Farming Magazine - April, 2012


Working Horses: Off on the Right Hoof

By Vicki Schmidt

One of the greatest rewards of logging with horses is seeing a coming 2-year-old haul out its first log. I imagine parents equate this with their young one taking their first steps. The difference is when schooling a young horse to logging you can't afford the trips, falls and stumbles that a child more easily accommodates.

A "no-lesson" walk through the woods or field allows for a relaxed outing with your draft and is often the best learning environment.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.
The first few outings with a young logging horse need to be positive and successful. Productivity is still a few years down the road, yet taking the time to properly school and condition your young draft will create a horse that is a safe and skilled logging companion.

To get your young logging draft off on the right hoof, ensure the first attempts at logging are successful. The best way to do this is to follow a few simple and logical rules:

  • Plan the outings for short hauls, smooth ground and light logs.
  • Keep the sessions to approximately 20 minutes.
  • Think repetition, but not to the point of boredom.
  • Always ends on a positive note.

While charts differ on specifics, as a general rule, a young horse ages three to four years for every human year. Comparisons differ due to the breed, nutritional needs, and physical and social abilities. Given these thoughts, consider your 2-year-old draft as having the same workability as a 6 to 8-year-old child. If you have kids this age working around your farm, they can very helpful and rewarding, but their attention span, processing skills and physical abilities are limited. A 2-year-old draft horse is no different; they are still developing mentally, physically and socially. As draft owners and those working young horses, our training and schooling actions and activities will lead to successful growth in all areas if we complement the needs of a growing horse.

The first few months of outings with a young logging draft should focus on hauling light logs on short hauls over unchallenging terrain. Consider staging logs for their first few hauls by placing light logs about 800 to 1,000 feet from their destination. Allow for three good "back and forth" hauls that are accomplished in approximately 20 minutes. This also allows the session to be reinforced with repetition, but not to a point that bores or tires the young draft. The result is a lesson that ends on a good note.

Young horses have considerable energy, but the energy is not always focused. The best time to work or practice with a young draft is when they are rested and not hungry or thirsty. While this holds true for all horses, young horses are especially impatient when their basic needs are not met. A young, impatient horse will not be in the mood to learn. Attempting to drive and school a young horse when either you or they are in a temperamental mood is a recipe for disaster. It's best to wait until a time when efficient learning can take place.

Even if you've done your homework with lots of ground driving woven with practice at halting, standing still, and stepping off smoothly and quietly, you might find one of the hardest lessons for your young draft to learn is to stand still while hooking and unhooking. Do not skip this step thinking that he'll get it eventually. Heavier logs and varied terrain impact a young horses balance, and if you move on to an advanced skill without perfecting the basics, it will come back to haunt you. This will often result in a horse that "jumps" into the collar to start the load, or one that anticipates the weight change and signal to start and so starts early. A draft that does not stand still for hooking and unhooking logs or any type of equipment is dangerous. Many teamsters have been injured or killed due to horses of this nature.

After a few weeks of practicing and perfecting the basics your young draft should be confident and skilled with pushing into the collar, pulling logs, and standing still to hook and unhook. This is when its time to consider changing things up just a bit. Continue to stage logs for safe and convenient hooking on, but maybe add a bit heavier log, or take a different route to the haul area. Ideally, only change one variable at a time and watch for any continued breach in confidence or security. If your draft shows any continued discomfort with a new task or increase in what you're asking for, take a step back in the lesson process. Ask yourself: "What is my horse's concern?" and school to rectify that concern before moving forward and asking for performance with a new or increased activity.

A young draft that stands quietly for hooking onto a log is a draft "off on the right hoof."

A proven pattern for schooling drafts is three days of schooling without adding anything new, then one day off. Follow this with four days of schooling, and another day off. If the young draft has worked well through this cycle, start another three days and add a "next step" skill, such as a slightly heavier log or a little longer haul route. After three days it's a day off to "absorb" the lesson, then another four days to practice and secure the knowledge. After another day off add the next step, assuming all went well with the previous cycle. If not, continue with another cycle - three days schooling, one day off, four days schooling, one day off - until the skill is mastered.

A few other tidbits to consider when schooling your young draft:

To ensure the comfort of your growing draft as he's learning to work, check often to make sure the bridle, bit, collar and harness are fitting properly.
It's OK for your young draft to have a bad day. Look forward to perfection, but don't expect it every time out. Even after several successful sessions in a row, enough to make you think they have solidified the skill, they may have a setback. The learning curve for horses is similar to humans; sometimes they hit a plateau in their learning and need a few sessions of "miles" to get to a point where they are mentally able to progress.

Remember your young draft is just a "kid." He/she may seem as grown as a full-sized draft, but their mind is still young, playful and easily influenced. In addition, a draft's bones and body structure do not fully mature until they are approximately 5 years old, with considerable growth and filling out taking place between the ages of 2 and 3.

Check your horse's harness, collar, bit fit and teeth on a regular basis. Adjust as necessary to ensure physical growth and changes aren't causing discomfort or hindering progress.

It's just as easy, if not easier, to accidentally teach a horse a bad habit or way of going. If you sense your young draft is not learning the lesson correctly, reevaluate your methods and, if possible, engage the help of a skilled or professional driver.

Once in awhile just go for a walk. Taking your young draft out for just a nice relaxing ground drive without a specific lesson is time well spent. There are days I'll ground drive my young horses just to see where they want to go. As long as they are going straight and in a relaxed and safe manner they lead the way. It's often interesting what they'll choose to head towards, sniff and explore. All in all, it's a fun way to help get your draft off on the right hoof.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manger of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The farm harvests an average of 86 tons of hay a year. Comment or question? Visit, and join in the discussions.