I’ve always assumed this, even when the horses were young. We have one horse that doesn’t like to work in a team. Fine with me, why fight it? I’ve got plenty of work for a single horse, too. It gives everybody a rest and a change and I don’t need her for now. The moment I need her, to be part of a team, I’ll put her in and I’ll expect her to work at it too. If she doesn’t, there’s tomorrow morning, or this afternoon, but if it has to be done, it’s got to be done by her. I can’t do it or I would. Actually, my ultimate secret weapon is the fact that I often sing when I’m cultivating and the horses know the only way to get out of ear shot is to get the job done. They’re nice and snappy about lining up for the next row!

Katy Sweeney

I’ve been training the horses for more manageability using a variety of methods including Lynn Miller’s Round Pen concept; John Lyon’s conditional response method; and Linda Tellington Jones Equine Awareness method. I’m finding training horses addictive.

Joe D’Auria

I bought two Suffolk mares last fall. One was bred and had a beautiful foal this summer. About a month later she fell over dead from an apparent heart attack. She was just a three-year-old. I guess that is the way it goes. As for the other mare, she too has turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. She would just never accept her place in the herd. I trained her to drive, but I was only able to work her next to one of my geldings. She has to be kept alone in the barn and the pasture. I have seen her go after all the other horses ears down with the intent to hurt. Needless to say she is off on her own now at my in-laws where she is happy and content. I felt that keeping her with the other horses sooner or later someone was going to get hurt. So that is about it for Suffolks for me. I am back to my original idea that a good horse is a good horse regardless of the breed. With that in mind, I will breed my mares to an old style Percheron stallion this spring. He is short and chunky and only a ferry-ride away. I am also working on trading my Suffolk mare for two three-year-old Belgian geldings. They were purchased at Waverly and had spent the summer working on an Amish farm.

My plan is to spend this winter working with my younger horses. This summer I started driving a four up while disking and found this set up to be a very good one for training young horses. A young horse put in the wheel team seems to go along as if he is following another horse down a trail. I am still a little overwhelmed while driving this hitch, but I plan on spending a lot of time this winter harrowing pastures using this hitch so I will be prepared to use it for spring plowing. Forward we go.

Ken Akopiantz

Ken, on the horse you have that’s anti-social around other horses, sounds to me like she was a spoiled pet before you got her, and will not accept the idea that she must share space. I suspect that a trainer who has really good horse psychology skills might be able to get her behaving, but it sure would be a challenge. The (Suffolk) mare I had last was very similar, you see, and in her case it was because she was early weaned, and raised as an only horse by a doting owner. She never learned all her horse-skills, preferred the company of humans, and was aggressive, sometimes destructive around other horses. I sold her, to an Amish fellow (Paul knows him) who turned her into a valuable member of his herd, and last I heard from Paul this fellow wouldn’t part with her for any money. So I think it can be done. Whether it would be worth it to you is another question.

Keith Morgan-Davies

Sorry to hear of all the trouble others have with Suffolk horses. I believe it is because so many are raised as pampered pets. But once you get them broke of those habits they will make superb horses. The mare that Keith once owned is the best example. It just takes so much work. Keith, your mare is doing great – two foals on the ground, bred to foal again this summer, and works as the lead horse all the time. Hopefully by this summer, our Red the Runt Suffolk will have learned what work is all about instead of just dreaming about mares all the time.

Paul Hauser

I would agree with Katy that working with horses is a question of attitude. That is, it really is a result of ones expectations. In this respect, I am very thankful for the experiences I had working on established diversified farms under the direction of experienced teamsters. Watching these farmers, who were raised working horses, gave me a very clear picture of what horses can be expected to do and how to handle them in a variety of situations. Having these expectations of what workhorses can do was a real headstart for us when we started farming on our own.

As for dealing with “horses in all their moods,” our greatest challenge during the first years on the farm was learning how to work with the mares when they were cycling. I don’t know if these Standard-bred mares inherited an extra charge of hormones, but when they came into heat they were almost unmanageable, kicking against the tongue and traces, balking on a heavy load, twisting and turning all the way down the row. Tiring them out with a lot of work never seemed to help much as they had far too much stamina and just went back to their antics when more precision work was demanded. Shorter work sessions and less rich feed helped to cool down their hotheaded nature, but the only cure was to get the mares bred. Once settled, they worked calmly and steadily just like a dream team. Needless to say, we raised a lot of colts out of those mares! We also learned that as long as these mares were nursing a young one they remained in a working frame of mind. So we sometimes let their offspring nurse for a couple of years rather than breeding the mares right away after foaling. The only drawback with this approach is that delaying the weaning often spoiled the young horses, that is, they never forgot they were Mama’s boy or girl.

