Draft Horses

Preventing Wrecks

by Jenifer Morrissey (with Doc Hammill)

Many accidents can be avoided by cultivating
a responsible relationship when driving horses.

One of the things I've learned over time is that
the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have
upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks….
– Doc Hammill

The reality is that most of us aren’t truly great teamsters, but we do work with horses, and we do have the occasional mishap. Sometimes the mishap is minor, and we and our horses are able to recover and go on with our work without much interruption. Then there are the other sorts of mishaps. In January, JD shared on the Rural Heritage Front Porch about a challenge he’s facing, “I bought a young team of Belgians this fall. They had about 60 days farming with the Amish community out of Ashland, Mont., this last spring. I started feeding cows daily with them in late October. They seemed to be doing really well for colts: walked nice and slow while feeding, stopped on a verbal ‘whoa.’ I was gone for Thanksgiving, and the owner of the ranch … fed with them rather than his own team one day. … When the wagon bounced roughly over one of the ruts caused by the center pivot, he fell on his back on the wagon deck, and the horses proceeded to run off with the wagon in tow bouncing roughly over more ruts and frozen cow turds. Once he got himself upright and took the lines, he said they stopped just fine for him. … Here’s the problem: when I got back and fed with them, every little rattle of the wagon made them jump, rear, flinch, everything but fall down. They still had a good ‘whoa’ but were an absolute wreck. I gave them about a month off after trying for a couple of days, theorizing they had sore necks as the wagon has a very heavy metal tongue. Now they are back to work on a new wagon with a lighter tongue, and, although they are better, they are still awfully spooky. … I am pretty miserable some days feeling like I’m failing them somehow. They have good days and bad; otherwise I might have lost hope by now.”1

My heart ached and my stomach clenched when I read the entire story. To lose valued work partners and not know if you’ll ever get them back is a devastating experience. Fortunately, JD got lots of good advice from others on the Front Porch to assist him in getting his team back to work.

Our job is really quite simple: just keep
them comfortable and relaxed. — Doc Hammill

A friend recently pointed out to me a difference she saw in a collection of draft horse pictures versus carriage horse pictures. The draft horses pictured were all relaxed and comfortable in their work, as well as attentive and listening to their teamsters. Many of the carriage horses, on the other hand, were high-headed with ears pointed anywhere but towards their drivers, showing in their body language some degree of concern about what they were doing. A key to keeping our horses comfortable and relaxed is recognizing when they aren’t that way.

“It’s not something that you learn from being around a single horse for 10 years very well, or a lot of horses for a short time,” says Doc. “As a veterinarian, my safety and theirs depended on me knowing it, but they didn’t teach a darn thing about it in vet school. I was fortunate to encounter Dr. Robert Miller’s work early in my career. I began to ask myself, ‘How can I work with this animal in a way that he understands and that makes my job easier?’ I really took it on, and my practice provided the perfect classroom.

“When you see the earliest subtlest signs, do something then to diffuse that. In most cases it won’t get better on its own. The whole key to this is being able to know what the horse is feeling, the emotions of the horse. We’re so used to spoken language, but even in humans I’ve heard that communication is 70% nonverbal. We’ve all asked someone, ‘What’s wrong?’ and gotten the response, ‘Oh nothing.’ But it’s pretty darned obvious that something is wrong or we wouldn’t have asked in the first place. Horses communicate amongst themselves all the way from telepathic to kicking and biting, a whole spectrum. It’s very uncommon for a horse to do something violent to another horse without having had a conversation beforehand. There’s always been that slight movement of the ear, a head motion, a tight lip, a swish of the tail, a glare. There’s a whole conversation that goes on before they do anything that most of us would recognize.”

The truly great teamsters I’ve known are meticulous
about their responsibilities to and relationships
with their horses. — Doc Hammill

“We have a huge responsibility when we do anything with horses,” says Doc, “but particularly when we’re driving. The potential for physical as well as psychological damage to a horse in harness is huge compared to a saddle horse if they take off, so I feel a huge responsibility because of that.”
breast snaps
Doc Hammill demonstrates how a bit ring can getcaught in a breast strap snap. He's just heard another story of a near-wreck because of breast snaps facing out instead of in.
photo courtesy of Doc Hammill
One class of responsibilities concerns the equipment we ask our horses to work with. Doc asks many questions about equipment:

What direction do the breast strap snaps face? They should face in so they can’t hook a bit ring, bridle, etc.

How is the harness connected to the neck yoke? Is it connected in a way that you won’t lose both your braking and your steering if something breaks? Both steering and brakes dependent on one snap in the most common breast strap configuration.

