Monday, March 18, 2013

Horsin' Around

Last week we had draft horse driving class down in New Paltz. It was the first hands-on class of the series, and definitely worth the hour and a half drive.

This class had several opportunities to drive team and single. There were an array of mules and a team of spotted drafts. Spotted drafts are full size, and made our haflinger team look like miniatures. After going over harnessing, this time on real-live animals, the class took turns driving the various configurations.

The mules were the class clowns, squacking and stubborn with ears big enough for animals twice their size. I liked watching them, but behind the reins I found them to be difficult. The tension on their reins is different then horses, and I felt less in control and more like I was coaxing them to move it.

But the huge team of drafts felt like a dream. It was so good to see the big beasts get a little bratty with their halters- it helped us put our team's behavior in perspective and how to handle it. But once they were settled in their equipment the team was all business. I like the eagerness of a working horse. I also like watching my 5 ft 1 inch wife grab the reins of enormous animals like she was born to do it and drive them like it was something in her blood. She's always got a natural talent, I don't know if it's because she's an athlete or what- but she just gets things in a way that most people, including myself are envious of. It's incredible. I don't have that same natural skill, but I do understand animals and like to succeed, both of which help me learn.

Driving class gave us the confidence to set a date to hitch up our team. Confidence is an amazing thing, a couple hours from the class and we felt secure enough to know that our horses could be safely harnessed and ground driven on our own farm.

So yesterday, we bit the bullet. Our fantastic neighbors were over for a visit, Cathy is very knowledgeable, having trained/owned horses for many years. She may not know a spider from a trace- but she knows horses better then we do. Wayne is just a solid person- steady and pleasant- the right kind of help when you're attempting to do something new with 900lb beasts.The tangled mess of equipment was one of our biggest hurdles, and not having a proper hitching post set up. I threw in a couple of posts quick, but of course in 10 minutes flat Nataya had it hanging out of the ground from her halter- uprooting it reaching for some fresh grass. It took a ridiculous amount of time and trail and error before we had everything on the team correctly, fiddling with the lines for most of the time. Hopefully now that it's sorted, it will take at least half the time, if not less.

So there we were, with our patient neighbors watching and lines in our hands. We unclipped the leads and gave the command to move forward. And... the team tried to split in 7 directions, back up, and walk in opposite circles. Not exactly what we had in mind. Once we had them back in a stand position, we ended up having to lash them together in the front and back (not uncommon with green teamsters and underworked horses). Still more circles, and Sunny was furiously trying to pull away from Nataya. We were about to give up, but wanted to end on a good note, where we were in control.

I took the lines again, and a deep breath. I sent them moving forward, and finally the team started moving. Soon we were walking across the pasture, around the back of the barn, and across the fencing where the sheep followed along- just as stunned as I was. I was driving our own team of horses, in a semi-reasonable fashion. Kim and I took turns with the lines- with moments of pony tantrum involving many circles, backing up and test of will power. But we did it- we drove the team and ended on a calm stand.

I feel a little like an addict. We're expecting snow today, and I have a million things to do. But what I want to do is drive in better hitching posts and work the horses. I want the lines in my hands, the smell of horseflesh and mud surrounding me. But Kim's at work, and right now it's easier with two people. Oh, and they're calling for ice and there is no firewood stacked. So I just have to wait. The team and I will be spending countless hours together over the coming months, sating the craving for more time. Luckily, in this case- the thing I most want to do is also a very important part of our jobs. And that's an amazing reality that I'm grateful for everyday, that the things I most love to do are what keep this place afloat.

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