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    Recently I have been thinking about things I do to adjust my lines for animals that don’t match. Rebekah’s article in the newsletter about “matching” teams got me started, and I took a few photos this week.

    Horses don’t match for a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is working the big guys and the shorter animals together. I have long been a fan of working what you have; and that has included Haflingers and Percherons, as well as mules and donkeys. When working two animals of different height the lines come through the hames rings at two different points and this changes the respective length to each horse. In this case the tall animal will usually lead the shorter one.

    In the second photo you can see how a ring with a snap link lowers the line on the tall mare and now the donkey and the mare will walk up together. In this situation I try to make both hames rings the same height.

    Two more things that often will make two horses of about equal size NOT walk together are head carriage and their response to pressure on the lines. Often these two go together and compound each other. By head carriage I simply mean one horse carries their head up and chin in, while another carries their head down and low. The head carriage alone will cause the horse with it’s head up to walk in front of the other horse, by virtue of the extra lines needed to reach that low head.

    Unfortunately the head up horse is often the same horse that is pushing on the lines and needing more pressure to keep it in its place. This also puts that horse in front of the other. The third photo shows how a “drop ring” can be used for two animals of similar size but totally different head carriage and line feel. Again, This will help them walk up beside each other and work together.

    Before I go too far, I should say that it is possible (and desirable) train all your animals to give you the exact same response to the line pressure you prefer to work with. This should be our first goal of training truly matched teams. However you can see from the photo that these ideals are not always what we find in our barn each day!

    Working with what you have, and making them work together is how they will get better. Using these rings and snaps makes it easy for me to make small adjustments that set my animals together and straight a head.

    Yesterday I was plowing with three mares on a walking plow. Today I switched to two mares and a mule. For the first furrow things were a little off. I had a slower furrow horse today and I tried to lengthen her check to get her up were she needed to be. Better, but still not quiet right. Polly, the mare in the center is pushy and up on the bit. Hooked between the mare and the mule, she had a low hames ring coming from the mule. This inch or two of slack allowed her to turn her head and drift a little into the furrow horse. Connie would not move up well under this condition. I then lowered the ring on Connies side to match the low ring on the mule and polly straightened right out. Connie moved up and started working like a furrow horse. Unfortunately with three on a walking plow they can plow much further than I can, otherwise it was totally satisfying plowing.

    The picture of three abreast is of the three I plowed with today but the picture was posed a week ago just to show how I use the short check lines to hook three or four animals with regular team lines. If you look at the photo closely you will see how the line from the Suffolk’s hames is much higher than the one form the mule. This is what I adjusted to make them walk straight and plow well.

    One last thing before I go. A couple weeks ago I mentioned rings on my lines that prevent them from coming through the hames ring. The first picture is of one of those lines with a ring.

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    Brad Johnson

    I have one horse in my team, a Suffolk gelding, that is just a headstrong worker. No matter who he is paired with, he always works a bit harder and requires a bit more guidance from me through the lines and my voice commands. His partner is a great puller, but is softer on the bit most times. I have found that using levered bits, with the gelding’s lines set down off the bit ring and his partner’s lines on the ring, allows me to use similar line tension on them both. I am not sure if this is the smartest way to keep their heads together, but it seems to be working. Bob is very compliant, but he does like to take the lead when they pull a load. Other thoughts?


    Carl Russell

    Thanks Donn, this is another great thread, as was Bekah’s article.

    I have felt for years that one of the biggest detriments of the modern age is the misconception that mechanical perfection is the standard we are working toward, and that somewhere there is “The perfect team” that will require that we merely pick up the lines and direct them.

    In a way I am slightly redirecting, but the way you describe changing line set-ups is a very valuable lesson for teamsters to understand. Even with a team you work every day there can be adjustments.

    A few years ago Erika and I digitized a document authored by Les Barden about lines…. I’ll find it and post it….. In which he mentions that adjustment is a continuing component of driving.

    Brad also points out an interesting component of matching… The dynamic between horses. Sometimes the horses can react to each other in ways that complicate the teamsters otherwise excellent guidance. On my other recent thread I mention that I have been working a team for about 6 years together, with great results by the way, but the dynamic between them caused similar behavior to what Brad described.

    My mare is so responsive, powerful, and confident that she intimidated my gelding. I started using lever bits too, to provide variable line pressure. This worked great, but it never completely addressed the interaction between the two. That I had to work on through cadence, and improving my individual leadership of each horse.

    Recently I brought another horse into the mix. Because she is bay, I wanted to have matched team (?) so I hooked with the gelding for tedding and rake hay. It was really interesting to see how these two horses began to accommodate each other very well. It gave me some good insight into the gelding’s previous behavior with the blind mare, and spurred me to try working the blind mare single.

    As a single she had always been very responsive, but as she began to lose sight I started using the gelding for single work. While I never leave much decision making up to the horses, I had sort of bought into the comments made by so many other folks about how she must take cues from the other horse when working, so I had just kept working her in the team only.

    Well, the facts turn out to be different. She is a nearly flawless horse, even blind, when working single. Which really has helped me to see more clearly the challenges that she had with the other horse.

    So all of that brings me back to matching a team has something to do with mechanical adjustments, but it also has a lot to do with how a teamster addresses the team. By working two singles together I was able to overcome a serious communication barrier that existed between the sighted gelding and blind mare.

