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Drivers’ rules of the past still carry weight today

Patricia Demers / Horsetrader columnist - August 16th, 2015 - About Driving

PatriciaDemers_170pxIn the “good ol’ days,” horses, mules and donkeys were the original beasts of burden. Now, we have commercial truck freighting companies. In the past, there were big stables in towns and cities that supplied contract horses for everything from transportation to freighting.

Today’s modern truck driver and taxi driver have rules to follow, as did their predecessors on the treatment of their horses. The rules, common sense at the turn of the 20th century, were on a poster presented by the Boston Work Horse Relief Society. These rules still apply to driving and horsemanship today:

1. Start your horse at an easy walk for the first half-hour. The reason for this is to allow your horses’ muscles to warm up. Just as athletes stretch before exercise, your horse must be allowed to stretch to avoid injury before doing strenuous exercise. This also gives the driver a chance to see that everything is hooked correctly, and that the vehicle is in proper repair and condition.

2. Look to your harness- avoid these things especially: bridle too long or short, blinders pressing on the eye or flapping, throat latch too short, traces too long, collar too tight, loose or dirty, shaft girth too loose, breeching too low or tight. A properly adjusted harness is essential. The bridle should be adjusted so the horse’s eye is in the center when viewed from the front. The width of the blinders should not be so tight to the eye as to restrict forward sight. The width of the blinders can be adjusted by bending the “winker stays” that attach to the blinders at the top. There is also a small bit of adjustment at the crown piece where the winker stays attach through the buckle. The throatlatch should be adjusted tightly enough so the bridle cannot come off, if caught on the shaft or pole. However, it shouldn’t be so tight either that it restricts the horse’s wind. Two fingers held vertically between the throatlatch and throat is usually sufficient.

The noseband should be adjusted to 1-2 fingers under the chin. The height of the noseband should be at least two fingers below the cheekbone, and above the point of the nostril bone –not interfering with the bit. Collar fit can be a frustrating endeavor. The collar must lay along the slope of the equine’s shoulder. Fitting in front of the withers, and hanging to the chest with no more than a hand/ fist held flatly between the neck and the inside of the collar opening. The width of the collar must also fit the equine’s neck. It shouldn’t be pinching from top to bottom. Think of how a nice pair of shoes fits your foot, and that’s how a collar should fit the horse.

The “shaft girth” which is also referred to as an over girth or wrap strap, needs to be “taut not tight,” so that the shafts of the cart or carriage don’t swing from side to side excessively or bounce in the shaft loops. The breeching should be adjusted to the widest part of the equine’s butt. Too high of an adjustment, and it is ineffective and may ride up under the tai, too low of an adjustment, and you can knock a horse’s legs out or make the breeching ineffective to hold back the carriage from pushing past the horse.

3. Do not let your horse drive himself, but handle the reins gently. Never jerk the reins. To do that is the sure sign of a poor driver.

A good driver has a light contact with the bit at all times, with little slack, so that cues can be instant. Too loose of a rein, can make the horse lose confidence in the driver.

4. Try to deliver your load with as little backing as possible. Too much backing of a heavy load may strain the back legs. Practicing backing a vehicle is important, and can be a way of strengthening the hindquarters, however you must consider the weight of the vehicle and the resistance of the dirt to the rotation of the wheels. Too much effort can result in sore/ strained hocks, back, and stifles. Start with a light cart on a hard surface, then work up to deeper dirt and a heavier vehicle. This is where the breeching must be adjusted correctly to assist the equine in doing his job. If you don’t use breeching, it’s very difficult for the equine to move the vehicle backwards.

5. Teach your horse to go into the collar gradually. When the load is to be started, speak to the horses. Take a hold of the reins so the horses will arch their necks, get their feet under them . A good driver allows a horse to shift his center of gravity forward as it presses into the collar or breast collar.

6. Bring your horse in cool and breathing easy. After your workout, allow your horse to walk and “cool out,” thereby helping the muscles to eliminate the lactic acids that cause muscle cramping and soreness.

7. Remember that your horse is the most nervous and anxious of all creatures, and that little things annoy and irritate him. Remember he will be contented or miserable depending upon how you treat him. Horses are fight, freeze and flight animals. Give him confidence to drive the best he can. Treat your equine fairly by making sure you use clear cues. Be sure to reward him verbally when he does right.

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