Getting hitched – Part 2

So you’ve successfully hooked your horse to the poles and can drive him around without fuss, stress or help. Onward and upward.

It won’t be too long before you will need a driving whip. With this item you can get as fancy as you choose. I do have a recommendation, though (you could have guessed). Buy yourself an inexpensive whip. You can get a 5½ foot Wonder Whip for about twelve bucks. Pull the lash off and replace it with a doubled piece of woven soft nylon starter cord twisted together with a half knot in the end. You’re not concerned with looks right now. You want to be able to reach out a touch your horse without causing any pain, and most whip lashes sting. The whip is an extension of your arm, not a goad.

You will need another piece of equipment besides your vehicle and your whip. This is really the only auxiliary piece of equipment I recommend. Buy, borrow or make a kicking strap. Do whatever it takes, but get and use a kicking strap. Someday, you will thank me!

So, let’s get your horse hitched to your vehicle. You will, step by step, repeat the process you used with the poles.

Long line as usual with harness on. This is when you add your kicking strap. It should rest a few inches behind the point (top) of the hindquarter. When you’re done long lining, pull the lines out of the tugs and run them through the terrets.

Ground drive behind, beside and in front of the cart while your helper pulls it. Put the vehicle on the horse just as you did the poles. For your first, and possibly second, lesson, use your long lines. When you no longer have to ground drive your hitched horse you can switch to your regular driving reins.

Connect your harness to your cart in the following order. Note: Some people do numbers one and two in the opposite order. It seems to depend on whether the tugs are buckle down or have wrap straps.

  1. Fasten the tugs down. As with the poles, you don’t want to suck the shafts into the horse, but you do want a bit of inward tension on the shafts to reduce their bounce and wobble.
  2. Fasten the traces. If you have key hole traces and a sword point singletree, make sure that your traces will securely stay on the single tree. I have one student who has to tape or tie the brass fastener down to keep the traces from sliding off. Whatever you do, make sure your traces are securely fastened to your singletree.
  3. Fasten the hold back straps (breeching straps) to the shafts. As with the wrap straps for the tugs, there is no absolute formula. Each harness and cart configuration is different. Make sure you can run a hand around between the breeching and your horse when it’s fastened.
  4. Wrap the bucking strap around the shaft and buckle it. When both sides are fastened, there should be four inches between the strap and hindquarter when held up at the top of the rump. This slack will allow the hindquarters to bounce up and down normally when the horse is trotting.

Now, as with the poles, you will take the near (left) side and your helper will take the off (right) side and you will walk a few steps and halt. This is an exact repeat of the poles lesson in the beginning. When your horse is allowing you to ground drive with your helper still walking along on the far side, and you are turning corners without problems, you are ready to get in the vehicle. Keep this next part of the lesson really short. Quietly get in the cart, talking to your horse the whole time. I like to turn the horse’s head slightly so he can see me whenever I do something new behind him. If he’s paying attention to me, my sudden change of location will not startle him because he is watching it happen.

As before, walk a few steps and stop. You have added weight to the situation. The cart will suddenly roll forward when he starts walking and keep rolling forward, pushing the breeching into his hind legs, when he stops. Give him time to adjust. Lots of encouraging talk and praise. Keep your helper close enough to grab the horse and help you out if things get iffy. If you’re concerned about what your horse might do, equip your helper with a lunge line, fastened to the bit. Walk on again, stopping after a few strides.

I take time to do the entire process slowly, following the same pattern used with the poles because the horse is reassured by the pattern of something he has done before. You have added only one new element, weight. Stick with the program.

Over the next several days, long line as usual, using the last ten or fifteen minutes of your work to hitch and drive around in the cart. You will know when your helper can fade to the background.

You don’t want to add too much cart work right away. Pulling the cart requires muscles the horse can’t develop until he pulls the cart. Another of those fine catch 22’s! Give your horse time to adjust. Your daily grooming will tell you how you’re doing. If your horse flinches away from your rubber curry, you know he’s sore and you can proceed accordingly. Your long lining will help loosen those tight, sore muscles before you put them back to work.

