Draft Horses

Key Techniques for Safe, Confident Horses

by Jenifer Morrissey (with Doc Hammill)

The draft horse team Bonnie and Patty have been around and in Doc Hammill’s life for many years. They were trained and worked on an Amish farm not far from his ranch in Montana, and they were subsequently owned by one of his former veterinary clients. Then Doc’s former client passed away. Though the client had asked his wife to give the horses a forever home, she found that she couldn’t adequately care for them, so she put them up for sale. Doc’s first opportunity for handson experience with this team was with their next owners due to his work with gentle horsemanship.

draft horse herd
Lon Ottosen ground drives Patty and Bonnie with the jockey stick and butt rope in place.
Photo courtesy Doc Hammill.

Lon and Terry Ottosen purchased Bonnie and Patty for pleasure driving and to do odd jobs on their farm. They purchased the team complete with harness and wagon. Lon and Terry were new to draft horses, but they had worked saddle horses for many years, including in cowboy mounted shooting events, team roping, and ranch work. One day, when Lon was driving the team on the wagon, a bridle broke, leading to a run that ended with the neck yoke hooking a tree. Lon and Terry’s experience working under saddle tuned their senses, and they felt they needed help assessing whether the team had any adverse effects from the incident. They contacted Doc for advice. When Doc arrived for his first session, he began as though these horses had never been in harness before, though he knew they had. Doc’s starting routine is designed to produce safe, confident horses, and he knew it would help him assess whether there were any psychological effects from the mishap due to the broken bridle. At Lon and Terry’s there was a small corral, a little larger pen, and an arena that Bonnie and Patty occasionally harrowed. Doc began by harnessing the mares, working with Lon and Terry to adjust the harness and collars for better fit. This process allowed Doc to get to know the mares, including which one was dominant, and how willing they were to submit to him. He also was able to learn whether the horses had any concern about the harness, which they didn’t.

Doc then took each of the mares individually into the small corral and worked with them on a halter and lead rope (see “Choosing the Right Horse” in the August/ September 2011 issue of Rural Heritagefor more on what Doc was looking for). Again, there were no issues, so next Doc ground-drove each mare singly in the small corral. Here two things came up. First, it appeared that the mares were not accustomed to being worked singly and were uncertain about going without their partner. They did well, though, after they understood what was expected of them. Second, no one was sure what voice commands the mares were accustomed to. Since their previous owner had died before Lon and Terry purchased the mares, there wasn’t an opportunity to learn about specific words or tones of voice. Doc taught his own preferred words and line commands to the mares as well as to Lon and Terry.

Doc then continued the ground driving, testing the mares’ reactions to different sounds and feels. First he dropped a single trace chain to the ground to assess the mares’ reactions; then he attached a singletree to one chain for them to drag. Again the mares showed no sign of concern, so he drove them with the singletree fully attached (in case of a horse jumping suddenly, he tied a lead rope to the singletree so he could maintain some control and keep it from hitting the horse.) When they were fine dragging the singletree individually in the small corral, he moved them to the larger pen. Again they did well. Next Doc added a chain to the singletree, driving each mare singly in the small corral then the larger pen. When that presented no problem, he added a light pole with no problem, then a railroad tie. Both mares did well, so he had Lon and Terry ground-drive them, too.

Now it was time to hook the mares as a team. Whenever Doc works with horses he doesn’t know, he includes a jockey stick and a butt rope in the rigging. The jockey stick is intended to maintain a parallel distance between the horses’ heads. Unlike many, though, Doc doesn’t attach the jockey stick to the bits; he attaches it to the bottom halter ring (he keeps halters on his horses under and intertwined with the bridle). He feels the attachment to the bottom halter ring achieves the goal of a jockey stick -- having extra control of the horses’ heads - without affecting the lines or bits and the way that communication is achieved through them.

Doc also uses a butt rope differently than many people. The goal of a butt rope is to keep the horses from swinging their hind ends too far apart. Often people attach a rope or chain between the two inside britchen rings. “This sends two messages I don’t want and one that I do,” says Doc. “It pulls up on the quarter straps and belly and down on the hips – the two messages I don’t want -- as well as in on the outside of the rear quarter. Instead, I attach to the bottom outside hame ring with a snap then loop the rope inside the rear outside hip strap above the britchen, then run it under the tail, across to the other horse, under the other tail, inside the rear outside hip strap then up to the bottom hame ring. I adjust the length so the horses can spread 6-8 inches further than the vertical alignment necessary for the doubletree. The only place they feel pressure is on the outside of their rear quarter if they swing out, the exact place we want them to feel pressure and respond to.”

