Farming Magazine - July, 2012


Working Horses: Four Corner Communications

By Vicki Schmidt

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then horses must be from Jupiter. Some days it just seems that way.

To the casual horse person, driving lines and spoken words are the two most identifiable means of communication with our driving drafts. Then there are the more subtle and, some would say, more advanced means of communication - that of body language and spirit. Using driving lines and words feels more natural to most humans, especially when just learning to drive. However, body language and spirit are more dominant methods of communication for our equine counterparts. Is it any wonder that some folks have issues with their horses?

Mastering the art of using the driving lines and a few words is an important step for beginner drivers.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

If we look to a core behavior of the horse, fight or flight, it's easy to conclude that movement is a horse's natural reaction to a stimulus. We term horses that are fully numb to stimulus as "bombproof," but in reality the only bombproof horse is a dead horse. There is something somewhere on earth that will make any particular horse move regardless of how bombproof the owner or trainer insists the horse may be. In essence, a bombproof horse is one who is fully tuned into its handler in all four methods of communication. The horse and handler know every sound, movement or message that could occur between them: with reactions that are in perfect trust and harmony.

After a few decades of training both drivers and horses, I find one of the most frustrating times for both the horse and driver is when the awareness of body language and one's spirit begins to influence the driving. Successful drivers sense this and learn to embrace the new techniques. On the opposite front, it's been my experience that many who feel they want to work with horses but really don't have what it takes drift off onto other hobbies at this point.

A concept that may help an aspiring driver at this stage is to think of the styles of communication with your horse as corners in a box. The corner of the lines is easy to discern. They are leather or synthetic straps that connect your hands to the horse's bit and communicate by controlling the horse's nose and head, and thus his body. Next there are words, which complement the use of the lines, or lack thereof, depending on the work and training level of the horse. These are the most defined and most easily identified corners of your box. The next two corners, those regarding body language and spirit, are much more abstract.

If you feel you've been working your horse well and things were going good, and then all of a sudden it seems he's not listening or paying attention to you, may I suggest that maybe your draft has started listening to your body language and spirit a bit more over your words and lines. You may be speaking to your horse with body language and spirit more than you realize, and he now knows what you're saying before your lines and words communicate it? Realize that your horse is starting to indicate he trusts you now and you can advance to the next levels of communication.

Accomplished drivers not only use lines and words to communicate with their horses, body language and spirit also play a vital role.

While obedience and safety still dictate, there comes a time with mastered horsemanship when working and driving your draft is more than just lines and words. Consider these changes a gift and a sign of maturity in your equine sensory skills. The new methods will take some getting used to, but once you accept and master them, your lines and words will actually become your secondary means of communication.

One of most disheartening moments to watch is when a horse is punished by his handler for listening as a horse is programmed to listen. As equally disheartening to watch is a handler who fails to recognize the gift a horse offers when body language and spirit begin to enter the communication process. Work to master the four corners of communication and you'll open an oasis of connections few drivers ever experience. And, more than ever, go forth and enjoy.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working draft horse farm stands the Shire stallions Sassy Supreme Prince William and New England Bomber.