    In your operation where you are mixing and matching all of the time, you must have a good appreciation for that, but many folks buy two animals and work with them for a long time. My point is that while two horses may click well enough to seem to work as one, we should not fall into that expectation. Rather we should work to keep communication open to each individual.

    By he way, years ago I saw a picture circa 1920 showing a fellow spreading manure with a Morgan horse and a Jersy bull hooked into the traces……




    Hi Brad and Carl, I meant to mention using bit adjustments also accomplishes some of the same adjustment to the different attitudes of our “un” matched teams. I use “biting down” often with the black mare in the middle. She plowed great for two days; a little up, but definitely keeping everyone motivated. I drove her with out biting her down. I have been plowing almost a mile from home. Each time I unhooked to walk home I had to bit her down, as I will be danged if she is going to tow me all the way home. Brad, you might want to look at the head carriage while pulling and see if there is a big difference between the two – Just curious.

    Carl, in the original post I mentioned the possibility of training them to work better, but you are right that this is an ongoing process. I all ways think of it in terms of calm, relaxed and alert. How will my actions; first with my hands and head, maybe with lines or bit adjustments, build, develop, and maintain this state?

    Another way of saying this is the example of pointing out to a new teamster that one horse is in front of the other. My response to this is a little more subtle than might be expected. First of all, as a teamster are you aware of one horse in front of the other? By a lot or a little? Is it because of where we are sitting or walking? Do you see how this will effect that? What is the attitude that accompanies the horses in front / behind? Now, what skill with the hands can effect one horses desire to work in front of the other? Finally, this is just one measure of how well my team is working; is it worth upsetting two calm and relaxed animals by focusing on this too the much?

    One thing folks often say about these “forward” horses, is that they do more than their share of the work. Some folks say they “want” to do it all. Others say the other horse is shirking. While I have seen one or two shirks, most of the time I don’t believe this is what is going on at all. They are just working were they feel comfortable with the bit pressure. Also as Carl points out; were they feel comfortable with the other horse and person leader. Finding a comfortable way to move them up will often change the whole dynamic of the team. I like these little clips with rings as I can easily move them up down, or use them to lengthen a check strap.



    Bekah brought up a good point. What is a matched team? size? breed? task? I really like the best horses for the task at hand, the big greys on the log arch, the black mares on the mower, the big black mare with the little grey mare on the cultivator, the two big grey geldings that look and go alike at the Fair’s farm horse show. For me it really depends on the task, I certainly don’t want mechanical perfection, I just want us to do a job well and in a manner that we can all find comfortable. Comfort in doing a job can lead to a job well done, or at least an honest attempt when the forward horse is not distracting the rest of us.

    I played around some this summer with different horses (6 to choose from) to get the right team matched to the right tasks. We have 3 mares and 3 geldings. Usually we plow with 3 on a sulky plow, Sam will take the geldings because one is the “forward” type above that kind of takes over the entire hitch whether he is with one other horse or seven. I generally take the 3 mares, they are more easy going and my hands will last until we are all tired and ready to quit for the day. One day I suggested that Sam give me the slow gelding and I would trade him the fast mare. I used one gelding and 2 mares for the nicest most enjoyable evening plowing, no one was in a rush, light on the lines, everyone eased into the load and stopped for rocks (though they all do that), and that combo had never been used on the farm before. Their attitudes matched each other and the work at hand and they were calm and comfortable and so was I. Below is a photo of our calm, relaxed and comfortable team and the work that we accomplished.

    Carl, I found the Les Barden literature about reins, so I am attaching it here 🙂

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    wild millers

    Neat photo that Chuck recently found in a book titled “Recollections of a salt marsh farmer” by John D. Fogg

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    Erika and Carl, Thanks for saving the Les Barden Doc. At first glance it seems simple, Just a few words. But look a little deeper and there is a challenge their for all of us. Partly it is about how we are trained as teamsters, partly it is about how we train our animals, and finally it is about a high standard that says we respect our selves and our animals enough to expect excellence.

    I wasn’t taught some of these methods, and some I have picked up over time as I saw how they effected communication, some I have never picked up. fortunately for me, I am still curious enough as a teamster to continue to learn.

    The limited words give a sharp image of a horseman, and a team that are at once relaxed and precise.



    I’ve been working through an issue with two mules. One is exceptionally forward, the other exceptionally pokey. The forward mule seems to be doing well now, after hooking her with some aged belgian horses for some plowing, etc., this spring. She still steps into the collar like she’s going to haul a train sometimes, but she’s definitely making progress. The pokey mule, however, I have pretty much been ignoring, at least as far as work is concerned. I’ve still been leading her, grooming her, etc., and she is a real calm, nice mule. But, when hooked she drags behind so much that it is a hazard. I’d wanted to hook her in a three abreast and a four-up, but it just wasn’t working with her hesitation.
    I’m going to try taking her out on the forecart and use the whip to tickle her along and see if it carries over to real work.
    I’m considering trying out “flagging” as Buck Brannaman describes it, where you ride the horse around other horses with a flag that you move the other horses away with, in an attempt to help build confidence in the horse (mule), because she is very passive in the herd.
    Anyway, I’m hoping to hear back from all you experienced teamsters that she’s not permanently pokey and here’s how I might proceed…

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