Doc typically uses a 3/8-inch braided nylon rope. He has also created a butt strap assembly out of beta material using conways to adjust for length. He has found that it is harder to keep this strap from twisting, so when he added snaps between the horses in the rear for ease of disassembly and stowing, he made sure they had swivels as well.

After hitching Bonnie and Patty as a team, Doc ground drove them, first in the small corral then in the larger pen. Next he ground drove the team in the arena. The wagon was in the arena, and Doc wanted to see if the mares had any reaction to it, which they didn’t. Then Doc added the singletree then the chain then the pole then the railroad tie, making sure at each step that the mares were calm, comfortable, and confident. Lon and Terry then ground drove the team, too. Because Doc had still seen no signs of concern, he hooked them to the harrow and drove that around the arena. Again, no issues surfaced, and it was a good place to end the day. The next day began with a quick progression through the entire routine of the day before in the arena. No issues surfaced, so Doc had Lon rattle the tongue of the wagon as he ground drove the team nearby. Doc then drove the mares back and forth over the tongue as well as backing them onto the tongue. Then Lon pulled the wagon slowly with a tractor while Doc drove the team in front of the wagon, in back, and along side. When the mares still showed no sign of concern, he hooked the mares to the wagon and drove around the arena. When that also went well, both Lon and Terry drove the mares around the arena as well, first with the harrow, then with the wagon.

draft horse herd
Terry Ottosen ground drives Patty and Bonnie with a railroad tie as a load.
Photo courtesy Doc Hammill

This ended the first formal consultation. Doc encouraged Lon and Terry to ground drive the mares in the arena as well as outside and work with the harrow and wagon in the arena until Doc could return. Doc stressed that if Lon and Terry saw any sign of trouble, they should stop and unhitch then return to something that was working well, each time repeating the small steps that they had done together.

Ten days later, Doc returned to Lon and Terry’s. He began by ground driving the team first in the arena then outside the arena in loops, each progressively farther away from the arena. He then hitched the team to the wagon, drove around the arena without issue, then outside the arena, first in a small circle, returning to the arena, and then progressively farther away, each time returning to the arena. The mares did well, so Doc retreated to a coaching role, and Lon and Terry drove the team in the same manner with the mares continuing to do very well. Doc encouraged Lon and Terry to continue work in the arena and then to take small ventures outside the arena a half dozen times as they had been doing with him. Lon and Terry never had another issue with the mares, eventually taking them to field days off the farm, as well as working them in many capacities on the farm, including log skidding.

Could Bonnie and Patty have returned to a productive work life without the long repetitive process that Doc Hammill put them through at Lon and Terry’s farm? We’ll never know, but we do know that they did return to being safe and confident horses, and their owners had lots of skills for assessing their confidence and maintaining it. “Taking things in small steps is really what works for horses. They learn they can depend on our leadership,” says Doc. “When you go too fast and throw too much at them and things go bad, you have a big problem that causes a big backward step. If you hit a problem when you’ve taken smaller steps, you only have to go back a little step.”

Recently, Doc introduced his wife’s team to raking hay using similar techniques. Cathy’s Norwegian Fjord Horse geldings Solven and Brisk are very well trained for competition but don’t have any experience with farming equipment. The goal at first was not to rake hay but to get the team comfortable with the rake. They began by driving the team hitched to a forecart around the hay rake. Then they hitched the hay rake to the pickup and drove the team behind the rake when it was moving but out of gear. The boys showed no concern at all about the rake, so they put the rake in gear and Doc started the team about 150 feet away. “I gradually moved up closer and closer to the rake, outwalking the pickup, until we were within 6 feet of the back of rake, and the boys had no problem. I was constantly watching for any sign of concern, and they were just fine.”

Doc then drove the team up alongside the rake as it was moving. When the team got just ahead of the rake where they could no longer see it because of their blinders, the boys briefly and slightly showed concern. Doc backed the team off far enough that they could see the rake again, and as soon as they could see the rake again, they relaxed. So then he drove them forward again, and the concern was virtually gone. By the third time, they were comfortable driving with the rake behind them. “I would have kept doing it as long as necessary until I got no reaction,” says Doc. Next, he drove the team beside the rake and just in front where it would be if it were hitched to the forecart. The team continued to show no concern, so they hitched to the rake with it out of gear, and, when that went well, they put the rake in gear and away they went raking hay.

When Lon and Terry first bought Bonnie and Patty, Patty was head-shy and difficult to bridle. Lon and Terry broke the bridling process into small steps to enable them to work more safely with Patty. The approach they took was to dismantle the bridle into three pieces, and put each piece on separately. First they lowered the headstall over Patty’s head. Then they pulled the bit into her mouth and buckled it in place. Finally they buckled in the throat latch. Patty was much more accepting of this approach to bridling.

After several years of working with this very sound team, Lon and Terry’s employment situation changed. They found they weren’t working Bonnie and Patty enough to justify keeping them, so they put them up for sale. Doc came into the team’s life again, this time evaluating them for purchase by one of his students, Laura Masterson. Doc and Laura visited the team, and Doc performed his pre-purchase evaluation (for more information, see “Choosing the Right Horse,” in the August/September 2011 issue of Rural Heritage). Bonnie and Patty soon moved to the Willamette Valley of Oregon to work on Laura’s market garden farms.

Laura knew when purchasing the team that Patty was head-shy and had been difficult to bridle, and she was aware of the step-by-step bridling technique that Lon and Terry had devised to make bridling Patty safer. After some time with the team, though, Laura began asking herself, “Why won’t Patty accept the bridle? All my other horses are easy to bridle. ” Laura says, “I was frustrated that I wasn’t making progress with Patty. In fact, things were getting worse. Several times while bridling Patty, she set back in a panic in the tie stall. This was a wake up call for me. Patty would be completely still then she would explode. I couldn’t see it coming, and it felt very dangerous. I was afraid she was going to wreck the tie stall and hurt herself or me in the process.”

draft horse herd
Laura Masterson discing with Patty and Bonnie. Photo courtesy Cathy Greatorex

Laura talked to Doc about these episodes in order to better understand what was happening. She learned that unconfident horses will usually try to tell you that they are anxious or fearful, but you have to know what to look for. Some of the things Patty did to communicate she was uncomfortable included turning her head away, putting her ears sideways or backward, holding her head up high, tensing her body, holding her breath, and not blinking. “Doc taught me to take baby steps when bridling with Patty, and I learned not to go on to the next step unless she was confident. I realized that my safest strategy was to slow everything way down and wait until Patty was comfortable with each step of the process.”

Laura’s goal became to keep Patty confident and willing during all the groundwork they were doing. From the moment she went to get Patty out of the pasture, Laura was watching her reaction. She paid attention to when Patty first saw her; Patty’s head would come up and sometimes she would freeze. Laura began stopping as soon as Patty reacted to her, waiting until Patty showed some sign of relaxing before approaching further. “Sometimes it felt like an eternity,” Laura says. But by taking the time to wait until Patty “invited” her closer, “I began to see what a truly relaxed and interested Patty looked like. Waiting for an unconfident horse to relax before I proceed to the next step is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Patty.”

Bonnie and Patty were still working well as a team. In contrast to Patty, Bonnie is naturally very confident and willing and interested. When they are working, if Patty seems concerned about something, Bonnie seems to say to Patty, “What’s your problem?” according to Laura, and Patty calms down. “When I’ve been having trouble with Patty on the ground, driving the team has always felt safe,” says Laura. “And Doc has visited several times to help us work through little things that have come up.”

After Laura was able to approach Patty in a way that Patty was comfortable with, Laura began touching the bridle to various parts of Patty’s body. This is how she learned that the issue wasn’t the bridle itself but having it on her head. Laura began rewarding Patty with treats whenever Patty showed interest in the bridle. “I made a game out of her touching the bridle with her nose. It seemed to instill a sense of confidence in her. Patty’s not food-oriented, and she’s definitely not when she’s anxious or afraid. Treats only worked as a reward when Patty was calm, but then I found they worked really well to communicate what I wanted.”

When Laura told a friend about her interactions with Patty, he replied, “I don’t have time for that.”

For safety reasons, Laura felt she had to take the time. And now, Laura is able to bridle Patty like most people bridle any horse. “It took awhile, but she’s a safer horse to be around now for me. I can send her back to her old habits, though, if I approach her like I used to.” Doc calls Laura’s work with Patty “artful.”

“Groundwork is one of the most under-appreciated and underdone parts of horsemanship,” says Doc. “We have some real opportunities for improving the safety, comfort and performance of our work horses by doing more groundwork with them.”

Doc has eight techniques that he considers crucial for producing safe, confident horses.

