Ina’s Helpful Hints on Horsekeeping 6 – Now We Are Two!, by Ina M. Ish

You have survived raising the horse through birth to this point,   you walk all over creation, you have done your best to create a  mannered, calm, well behaved youngster- now what?
Well, depending on your circumstances, or desires you can  actually begin to train that critter to DO SOMETHING!  Not saddle  work, but harness work.  Or even more advanced work on the ground.   A  two year old is still too young to do advanced lateral ground work,   but not too young to do actually harness work, provided it's mind is  settled enough of course.  Work in harness or ground work is  excellent for building up muscle, acquiring a good work ethic and  channeling excess energy.

If you are going to do the harness routine all the way to  actually hooking and driving that is great, but you will need access  to another person, or have enough money to find and pay a good  trainer. This can be both very spendy, and very disastrous- or very  spendy and very good. Too many pro trainers tend to treat horses in  'cookie cutter' fashion, they do things one way and do not take into   account individual horse temperaments or personalities.  This can  lead to great fears, confusion, resentments on the horse's part- not  to mention actual damage to the body or mind.  Don't forget a two  year old is still a baby!

Say you are going to do it with the help of a friend at  home- you will need a breaking cart, proper harness, a large enclosed  area, a driving whip, and lots of time.  It can take more than two  folk to actually hook a horse to the cart, so be aware of the need  for helpers and the need to proceed slowly.  Do not rush into doing  this by any means.  Driving is much more dangerous than riding and   you want to be very sure you have the basics firmly instilled.  I am  not trying to put anybody off from doing this, merely passing on some  cautions.  If you are fortunate enough to have an experienced "Whip  " ( somebody who has driven and trained even) on hand to help so much  the better.  A total novice person and a total green horse do not a  good combination make!

A few more words of advice- do not acquire a total metal cart as  a breaking cart- may be stronger, but metal is more unforgiving than  wood and too many potential driving horses are killed by metal shafts  driven into the ribs!  A wooden cart , with a brake is most  desirable- they can be found.  If such is not easily found- check out  harness tracks for older jog carts- they are light, and don't allow   as easy in and out access as a heavier wooden braking cart, but they  are available and inexpensive.  You do need a smoothish surface to  use them on- forget going cross country in one!  A quick release  Harness is a real joy to use – consider that.  Even starting with the  nylon harness is o.k., provided you get fleece padding for the  harness saddle, breastplate, and crupper . Fleece for the harness  saddle is very important! That piece of harness carries ALL the   weight of the cart and therefore to protect the young back wearing  it, it must be padded- and widely! I never did like the lines that  come with the nylon harness, but cotton lines are available- do not  get the ones with the hand loops!   They can be deadly to you if your  hands get caught in a bail-out situation.

I won't dwell on technique of harness training, there is a great  deal of information available on the subject, not so much on ground  work, but it to is available.  I will say a bit about getting ready  to do this deed!

In order to start any of this, I am assuming your horse has  already been introduced to wearing harness- if not, you should start  slowly to introduce it.   Take your time. Not only is it new to the  horse , likely it is new to you and there are miles of it to get used  to handling!  I suggest practicing in your house with several chairs  as a 'horse'- lay it out, learn each part by name, put it on the  chairs, just as you would put it on the horse- get used to handling  the sheer amount of material involved.  If you develop some finesse  with it, it will go easier and take less time when you actually are  faced with harnessing a live animal.  If you have inherited or  acquired an older leather harness, check all the stitching, clean  with saddle soap, and apply Lexol or another good leather    conditioner.  You want that equipment to be as supple as possible.    When putting on Lexol ( or what-ever) use frequent small amounts  rather than one heavy application.  Leather dries better with the  smaller, more frequent applications.  Check all the buckles and  connectors- make very, very sure the leather is still 'live' and has  no dry rot at all!{mospagebreak}

