As I’m sure you are all aware, on the farm we have 5 Suffolk Punch horses. They vary in age from 14 to 6 and this age difference aids us in bringing on our younger horses to match the abilities of the old horses, and eventually allows them take over, when the elder ones become too old to work. To start this process off we introduce the youngest horse to the eldest horse and put them in a field together. The hope is that the older horse teaches the younger horse manners, and puts them in line.
Currently, our youngest horse, Jimbo (who is 6) is going through a rigorous winter training program to bring him up to a set standard for when we re-open for the new season. It is important that this training is done over winter for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is much safer to train a young horse when there are a limited number of people around- it minimises the risk to others and to the horse. Secondly, due to the nature of the work we wish for him to be able to complete on the farm, it is logical to train him when the work needs doing. Jobs such as ploughing, harrowing and sowing fields are the vast majority of his life as a working horse, and these jobs need to be completed during the winter months. Also, we are able to increase his fitness much quicker due to the fact we have more time to spend working with him when the site is closed.
Jimbo arrived at the farm and was then ‘broken in’; to include pulling a sledge with a load behind him. Therefore, our training with him this winter hasn’t required us to start from the beginning. Due to the fact we knew Jimbo was capable of working alone and pulling objects, the next logical step was to introduce him to another horse and get him working as a pair. Our choice was Bowler to begin with as Bowler’s enthusiasm for work would mean he would pull the load forward without aid from Jim. This would allow Jim to get used to the situation and encourage him to get on with the job.
This is a photo I took of the first time that Jim worked in a pair. Bowler is on the left of the image and Jim on the right. They are pulling the horse drawn cultivator. This was a sensible piece of machinery to begin with as it is ground based (therefore gives some resistance and allows the driver to have a way of stopping the horses) however since the land had recently been cultivated, the soil was already soft and therefore not too hard work for the unfit, green, horse. Jimbo did extremely well on this task and was praised through oral encouragement and given a small extra feed to finish off his day.
The next stage was to see how well he dealt with being driven. This task was more complicated than the cultivator as the hitch cart has no breaks. There is a certain amount of calculated risk involved in this step. You shouldn’t complete it too early as the horse may become frightened and bolt, but it isn’t wise to keep playing it safe with land based machinery otherwise the horse would never learn other tasks. Once again Jimbo was very well behaved, and Bowler made sure the hitch cart kept moving, even when Jimbo did not want to go. There were a few occasions in which he became spooked at unusual objects along the side of the track but due to the skill of the driver, with words of encouragement, and the enthusiasm of the paired horse, Jimbo became used to the task very quickly and settled down.
At this point in his training we placed Jimbo with other horses and repeated the hitch cart process. He went beautifully with Trojan (our eldest horse) and very well with Reggie (who is 8), however, being the cheeky horse that he is, he used the fact he was strapped together next to Reggie as an opportunity to give his mate the occasional nibble. Other than the nibbles, Reggie and Jimbo worked brilliantly as a pair and we have driven them around the track continuously for weeks since their first encounter.
It is important that work on the farm is completed over the winter months in order for it to be seen at its best when the site re-opens. Due to this, the fields need to be prepared and sown. We attempted to use the seed drill with just Reggie and Bowler pulling it, however, it was very hard work for both horses and staff, therefore, the following day we decided to insert Jimbo into the mix to make the going easier for the horses and allowing the work to be completed faster. This was the hardest task yet for him, as working in a triplet involves much more teamwork and turning corners is rather exciting!
Corners are difficult, even for the more experienced horses because, the horse on the inside of the turn must slow their pace down to a minimum and the horse to the far side of the turn must increase their pace to a rapid walk, or even a jog.
The ground was very sticky underfoot and we placed Jimbo on the outside (if something were to go wrong it would be easier to remove him from the other two, and it would be less claustrophobic for him). Due to the fact we were using the Smithe drill there were 3 people required to operate and control the situation. The driver, who would have ultimate control of the situation (who was experienced in training and working horses), a leader (a person who led and guided Jim around the corners and encouraged him forwards), and a person in charge of the machine (keeping the seeds topped up and making sure it didn’t clog up).
Jimbo was slow to start and inexperienced around the corners but despite the occasional spook he was an absolute star!
We were all very proud of him, and he received a large amount of praise (and the odd secret cuddle!) at the end of the day.
The next steps with Jimbo for the rest of the winter consist of repeating all tasks. This will ensure he knows his job and is happy in all situations. We are all very proud of his progress and we are hoping that by the time the open season begins we will have him thoroughly initiated into the strong workforce of horses down on the farm!
Heritage Farming Apprentice