We also found that working the horses during fly season was a real challenge those early years, especially for market garden work, like cultivating, when the last thing we wanted was a horse dancing around or being driven to distraction. As fly sprays, whether toxic or the natural variety, seemed to lose their effectiveness almost as soon as the horses started sweating, we finally decided to invest in a set of nylon fly netting advertised in the SFJ. At less than $40 apiece, this was cheap fly control, and made all the difference in the horses’ comfort and their ability to pay attention to the work. The netting does make harnessing the horses a little bit more involved process and is not effective in deterring the flies unless the horses are moving.

Joe, could you describe John Lyon and Linda Jones’ training methods, and how they compare to and complement Lynn Miller’s Round Pen approach?

Eric Nordell

I’d like to respond to Eric’s request for a comparison between Lynn Miller’s approach and that of John Lyons and Linda Tellington-Jones. All future references to these trainers will only be their initials, LM, JL, and LTJ. All of these methods refer to how we condition our horses or what we expose them to. The success of any of these methods has everything to do with what we understand about the horse physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because of our understanding and how we communicate respectively, a relationship develops that becomes the fertile ground for learning to take place.

What I see between LM, JL and LTJ approaches is some degree of overlap or borrowing from each other. I find myself drafting from all of these approaches when I come to a mental block in my understanding or difficulty getting the anticipated response from a horse. I’m definitely experiencing a sharp self-teaching curve. Currently, I’m trying to locate a trainer to work with me. Lynn’s approach works more with establishing a relationship with the horse, with the trainer assuming the role of alpha mare. One needs to understand herd dynamics for this to work. After this, it seems it’s about exposing the horse to new, unfamiliar, or potentially scary objects or experiences they may encounter in life. More importantly, this conditioning to scary issues teaches courage by teaching the horse there are levels of danger and to think before fleeing. Not all new things require a flee for life response, perhaps just a stop for reevaluation. What I find disappointing and frustrating about Lynn’s books is they don’t tell us enough about all the other things we as trainer and our horse need to know about being good handlers. I’m not complaining about Lynn, he’s just one guy and he has already given us a wealth of knowledge.

LTJ methods deal with massage and accupressure in dealing with the horse’s physical, emotional and mental needs. Through massage, the horse relaxes, builds trust, and gets inherent soreness relieved. The horse also develops agility, sensitivity, acute awareness, and alertness. With a horse on this level of functioning, they are more receptive to learning or doing things we ask of them. LTJ then starts conditioning the horse with the use of a 3’ crop which she refers to as a wand. The wand is used as an extension of her arm. She then proceeds to condition or expose the horse to scary issues such as walking under or on top of tarps, into trailers, and over false bridges. She also uses cavaletti poles in various configurations but no round pen is ever used.

JL technique seems more comprehensive. There’s very little left out in the making of an all around well trained horse and handler. I’m using JL books which deal mostly with handling riding horses to develop my basic handling skills. For example, to lead, to stand tied, head down, giving of the hoof, and learning to be separated from herd mates. JL conditioned response method uses a round pen but also a 3’ crop and a lead line as LTJ does. JL method involves sending your horse a message or cue. The horse’s job is to decode the message. We are there to reward them when they get the right answer. An example of this technique would be the “go forward cue” which one does on the end of a 10’ lead and a 3’ crop. One proceeds to tap with the crop the point of the hip until the horse steps forward. The instant the horse moves forward the tapping stops. The tapping is firm enough for the horse to want it to stop but not so firm that it resembles pain. Once that is achieved, the standard is upped so that all one has to do is point to the hip, then later on one just looks at the hip and the horse moves forward. This assumes a certain alertness on the horse’s part, but this is addressed in the books as well. This is a step in the training that is the foundation for far greater tasks. The horse needs to be trained to this 100% of the time no matter if other horses are being distracting, or if a mare is in heat, or if there are crowds of people present. After the horse learns the first task, subsequent task learning is faster. There is a fair amount of horse psychology in this method in that one needs to learn how horses learn. For example, there is apparently an identifiable learning curve a horse goes through when learning any task. This learning curve can be noted and graphed and further used to speed and ease the learning process.

