Quite often, that’s all it takes, just hitch and go. But the dynamics of driving three are different than driving a team or a single horse, and even teamsters experienced with driving teams discover that it’s not necessarily as easy as some make it look. Easing into the project for horses and humans alike sets everyone up for success.
Doc Hammill regularly teaches workshops and private clinics on multi-horse hitches. Before a recent workshop on another topic, a student asked Doc if it would also be possible to learn to drive three. Doc and his partner Cathy Greatorex agreed to add this topic and started preparations for the lesson. Then when two more students asked about the same topic for upcoming workshops, Doc was pleased to have the opportunity to once again share the many dynamics of putting three horses together with a teamster for work. While it’s possible to go and get the experience of driving three horses abreast, Doc’s approach differs. He prefers to give his students a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to turn three horses into one working team, together with their teamster, in a way that is safe, relaxed, and comfortable for the horses.
For the demonstration in the first workshop, Doc and Cathy decided to start with Cathy’s team of well-broke Norwegian Fjord Horse geldings. Brisk and Solven have been together since they were young and work as a team 98% of the time. For the third horse, Doc and Cathy then chose one of Cathy’s Fjord mares, Aurora. The three were pasture mates, and so were acquainted. While not the head mare in this herd (a Suffolk mare is), Aurora used to be the lead mare in a herd of 40 broodmares so is accustomed to being dominant. Brisk and she have been known to discuss dominance by moving each other around. Aurora hadn’t been hitched and driven for four years, though she had been ground driven a couple of times. They chose her because they wanted to show the process for gradually preparing and testing a horse that was not yet ready to be hitched in a team, let alone in a three-abreast.
Doc’s goal whenever he’s working with horses is to do everything he can to make the ultimate goal—in this case hitching three—so easy that it’s a non-event. “I want to set them up for a completely positive experience that they’ll want to do again,” he says. His process begins with getting the horses acquainted in a non-work setting. By observing them there, he can prepare himself to manage their various personalities and behaviors.
For this first set of three horses that he wanted to hitch, Doc was already acquainted with them and knew their interactions in the pasture. To get more information about their interactions, though, Doc and Cathy brought the three into a round pen and distributed hay in various places. They went about their chores elsewhere but still in view, and they saw pretty much what they expected: Aurora and Brisk moved each other and Solven around a bit, but they eventually settled into a peaceful eating routine. At the end of the day, Doc put all three back out in the pasture together with the rest of the herd.
The next day was the first of the five-day workshop. Doc and Cathy brought all three Fjords in and harnessed Brisk and Solven for use in the workshop. They put Aurora back in the round pen where she could watch all the activity. Since she hadn’t been in a working routine for several years, it was important to start her on a routine. Being close to all the activity gave her an opportunity to become accustomed to the sights and sounds of work, and it allowed Doc and all the workshop participants to watch her reactions. Aurora apparently liked the routine, as she was waiting at the gate each morning thereafter!
On Day 2, Doc and Cathy brought all three Fjords into the barn and harnessed them, putting Aurora on Brisk’s side. They spent quite a bit of time fitting harness, since Aurora hadn’t been in one in awhile, and it’s a process that students learn in detail in Doc’s workshops. This activity gave everyone a chance to observe how Aurora and Brisk would react to being in even closer proximity than they were in the round pen. For the rest of the day, Aurora stood with her harness on, tied to the hitch rail with another horse for company, where she could watch the activities in the workshop. That evening they began her working sessions. For an hour, Doc, followed by the interested student, ground drove Aurora in the round pen with lines on her halter, doing starts, stops, backing, standing still, figure eights and turns and assessing her response to voice and line commands. A lot of time was spent comforting and rewarding her with soft, kind words and gentle touch. No issues arose.
On Day 3, the three were brought in for harnessing again, but this time Aurora was put on Solven’s side. While they hadn’t seen any issues with her on Brisk’s side, they knew she’d been on the right when trained in a team, and they knew that she gets along better with Solven. They fitted a different harness to Aurora, both as a lesson in the workshop and to provide an opportunity for observing the team. This time they also fitted her with a bridle and bit.
For the evening session, they began where they had left off the night before, driving in the round pen, but this time with the bridle and bit. They also made preparations for expanding the lesson by emptying a 3-acre pasture of its horses. Next, Doc drove Aurora out of the round pen into the barnyard, testing her stops, starts, turns and backing repeatedly and assessing her reaction to the new environment. He saw no issues, so he drove her a short distance into the night pasture, then came back to the barnyard, increasing the distance into the night pasture a few times.
When that all went well, Doc had Cathy brought Solven into the barnyard, and he drove Aurora around them. When the horses showed interest in each other – reaching their noses out – Doc corrected Aurora, letting her know that he would manage that relationship, not her. When, at another time, she laid her ears back briefly, he quietly corrected her again. Overall, Aurora showed no signs of anxiety, and she listened to Doc well. The session was considered a success.