 Are your lines connected to your bits with snaps or buckles?
“It’s not a matter of if snaps on lines will come off, it’s a matter of when,” says Doc.

Are your cross check buckles impeded from sliding through hame rings or spreader rings? “One of the most common wrecks I hear about,” says Doc, “is horses spreading apart and pulling cross check buckles through rings; they are virtually impossible for the teamster to pull back through.”

Is the neck yoke connected to the tongue securely? “I’ve heard about two instances where the neck yoke slid off the end of the tongue, the tongue stuck into the ground, and the vehicle with passengers was catapulted over the horses.”

Can the doubletree pin be pulled out easily? If so, it will likely work itself out at some point, disconnecting the horses from the vehicle. “I like to have two connections at all times: both a nut and a cotter pin, for instance.”

Are you using a butt rope? As Todd Alexander said on the Front Porch, “Using that is all upside and no downside.”2

The bottom line is, any time we have horses in
harness, if we aren’t on the lines, we are putting
them at risk. — Doc Hammill

Another class of responsibilities that we have regarding our horses when we are working them is being on the lines. Doc is especially keen about three topics: not trusting horses to stand, not jerking the lines, and securing the lines.
checking buckles
When a team of horses spreads their hind ends apart, cross-check buckles can easily pull through hame or spreader rings, and then they're nearly impossible for the teamster to pull back. Doc Hammill has heard of more wrecks from this problem than others. Doc always carries various sized rings that prevent this problem. Photo courtesy Doc Hammill.
Not Trusting Horses to Stand
"I do not trust horses to stand without me being on the lines or someone being on the lead ropes or them being tied up. Since I often work alone and many of my students are the same, I have had to devise ways to maintain my presence on the lines while freeing one or both hands for small quick tasks such as lifting the tongue or opening a gate."
Not Jerking on the Lines

“Another scenario that I run into is where a horse is frightened by something suddenly, maybe they jump, maybe they scoot for a little ways, and the normal human reaction tends to be to jerk back on the lines to try to regain control. When we do that, what happens is that the horse is jumping, spooking, scooting because they were frightened by something, they’re afraid they’re going to get hurt or killed. That’s the way their brains work. What happens when they jump and we jerk is we hurt them -- we cause pain by jerking back -- and that jerking verifies and confirms their fear of getting hurt. Their reaction to that pain is to get out of here faster. A vicious cycle can develop, and just after two or three times of this happening, we can effectively teach a horse that he should run further and faster when he does jump at something before that pain gets him.

“In order to break that cycle or try to retrain a horse that has had this experience, we need to learn to give with our hands instead of jerk back. It’s counterintuitive for us as humans. Our normal reaction is to regain control, hang on, and stop that horse. So we have to work, to practice, to visualize doing this differently. We have to learn to drive with the give and take of the pressures on the lines and float our hands and give with the horse when he pushes into the bit just a little before we try to work him back. In normal driving situations, we have to train our hands to be pressure sensors, to give and take with the horse. We shouldn’t wait until an urgent situation presents itself; we need to be proactive and practice it all the time so that we can maybe prevent the cycle from developing in the first place. It’s not uncommon for horses to scoot a little occasionally, so there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get to learn to use this skill before an urgent situation arises. Then when we’re in an urgent situation, we’re not as far from being able to do it instead of jerking.”
Securing the Lines
“My mentor Addie wouldn’t drive horses or ride with someone who was driving horses unless the lines were secured so they couldn’t be lost off the outfit. It’s much easier for a teamster to lose a line out of their hands than you might think. You can lose a line for various reasons. If a horse roots its nose, the line can get pulled out of your hand, or if a horse stumbles and goes forward and down to recover. Sometimes we’re just clumsy when we’re shortening or lengthening a line. It’s just not worth taking a chance. I always make sure that if I lose them, I can get them right back. Different techniques are needed for different types of equipment and different situations.”

“My old-time mentors didn’t break little rules like these. They paid incredible attention to details. They took care of their horses. We have a huge responsibility to these animals in my opinion. Being on the lines is one of them.”

One of the most common problems I encounter with
my students and their horses is inattentiveness. – Doc Hammill

“We have to have our horses’ respect to keep us all safe,” says Doc. “And one of the ways they show us respect is to give us their attention.” Doc was recently asked by a client to help them with one member of a team whose partner had become permanently lame. The Belgian gelding, Don, had once been a leader of a six-horse hitch and had never been driven single to anyone’s knowledge.

