Monday, April 20, 2009

Time to ease into work

From Theresa Burns:
This past weekend the weather was great for getting some manure hauled with the horses. Harley used his veteran team Tom and Charlie with one load on Wednesday and with two loads on Thursday.

I was there to help him on Friday. We took one load out and it is about a mile to the field and the road has a couple of hills on it. Harley asked the horses to stop on the crest of a hill on a flat spot so the horses would not need to hold the load.
They stood quietly and we could see that the respiration rates of the horses was quick and shallow. To see respiration watch in the flank area and you can see the in and out of the flank as the horse breathes. Not sure how long we stood there, but waited until the respiration rate slowed. We rested the horses again once we were in the field as we had some grades to pull up and down and we had full load of manure.

Once we got back to the barn and parked the spreader, we unhooked the horses and tied them to a post while we loaded the second load of manure. It is a tight area and thought it would be safer to not have the horses so close to the skid steer. Before we took this load out we offered the horses some water. They drank. Harley asked about them drinking water with the bit in their mouths. Horses will figure that out and it is better to offer water than to skip it.
So Saturday we went for a six mile tour with Harley's Prairie Schooner along the Raccoon River Valley. The wagon weighs about 1600 pounds with us it using the same pair. I was in charge of applying the brake on the downgrades to make it easier for the horses. Here again we would stop after the horses had climbed a hill to let them breath. I could apply the brake so parking on the level was not as critical.

Tom is the more aggressive puller of the two horses and he seemed a bit upset with some of the noises of the wagon or brake and external noises. We need to work on some of that desensitization and refer back to Walt's blog entry on January 12 about noises.

As we headed back to the farm, we had a very long grade. The question was do we let them rest half way up and will they be able to start the wagon again or do we wait until we have arrived at the top of the grade. We thought it would be safer and easier for them to continue to the top.

All the decisions that we make as we work horses depends on their attitude at that time and if they are acting normally and not over tired or stressed. The more you drive horses the more you know them. With ay to day work you get a good sense of what that horse can handle, because of how he handled previous work. But if you have not done the day to day progress then you should be more conservative. I would rather say at the end of the day that the horses did their work well than have to say I have pushed them too hard today.

For me each outing with the horses is an experience to learn from as you are always making decisions and always need to be paying attention and driving the horses. Driving in that you have rein contact and they know you are the leader. It is your responsibility to be aware of their physical and mental boundaries for that day and to build on those and improve.

It was a beautiful tour to see the trees and the forest floor and to see the river valley. Once we arrived back at the barn and unharnessed, we loaded both of the horses in the trailer and fed them hay. They need to get accustomed to the new trailer and the loading and unloading process. You can do that in small steps weeks before you want to haul them which will make the trailering a good experience for them.
What always assures me that the horses took the day okay is the fact that they are hungry and ate the hay aggressively at the barn. The more you work with them the more you know what is normal and what is not normal.

With the way Tom was acting on Saturday, Harley thought it would be a good idea to drive on Sunday also. We took a shorter ride that was less challenging. Tom seemed more settled and it was more relaxing for him. Harley and I talked about our weekend and the good points and the things we want to work on with the horses. We are looking forward to our future days with the team whether it is a tour with the wagon or some type of field work.

Monday, April 6, 2009

One horse in the team is too hot

From Zoe Bradbury
Hi Doc,

I'm in need of some advice about my gelding, Barney.

As you know, I grow a few acres of mixed vegetables and berries in Southwestern Oregon. This is my second season in business, and my second year of owning my team. Last year I used the horses mainly for discing, harrowing and rolling cover crops. I didn't use them much on precision tasks like cultivation, but am hoping to do more of that this year as my skills improve and my relationship with my team deepens. I had a great first summer of working the horses - very quiet, smooth and steady. I felt like I had found my dream team (thanks to you!).

In the last few weeks as spring has unfolded, I've been harnessing up my team (Barney & Maude) a few times a week in order to start getting them in shape for the farm season. The first day I had them hitched, I ground drove and then hitched up to the forecart. We drove for a couple of hours and all was well. The second day we pulled a pasture harrow around the farm roads. Maude was as steady as could be, but I noticed that Barney was a little hot. He tended to want to break into a trot on the turns, and when we passed over a patch of gravel in the field that made the pasture harrow clatter, he jumped and actually kicked his hind legs up and to the outside of the traces.

He was responding to pressure-release driving technique, but was definitely keeping me on my toes. I checked his harness and bridle multiple times to make sure nothing was making him uncomfortable, and as far as I could tell, things were normal. No rub or pinch spots that I could find, though I've since determined that his collar is too big, which means the line of draft might be a little low on his shoulders. Nonetheless, he hasn't demonstrated any soreness on his shoulders in the past few weeks. I use a 7" snaffle bit on him, which he seemed to respond well to last summer.

