There are as many ways to train draft horses as there are trainers to do the job. Some methods work well and others don’t. Some training programs are long in duration and others are short. Some require more than one individual to administer while others can be handled by a single party. Horses are much like people in that there are individuals who will learn fast and there are those so-called “slow learners.” To compound the matter, the draft horse is often trained to perform a variety of different jobs such as the work it must do on the farm or how it can succeed as a show or hitch animal.
Regardless of its eventual station in life, the draft horse is usually taught to work in the harness, single or double, and to draw or pull a load under a variety of circumstances. As its future job dictates, its education will be furthered along those lines.
When I was growing up, the horse trainer was called the “horse breaker” and the draft animal was “broke” to drive and work single or double on all farm machinery. After a period of training, the horse was called “green broke” if it was just started and needed more work to improve its reliability. If the animal had worked a lot, on all farm machinery, and was trustworthy, it was known as “broke.” The horseman would “break” the colt to get it “broke!” I was brought up with this terminology and I continue to use it today.
During the Great Depression years and those years following, most farmers who were relying on horsepower were working mares. Their broke geldings were sold occasionally to a neighbor or to a “horse buyer” or sold at the horse sale in a local sale barn. The “horse buyer” came periodically to buy mostly geldings for out-of-state markets. The farmer kept just enough fillies to replace those mares which he had either sold or they had become unfit to work or breed. Most stud colts were castrated as yearlings but if it was possible, they were kept another year and then castrated as 2-year-olds. It was commonly believed they would be larger, stronger and “tougher” when castrated as a 2-year-old. I think this belief had some merit.
Generally speaking, these fillies, stud colts and geldings were halter broke and taught to be tied as young animals but no effort was made to break them to the harness until late in their third year of age. When the crops were harvested and the field work was done, for those farmers who had horses to break, it was time. The rule was to break them as a 3-year-old and they could do a day's work in the spring as a 4-year-old.
The idea was a sound one. The 3-year-old would work all winter about the farm, hauling hay, straw, manure and being part of a team. When hitched to a good “breaking horse,” it learned all about going through gates and stopping, thus allowing the driver to close them, swinging, backing, pulling loads and just standing.
A 3-year-old has a much longer attention span than a yearling or 2-year-old. Its bones and joints are developed so it can do some work which will be necessary to teach the animal how to respond to commands. My dad often said, “Work is what teaches a boy and a young horse good manners!” Today, I know he was 100% correct!
Many farmers, in the early 1930s, could not afford hired help. If they did not have sons or daughters old enough to help with the farm chores and work, they had to do it themselves. On most of the farms there were cows to milk, chickens, hogs, calves, sheep and horses to care for. There was a lot of work to be done everyday around the place. How did the ordinary farmer or stockman find the time to break some big 3-year-old horses? The answer lay in the system they used to train the horse.
The “Running W” as seen from the left side of the horse. When the operator pulls on the rope the front feet are brought to the bottom of the chest.
To start the program the horse is tied to a good post in a yard or corral with a board fence. Some trainers then “sack” the animal using a piece of canvas or paper bags tied to the end of a long cane fishing pole. As soon as the horse tolerates the flapping canvas, which is thrown over and around it, from both sides, and the noise made by the paper sacks which are banged against it; the animal is collared and harnessed with a britchen harness. A bridle is then put on over the halter. It can be a bridle with or without blinders but the bit used is always a straight bit or so-called "log bit."
In addition to the collar, harness and bridle, the trainer needs two pieces of bale twine, each one about 16 to 18 inches long, plus an eight-foot length of 3/8-inch braided cotton rope. The latter is also well known as “clothesline” rope.
The next step is turning the britchen harness into a bitting harness. To do so, one piece of twine is firmly tied to the left trace or heel chain in place on its hanger on the britchen so it cannot come off and fall down. Then, the right-hand tug is brought around the britchen to the left and fastened in place with the other piece of twine by tying it firmly to the britchen.
