Lessons Learned From Draft Horses

July 31, 2018

There is nothing more impressive than the sight of an elegant team of draft horses working smoothly together. The flowing manes, the massive hooves, the powerful muscles pulling -- those all depend on highly skilled training when properly “hitching” these majestic creatures.

 

The exact source of the expression “to be hitched” is not clear. The word “hitch” means to be “connected” or attached to something or someone. Some say the word came from the western wagon trains, because when a marriage occurred en route, the new bride’s belongings were “hitched” to her husband’s wagon! 

 

I wanted a horse from childhood. When I was finally able to get my wish, I chose the biggest horse I could find. After observing hitch horses at State fairs, my choice settled on a Belgian, the strongest of all the drafts.

 

Belgians are real work horses -- tough, with great dispositions. They can pull a light sleigh through snow or haul multi-ton loads. They’ll do anything.

 

My new friend, when I found him, was a 2400-pound red sorrel beauty named “Buck” who stood well over 17 hands tall. He was being retired from the show horse circuit which included the National Western Stock Show. 

 

Buck was a winner, and there was something unique about him. His “heart”, referring to the horse’s level of obedience and willingness to work, was so exceptional that his handler and trainer was holding him for a special place to retire to. My purpose for taking Buck to my mountain ranch was in line with a gentle retirement.

 

Owning a horse like Buck quickly expanded my longtime musings about draft horses and relationships. There proved to be value to my prior thoughts on the subject. 

 

Experienced handlers must know their horses well. Careful thought must be given to how horses are placed when harnessed with others. An “unequally yoked” situation often leads to injury or chaos. Even if only two horses are harnessed together, inevitably if one is not performing up to par, the other is going to strain to make up for the imbalance. Horses need to match up physically so the elevation of the harness is evenly distributed. My horse's neck was so massive he needed a special partner. 

 

Slacking off in the harness damages the relationship between the horses as well as their performance, and makes more work for the handler. 

 

The art of the six-hitch is the one I want to focus on because it best illustrates the fluid roles partners need to consider in making a relationship work. 

 

In a six (or more) horse arrangement, the first two horses in the lead are called “lead horses”. To be “leads” they must be skillful listeners and respond accurately and quickly to instructions. They must also be decisive in executing them. Those instructions could be verbal or from the handler’s skilled movements of the reins. The team must be totally reliable and not given to independent or stubborn resistance. When they lead, the others must follow. 

 

The horses nearest the load (wagon) should be the ones with the strongest haunches and the strongest pulling ability, fitted to their tasks and equal in stature and build. Their strength and endurance provides the forward pull and momentum for the load. If one is weaker or shorter, the load falls unfairly to the other horse, so matching is important.

 

Horses in the middle positions are called “swing” horses. Swing horses need the greatest flexibility in smoothly following the lead horses and pulling ahead of the wheel horses, all while remaining synchronized in their movements. They must not create resistance, or try to set their own directions. This is a cooperation.

 

It’s not as easy as it seems, and most horses are not interchangeable in those three primary positions. Some are better suited to one of the positions, due to personality or physical build. Few are as interchangeable as my Buck was, who managed any position he was put in with exceptional talent.

 

Hitch drivers know a lot about slackers. Most horses take advantage if not corrected. They will slack off on their side of the load if they sense the “other one” can take the extra burden. If one horse must continually work harder than the other, physical injury may result. Drivers have to be astute to correct such misbehavior with the reins, reassign the position, or replace the horse.

 

Human partnerships, and marriages in particular, can learn valuable lessons from the way horses work together. When there is no third-party “driver” involved, the reins of communication depend entirely on mutual love, listening, concern and attentiveness to each partner’s needs as they shift and change. It is important to understand each partner’s roles. There can be no slacking off or overburdening of either partner or resentment results. When the character qualities of leaders, swings and wheels all work in unison, and places change when necessary, life’s journey becomes so much easier. 

 

 

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