As I write this story, autumn is here with one of its blazes of color and old Jack Frost is busy changing the once green landscape to shades of brown. It soon will be winter when the countryside will lie for a while under a blanket of snow and you, in turn, may be reading what I write here.
Back when I was growing up, in the late twenties and thirties, the colorful autumn days were spent on the farm harvesting the last of the crops. The lofts of the big barns were full of hay which had been placed there during the hot summer days. The oat crop had been harvested and stored in two places. The grain had been placed in bins in the granary and the straw was in a massive pile located somewhere on the farmer's yard.
During the late fall and early winter the fields of corn were being harvested by hand and the grain itself was stored in cribs on the farmyards. In those days most of the corn was picked by hand and thrown into a double or triple box wagon which was drawn by a team of horses or mules. The wagon load was then emptied into a corn crib for storage.
Many farmers hoped to have their corn harvest finished by Thanksgiving. When the last wagon load was in the crib it was a time for a great celebration. On most farms a special meal was prepared by the woman in charge of the kitchen, and all hands sat down to the special feast marking the end of the harvest.
As soon as the harvest was over the farmer turned his attention to many other jobs and projects which awaited him on his farm. On most farms there was wood to cut, fences to mend and machinery to fix.
In addition, there were the regular chores to do including cows to milk, barn pens to clean and bed, as well as other livestock to feed and take care of. Many farmers in our area would turn their horses out to glean the fields and hang out around the straw piles during the winter months.
A chore team was often kept-up and wintered in the barn. On many farms they were “sharp shod,” so as to have good footing when they were put to work on the ice and snow which came in the winter months ahead.
My brother and I would get excited when we had to help Dad get the bobsled down from the rafters in the granary where it had been stored since the end of the previous winter. We looked forward to riding in the sled as soon as there was enough snow to do so.
I would ride with old Dr. Roach, as often as I could, as he made his calls in the country. He was the local veterinarian having come to our town after graduating from a college in Chicago in 1902. I was born and raised on a small farm on the edge of town. The Roaches lived just two places north of our home in a large, square, two-story white house.
Our countryside was rough and hilly with plots of hardwood timber interspersed with the open fields. Country roads, in those days, were dirt and from the nature of the land, some farm buildings were set back in the fields, at a distance from the road. As a result, many farm lanes had two or more gates to open and close as one drove down them. Dr. Roach would take my brother and I along with him to open and close these gates. We appreciated just getting out to see the country, while he enjoyed the fact that we took care of the gates.
Dr. Roach was an old-time horseman. When he was on a farm where a horse was being “broke” he would always spend time talking to the trainer and checking out the project. Occasionally he would just stop at a farm and check out the progress of a horse being “broke.” As a result of my gate work I was privileged to see how the average farmer trained his horses.
My brother and I would go to the stockyards and watch the men “break” broncos for the local horse sales. We learned a lot there about handling horses, but I would say that not all of the knowledge gleaned was good for us.
In general, the horse breaking projects started on the farm in the late fall after the crops were harvested. The stock to be broke usually were 3-year-olds. Some individuals broke them as 2-year-olds but, again, most were three years of age when they underwent their training. The animal's age was important since it meant that they could go to work as a 4-year-old on all types of farm machinery in the spring.
There are many methods used to “break” a horse to the harness. I will describe the one most commonly used by farmers who were often very busy on the farm and operating alone.
First of all, the horse to be trained must be halter broke. Most horses are halter broke when they are very young–at least, under a year old. However, if the animal you are working with has not been trained to the halter, it will have to be taught to be tied up before any other attempt to train it is undertaken.
To halter break, and this is a must, use a strong nylon rope that the horse cannot break when it is tied with it. The rope should be 20 to 30 feet long. Tie a honda into one end of the rope. You now have made a lariat out of it.
Place the honda end of the rope around the chest of the horse, just over the withers and behind both front legs. Run the loose end of the rope through the honda. You now have the rope around the chest of the horse,
just behind the front legs.
