Training Up a Teamster

by Katrina Julian
June – July 2017

One of our jobs as parents is to know our children and to help start them on their path in life based on their specific skills, enjoyments and dreams. This is true also for any relationships where a usually older person with experience in certain subjects helps a young, inexperienced person get started in something – being careful to teach, advise and, yet, give freedom. And, most importantly, to emphasize safety. At this particular time, I would like to tell the story of our son Joshua.

young teamster
Joshua learning to skid cookstove logs with his pony, Whisper.Photo by Katrina Julian.

My husband, Jason, and I have noted Joshua’s love for animals, particularly horses, since he was a youngster. When Joshua and his older brother, Aaron, were a few years old, we got them a mini pony named Lightning. They learned to ride him in a sand-filled round pen. My memory fails me as to whatever happened to Lightning. Several years later, we bought an older, white pony named Whisper. She was technically the family’s pony, but she and Joshua formed a bond. He did the most with her, so she pretty much became his first horse. He loved riding her – with or without the saddle. They would ride around our farm fields and bring cows home from pasture or take them out. He especially liked that job since he could open and close the hot wire gaps without our help. Animals, especially horses, don’t appreciate getting shocked from electric fences, which is why most farmers use them to keep livestock in their appropriate pastures. But Whisper and Joshua had a system. Since Whisper was foundered when we bought her, we only gave her dry hay, so she took every opportunity to graze. Joshua would get off her and quickly move the fence handle from one post to another while she stood there eating grass. Then he got back on her, and off they went. She liked Joshua.

brabant horse at work
Joshua drives a team of his family's Brabant-cross horses put to a tine weeder. Photo by Katrina Julian.

Joshua also drove Whisper and used her to pull a small, flat rack for piling loose hay on. He also really enjoyed logging with her. She pulled out smaller, dry logs for the woodstove. Jason was always right there. First Jason would lead, saddle, harness and drive Whisper while Joshua watched and learned. Then Joshua did these things while Jason watched, checked and corrected any mistakes. So, step-by-step, with thorough consistency, Jason allowed Joshua to work with his horse by himself. Joshua graduated from watching and helping to eventually doing by himself. There were some mishaps. We have a saying that, “Ponies will make fools of men and boys!” This, of course, includes women and girls and simply means that just because a little horse looks cute doesn’t mean they are well behaved or make good choices. Whisper dumped Joshua several times, and he has the scars to show it. But he really enjoyed working with her – he was a young teamster doing good, useful work with her for the farm. Whisper aged and was in pain, so we did what was best for her. She was Joshua’s first horse, and he learned with her and loved her.

young horse and rider
Joshua riding Little Red on his parent's farm. Photo by Katrina Julian.

Sometime during Whisper’s last years, we bought Little Red at about 6 months old. One Christmas, Jason gave Joshua 49 percent ownership of Red; we kept the 51 percent. We have him now, and he is quite the worker. He’s a cross of pulling pony, Brabant and American Belgian. He was a stud and sired a colt and filly. He still thinks he’s a stud. He has a very determined personality and wants to rule the herd and then the world. Little Red, with his pulling pony breeding, proved to be quite the spitfire. At first, Jason drove Red, and Joshua drove the older mares until Joshua’s skill level and Red’s maturity level met in the middle.

brabant horses and forecart
Joshua drives four Brabant-cross horses put to a power forecart running a round baler at the 2014 Brabant Field Day at the Julian farm. Photo by Rural Heritage.

Joshua really likes Red, I think more because of his ownership than the actual attributes of the horse. They participated in a riding class and then rode around our farm fields. Red likes Joshua because of their friendship, not out of respect for leadership. I’m sure entire books are devoted to the horse pecking order, personalities, working relationships with humans, etc. But the fact is that the horse (even a new colt) is far stronger than any human. So, for our safety, the teamster must be in charge. The horse must respect and trust the teamster, thus making a solid relationship.

Jason has been around horses all his life, starting as an infant in his mother’s arms on a riding horse. His parents grew up with horses. So he has learned a lot through the years by observing, doing and changing techniques as necessary. I grew up with cows, not horses. Although there is a huge personality and intelligence gap between horses and cows, they are both far stronger than humans, so safety is a must. Jason has taught our boys and me all we know about horsemanship. Jason and I bought our first draft horses about 15 years ago, and we have learned a lot during this time. We have developed our own techniques for safety and training for both human and horse. We far prefer to raise our horses from birth rather than buy them with bad habits, fears and surprises. Raising and training our own horses teaches them to trust us as they learn new things. The horse needs to know that the human ranks the highest in the pecking order and will keep them safe or get them out of a troubling situation. The horse is still a prey animal and has the instincts to prove it. Part of our horse chore is the twice daily leading to water starting at weaning. This is a great time to teach manners, personal space and simple commands. This consistency between horses and various people is imperative. The young teamster watches the experienced one and uses the same commands, voice and movements. The young teamster needs to be included in everything, taught the proper ways, watch and learn and be watched. He/she needs to be comfortable with the horses and the duties. This learning simply takes time. This learning and training between person and horse does not end with an A, B, C grading system. It is a pass or fail (mishap or death). To insure success and safety of horse and person, the learning teamster must pass. This means to know and respect the strength of the horses. The beginning teamster should not be allowed in over his head, especially with horses who know less than he does.

brabant horses at work
Joshua chops corn with a team of Brabant-cross horses while his father pulls the silage wagon with a four-abreast hitch including Little Red, during the 2016 Brabant Horse Field Day.
Photo by Rural Heritage.

Since Jason knows far more than me about this subject, this is what he has to say: "From my experience, it is drastically important to have the right horses for the young teamster. A lot of people haven't been around a truly broke team. Having said that, a lot of people think that you can do anything —take unnecessary risks—around a broke team. We try to use the most dependable, broke horses and avoid unnecessary risks. Joshua gets the older team, Jason has the hotter team. Treat horses like a firearm – always loaded and can go off. It's like when you learn to drive a car. It seems like everything happens so fast. It's the same for beginning to drive horses. So you want to choose horses and tasks that move slower and require minimal distraction from the team. For example: tine weeding corn, rolling down and packing new seeding. Spreading manure would be the next step up. As their skill level increases, and to train precision between the teamster and horses, we graduate to doing chores like hooking and unhooking from various implements, mowing and raking hay, maybe rototilling with a power cart. When those skill levels have been reached, we move on to planting corn, drilling new seeding, baling with a power cart and chopping corn. Then the teamster can move up to working in the woods at certain tasks and under supervision again. If this sounds like it came from a worrisome Dad's mouth, it definitely did. All dads probably sound the same! We've already had a few wrecks and close calls; we would like to avoid those with our children."

spring-tooth harrow
Joshua drives Little Red as he pulls a spring-tooth harrow. Photo by Katrina Julian.

We have been putting these thoughts into action over the past several years of Joshua’s life. Last year, he was tine weeding corn, spreading manure and raking hay by himself. Often with Holly and Pepper – older, dependable, slower mares. He also baled and chopped corn with the power cart and under supervision. This winter, he ran the forwarder with Holly and Red in the woods. He is now 15 years old and looking forward to this coming season of fieldwork. He has traded his 49 percent of Red for 50 percent of Rollie, a gelding out of Holly with a great, calm personality who should be easy to work with. There is great joy, along with some worry, in the passing on age-old skills to the next generation. We strive to do this as safely as possible, while letting the young teamster experience some failures so they can appreciate their achievements when they succeed.

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Katrina Julian lives in Medford, Wis., where she and her husband, Jason, operate a diversified family farm using mixed power incorporating their Belgian-cross horses.

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