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Poles and drags: Prep for hitching to a horse drawn vehicle

By PATRICIA DEMERS - Horsetrader columnist - January 15th, 2015 - About Driving

PatriciaDemers_170pxSeventh in a series

In the old days, a young horse might be put in the hitch (between other more experienced horses), and basically dragged along until he learned his job. In his first week of driving, he might have been driven 40 hours or more.

In our modern world, our equines are for pleasure and rarely used for actual work. Our pleasure horses may not get worked that many hours in a matter of months! This is the reason for such slow, preparatory work. Many equine owners are not trainers and may have minimal knowledge in the discipline of their choice. To be SAFE is to have knowledge. Don’t be in a rush and skip steps. Slow and steady work is best for both equine and human to gain understanding.

Preparation.
Before you attach the cart/carriage/wagon to the horse, you must prepare him with simulated shafts. The reason for this is that shafts on a vehicle are rigid and confining, which can trigger the flight response if your horse feels ‘trapped’ and not prepared properly. PVC poles or wood poles 1-inch to 3-inches in diameter by approximately 8-10 feet (depending upon the size of the equine) are the basic tools to start with. Be cautious in using materials which are brittle with age, as you don’t want them to shatter or splinter.

Introducing poles
In the round pen or controlled area, introduce one pole at a time, and one side of the horse at a time. Let your horse see and touch the pole, then gently touch the horse’s body with the pole so it won’t see it as something to fear. Walk next to your horse while you drag the pole so he can hear and see it. Touch his body with the pole as you walk along. Your horse will then experience the vibration as well as the sound of the pole dragging along. When your horse is OK with this, then you can slip the pole into the shaft loop and tie it tight, but in a quick release knot. You want the shaft loop low so the pole end touches the horses’ shoulder. Work your horse, ground driving in one direction on the long lines in a big circle, with the pole to the inside of the circle. Just WALK at this point. When your horse is accepting, then you can reverse. Now the pole will touch your horse’s outside hind leg and travel with some light resistance, and your horse may scoot forward at the unfamiliar feeling. Just ask for a walk and keep reassuring him — don’t forget to REWARD for good behavior! When your horse can go both ways at the walk with the pole, then you can trot, and repeat. Remove the pole, and repeat on the opposite side of the horse. When you have quiet acceptance, then you can add both poles, and repeat with the WALK before trotting. Don’t forget to work the WHOA/ STAND. Take your time, and when you can do figure-eights at the trot with both poles, then it’s time to go to the next step.

Preparing your horse to pull a drag
Before you have your horse attached to a weighted “drag” you want to make sure that he’s accepting of noises behind him. (Hopefully, you’ve done your homework by preparing him by dragging some sort of noise makers like a bag of tin cans or plastic jugs, and he’s totally accepting of this.) You must have a breast collar or neck collar to pull weight at this point. Your traces will be too short to drag anything on the ground, so you must lengthen them by at least 3 feet to 4 feet. The reason for this is so your horse doesn’t step on the single tree and get scared, or get a leg over the trace. You can use hay cord, rope, chain, etc. As you ground drive your horse, have your helper gently pull against the extended traces (stay out of kicking range!). Your horse is now experiencing pushing against weight for the first time. He may stop in confusion, or may pull harder — horses will naturally push into pressure. Gently pull the traces, let your horse pull for a few steps, and then relax the tension and REPEAT until the horse understands how to pull into weight without anxiety.

When your horse is quietly accepting of noises behind him, poles, pushing against the weight on the collar, it’s time to attach the drag. It’s safe practice to have a helper when attaching the drag for the first time, and use a controlled area with fences. You’ll need a single tree of some sort about 2’-3’ wide with “hooks” to attach the extended traces to — a tire, piece of wood, or something that weighs about the same. A rope/ chain should attach to the tire to the single tree. A quick release of some sort to disconnect the tire from the single tree is advisable. Have your horse slowly lean forward into the weight of the tire, letting everything come into tension quietly. DON’T have your horse suddenly move forward causing a jerking motion, as this can frighten the equine. Just a few steps forward then WHOA, and repeat. When your equine is moving along confidently at the walk in both directions with the tire, then you can proceed to trotting.

Goals
Your goals in this part of the process are to continue working your equine in blinders and an open bridle, through each step. If he doesn’t trust when he can see the lesson, he won’t trust when he can’t see what’s happening. Work the WHOA/STAND commands. Have your equine comfortable working with the poles in both directions at both the walk and trot. Dragging a tire or some weight, with quiet confidence.

Trish

Patricia Demers is a trainer based in Lancaster, CA, who specializes in carriage driving. You can submit questions or reach her at: driving@horsetrader.com.

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