Next, one end of the six or eight-foot section of rope is passed through the left bit ring, run under the jaw and tied firmly to the bit ring on the right side. The other end of the rope is passed through the loop on the backpad billet. The end of the rope is pushed through the last link of the heel chain which is tied to the britchen (that is on the left side of the horse).
By pulling on this end of the rope, the horse’s head is then positioned around to the left, no more than one fourth of the way. When one reaches this point and has cocked the animal's head to the left, the rope is tied to the heel chain link with a bow knot so it can be released in a hurry, if need be.
Then let the animal go! It will circle round and round, then you can go about doing other work.
In about an hour, you will return to find the horse usually standing very quietly. Reverse the process. Cock the head to the right and turn him loose for another hour. As in the first instance one can leave and do some work, whatever it may be.
After about an hour, one can return and catch up the horse which will be standing quietly as it is tired of circling. The rope is removed from the bit and the left trace is returned to the hanger on the britchen. Fasten a set of single driving lines to the bit and the horse can be line-driven for just a short time. The animal must not be driven for an extended period of time.
This whole procedure has been known for many, many, years by those who trained draft horses as the “Grapevine Twist.” During the circling process, the log bit puts pressure on each corner of the mouth without damaging the tissue. The horse will generally respond very well to the bit. It will want to go straight away and stop when pressure is applied. Likewise, the animal will back a step or two when pressure is exerted evenly on the bit and the appropriate command is given. It only requires slight pressure from the bit to turn the horse left or right.
The next day revisit the horse and, at that time, decide whether to continue driving it or perhaps give it another half-hour each way with the rope on the bit and the head cocked to one side or the other.
If it is decided to line-drive the horse, the animal could be fitted with a “Running W” so it can be controlled if it decides to take off. If the horse has to be cast with the W once or twice, it very quickly learns what the command “whoa” means.
The most important command that can be given to a horse is the word “whoa” and it is imperative that the animal learn to obey it!
By using the Grapevine Twist and, in some cases, the Running W, the farmer or horseman could have a 3-year-old draft filly or gelding ready to be hitched, with a good horse, in a day or two with a minimum of time spent on the project. The best part of the program is that he could do the job alone.
I could tell you many stories about the use of the Grapevine Twist but I will just mention a couple.
My brother and I, two barefooted boys in patched overalls, used to go down to the stockyards after a carload of broncos arrived on the railroad from out west. These horses had never been touched by the hand of man and weighed from 900 to 1,000 pounds. The cowboys that came with them had about a week to break them before the sale. All of the horses got the Grapevine Twist and a generous application of the Running W. We perched on the fence and watched the show and what a show it was! By sale time, each horse was driven on a wagon, sometimes with another bronc or with a good broke horse.
At one time, my good friend, Pete Bonthuis, and his brother, Mart, broke many horses to sell at the local sale barns but especially for the one at Spirit Lake. Pete told me they broke them with the Grapevine Twist and the Running W in the pens at the sale barn where they were going to be sold. They usually had four or five days to break them. Pete told me that on the day of the sale, they would drive a pair of them together on the hitch wagon.
Pete was with me one day when I made a vet call up near Spirit Lake. We had arrived at the farm and the owner, a young man, was showing us the sick horse when his Dad came out of the house and approached Pete. “Say, I know you,” the old man said. “I bought a pair of broncos from you one time out of the Spirit Lake sale.”
“How were they?” Pete asked. “Well,” the old gentleman replied, “they drove fine and they knew what 'whoa' meant. I didn’t take the harness off them for a week because I was too scared I’d never get it back on!”
“And I remember,” his son added, “you hooked the tugs with a chicken catcher for a week ‘cause you were scared to get your head down by their hind legs.”
“Yeah”, the old man said, “they did a pile of work around here, and they were really tough!”
And there is this story: Back in the '50s Arnold Hexom was just starting his draft horse sales. There was an old semi-retired farmer, living south of Cleghorn, Iowa, who would bring a team of well-broke Belgians to his sale each year. I had heard about the man but I had never met him.