After a couple weeks of steadily increasing the cart work, you should be ready to hitch without long lining, unless your horse is so high-energy that he needs the extra work. Let your knowledge of your horse guide you. No one knows your horse better than you do!

Trot work

Let your horse tell you when he’s ready to trot. This is what usually happens; the horse has gotten pretty cheery about this work. It’s easier and more fun than being ridden! General good cheer leads to enthusiasm, which leads to trot! Hey ho! Pretty nifty! Suddenly, everything starts bouncing and jiggling and making more noise than the horse is used to. Up goes the head and one of two things happens. The horse either drops back to a walk after having mildly scared himself or, the little bugger tries to bolt! Not so ‘hey ho’ and nifty.

Forewarned is forearmed, so be prepared. If he tries to bolt, haul him to a halt. If you catch him before he can really get moving you can pull him to a standstill with little effort. Stand for a bit and then ask him to walk on, back to work as usual. Don’t fuss. Don’t get out to reassure him. Get back to work as usual, right away. The less of a fuss you make, the less of an impact the whole incident has! He needs to learn right off that leaving the vicinity without your permission is NOT ALLOWED. This is like HO and is not open to discussion.

Remember that your horse is always testing to see what is okay and what isn’t. Departing for parts unknown is not okay (not safe either). Dropping out of a trot because he’s uncertain is okay, in the beginning.

You may need to request the next trot. Each horse seems to be a bit different here. Some horses take to trotting with cart attached and driver in as if they had been doing it always. Some are more cautious and need to test the water a bit before they plunge in whole heartedly. Some take a period of adjustment, requiring a few strides of trot followed by a bit of walk followed by more strides of trot, until they have adjusted to all the noise and bounce. Just like the first few times in poles, they need time to adjust and reflect. Some horses do a little jog trot for a while. Go with what your horse needs. Once your horse has adjusted, your off and running (not literally, I hope).

So now that you’re hitched and driving, sans helper, there are some things you need to watch for. I haven’t had a horse yet that has missed one of these jewels to one degree or another.

  1. The bolt. You have two strides to fix this one. Until I have dealt with this response once or twice, I keep my reins short and my arms forward so I have lots of pull back room. I don’t increase my contact with the horse’s mouth. So, when your horse bolts, brace yourself, lean back and pull with your elbows! One or two rude and abrupt halts should convince your horse that uninvited departures are not welcomed.
  2. The ‘I am not going forward’ unshuffle. Be patient. Your horse will give up and go forward if you are patient and persistent. If your horse is halted and won’t go forward, DO NOT GET OUT OF THE CART. Do not do anything that your horse can construe as a reward. Turn your horse slightly sideways as you urge him forward. This change of balance is sometimes all it takes. Be persistent and don’t give in. Don’t be blackmailed!
  3. The ‘I’ll trot but I’m going to do it really fast’ flyer. Squeeze, release, squeeze, release (ad nauseam) until the horse returns to his natural tempo. Return to your original contact, whereupon your horse will immediately trot really fast. Be patient and repeat, repeat, repeat!
  4. The bolt backward. This, of all, is my favorite (not). I’ve been backed into fences and ditches and buildings. Life is so exciting! I haven’t got a tried and true answer for this one. This is the only place where brakes on a two wheel vehicle would be advantageous. With the brakes on, the horse can’t back up. It sometimes requires a helper to lead your horse forward, through the resistance. The best thing to do is not teach your horse to back in harness for quite a while after starting to drive. If they don’t know how to do it, they can’t use it as an evasion. Once they are accepting all the other work required in driving, then teach them to back.
  5. The spin. ‘Oh my! It’s going to eat me!’ followed by a handy spin right or left. You will get to do some of the fastest 180’s you’ve ever done in your life! Like the shoulder-in evasion you dealt with during long lining, the fix is repeated squeezes and releases, supported with the opposing hand. If you don’t use the opposing hand to support the squeezes, your horse will bend his neck and lead with his shoulder, continuing to spin.

