This winter we are privileged to have my long-time draft horse teamster mentor Doc Hammill spending the winter on the wet side of Oregon. From Dec-April he’ll be teaching a monthly workshop with a small group of horse farmers from up and down the west coast. Brad, Sarah and I met up with the group for the first time last weekend at Ruby & Amber’s Organic Oasis in Dorena, Or. This incredible farm belongs to Kris Woolhouse and Walt Bernard and is named for their original team of draft mares. They now have a greatly expanded herd of draft horses at various stages of training who help them cultivate organic veggies, flowers, berries and small grains.
Doc started the workshop with an explanation of gentle or natural horsemanship principles. There are lots of practicioners using these principles with riding horses, but very few demonstrating practical applications with driving horses. And it is different. Sitting astride a horse you have an almost unlimited number of ways to cue with your legs or by shifting your weight. Walking behind your horses with only the lines to communicate with is much more challenging. Last weekend, I watched some folks work magic down the lines. I also really appreciated how patient Walt and his horses were with the rest of us.
We spent quite a bit of time that weekend discussing the finer points of harness. I’m particularly interested in learning all the ways to adjust the collar and hames, because earlier this fall Patty and Bonnie had sore shoulders. I took them up to Happ’s early in October and we drove quite a bit. They seemed fine until we got home and then I noticed that both shoulders were tender to the touch. Their harness had always fit fine, but I think as a result of the fact they spent the summer in the pasture mostly loafing off and not working very much – they had a new and different shape this fall. Big bellies and less muscle on their shoulders.
So we worked on fitting collars with Walt’s new team of Belgians, Tom & Jerry. They’re young and growing and putting on muscle so the fit on their collars is always changing. Doc does a great piece on fitting collars in his Horsemanship Video Series. When it comes to collar adjustments there are really only 3 moving parts – top hame strap, hame buckle and bottom hame strap, but they can change the shape of the collar in a surprising number of ways. We also experimented with different kinds of pads to see how they can be used to make things fit better. After all that I definitely felt like I had a much better grasp of what a well fitting collar looked and felt like, and some good ideas on how to get there with Patty & Bonnie.
It was an amazing weekend! We got to do lots of driving with different kinds of horses, on different kinds of equipment. On Sunday we spent most of the day just ground driving around patterns and cones. It’s one thing to drive a well trained team down the road – you may feel like you’re steering, but they pretty much know the routine and do a good job of covering for you. In the paddock working around the cones on a pattern that you have to teach your horses it becomes obvious who can drive and who’s just along for the ride. That said, Tom & Jerry very quickly learned the serpentine pattern and by the third time they were trying to help me out by scooting themselves over and around the cones even when I steered them too sharp around the corner. We left Sunday with homework: set up some obstacles at home and do as much driving as possible before we meet up again. What fun!