Pass the running end of the rope between the front legs and up over and through the bottom of the halter. Do not pass the running end of the rope through the halter ring.
Tie the running end as low as possible to a timber, or something, in front of the horse which it cannot break when it pulls back.
When everything is ready, go to the front of the horse and startle it so that it pulls back. The rope will tighten about its chest and it will come ahead. Repeat this procedure until the animal refuses to pull backward.
If the horse will not lead, tie the end of the rope down low on a tractor or pickup and drive off slowly. As the rope tightens around the chest the animal will come ahead. By working with the horse, he will soon be leading and will be able to be tied.
Now you are ready to “sack it out.” The old time way was to tie a brown paper grocery bag to the tip of a long buggy whip. The bag makes the noise and the whip is flexible enough to not cause an injury to horse or man if the apparatus should be kicked. Work the bag all over the horse, especially the head and legs. Keep working on one side only until the animal will stand and accept the bag. When one side is done go to the other side and repeat the process until the horse will stand and the sack or bag will not bother it.
Many a farmer would drag a piece of canvas over and about the horse to acquaint it to the noise it would make as well as to the sight of a foreign object. Often a raincoat was substituted for the canvas.
The whip with the paper sack or paper feed bag attached was a wonderful tool for “sacking out.” It would be used on the horse’s legs, neck and head and was safe to operate in these areas. However, the horse must be properly tied with a stout rope around the chest, going between the front legs, over the bottom of the halter and tied down to something which it can not break when it is undergoing this procedure.
After the horse had been “sacked out” to the trainer’s satisfaction, it would be harnessed and given the “Grapevine Twist.” I explained this practice in the Winter '08-'09 issue of The Draft Horse Journal.
One should remember that many of these farmers trained and worked alone. Some had a “hired man” which they could count on for help, but most of them could only depend on what help they could secure from family members. The “Grapevine Twist” was a great aid to them, as the horse could receive training while its owner was busy with other work.
As soon as the horse was deemed ready it was usually line-driven to pull a few objects about the yard. Often a “running W” was employed at this time for safety reasons involving the trainer and student horse.
After a few days, or even hours of “line-driving,” the beginner was hitched to the family's so-called “hitch or try” horse. In this arrangement it learned to function as a teammate. There was enough work to be done around the farm in the winter, so the newly “broken-in” horse had an opportunity to be used almost everyday and was exposed to many different jobs.
A foot of snow was a big help to the farmer or trainer. The “hitch horse” and “student” were hitched to a bobsled and driven to a field where they could be used in the snow. Pulling the sled through the snow provided ground work for the student animal and it could be “tired out” quite easily.
By spring the 3-year-old was four and it was trained and ready to go to the field and put in a day's work on any piece of farm equipment.
Years ago, in the '30s and early '40s, I rode with Dr. Roach quite often to one of his clients. There were three gates to open and close on the lane that led to the farmstead. In those days this farmer did not have a tractor and the field work was done by his nine draft horses. Each year this farmer sold a pair of his drafters and bought two 3-year-old replacements which he “broke out” in the winter, as I have previously described.
Some farmers worked mares and sold off the young stock, keeping back a few 3-year-olds to replenish their working and breeding horses.
Of course, there were those on the farm who always bought their replacement horses. They never trained a horse in their lives. To buy replacements was a risky business since one might purchase a horse that was not worth its salt. Sometimes the animal could be downright dangerous to harness and work.
There were others who would take a young inexperienced animal and put it right into a big hitch and work the “tar” out of it. It just learned what it had to, so it could survive.
I know there are many ways to train a draft horse to harness, but the above procedure, just described, was the one in common use by the Depression era farmer who was awful short of a dollar and extra help.
By now you should have the answer to the title question. That is how I saw it when I was fortunate to ride along with old Dr. Roach as he made his calls back in the '30s and early '40s.