On Day 4, the three Fjords were brought in and harnessed. Aurora was tied (high and short for safety) in the round pen with another horse for company. Solven and Brisk were then used in the workshop raking hay. At the end of the workshop day, Brisk was unharnessed, and Doc took Aurora and Solven into the barnyard for a practice session of being led side-by-side, the way they would be driven as a team, and later in the three-abreast hitch. Since that went well, they were led into the round pen and fitted with team lines, a butt rope, and jockey stick. There, the student walked behind the horses just carrying the lines while Doc led the horses forward, stopped, and backed them up used driving commands. This gave Aurora a chance to feel the limits of the butt rope and jockey stick with Doc at her head to reassure her.
There were no issues, so Doc tied the lead ropes up and took the lines and did some ground driving. He got quiet, willing behavior, so the students opened a panel of the round pen, and Doc drove the team out into the barnyard. All the horses in the night pasture had once again been put in a corral to create as calm an atmosphere as possible. Brisk was brought out of the barn and tied to the hitch rail so that he could watch the proceedings. Doc drove the team around, including in close proximity to Brisk, as well as in and out of the night pasture. He spent a little more than an hour driving this team with lots of stopping, standing, turning and starting, and only once did he have to reprimand Aurora, for giving Solven a mean look. Otherwise, all went well, and the team was driven into the barn for unharnessing.
On Day 5, the last day of the workshop, the first lesson with the three Fjords was laying out the team lines and explaining their adjustment. Then with the three horses tied in the barn, the lines, double butt ropes, and two jockey sticks were attached. After initial line adjustments were made, they were backed up, fanned to the right, and driven out of the barn. The round pen wasn’t large enough to accommodate the three abreast, so Doc drove them around the barnyard, again practicing many stops, starts, turns, backs, and standing still. Some fine tuning of line adjustment was necessary, and the jockey stick was removed from between Solven and Aurora as it was restricting Aurora’s head on the turns. Because things went so well, he drove them into the night pasture, which had once again been emptied of horses. (The horses watched the new hitch with great interest from their temporary space, though!)
The first venture into the night pasture was again for a short distance, then Doc returned to the barnyard. Then he made progressively larger loops into the night pasture. After about 20 minutes when things had gone well, Doc stopped the team and again made adjustments to the lines for how the horses were traveling together. Then the student who had requested it got his wish and drove the hitch of three, including dragging a three abreast evener. All considered, the lessons about hitching three to be a success, and it went so smoothly for the horses that hitching all three ended up being a non-event. When Doc started into the process, he wasn’t sure it would work, since none of the three had ever been hitched three abreast and the mare had spent most of her life as a broodmare. “I was ready to quit at any time, but the baby steps we took, the slow steady progression, once again proved to be a successful approach.”
Doc’s next opportunity for working with a student and hitching three horses was at a private two-day lesson. His client, Susan, has a new team of four-year-old Suffolk geldings and a Clydesdale-cross mare. The Suffolk team had only been with Susan for three weeks. All have lots of experience in harness. Although the geldings had been worked in three abreast hitches during their training by Don Yerian at the B Bar Ranch, the mare had never been used in a hitch of three.
Since there were fewer days available, Doc had Susan do some of the preparatory work a few days in advance. This included bringing the three horses into a small corral to commingle and tying them together at the hitch rail while managing their behavior if necessary. Susan was surprised at this request; they were all pastured together and very well trained. She expected that Doc would just appear, they would hitch, and go. Doc emphasized that he was setting everyone up for success, and bringing the three into closer proximity would reveal—and offer opportunities to deal with— any potential personality issues between the horses. As it turned out, the mare and one of the geldings vied for dominance. Knowing this in advance allowed for faster progress to be made as the lessons unfolded.
Susan also put the mare and one gelding together and drove them. When Doc arrived, they drove the geldings extensively to see the farm and so Doc could get to know them. The next morning they ground drove the mare, Clare, with the other gelding, Amos, followed by hitching and driving them on a wagon. They went very nicely and the decision was made to put the three together—first by ground driving them followed by hitching to a forecart. Susan and Doc drove for a long time with Doc helping Susan learn the dynamics and techniques of driving three abreast in a way that is safe, functional and comfortable for all concerned.
When it was time to ground drive all three, Doc insisted that they use butt ropes and jockey sticks. When Susan asked why, Doc responded, “They don’t cost anything, and they don’t take much time to put in place. I’ve never been sorry I used them, AND there have been times when I’ve been really glad I did.” Doc’s philosophy generally is to do all he can to setup a completely positive experience. Using jockey sticks and butt ropes isn’t just about preventing a wreck. It’s also about creating the optimum opportunity for comfort and success by removing alignment problems and preventing bad habits from starting, like rear ends swinging out. Once again, all the preparations that Doc, with Susan’s help, had implemented resulted in the goal of hitching Susan’s three horses being a non-event. It went very smoothly.