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Roadworthy

By Vicki Schmidt




Horses that travel along roadways will have to cope with traffic noise, including the sounds of motorcycles, bouncy trailers and trucks with Jake brakes.
Photos courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

While the fields and forests are where you'll find the majority of working drafts, there is also a renewed interest in drafts for "street jobs." The popularity of drafts as delivery horses for locally produced products, especially vegetables, is trending upward in several locations in the Northeast. In addition, the use of drafts as a taxi service, as well as for tours around town, is a growing industry in coastal and tourist areas.

There are many miles to be driven between starting a young draft in ground driving and when they are ready for "downtown." To be used on roads, drafts need to be conditioned to and accepting of the sounds and commotions of traffic and urban noise. If you live in a rural area, miles from an urban center, you can still build on your draft's talents by getting it used to your local roadways and traffic.

When starting a new learning venture with your draft, ensure that you are confident with the planned lesson for the day, and that the horse trusts you. If the horse becomes nervous, frightened or hesitant, using a soothing voice and staying calm will often result in a positive outcome for the day's lesson.

Additionally, introducing a draft to road work begins with a horse that is confident in ground driving and is mannered and obedient to the commands of halting and moving forward. Even if you can see that traffic is clear, always ensure a horse halts and stands before they are given permission to enter the roadway. Instilling this one core value from the start helps to establish a safer working environment.

If you have young drafts that may someday have a street job, start introducing them to the sights, sounds and smells of vehicles, traffic and roadways. One low-risk option that begins to introduce a draft to traffic is to safely pasture them near a roadway. This will help any horse adjust to the noise of traffic, as well as the scary sounds of motorcycles, bouncy trailers and big trucks with Jake brakes. Positive experiences are especially helpful when the horse is young, as growing up with these sounds gives them more security as they age.

Using farm equipment gently near and around your horse's pastures and barns will begin to acclimate it to the sounds and workings of motorized vehicles. Horses that are used to farm traffic, such as tractors, dirt bikes, four-wheelers and snowmobiles, will often adjust to roadway traffic with a fair amount of ease.

Another helpful maneuver to prepare your draft for its first time on tar is to ground-drive it over black mats or heavy tarp. This type of training builds trust, as horses "see" black areas as deep holes or harboring danger. It also reinforces your horse's ability to move forward over things that may feel odd to their hooves, make a different sound, or otherwise challenge their trust.

Once you feel your draft is ready for the road, choose a day and time when traffic is low or nonexistent. For the first few outings, a quiet roadway will give you and your horse a safety margin, as well as allow time for your horse to explore and absorb the characteristics of the roadway. Plan ahead and schedule an extra person to assist. Have them walk a bit ahead of the horse as the "leader" and be available to help if needed.

In my area and along our busy state road, early Sunday mornings have proven the best time for introducing our drafts to the road. Choose an area that is free from obstacles, such as mailboxes (which are designed to snag harness) and steep ditches, that would create a danger if the horse were to startle. There will be plenty of time to bring the horse closer to more risky areas after it is accustomed to the sights, sounds and feel of the road.

Roadways with white or yellow lines and markings, especially if they are freshly painted, will often confuse a horse that is new to roads and cause it to balk or hesitate. It is also quite common for horses to try to jump the lines the first few times out. The smell and brightness of fresh tar or where crews have "cold patched" may also give young or inexperienced road horses reason to pause or waver in their confidence.

One final consideration is the sound of the horse's feet on the tar, especially if it has shoes on. On more than one occasion I have seen horses spook themselves in extreme fashion because they cannot get away from the sound, and the faster they try to get away from the sound, the more noise it makes. For this reason, consider ground-driving your horse the first few times out. Once you are sure of your horse's confidence and security, venturing onto the roadway while hooked to a wagon or cart they are comfortable with will be second nature.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. The farm features drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.