From Saddle Horse to Work Horse

It requires a little patience, but you can turn a saddle horse into a work horse.

| July/August 1979

A good horse is a real asset to any farmstead. Riding through the woods can provide countless hours of "home entertainment," and if the creeks are up or the vehicles broken down (which seems to be the case more often than not), a pleasure steed becomes invaluable as transportation to visit friends, pick up supplies, or keep appointments.

However, a whole new realm opens up when you train a "riding" horse to harness and put the animal to work around the farm. I use my mare Gypsy to pull logs from the woods, haul rocks on a stoneboat (sled), and even cultivate my gardens.

It seems to make good sense—especially considering the amounts of costly grain and hay a horse consumes—to let the critter "pay its way." Furthermore, this transition from saddle horse to work horse can be an easy one if you keep a few basic equine principles in mind. For one thing, a horse has a relatively short attention span, so training is best done in gradual steps. You must also be aware of your beast's limits, because it'll become frustrated and rebel if pushed too hard. In addition, be careful in your enthusiasm not to excite the trainee in any way when introducing new tasks. A workhorse must be a mellow, slow-moving animal.

Punishment and Praise 

Reward and punishment go hand in hand. Praise, pats, and bits of carrot are a horse trainer's most helpful tools. You can assure and calm your steed instantly with a word or touch, and praise (or a tasty reward) will stimulate ol' Dobbin's interest and response.

Some critters will test their limits every so often, though, so punishment may occasionally be unavoidable. When such chastisement does become necessary, it's very important to know when to apply it and when to stop. Timing, therefore, is essential. For example, a pull on the reins is a form of punishment, and the release of that pull is a reward. So if you tell your horse "whoa" and it doesn't respond, you must continue pulling on the reins and repeating "whoa" until the horse slows to a stop. When the order is obeyed, release the pressure at once. After a while, the oral command will be all that's needed.

Most of the time, a harsh word will be sufficient to reprove your helper, but every now and again you can expect to become involved in a battle of wills. After all, you're dealing with an animal that may have 10 times your body mass. This huge critter has to learn to respect you. I've used a long switch on Gypsy a few times, but a slap with the reins is usually all the encouragement she needs to move a head. As soon as my wayward worker responds, of course, she receives immediate praise.

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