A Small Farmer’s Journal letter regarding the calm, relaxed, and alert horse.  By Donn Hewes


Dear Doc Hammill, 


Thanks for your great response to the recent questions about bridles coming off in the SFJ.  Often folks want a simple solution like “tighten that throat latch” and this won’t happen.  If only it were that easy.


I particularly liked your comments about our need to teach beginning teamsters about maintaining that constant level of awareness and how important that skill is to our overall safety.  This is something I have been giving a lot of thought to, as every year I teach new farm apprentices the work of a teamster and I take my responsibility for their safety very seriously.  I would like to share some of my recent thoughts on how I go about training these young farmers.


In considering the horses and mules that I have worked with as well as all the others I have learned from, I have come to the conclusion that their basic behavior can be described with three words: calm, relaxed, and alert.  This is their natural state, on pasture, with other horses.  On further reflection this seems to me to be a logical state for them to be in.  As a prey animal you would want to be alert at all times, and the only way to maintain this vigilance over such long periods would be to not waste a lot of energy doing it.  Thus the calm, relaxed, but alert horse.  For me this became the center of my methods for training and working an animal.  I would strive to maintain that calm, relaxed, and alert attitude even as I asked for each new step in their training.  I demand that attitude from animals working in the field.  All of the driving methods that I use and teach have a calm, relaxed, and alert draft animal as their underlying goal.  These teams are far safer and more enjoyable to work with.  When an animal is working but not relaxed he is already one step closer to a mishap, and my opportunity to intervene has been greatly reduced.  They are also easier and safer to teach a beginning teamster to drive.


I went on about the working animal’s attitude because it led me to a more recent idea about beginning teamsters.  When we train a young horse or mule we spend considerable time and effort ensuring that they understand and accept their relationship with us as their leader.  This is the foundation on which we can add gee and haw, whoa, and all the way up to the noises of balers and combines.  When, on the other hand, we start young teamsters we often start with harness parts and then lines.  Hopefully we will give them an introduction to the lines before they are hooked to the horse, but this still skims over much of the foundation.


What foundation training will people need?  Obviously horses can vary greatly in temperament and demeanor, but I always start with the basic assumption of calm, relaxed and alert.  Can we really say that about people?  I know I am conducting some seat of the pants anthropology here but bear with me.  I don’t really think of people as calm, relaxed, and alert, (at least not all at the same time) and for good reason.  In general, in our culture today, when we are alert, we are multitasking and details are a little less important than seeing how many balls we can juggle at one time.  When we relax, we really like to “veg out,” and let our technology take care of things for us (pay no attention to anything – let the timer tell us when it is done, etc.  I once met a person that was using a car GPS that was three hundred miles from where they thought they were!).  One of my new pet theories is that thousands of years ago when we humans were initially establishing our working relationship with animals, we were more like them.  Hunters and gatherers would both have benefited greatly from the ability to remain calm, relaxed, and alert for long periods of time.  This would have aided us in our first working relationships with animals as well.


Finally, in preparing a beginning teamster for the lines, I have two goals.  First, they must learn to maintain a calm, relaxed, and alert attitude at all times while working with animals.  I require it of the horses, so why not the people?  Being calm and relaxed is easy when thing are going well, but how should we present ourselves when everything is not just as we would like (or worse)?   Some would say that horses and mules can adapt to our human displays of emotion like anger, fear, or excitement, but I don’t think that is how a lead horse behaves or goes about maintaining control of the herd.  To be calm and relaxed in trying circumstances can be taught but it does not come naturally to everyone.  Teaching someone to be alert amounts to carefully and very specifically identifying all the things I am noticing and paying attention to, what each of those things can tell me, and why it is important.  There are many times when I will notice something from afar that a teamster at the lines will not.  I carefully point out each of those.  There are many times when I notice something before someone else, and I explain the advantages I get from this.  This is an early warning system that allows me to place my leadership clearly in their mind as they deal with unexpected events and distractions.  Ideally the horse should not be the first to notice these things; but remember, they are alert by their nature.  Many times we rely on their ears and head to tell us when something is coming, but we need to be paying attention in order to receive the message while there is time to make use of it.


Second, the beginning teamster must reflect on the fact that despite these natural shortcomings, they have applied for the top position.  Our ability to provide leadership to the working animals is critical to the success and safety of our operations.  All the other labor positions within the hitch have been taken.  Your only choice is to take over leadership, or not join the team at all.  I do find that most people (but certainly not all) have some natural ability to provide leadership.  Perhaps it is a bright side of our human development.   Just as with a young horse I would like a new teamster to practice some of these leadership skills before they try the lines.  Turn a horse loose and learn to catch it and lead it.  Turn it loose in a pen, and learn to groom it, trim it and harness it while it is standing.  Learn to drive it in the pen with your hands, voice, and body.  Use your personality as I like to say.  One thing I like to point out to a beginning teamster that wants to get right to driving and working the animals is this: none of the harness, evener, tongue, yokes, bridles, and farm equipment was put there to make it easier for a horse to stand, or walk quietly.  They were all added by us to get some kind of work done.  If you can’t make a horse stand, or move quietly without all those things, why would you expect to with all that added?  With this image of providing leadership fixed in their heads it is time for the lines.


So this is a little of how I am trying to prepare young teamsters that learn from and work with me today.  I don’t believe I can predict all of the events of the future, but I do believe that proper preparation, planning and training can make those events as safe as humanly possible.   Thanks for looking over my shoulder all these years.  Hopefully we will share a wagon seat one of these days.  Donn Hewes, Northland Sheep Dairy