  1. Getting, keeping, and recovering a horse’s attention. Doc’s work on a halter and lead rope when he first meets a horse gives him an opportunity to see what it will take to get and keep the horse’s attention. Laura’s work with Patty is another example of this technique. While Laura had Patty’s attention whenever she entered the pasture, for instance, she couldn’t keep Patty’s attention in an honest way because Patty was too worried. When Laura learned to approach Patty in a way that Patty was comfortable with, she got more of Patty’s attention and was able to keep it.
  2. Properly using pressure and reducing or releasing it. Our handling of the lines whenever we are driving is the most obvious example of using pressure and reducing it, in this case physical pressure. When we hold back on the lines, we put pressure on the bit; when we reduce the pressure, we reward our horse for doing what we want. Laura’s work with Patty provides a different example of using pressure and reducing or releasing it, this time psychological pressure. Just entering the pasture put psychological pressure on Patty. By stopping her approach, Laura reduced the pressure. Horses learn best from a reduction or release of pressure. Laura’s pause in her approach until Patty relaxed taught Patty that being relaxed was what Laura wanted from her.
  3. Repetition: Use of a consistent set of verbal commands is one example of the use of repetition in creating safe, confident work horses. In Doc’s experience with Bonnie and Patty, repeating the pattern of ground driving with the same sequence of loads and the same progression from one place to another instilled confidence in the team in what they were being asked to do. Doc feels that 30 is a magic number when it comes to horses. “You almost always get complete desensitization or acceptance with 30,” says Doc. “It isn’t a mistake that people put 30 days on a horse.”
  4. Small steps: “What can seem like non-steps to us can be huge steps for horses,” says Doc. Breaking new tasks into small pieces and allowing the horses to become comfortable with each piece before going on to the next is a key part of creating safe and confident horses. Lon and Terry were able to bridle Patty safely by breaking the bridling process into pieces.
  5. Time out/time off: Taking time out or time off is a reward for a horse and a form of release from pressure. It can be a short time, such as a pause at a corner of a field, or it can be a week or a month to let a horse consider what it has just been taught. As Laura said, it can feel like an eternity to us humans, but it can produce great results in our relationship with our horses.
  6. Go back to kindergarten: If a horse expresses concern about something, we can improve as trainers and teamsters by respecting that concern. By taking our horse back to an activity with which they are comfortable re-instills their confidence in us as leaders. When Cathy’s team expressed concern about the hay rake being out of view, Doc didn’t push them ahead but instead dropped them back to where they could see it again before taking them forward. The goal wasn’t to rake hay but to get them comfortable with the hay rake. By getting them comfortable first, he was raking hay before long with a relaxed, confident team.
  7. Set things up for success: As trainers we need to make what we want easy and what we don’t want hard. Doc’s use of a jockey stick and butt rope is a way that he sets teams up for success. “A jockey stick makes it easy for them to keep their heads in the right spot. They still have some range of motion because of play in the halter and jockey stick, but they quickly learn where their heads are supposed to be,” says Doc. “Butt ropes work the same way; they make it easy for the horses to understand lateral alignment.” Doc also sets things up for success by breaking his training process into small steps. He makes it easy for horses to give him feedback about things that bother them and hard for them to react in ways that he doesn’t understand.
  8. Generalize training: Do everything first in a small, confined area; then expand to larger areas. What a horse learns in one environment doesn’t necessarily translate into a different environment. Don’t assume that a horse will be able to extrapolate. Doc made progressive use of the small corral, the larger pen, and the arena at Lon and Terry’s to build confidence from a small, controlled space to progressively larger ones, just as he progressed from smaller to larger loads, building confidence as he went. “Although Lon and Terry were anxious to get out and drive their wagon down the road, they accepted that they should just stay in the arena for awhile in a confined area. They were willing to do that to ensure that things went well once they did go out.” Lon notes, “Two of the most important lessons I learned from Doc those first days were: 1) take baby steps and don’t be afraid to go back to basics, and 2) if you are having trouble with a horse, look in a mirror and you will probably see the problem. I have put those concepts to work with all our horses since meeting Doc.”
“The minute someone buys a horse, the horse begins to get retrained,” says Doc. “Lon and Terry made the effort to learn what they needed to know to keep a good team good. Laura had learned the same before she got the team and has continued to gather knowledge and skill afterwards. We (people) are the ones that need the training -- that's a big part of the reason I train people rather than train horses for people. We all need to learn to train well. Each of us is our horse’s primary trainer because we spend more time with them than any hired trainer ever could.”

Like most horses, Bonnie and Patty have had several owners, and several opportunities to get retrained. They have been fortunate to have owners that have sought out knowledge and skills for keeping them safe and confident in a useful working life. rh horse logo
Jenifer Morrissey works her draft ponies in Gould, Colorado.
Doc Hammill offers instructional videos as well as workshops and private clinics year-round on working horses in harness, including daily opportunities. (www.dochammil.com)

This article appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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