Another side of the JL technique is that it has been commercialized. This has an upside and a downside. The upside is it has been well documented on books and video. He also has a training facility open to those who are able and willing to pay. He also has certified trainers throughout the U.S. The downside is one needs copious amounts of money to get any contact with someone versed in the system, though I suspect its worth it if you can afford it. This can make the JL system distasteful, and Lynn Miller’s heart is in a very different place. JL’s books are well worth the money and are very available. One can learn what one needs to know through them. JL uses some of LM approach with the round pen as well as LTJ massage techniques. LM, by omittance, leaves us wondering how a lot of other things we ask of our horses are learned. He may well be using some techniques that are similar.

Joe D’Auria

Ken, I agree with Katy and Eric about attitude when working horses. I believe there is no absolute way. However, communicating to the horse what you want done, and when is important. After this, I need to listen to hear if it is feasible. Personally, I know the limitations of my horses and they know my approach all too well. It is my experience that the more we work together the better we know and respect each other. On one of our State official’s visits, an inspector wanted to examine the horses. I took him to the pasture and whistled. The horses came running to us. He was amazed, and said sarcastically, “Oh, you can tell those horses are afraid!” I later found out that he was an old horse farmer himself and has much respect for our way of life. My point is I talk to my animals, all of them, just like family. I even joke and play with them at times. I think they understand, and like this to the point of playing back.

Katy, in your letter you state “doing what needs to be done.” What do you mean by this? We have other friends who use the same term and I am curious what you are getting at?

Leo Trudel

So, to answer the question about the phrase “doing whatever it is that needs to be done”… from my perspective, it means I work horses without a lot of grace. I try very hard not to be mean or cruel or abusive, but I’m sure I’ve been inconsiderate and unobservant.

For example, this spring, it got real dry, very fast, and it was much too dry to plow, but we did with the stallion, single, on the walking plow. He was having a tough time and would often stop in the middle of the furrow, especially on the uphill run. I was pretty annoyed the first couple of times he pulled this, and I let him know it, but as he kept doing it (he wasn’t always stopping in the same spot so I thought it was an honest reaction to changing ground conditions, not a learned behavior as in this-is-my-little-break spot) I just decided that this was the best he could do and every time he’d stop I’d tell him to get going again. He wasn’t heaving or sweating up a storm, and I was short with him, but I was mostly cranky, not angry. Eva, the daughter I work with most, figured out that his check rein was too short when he had to work hard going uphill. I felt like an idiot. The next round he pulled right up the hill like a prince. A wonder horse, and forgiving, too. It’s not hard to be smarter than the owner around here.

Katy Sweeney

Rocks, rocks, rocks, there are a lot of them out there, but picking rocks with a stoneboat is great training for young horses. I have two young horses in training this spring and am very pleased with their progress. I also have plans on taking on Anna, the anti-social Suffolk that I mentioned in my last letter. I am not sure on how I plan on working with her, I have driven her some, but I need to be careful who I put her next to. Somehow I will succeed in making her a valuable part of the workforce here. Any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, etc… about how to do this will be appreciated.

This brings me back to what it takes to successfully work horses. This is something I believe has eluded me through the years. Sure, I got the work done, but I fought with my horses more than I worked with them. I knew there were better ways, but I had no examples.

Slowly I’ve come to realize that my horses are willing to work for me as long as they are comfortable. I now assume that anytime my horses get uneasy it is either because they are uncomfortable or expect to be. Here are two good examples:

This spring I had my apprentice, Sara, out driving with a team, disking a field. I came out to see how she was doing and she was having a problem with the team constantly stopping. After watching her drive some, I saw nothing visibly wrong with the horses. I was tempted to drive them around myself, but somehow intelligence prevailed. I told Sara that the only time I’ve seen Star stop was when he was hurt (sore shoulder) or tired. We unhitched them and drove to the barn. That evening, when we let Star out to pasture he was extremely lame. Not too long ago I would have forced him on.

The other example is a problem I had with my team, Donna and Dusty, while cultivating. As we approached the end of the row they would always get anxious to turn, and would try to turn before the end of the row. Well, this was not OK with me and I let them know. As we approached the end of the row I would start to apply pressure on the opposite line, but to no avail. The horses would still try to turn. So I would apply more pressure. This went on and on and those darn horses would just not listen. We began to build anxiety around the end of the row; it became a bit of a battle zone. Finally, a bit of advice came from friend, John Erskine. It had to do with another horse, but his suggestion was to stop next time this horse got anxious and just go up and stick my finger in the horse’s mouth and see what happens. So the next time I cultivated with Donna and Dusty, I stopped just before we entered the “Battle Zone.” I got off the cultivator and went up and had a chat with them, played with their harness, etc… I got back on the cultivator and drove part way through the “battle zone” and did my routine all over again. Well, it did not take too long before the battle was gone. I finally had removed the anxiety.

