Draft Horses

Working Horses: Four Corner Communications

Troika Drafts Merrill

Paul Merrill drives a young Shire at Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine
by Vicki Schmidt
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then horses must be from Jupiter. Some days it just seems that way. To the casual horse person, driving lines and spoken words are the two most identifiable means of communication with our driving drafts. But there are also more subtle, and, some would say, more advanced means of communication — those of body language and spirit..
Driving Draft Training

A young horse or one learning a new skill will often communicate acceptance or confusion with their body langage, while as humans we'll often communicate the objective of our training with our lines and words.

Using driving lines and words to communicate with our drafts feels more natural to most humans, especially when just learning to drive. However, body language and spirit are the more dominant methods of communication for our equine counterparts. Is it any wonder that some folks have issues with their horses?

If we look to a core behavior of the horse, fight or flight, it's easy to conclude that movement is a horse's natural reaction to a stimulus. We term horses that are fully numb to stimulus as "bombproof," but, in reality, the only bombproof horse is a dead horse. There is something somewhere on earth that will make any particular horse move regardless of how bombproof the owner or trainer insists the horse may be. In essence, the virtually bombproof horse is one who is fully tuned into its handler in all four methods of communication: lines, words, body language, and spirit. The horse and handler know every sound, movement or message that could occur between them, with reactions that are in perfect trust and harmony.

4 Corners coaching
New drivers often depend highly on their lines for communication with their horse. Coaching to help drivers develp smooth and gentle handling of the lines.
After a few decades of training both drivers and horses, I find one of the most frustrating times for both the horse and driver is when the awareness of body language and one's spirit begins to influence the driving. Successful drivers sense this and learn to embrace the new techniques. On the opposite front, it's been my experience that this is the point where many potential drivers who feel they want to work with horses but really don't have what it takes at this time in their life, drift off onto other hobbies or interests.

A concept that may help an aspiring driver at this stage is to think of the styles of communication with your horse as corners in a box. The corner of the lines is easy to discern. They are leather or synthetic straps that connect your hands to the horse's bit and communicate by controlling the horse's nose and head, and thus his body. Next there are words, which complement the use of the lines, or lack thereof, depending on the work and training level of the horse. These are the most defined and most easily identified corners of your box. The next two corners, those regarding body language and spirit, are much more abstract.
Draft Horse sled
Once skills are well mastered for
both the horse and the driver, chores around the farm are a combination of communicating with all four corners: lines, words, body language, and spirit.
If you feel you've been working your horse well and things were going well, and then all of a sudden it seems he's not listening or paying attention to you, may I suggest that maybe your draft has started listening to your body language and spirit a bit more than your words and lines. You may be speaking to your horse with body language and spirit more than you realize, and he now knows what you're saying before your lines and words communicate it. Realize that your horse is starting to indicate he trusts you now, and you can advance to the next levels of communication.

Body language and spirit complement the use of lines and words for the advanced driver. While obedience and safety still dictate, realize there comes a time with mastered horsemanship when working and driving your draft will be more than just lines and words. Consider these changes a gift and a sign of maturity in your equine sensory skills. The new methods will take some getting used to, but once you accept and master them, your lines and words will actually become your secondary means of communication.

natural horses
Horses naturally communicate among themselves with body language. This is easily seen when two horses romp in perfect harmony.
One of most disheartening moments to watch is when a handler punishes
a horse for listening as a horse is programmed to listen. Equally is heartening to watch is a handler who fails to recognize the gift a horse offers when body language and spirit begin to enter the communication process. Work to master the four corners of communication, and you'll open an oasis of connections few drivers ever experience. And, more than ever, go forth and enjoy. rh horse logo
Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working draft horse farm stands the Shire stallions Sassy Supreme Prince William and New England Bomber. This article appeared in the February/March 2013
issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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