So, step by step, the fix for a spin to the left is squeeze and release on the right rein supported by a steady and firm left rein. If you can keep your horse’s neck fairly straight you can control the left shoulder with the left rein and use the right rein to move the shoulder to the right with the squeeze and release. Clear enough?

Those are the favorite five. The trick is to think through each evasion, mentally rehearsing your fix, because the fix that will work best depends on your horse. When things get really bad, I can always pull the horse’s head around toward the girth. (This one requires LOTS of tact.) Once the horse is looking back at you, you and your horse can take a minute to talk the situation over. The horse, in essence, gets a ‘time out’. If you think you might need to use this, practice it in long lines first. You may have inadvertently practiced it when your horse wrapped himself up in the long lines. I have had horses try to back up, spin, lay down and other cute things when I first used this physical time out so be careful. I’ve even heard of a horse rearing. After you’ve used it a time or two, your horse knows the score and will just stand there, giving you time to let the dust settle. Just make sure you practice it out of harness before you try to use it in harness.

Road work

Once the horse will go, stop and turn, I start road work. If your horse has iffy hoof quality, don’t do a lot of trot work on pavement. It can beat the feet up pretty bad without special shoeing. Road work is important because it gives you the opportunity to test your schooling. Just make sure you take your handy dandy helper along the first few times. You have taught your horse to trust you. Now you’re going to test that trust.

One more note about your helper. If you’re doing road work and you need to take a helper, try and pick an area that is relatively firm and flat. The extra work your horse has to do pulling the extra weight is something you need to consider.

Road work does not have to be out on public roads. It can anywhere that you can drive a sizable loop through new territory. One of my favorites is our local park. It’s three big fields bordered by asphalt roads, woods and a river. The fields have wide paths mowed around the perimeter of each field.

Tailor your work around your horse’s personality. The more new places you can go, the calmer your horse will be about new places and things.

I live in the country on a fairly busy two lane road. I do drive both on the busy road and on the quieter side roads. For the first time or two out on the public roads with a green horse I have a helper walk along with the horse, ready to help out if the horse has a problem. Horses with riding experience rarely require a helper and accept the road work as a matter of course.

I have had very little, if any, trouble with either the traffic’s reaction to horses on the street or with the horse’s reaction to the traffic. If you don’t tense up and grab when cars, trucks or buses go by, your horse will think it’s all just normal stuff and will, shortly, ignore all traffic, regardless of what it is. If you’re driving open, your horse will be able to see the traffic coming and will very quickly come to understand that it’s noisy, doesn’t hurt and soon goes away. If your horse is blinkered, he will hear the noise and will soon come to understand that it doesn’t mean much. Either way, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Use of the whip

When you first start driving, leave the whip laying in the bottom of the box. If you can’t lay it in the bottom of the box, don’t put it in the whip holder, leave it along the fenceline somewhere. You can retrieve it when you’re ready to carry it. Give your horse a couple days without the whip. Your verbal aids should be sufficient in the beginning.

When you are ready to pick up and carry the whip, do so without touching your horse with it. If you’re driving open, your horse needs to get used to seeing it back there. If you’re driving closed, you need to get used to carrying it. You are driving for such short times in the beginning, you should have time to let your hand and wrist tendons adjust slowly.

If your horse tries to depart for parts unknown the first time you carry the whip, fix the reaction and continue to carry the whip. If you insist, the horse will adjust. You aren’t hurting him and he might as well get used to it.

The first few times you use the whip, your horse may over react. Don’t worry. As soon as your horse figures out the whip won’t sting, he acquires a more realistic view.

Between this lesson and next, get out with your horse as much as you can. Remember that you are supposed to have 100% of the horse’s attention when you ask for it! Don’t slack off on this requirement! It is necessary for your safety!