Training Your Heavy Horse

Before you start training a young horse there are some basic disciplines you need to adopt for your own safety. Lead a horse decisively, with your right hand close to his mouth and your left hand on the other end of the lead rein. If he is young an inexperienced, make sure you are never too far away to take hold of the reins.

If using a cart, do not stand close to a shaft which is pointing towards you, and take care not to stand close to the wheels. When getting into a cart, do not stand on a spoke of a wheel since any sudden movement will throw you off balance. Get into a cart, with the reins held in your hand, by stepping on the shaft close to its juncture with the car and swinging your self on. Never ride sitting on a shaft, or on any part of a cart which is not intended for riding on.

Do not leave a horse facing an open gate; he may regard this as an invitation to go home. If you need the horse to stand for a while on a hill or incline, position the horse and the vehicle along the contours of the hill, rather than expecting him to hold a heavy cart in place against gravity. Some vehicles will have drag shoes or brakes which you can use.

Make sure your harness is in good condition; this means regular oiling and frequent checks. Always carry a penknife for the quick release of harness in case of an accident. A first-aid kit of baler twine is also useful to have with you.

Starting Training

A young horse intended for work should be regularly handled from birth, encouraging him to be calm and quiet. He should gradually be got used to being led and having his legs picked up.

You should begin breaking in or training a young horse at the age of two and a half or three years. A good method is to bring him into the stable and tie him up for 3 or 4, thus letting you get used to each other. Talk to the horse and build up a relationship; you will be the best thing he knows, as you are now the only source of food! During this process pay plenty of attention to the horse, including ‘sacking out’, rubbing an old sack or cloth all over his body. This will encourage him to accept the harness for the first time.

The next step is to put breaking harness, or stallion harness and a roller with side reins and a bridle, on the horse and take him outside. Do everything quietly and do not hurry. A straight bit is the best one to use for a young horse being prepared for work as it is gentle on the mouth. Sometimes a jointed one is used, but more usually on older horses. The straight bit should be adequate for most of your work. Keep the halter on under the bridle for safety or for tying up.

For these first lessons, and every time you start something new, it is important to have someone to help you. Your helper should lead the horse by standing back behind his shoulder, so that the horse thinks he is achieving everything himself. Do the driving with the reins from behind, keep the horse going forward and using a whip if necessary.

Drive anywhere, doing figures of eight, and going in and out of places around your farm or field, introducing him to different sights. Carry on doing this for a week or 10 days until he is absolutely perfect. All the time teach him the basic commands, ‘come here’ to go left, ‘walk off’ to go right, ‘whoa’ to stop and ‘get back’ to go backwards. These commands will vary slightly in different parts of the country.

Getting a Horse used to Draught

The next stage is to introduce full cart harness and traces, which bang round the horse’s leg. This process takes another few days. If all goes well you may then be ready to go out on a quiet road, but make sure you take a helper with you. Back in the yard, attach a whipple tree to the traces, and ask your helper to pull tight on a long rope attached to the whipple. This demonstrates to the horse how the collar feels when it goes tight, and what it feels like having chains touching the sides of his legs.

When he has got used to that, attach him to a sledge or light log – a railway sleeper is suitable – and drive him round the field for about half an hour. Do not go on for longer than three-quarters of an hour because his interest only lasts for short periods, and once he is bored you will not make headway. Even if you have all day free, divide the lesson into two chunks to ensure his attention.

If things go wrong, or the horse is alarmed by an unusual noise or sight and takes off, try to turn him to one side and keep him going round in a circle, rather than allowing him to go straight. With the assistance of your helper at his head, you may be able to prevent a disaster. If you succeed, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that he did not get away from you.

Once you have perfected this stage, you can introduce some noise. A 40-gallon drum with a brick inside it placed on the sledge is ideal for this purpose; if the horse puts up with that he will put with most things! A single-horse chain-harrow can be introduced next. Alternate the sledge and the chain-harrow for several sessions before introducing the horse to pulling something along on gravel or tarmac. All the time your commands must be repeated, so that it becomes second nature for the horse to listen to you and do what you ask. The best horsemen are capable of controlling their horses by voice alone.

Shafted Vehicles and Implements

Next introduce the horse to shafted vehicles; a light hitch cart with rubber-tyred wheels is ideal. While the training is proceeding always use second-best harness, vehicles and equipment in case of disaster. Start off on grass, and graduate to gravel or concrete and an iron-tyred vehicle, which makes a considerable amount of noise. Never let the horse trot, because a farm horse should walk and only be allowed to trot if he has to pull up a hill.

When introducing a horse to shafts, it is a good idea to get him used to being backed between two long pieces of wood, angled like shafts, perhaps using a gate to hold them. Make sure he sometimes touches them with his feet. Another approach is to make him a bit tired by pulling the chain harrow, and then put him straight into shafts before he has time to think about it. Nine times out of ten he will be alright.

Once in the shafts, do not let him move off straight away. He should first stand for a while: learning to stand is one of the most essential lessons for the young horse. Take every procedure quietly and steadily. You can gradually increase the weight of the load in the cart, and you must teach him to back it. If you need to stop and there is a danger that he might walk off, tie him to a nearby immovable object; this will teach him to stand still.

Let him meet all manner of situations at this stage – tractors at work, lorries coming into the yard, walking through puddles and streams, road signs, plastic bags and sacks on the ground which he must walk over and through, etc. You will soon have an idea of the things he copes with well and the things he hates. This will show you where further concentrated training is needed.

Introducing a Horse to Pair Work

When the horse has reached this stage in his training, it is time to introduce him to another horse if you want to do pair work with him. Some people advocate putting a young horse together with an older horse to start with, but young animals can become reliant on others and misbehave when the older horse is not present.

Tie the horses side by side in a stall for a day or two so they can get to know each other first, especially if one is a mare. The best first companion is a quiet experienced horse. Then hitch them to a chain-harrow which is not too heavy. Drive them around, and present an opportunity for the chains to become entangled in young horse’s legs. It is a good idea to cover the chains with a bit of heavy duty hosepipe, so that they do not pull the tender skin off his legs.

Novice horses have to get used to the idea that, when turning, one horse has to go faster, or slower, than the other. Always remember to praise your horse when he has done well. Some people advocate training horses by putting them straight onto the plough. In this case, the best position for him is in the furrow. This helps to guide him: he will very likely become a good plough horse as a result.

The young horse is then ready to go on the pole. He knows shafts well by now, but the pole comes lower down his legs. Put him on the nearside, where you can reach him, and the more experienced horse on the offside. Very likely he will be drawing a new type of vehicle for the first time, so there will be a lot for him to get used to.

The Training Schedule

The essential thing to remember when training a young horse is to continue regularly and frequently once you have started. It is no use choosing odd weekends and nice fine evenings, because the horse will forget what he has been taught in between.

If you are a complete novice you may prefer to take your horse to an experienced horseman for breaking-in. He would probably keep the horse for 6 weeks, at the end of which time he should take a day to show you what the horse can do, and what, if anything, needs further work. If the horse seems unsuitable for work (and there are a few which come into this category) it is helpful for the trainer to contact the owner within about 10 days to let him know the bad news! It is important for the owner to continue with the training when the horse is back home. If it is left, the training will all have been a waste of time and money.

It is essential to realise that a horse cannot be brought out every few months to drive down to the pub on a nice day, and be expected to cooperate. A working horse needs regular attention and regular tasks.


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Harness for the working horse


Farriery for the working horse


Training your heavy horse for work.

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