The phone call was one I've become accustomed to. "I've bought a retired draft, and I think I need some help." I secretly commended the caller on his wisdom, and then hoped and prayed he hadn't done something the horse would take months or years to recover from.
Miles and hours of long, low and light walks with a new owner help condition a draft to single work and new surroundings.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.
The gentleman talked about his experience with the 19-year-old retired draft with great pride. He'd seen a video of the horse in cart before buying him, and his neighbor had taken him in a riding class at a local show, and they took first place. It was obvious that in the few short weeks this man had owned the horse he had grown to love and appreciate him. Unfortunately, the first time the retired draft was hooked into a cart at his new home it was a bit of a rodeo. The good news is, everything but one barn door survived the commotion. It was soon after that my phone rang.
The funny thing about retirement, especially with horses, is that we have to stop and ask "retired from what." As it was, this draft was retired from a multiple team exhibition hitch from out west. What someone forgot to tell this great horse was that his retirement from a constant flashy trot with his best friends all around him was over, and he was now to be a proud single driving horse at a lovely farm in New England.
Even at 19 years of age, this horse had great energy, an honest nature and work ethic to spare. He also had a kind eye that showed confusion. All this was understandable, and after a brief introduction I didn't have much trouble telling the gentleman he'd made a good choice and that with a little "rehab" his new horse would be the safe and willing "chore horse" he'd been hoping for.
My theory for training is that there are only two things a horse needs to know. One is to whoa when asked, the other is to move when asked. If you think about it, everything we ask a horse to do is between stop and go. Every movement and turn is a variation or combination of the movements we know as stopping, halting, stepping off or moving forward.
One important item this retired draft needed to better understand was to stop and go forward by himself, and not as part of team or multiple hitch. He had to learn to be his own leader and not the follower he had been all his life. In order to be the successful retired horse his new owner desired the draft needed to learn to work independently of any other horse around him, and to depend solely on his new form of teammate - that of a human. This horse also needed to understand that retirement meant it was now OK to walk and relax while in harness.
So the exercises began. We started with a lot of daily attention in and out of harness. Lots of scratches on the neck and withers to invite relaxation and reinforce mutual friendship with humans, and when in harness, lots of "long, low and light" walking. We also loosened the side-check, as a tight checkrein often signals an expectation of excitement for show hitch and exhibition drafts.
Retirement for drafts often means unlearning the old job and learning a new way of going. Some drafts in harness, especially show and exhibition drafts, rarely perform at the walk; their job is almost exclusively a flashy, animated, "heads up" trot. A true walk - relaxed and with a four-beat gait - is not schooled for these drafts and, therefore, a relaxed walk becomes somewhat unnatural for them. The retired draft we had in for training had probably spent most of his career in harness at a flashy working trot. A flashy trot was his job, and in harness it was his muscle and mind memory. It was now our job to help this draft understand he could now relax in harness. He could lower his head, stretch his back, amble along, breathe deep and relax.
If you are considering adding a draft to your family, many retired drafts will complement your goals quite nicely. Just be sure to ask yourself "retired from what." Ideally, research the horse's work history, and if its job was something different from your goals, realize the horse may not be appropriate. If you do choose a retired draft whose job was not what you have planned for him, realize you may need to make further investments into his training so he more safely suits your needs.
I am happy to report that after five weeks of reschooling, the retired draft moved back to his new owner's farm and things are going great. The horse is working in a relaxed fashion, and his new owner (also retired) has dedicated the winter for lots of long, low and light walks. These miles and hours will pay big dividends as the horse reteaches his mind and muscles to slow down and relax. Many would agree it's the perfect retirement for both man and beast.
Vicki Schmidt owns and manages Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm located in Hebron, Maine. The farm also features the on-site farrier services of Neal Miller.