The third day we hitched to a disc to work in some rye/vetch cover crop. All was well for the first hour, but then, as you know, I had a run-away with them - which fortunately ended with no one getting hurt. That's a whole story unto itself, but even after replaying and analyzing the experience with you and other teamsters, I realize I am still a bit shaken up by it.

I had some trepidation when I went to hitch them after the run-away, so I took it slow with harnessing, then ground driving, then hitching to the forecart. Again, it was a pretty smooth day with no signs of fear or concern from the horses. Barney was trying his trot maneuver on the turns again as I drove the farm roads around my fields, and definitely trying to move faster than Maude in general. Pressure release helped, but not enough to get him working as quietly as Maude.

Since then, I've been experimenting with hitching to a new straddle row cultivator I have, and even doing some single line cultivation of my asparagus. I very quickly learned that the Danish S Tine sweeps I have on the cultivator were digging too deep and making it a really hard pull for the horses. In response, they would try to power into the pull and move too quickly. Again, Barney was hot and Maude was mellow - but I was willing to attribute at least part of his behavior to the tough pull. Also, the farm roads are lush with grass right now, which I imagine might be a bit of a torment to a horse who's been eating hay in the barn all winter.

I adjusted the depth of the cultivator and tried again the next day. It was better, but Barney was highly sensitive to my start command, and even with my best efforts to start them evenly, he would try to step out ahead of Maude and set a pace that was faster than I wanted. Again, he was also trying to trot when I turned them (particularly when he was on the outside of the turn). I would cultivate a row, and then do a lap around the field, practicing starts and stops, letting them settle, etc. They responded beautifully to a whoa and my stop command, but still Barney wanted to bounce into a trot from time to time.

It was frustrating b/c when he would begin bouncing or trotting, I was using every technique I've learned from you: pressure release (including, long firm see saw strokes, double pre-whoa pressure pumps (you know when you go "easy (pump with both hands), easy (pump with both hands), whoa"), making them stand, moving their heads side to side with my line pressure, etc. And, I drove them for hours, until dark (a very Doc Hammill-like thing to do!). But while I was in the field, I just couldn't get him to quiet down to the place that I wanted him, and to the place where he was last summer.

At the end of our session that night (last friday), I decided to drive them home along the paved county road instead of through the field. Amazing thing: he was a quiet as could be. His head dropped, his energy went down, no attempts to trot, even when I turned them both directions. It got me wondering if somehow the field environment revs him up. Is it because it's spring? Is it because of all the green grass? Is he associating being in the field with the run-away? Do you think he might just mellow out as summer comes on and he's worked out his pent-up winter energy?

Some other observations I've made and things you should know:
  • It didn't matter which direction we were headed (towards the barn or away) when driving in the field - he still would try his trot routine on me from time to time.
  • Certain spots in the field seemed more loaded energetically for him. None of them are where we had the run-away, but they do seem consistent - like he tries to break into a trot in the same place frequently.
  • It didn't matter whether I had weight on his collar or not - he was the same whether pulling the cultivator or ground driving around the field.
  • Barney is the dominant horse. That said, I do my best to make every moment a training moment with them and assert my own dominance daily. He has very good ground manners.
  • One thing I've noticed when he tries to break into a trot: he tucks his head even tighter to his chest and lets out a little stifled squeal/snort. Sometimes he even tries to kick his heels up a little (not a buck - more like a little heel kick, sometimes to the side....he's on the right, so he sends his back end out towards the right, away from the tongue).
  • When I was driving laps around the field, I would vary my pressure so as not to have them harden up on me. If Barney was trying to trot, I would use long, firm see saw strokes. When he quieted down I would reward him with less pressure and quieter, gentler strokes.
When I fed them today (Sunday) I noticed that he had little dry skin tags at either corner of his mouth (not scabs or sores), but just flakes of skin that came off - maybe from all the bit rubbing on Friday? It didn't look sore or raw, but it concerned me. I don't want to have to put that kind of pressure on him, and it also wears me out! Farming is tiring enough as it is!

I don't know what to do to break through this behavior in a gentle effective way and would love your insight. I plan to get a smaller collar for him, and maybe try a fat, smooth bar bit on him instead of the snaffle. Someone suggested I should put him on a heavy load and just let him burn it off, but I am hesitant to work him too hard when he's still soft from winter.

Would driving him single help? Round pen work (I don't have a round pen, but maybe could improvise with portable fencing)? More of the same? I'll admit that I am reluctant & afraid to put him on something like a disc or plow right now - after my run-away experience, and given his energy of late. The tough thing is that I've got LOTS of that kind of work on the farm right now. I want to do it with the horses, but I want to do it safely. I don't know what Barney is trying to tell me, and until I understand it better, I'm stuck with the stinky loud tractor to get the jobs done.

I'm looking forward to your insight.

With much gratitude,