I am 32 years old and around 5 and a half feet tall. That’s right, I said my age. Get over it. I have. Thankfully, I am married to a wonderful man who happens to be 10 years my senior. Yeah, he’s old, but the way I see it, as long as he’s around, I can feel young.
Unless of course we decide to get into draft horses. Which we have.
This past weekend, we attended a private clinic where we learned, hands-on, the basics of working with draft horse power. It was a great experience, but let me tell you, I learned a few things about myself. Not the least of which is that I am short and getting old fast!
Our team consisted of two black Percheron horses. The gelding stood at 18 hh (that’s 6′ at the withers, or shoulder area), and the mare stood 17.2 hh (that’s 70″ at the withers). Not only are they tall, but they have width that goes along with that height! Need a frame of reference? Here ya’ go…
Let’s just say that I don’t look forward to having my foot stepped on by one of these guys! At my height, I was left feeling shorter than I have ever felt. He doesn’t even look that big in the photo, but when you add in his width, I could barely reach the center of his back to groom him. I certainly couldn’t see up there. I now have a new understanding of how my 4 foot children feel when I ask them to groom and tack up the 11.2 hh (46 inches at the shoulder when I last measured) donkey. Then, when I realized how difficult it was for someone of my build and height to lift a full leather harness, weighing around 60 lbs. up onto the back of that horse above….well, let’s just say I ain’t feeling so young and strong anymore.
Nonetheless, we had a great experience. We arrived at 9 in the morning, and spent 2 hours getting accustomed to the horses, grooming them, and then learning about the collars and harnesses. The teamster (owner/driver of the team) discussed many of the pros and cons of different types of harnesses and collars, and spent a lot of time discussing safety when harnessing and driving. I found some of it to be pretty basic, similiar to saddle horses and riding. The harnessing and driving related topics were totally new to me, though, and we both learned a ton!
The teamster harnessed the first horse, and then allowed us to work together to harness the second one, with his assistance. All those straps can easily complicate things if not done properly! Finally, after we understood the functionality of the harness, like which parts are used for pulling, and which are used for braking, he showed us how to hook the team up to a wagon. Then, we went to a driving track to learn the basics of driving.
We spent about 1/2 hour practicing using our reigns, more properly called “lines,” as we guided the team down straight sections, over up-and-down dips and rises, through tight turns and large arcs, etc. For those of you who have riding experience, driving is a whole different ball game! I can compare it somewhat to english riding, using a direct reign. However, since you aren’t actually riding the horse, you can’t use your body to signal the horses. All communication is done through voice commands and through your hands and the lines. However, even that is more complicated than it sounds. There is a BIIIIIIGGGGG difference between direct-reigning using a pair of 8 oz. nylon reins that are 4-6 feet long, and trying to signal using a pair of 1 inch wide, several pound, 16-20 foot long leather lines. The horses, however, when properly trained, still feel every movement you make through those lines, so we had to be extremely careful to only cue them when we wanted a change in what they were doing. There were times the team would veer off track with no warning. The teamster would give us a moment to try to figure out our mistake before correcting us. It was always an unintentional tightening or moving of the line that signaled the turn.
S did well, but I had some old riding habits that would periodically creep up and interfere with my directing of the horses. For example, when riding one horse, if the horse speeds up, you naturally sit down in the saddle and gently but firmly use the reigns to stop or slow the horse. With a team, however, both lines are connected to both horses. So, if one horse speeds up, we had to learn how to properly correct the one without punishing the other for doing the right thing. It wasn’t always easy!
Next, we took a break, unharnessed the horses and fed them lunch while we went into the bunkhouse to eat lunch, provided by the teamster’s wife. After lunch, it was back out to the barn, where we re-groomed and re-harnessed the horses. Only this time, we were on our own. We each had to fully harness one horse, with supervision by the teamster for safety and correction when needed. The horses were so tall, though, that S and I had to help each other get that heavy harness up on their backs. I will definitely have to build a platform in my barn at Red Gate to help get me up higher when grooming and harnessing these big horses.
After they were ready, the teamster drove the horses into place in front of the wagon, and S and I had to hitch them into place. Then, we went and drove about 3 miles or so, taking turns driving them through certain obstacles and situations in the forest. We did this for several (cold) hours. Finally, we headed back to the barn, and S and I had to unhitch and unharness the horses. That was when my physical condition (out of shape) and age (feeling really old) really hit me. I was so tired and sore, it was all I could do to finish the job and give the big guy a good brushing and a sincere thanks. Last night, I hit the sack an hour early, and was unconscious in record time. Today, my shoulders and upper back are a bit sore from the lifting of the harness, as well as the driving activity itself.
Nonetheless, we had a really good, educational time. We still clearly have a lot to learn, though. We are planning to pay for one more class in a month or so to review, improve, and learn the next steps. In addition, S was given an offer we aren’t sure we can refuse. The teamster, who is 65, has 6 horses currently, plus the rest of his farm to run. With the arrival of spring and summer, he has a lot of work to do that will involve horse power. He learned of our situation, where S will have a bit of a transient lifestyle for a while, and the teamster offered up his bunkhouse part time and experience working the horses, in exchange for some help around the farm. We have friends that S has already promised to help out in exchange for a place to stay, but I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out so everyone is happy, and everyone benefits.
Of course, if S spends much more time with these Percherons, then my dreams of owning Clydesdales may vanish into thin air if he gets his choice!!