Farming Magazine - July, 2011


Working Horses: Good Corrections

By Vicki Schmidt

Whether an emergency or equine vehicle, good corrections are always needed for successful outings.
Photos courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

There is a talent some folks have. They know when something isn't going right, and they instinctively make a good correction. As a Maine State Fire Instructor, I notice this talent quite often with my emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC) students. While backing their fire trucks through the serpentine, or lining up for a docking maneuver, they know when something is off, and they instantly correct it. Others ignore that they are off the mark, and try to muddle through, hoping the truck will somehow right itself. I realized the other day that emergency vehicle operator students aren't much different than equine vehicle operator students.

We're all student drivers, no matter how old we are or how much experience we have with driving our drafts. There is always some horse somewhere who will not react the way we expect or will not interpret our command or invitation as we predict. What makes the difference between a driver and a good driver is that the good driver notices the gap in communication and instinctively makes a correction. The average bystander won't even notice, but the corrected message is efficiently delivered to the horse. Whether with the lines, a soft word or by body or spiritual message, the correction is subtle, quick and effective.

When it comes to working drafts, a good correction always has a positive outcome. Good corrections re-balance small actions that are starting to go wrong. For example, a log not lining up correctly for the narrow trail between two trees needs its correction a distance back, and one horse in a team getting a little anxious and ahead of his teammate needs calming before its gait changes to a faster one.

A needed correction not checked at the start begins to manifest itself and has one of two outcomes: either it becomes a habit for the horse - such as prancing, gigging, head-tossing - or it has a more immediate result - a wedged log, the need to reposition a hitch or, worse yet, a run-away crash. If you are especially unfortunate, lots of little missed corrections sometimes result in a large crash causing substantial property damage and injury or death to horses, drivers and innocent bystanders. I call these cumulative episodes "the pitter-patter of little defeats." Good drivers and trainers make needed corrections instinctively and with flawless application. This in turn reduces the likelihood that unintended actions will happen or manifest themselves into habits or accidents.

So, how does one begin to learn the art of good corrections? You need to have a good understanding of two things: yourself and your equipment. For the most part, these are the only two things you have control over. The horse, especially one you are training to work, is always a dynamic variable. The degree of dynamic is different for different horses, and different for the horse at different times in its life, or in different working environments. It is one reason why a lot of good horse people have years of experience with many different drafts doing lots of different things.

Knowing yourself and your skills as a driver and/or trainer are paramount. Books and videos on the tactics and theory of training horses can be helpful, but the touch of horseflesh and harness is still the best teacher of all. Understanding your skills and ability with a critical approach will help refine the working relationship with your draft. Someone once told me that "knowledge is a system of transformations that get progressively adequate." Ask yourself: "Am I progressing in a positive manner with my draft." If the answer is "no," you need to find the reason why. The goal of much of our training and working with horses is for us as drivers to have enough knowledge to progress with our drafts to the ability of our desire, such as hauling logs, plowing a field, or hooking into a cart.

If you are comfortable with your draft, but still not making progress, turn a critical eye to your equipment and the methods of how you use them. Good corrections are often made through the lines, reins, a crop or whip. Just remember these are not methods of control or punishment, they are extensions of our hands and are to be used as tools of guidance. You also need to know beyond question that your draft's harness, collar and bridle are properly fit; the equipment (cart, drag, etc.) is the proper size and weight for your draft; and your points and angles of draft and drag are correct for the task and equipment with which you are working.

Also, remember that your draft horses are dynamic, and changes can occur that affect their ability to work. Have they grown and you haven't adjusted the harness? Is their age having an impact on their joints or teeth? Are their feet bothering them, and do they have proper and adequate feed, water, salt and other nutritional variables?

If there is a draft driver you admire, study his or her ways. The driver of a happy, content and hard working horse is doing something right and will often share advice when asked. If you're not making progress with your draft, ask if he or she minds giving you a lesson and helping to get your draft to working in a more comfortable fashion.

Owning and working a quality draft is a joy few folks ever experience. As you learn and understand the art of good corrections your degree of teamwork with your draft will improve. So, next time you're out driving or working your horse, identify how well do you make "good corrections." Then practice the art until you can't get it wrong.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manger of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine.