Often referred to as “gentle giants,” draft horse breeds are known for being docile and easy to handle. Though beloved for their easygoing nature, draft horses, like horses of any size or breed, require training.
Today’s draft horses are categorized as farm horses, hitch horses, pulling horses or riding horses. Like workhorses of decades ago, drafts used for farmwork are responsible for helping farmers complete any task around the farm, from pulling wagons to tilling fields to operating horse-drawn equipment.
Hitch horses tend to be a bit fancier. These drafts are bred with longer legs and are more lean and high-headed. Horses bred to be hitch horses can be seen in driving competitions and pulling carriages in parades or for special occasions. Pulling horses, considered the “weight lifters,” are bulkier and require additional conditioning to be fit enough to pull logs from the woods or to pull weights in competitions.
Regardless of their intended use, be it working on the farm, towing decorative carriages, pulling heavy loads or ridden under saddle, solid ground manners, respect and patience are as necessary for draft horses as they are for lighter breeds.
While specific uses require varying degrees of conditioning and advanced training, the fundamentals of good training are the same for any draft horse. A well-trained horse is safer and more pleasurable to work with.
Early handling is key
“It’s most important to start with ground work and establish good ground manners,” said Tamara Healy, owner of Classic Carriage Service in Johnstown, New York. If you’re raising draft horses from the time they are born, begin handling them as soon as possible. “I start on day one with imprinting,” she added.
Rubbing and petting young horses teaches them to accept a handler’s touch. Raising and lowering a young horse’s tail gets it ready for the day it will wear a harness. Teaching a young horse to pick up its feet will establish a sound foundation while it is still “small” that will carry over as it grows and matures
Photos courtesy of Tamara Healy unless otherwise noted.
Introduce young horses to a halter and teach them to stand patiently while the halter is put on and taken off. This is also a good time to teach the horse to lower its head for bridling. With the palm of your hand on the horse’s poll, gently encourage it to drop its nose and head into the halter. Once the horse has learned this with the halter, it’ll make bridling a much easier process.
Even before a horse is old enough to pull or be ridden, it can learn to move away from pressure, accept “scary” objects and obey voice commands. “If you can’t move a horse’s feet on the ground, you can’t move them while you’re sitting on its back or driving,” Healy said.
Place tarps, ground poles and other obstacles in an area where you’ll be working with the horse to see how it will react to new objects. Bring a radio out to the work area and play music to desensitize the horse to loud, unexpected noises.
Horses can also learn to accept a harness before you hook them up to a wagon and drive. Gradually introduce the harness, allowing the horse to sniff the leather and hear the jingling hardware before placing the equipment on its back. Practice approaching with the harness and tacking up while asking the horse to stand patiently to prepare it for the time it will take to hook to the cart.
Long-lining is another valuable training tool. Long-lining is a combination of traditional lunging and ground driving. The handler uses two long lines to work a horse in a circle to mimic the cues given through lines. The exercise teaches a horse to move forward, turn and stop. “Long-lining goes more toward pleasure driving, but it can be used to teach a horse to be responsive to whip cues too,” Healy said.
Ground driving is another good exercise before hitching to a cart. The team of horses is harnessed, and the lines are affixed to the horses’ bits as they would be for driving. The handler walks behind the team, as if in a cart, but no vehicle or farm equipment is actually attached to the team.
Once a horse has solid ground manners and has physically matured or reached an age that is appropriate for beginning work, it’s time to teach the horse to hook up to a wagon or cart. There are several approaches that can be used. Your level of experience and confidence, as well as personal preference, will determine which method works best for you and your horse.
The fundamentals of good training are the same for any draft horse. A welltrained horse is safer to work with.
Some prefer to hitch a young, inexperienced horse in with a more experienced horse and go right to work. Others prefer to hitch a green horse next to a seasoned partner, but outside the shafts and traces so that the inexperienced horse isn’t pulling any of the weight the first few trips out.
Adding weight behind young, high-strung or fresh horses reduces the opportunity for the single horse or team to run off. The heavier the object, the more effort it will take to move at a quick pace. You can purchase a training sled, designed specifically for training inexperienced horses, or simply use items found around the farm, like heavy old tires, as additional weight on the vehicle you’ll be using.
Patience is a virtue
Of course, you won’t always be able to work with a horse from the time it’s born. In many cases, you’ll purchase a draft after it’s been weaned, and potentially even trained by someone else. After purchasing a horse from another farm, even one that’s been trained, revisit the fundamentals of good training.
Before harnessing up and driving off, spend time working with the horse to be sure it understands “whoa,” has patience standing while tied and is calm. Being patient and taking your time will prevent potential accidents and pay off in the long run. “Some people may consider me to be overcautious, but I’d rather be overcautious than be in a wreck that could have been prevented,” Healy said.
Remember, draft horses, like any other breed of horse, require consistency and frequent work. In the event that your horses become difficult to handle or dangerous, get assistance from someone experienced in working with draft horses.