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Time for first hitch is good time for a training review

10th in a Series

By Patricia Demers / Horsetrader columnist - March 19th, 2015 - About Driving

PatriciaDemers_170pxIn prior articles I’ve discussed many preliminary steps needed to prepare your equine for pulling a vehicle, cart or carriage. Before advancing to the first hitch, the driver needs to review these steps and have full confidence — in both their own and in the equine’s abilities. Your equine should have a WHOA/STAND, both verbally and with the lines, as WHOA is the single, most important word a driving equine must know! It must be confidently long-lining while walking and trotting with simulated shafts (long poles); dragging weight of some sort; be tolerant of various noises; and wearing blinders. The horse should also be comfortably wearing a bit, as it is NEVER advisable to drive an equine without a bridle and bit.

Before you start the introduction of the cart, you want to make sure that all your equipment is proper, that the harness is in a workable state of soundness and properly fit to the equine and cart; the cart is the proper size and appropriate weight for the equine. The use of a kicking strap is highly recommended for green horses. Be sure to check the nuts and bolts holding the cart together. It is advisable to start the equine driving in a two-wheeled cart.

Have an understanding of the task ahead. If you are lucky and have exposed your equine to other equines pulling carriages, this is to your advantage. However it’s not uncommon for the equine to see a cart for the first time when it’s time to hook it. (Hooking is “hitching/attaching” the vehicle to the equine).

There are many different methods to introduce the equine to the vehicle for the first time, and the driver needs to have a full understanding of the process. Familiarize yourself by reading driving books, publications, and taking lessons. Worst case scenario would be to hook your horse up for the first time, doing things incorrectly, and have it get frightened by rushing through things and having it take off with the cart and have an accident — after all of your long, preparatory work! A great number of driving accidents are caused by equipment failure, such as breakage of harness or vehicle, or by driver error, such as not being aware of a situation before it happens (or lack of personal knowledge of training, skill level, etc).

I like to have the equine follow the cart around in the arena while someone is hand-walking the equine and someone else is pulling the cart. I allow the equine to follow, touch, smell, walk beside it, then walk past it, and then walk in front of it, until the equine is comfortable with the cart. I prefer to tie the horse facing a fence or have a helper hold the horse while I bring the cart up and place the shafts along the equine’s sides. I repeat this step a number of times, as this is the initial hitching/ un-hitching process. I want the horse to stand with quiet acceptance and not move around or get anxious.

When your horse is OK with this step, then with the help of one or two other people on lead ropes attached to a halter over the bridle and the horse fully harnessed with bridle and lines, ground drive at a walk in a straight line back and forth a few times. The cart should be in the shaft loops (don’t let the shafts slip out of the loops!), but don’t attach the traces at this point. Just in case your horse gets anxious and needs to get away from the confinement of the shafts, you can remove the cart easily!

Repeat the process until the horse is walking calmly between the shafts. Then, you might want to go around the arena, being very careful to make wide corners with no sharp turns in order to keep your equine from feeling trapped when it feels the shafts on its inside shoulder and outside hip. When everything is going well, you can attach the traces, breeching and kicking strap. Your equine is now hitched and pulling. When all is going well and you feel the equine is calm and accepting with the whole process, you can get in the cart and drive.

Take your time and walk around the arena for several sessions, just practicing circles, walking, stopping/ standing, going both directions. When both the driver and equine are confident, you can then start to trot. Go SLOWLY, build confidence before you add speed! Your Horse will be feeling pressure from behind as the attached carriage follows and makes noise. This is where the “fight or flight” response is greatest. Keep things CALM and QUIET.

This process can be done over several sessions, which I strongly suggest. Please don’t be in a hurry. This is a critical time where if something goes wrong, it’s very easy to get in an accident or ruin your horse’s confidence. Be sure to remember to REWARD your equine each time it succeeds or tries each new step. The idea is to build confidence in both equine and human, not create anxiety. Your equine should be quieter at the end of the lesson than at the beginning if all goes well.
Good luck and happy driving.

Patricia Demers specializes in carriage driving – located in Lancaster, CA carpediemfarm.wordpress.com

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