“Don’s attention was going everywhere but to the person that he was working with, which was me when we got started. We were at his home farm, so the area was familiar, the people and dogs were familiar; it was just a lack of respect issue. He would respect the bit to a certain degree but not the lines or a lead rope. Every time we went by gates, he wanted to look down the alley or go out the gate. He would even stop at the gate. We just kept at it, repeating the route until he was paying attention. It’s so important to deal with inattentiveness because if you don’t, you can’t manage the horse’s behavior or action.

“All of my testing out of Don and all of my working on inattentiveness was done in a small confined area. Had I taken that horse out in the open or in a big arena or on the road or pasture or something like that, it would have been much harder and not nearly as safe to deal with that issue. I dealt with it in a small confined space; then we went into a larger space before we ever got him to where I was comfortable taking him down the driveway. If I hadn’t been able to ground drive him safely, I would have gone back to the halter and lead rope to get him prepared.”

Another opportunity presented itself to focus Don’s attention during Doc’s session. “We drove down the long driveway, and a herd of horses came galloping out into the front pasture, creating quite a commotion. When the horses were behind him and to the side, Don’s energy came up but then came back down. He responded pretty well. But as we continued up the driveway, when the house got between us and the other horses and the horses were going away from him, Don started acting as if he was thinking, ‘I gotta go with them.’ Fortunately, a circular route was available where I could drive him repeatedly that kept him from getting what he wanted. I was able to diffuse his energy. By the time we made the second loop, he was much more reasonable; not completely soft, but very much improved. The problem we get into is if we quit with a horse when they’re acting out like that – if they’re misbehaving, jigging, wanting to hurry -- and you let them go to where they want to go, they get the impression that if they act that way, they get what they want. It’s extremely important that we establish our leadership and do what we have to do to get them working right so they make the right associations.”

Doc recalls another instance where he helped a student deal with inattentiveness in her new horse. She had just bought the horse that had been trained to ride and drive but only lightly used. When she started to work with the mare, a very dominant type, she rode her into the pasture and got bucked off, then ground drove her in the pasture and the mare ran away. When Doc arrived about six weeks after the mare was purchased, he made sure to start in a small pen. On a halter and lead, Doc had the student open the gate, and the mare tried to go out. Immediately Doc had the student shut the gate so he could work with the mare some more. Then the owner opened the gate again. The mare was better, but Doc only went out six feet before turning her back in again. The mare showed lack of respect by trying to eat grass.

“I worked with her in the pen with the gate open for a long time, working her past it in both directions. After I had gotten her good on halter, I started ground driving her in the round pen. This took awhile because she wasn’t interested in listening. She regressed; I had to repeat what I had done on halter now with ground driving. By the time I asked the student to open the gate, the mare walked off to go out the gate despite the fact that she had been going really well in the round pen. It was like it had all gone out the window, like I wasn’t even there. All in all, the first couple hours were on the halter, the next couple hours it was ground driving.”

Doc says, “I see this so much and hear about it so much. Just because something works in the round pen doesn’t mean that it will work outside. Usually if it does work, it never works as well. Increasing sizes of enclosures gradually is so important because it allows us to test that we can retain our horses’ attention in a new but still controlled environment.”

Since the damage from wrecks is often irreparable,
it behooves us to take all precautions possible. -- Doc Hammill

When it comes to wrecks, it takes less time to prevent them than to recover from them, since in some cases you can’t recover from them at all. There are things we can do to make the equipment we use safer, and there are things we can do to improve our relationship with our horses. Master teamsters are meticulous about their responsibilities to and relationships with their horses, ensuring that the horses are calm and relaxed, and wrecks are only a distant possibility.
Doc concludes, “My horsemanship took a giant leap forward when I started asking myself, ‘What am I doing or not doing that is causing or contributing to this situation?’ Whenever things weren’t going just right with my horses, I could always find something that I could have done, not done, or done differently that would have helped. Even if there were other factors, I always could have done something differently. I now recognize this as part of my responsibilities as a teamster. rh horse logo

  1. 1 JD, http://ruralheritage.com/messageboard/frontporch/15652.
    htm , 1/8/12
  2. 2  Todd Alexander, http://ruralheritage.com/messageboard/
    frontporch/15652.htm, 1/10/12
Doc Hammill offers instructional videos as well as workshops and private clinics year-round on working horses in harness, including preventing wrecks. (www.dochammill.com)
Jenifer Morrissey works her draft ponies in Gould, Colo.

This article appeared in the April/May 2012 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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