Biting is very important in harness as it is under saddle.  Less  is more with a youngster.  A simple snaffle bit – not a thin one-  will do initially.   If you have not bitted the horse before, then do  so and lead/walk the horse around wearing the bridle with a bit.   Spend some time on this step, don't just place a bit in the horse's  mouth and attempt to hook the same session!!!!  The key to harness  work is taking the time to make sure the horse is comfortable with   all the equipment and with the activity.  If you have an older  driving horse around, have someone drive it while you and the  youngster watch from the rail!   No kidding – horses can learn from  watching!!!  Some folk like to start a harness horse in an open  bridle- if you are among them have helpers move that cart all around  the horse you are ground-driving- in front, in back, to either side,   gently bump with shafts – in other words get the horse totally used  to that strange device!  To it's noise and it's smell as well as it's  feel! You need to do this regardless of type of bridle you are going  to use!

An open bridle is great, but some horses simply can't or won't  tolerate the cart behind them when wearing one.  If that is the case  go to a blinker bridle – or get a blinker hood to use with your  regular bridle.  That works.  Even if your youngster can handle the  sight of a cart behind him or her, many are freaked out by it's  noise- you may even have to use ear-plugs at first!  What-ever it   takes to keep that horse from becoming frightened!  A frightened  horse in harness is very dangerous. Indeed!  You can't simply reach  out and re-assure the animal, so it is worth your time to progress  very slowly till the horse understands and accepts all the newness'.

Once you have actually gotten through all the beginning and  critical stuff as described above it is time to ENJOY!  Keep your  first drives on the short side, and on familiar territory.  The  inviting open dirt road or lane will be there when you and the horse  are ready!  It isn't going anywhere– but you are!   Big pastures are  fine, you don't want to get yourself into any tight spots, and that  is literal!  You do want to build up muscle on the horse and install   a sense of accomplishment- you want the animal to enjoy it's work!   So keep the drives short and pleasant- fun rather than drudgery!

Be lavish with deserved praise , verbal – don't be tongue tied-  when that youngster does a good job let them know it!  Keep talking  through all the 'sticky' points, offer comfort and re-assurance.  You  should not drive a horse all alone- take a passenger with you!   Someone who can jump out and head that horse in needful situations.   So someone who is also a horseperson is desired.

They say that God looks after idiots and fools, and I do know I  was blessed when I first started to drive.  I was in my teens and had  gotten my first horse- an old half Belgian mare who was a "ride and  drive" horse.   In her case it was "drive and ride" she had done  parades and pulled every sort of cart you can think of.  I had never  driven, and had never harnessed a horse- had spent months reviving an  old leather harness and with the aid of a guy who had worked with the  Clydesdale's at the brewery in Scotland- we actually got my mare   harnessed.  Took a huge amount of time since he was used to harness  with collars and hames, and this was harness with breastplate.  Finally it was done and I asked Johnny what do I do now.  His  response " Get in the sleigh and drive!"  Duh! So I did!  Not knowing  any better I got into the sleigh- a NY Cutter by type- picked up the  lines and said "Walk on"   off the mare went, and that was my  introduction to driving- on snow, in a cutter, by myself!  All the  things one can do wrong I did!  But survived By Grace of God and the  Powers that be.  I soon learned that turning corners was an  experience indeed- cutters 'drift' just like sports cars!  The sparks   from the patches of bare pavement are scary as all get out at first,  and when they turn over well- I never moved so fast as when a huge  snow plow frightened my mare and she began to climb the plowed snow  on the road side. And the cutter started to turn over.  I simply had  to get that cutter caught and stabilized before it went completely  over with the mare still hooked!  So you see, disaster can happen and  it is usually super fast when it does- all the more reason to have a   passenger and to know  your horse and what it will do in unexpected   situations. Don't drive alone!

Having said that repeatedly, I will leave you all to it, go and  enjoy but remember SAFETY FIRST, for you and for your young horse!

Ina M Ish
iish@earthlink.net