One day he called. He told me he had a horse that needed some dental work. He said that he lived alone and if he wasn’t home he would leave a note on the barn door telling me where to find him.
I went to his farm, in the afternoon, and soon discovered there was no one at home. As I was walking to the note on the barn door I heard a noise from the yard on the south side of the barn. When I investigated, I found a 2 or 3-year-old Belgian gelding under the influence of the Grapevine Twist.
The note informed me my client had gone to a nearby country filling station to play a game of cards with some of his friends. Sure enough, when I found him, he said that he was enjoying an hour or so playing cards while his horse was getting an education.
How about one more story? It involves myself and my good friend, Fred Polinder from Lynden, Washington. Fred and I taught a draft horse school in California for 15 years. Our boss and employer, for most of this time, was Merlin Carlson. Fred taught driving classes for a single cart horse, team, unicorn, four and six-up. The students had the opportunity to drive each of these hitches. In turn I taught all about the horse. The class was always held on the four days preceding Mr. Carlson’s fall sale of horses, mules and related machinery and items.
Just before the class was to convene, I received a phone call from a friend who informed me that Mr. Carlson had advertised that Fred and I would break a 2-year-old Belgian stallion at our class. I immediately talked to Fred and I asked him to bring his Running W with him when he drove down to California from Washington.
We had a very large class that year, as most of them wanted to see how we “old timers” would handle the stallion. I was teaching and Fred went out to see the horse when it arrived. I’ll never forget what he said when he came back from the pen where they had put him. He exclaimed, “Doc, I think we bit off more than we can chew!”
Right after the lunch break we all went out to work on the stallion. He was not broke to lead or tie but stood cross-tied in a large pen with two lariats around his neck. I blew in his nose to keep his attention while Fred got a collar and harness on him. Next came a halter so we could get the lariats off his neck and still tie him. Then on went the bridle with the log bit in place. I was still blowing into his nostrils!
We gave him the Grapevine Twist. First one way and then the opposite. It was time to quit the classes when we were done with the second hour so there was not enough time to drive him.
The next morning we were surprised how calm he was and we harnessed and bridled him with very little trouble. We put the Running W on him and decided to drive him. Fred put the single lines in place and it was decided Fred would ground-drive and I would hold the W line and be ready if needed. Fred drove him for about 10 minutes, occasionally making him back only a step and then stopping him. He let him stand often.
All of a sudden the horse decided to leave. As he made his jump, Fred cried “whoa” and I pulled his front legs up to his chest and down he went in the tanbark!
I released the rope and he sprang to his feet and made another lunge. Fred cried “whoa” and I pulled and down he went again. This time, after I released the rope, he rested on his knees for about three or four minutes before he got up. The stallion just stood there and, from that time on, never made another move to get away. Members of the class took turns line-driving him under Fred’s supervision, making him stand often and occasionally asking him to back a step or two.
We decided after lunch we would hitch him with another horse. We had at our disposal a wagon with a fifth wheel and brakes. Our hitch horse was an old draft mare that we selected from the sale stock.
We hitched the stallion with the running W in place, just in case! The W was never needed and was removed from the horse after the first hour of driving. The next two days, he drove and responded better to the commands than the old mare. I learned later that the stallion was castrated and went on to be a carriage horse and eventually became a police mount.
The “Grapevine Twist,” when properly used, is a great time saver. It allows you to use your time for other things while the horse is educating itself.
The use of the Running W, in training the draft horse is very controversial. It should only be used as a training aid when the animal is being worked on a soft surface such as deep snow, tanbark, wet sod or manure. Many thousands of horses and mules have been trained with the W without receiving an injury of any kind.Regardless of the training method used, the most important result of the whole procedure is that the animal learns what the word “whoa” means. “Whoa” is the very most important command you will ever give to your horse. Its life and yours, as well as that of other innocent people, may depend on the fact that your horse knows the command “whoa” means to stop–period.