As I sit here and think, I had many misconceptions of what driving horses was about and what “broke” meant. If I had to sum it up I would say that driving horses takes constant attention; attention to horses, equipment, line pressure, etc… It also takes a knowledge of horses that can only come from working with them.

Ken Akopiantz

I’m going to try the “stick your finger in the horse’s mouth technique” when I got to have a talking to one of them. I’m sure my horses would do whatever I asked them to avoid such a horrible experience as that!

I share your attitude, Katy, about fighting horses (or oxen). You get to know the animal and its limitations and make the best of what you got and do what needs to be done to get the job done.

John Coffer

Ken, we agree that a series of photos showing horses not working well, and why, would be very helpful to all teamsters. But either you would have to stage it, or carry a camera at all times to document the horses’ – really, the teamster’s – misbehavior. Usually, when things are not going well, the last thing on our minds is running for the camera! We would need to have a video camera running at all times!

Eric Nordell

The question often comes up – do you work for your horses, or do your horses work for you? I have to admit – this year with all our marketing I think I ended up working to support my horses. But with winter around the corner I look forward to more time spent holding the lines.

Paul Hauser

At the beginning of June I traveled to Vermont and purchased a yearling filly. She is 7/8 the imported Belgian and bay in color and beautiful. With some luck we’ll have her in harness by late 2002. Nothing heavy, but learning routine with another horse or two.

I find when working horses, my weakness, and theirs at times, is patience. Like Ken, I have, over the years, at times concentrated on getting the job done. Usually this is caused by my taking on too much and having limited time home to complete the task. This caused frustration and I’d get overwhelmed thus looking at the end result and not the means or the horses in this case. This year I changed to setting no time limits on the task with the horses. I have made it a conscious effort to look after their every comfort to the best of my ability and look for outside inputs. This included all of the family and seeking outside sources if need be. With this new approach, working the horses has become more enjoyable than ever. I have become part of the team. I have seen subtleties which can be communicated by voice, lines, and even thoughts. One rule I have made to myself is don’t get upset with them – look at myself first. With this approach, I feel they will do whatever is asked of them.

I have noticed young horses are much like young children. Their attention span is short yet they are very willing to learn and want to know what their boundaries are. My approach has been to work them for short stints with a very good horse (no bad habits). This new trainee needs to learn to stand with its mate for periods of time. These time periods are extended and eventually the horses can go to the woods, be tied, and wait while trees are cut and limbed. In the field, I have not seen this as being crucial.

Leo Trudel

Life is full on this side of the country. Our motto for this year has been sane and sustainable. Last year things got just a little bit out of control. No regrets, but I plan on doing this till I am old and gray so I have slowed down the pace. I have only five acres in vegetable production this year with the other ground either fallow or cover cropped…

I got a little surprise a month or two ago. Spreading manure I found myself in the midst of a runaway. Nobody got hurt, but it was the first for me in the sense that I was driving the horses with good line pressure, etc… but in a blink of an eye they were gone. I eventually jumped off the spreader to watch my team stop on top of the deer fence. I repaired harness and went back to work with no problems. Star, the horse that I believe was the instigator, came to me as a runaway, but that was three years ago. Who knows, but onward we go.

This year has been the year of the harness sore. I try so hard to avoid them, but they got the best of me this year. I had a respected horseman over a ways back and showed him the sores. He had a few suggestions, but in general everything seemed to be adjusted properly, but he pointed out a few subtle changes that might make a difference. We will see how it goes. Now is a slow time for the horses and most of their work is relatively light, so everyone will get some much needed rest and be ready for fall plowing, etc… I have also discovered that for this farm (80 acres) I really only need four good horses so that is my goal. I am putting aside my ideas for raising and training horses for the moment. It is all part of sane and sustainable. For the first time since I have moved to this farm have I been able to look at what I am doing and where I am going…

Katy, I like your story about plowing with your stallion. I now assume that when things are not working out as planned that either my attitude or the harness needs adjusting, or that the seemingly little sore actually is causing some discomfort.

Ken Akopiantz