Doc Hammill’s Draft Horse Workshop…

…or how to drastically challenge the limits of my comfort zone.

Cathy Greatorex and Dr. Doug Hammill drive a Forecart with a Cultivator

Two weeks ago, I attended Doc’s workshop to learn more about driving and working with my horses at home. It was an eye-opening experience and, after so much time spent in the technical world, a great way to reconnect with a more natural system of thinking. In so many ways, I had to rearrange my methods for solving a problem. I had to think much more like a horse.

Horses predominently think about two things: protecting themselves and getting along with their group (that is, when they aren’t thinking about food). By keying into that mindset, we can start to eliminate the confusion of communicating with another species. (At least, that’s how the theory works in my head.) Theory and practice are, in the real world, quite different. Doc’s workshop takes you from theory to practice, in a very safe learning environment. (I didn’t get a single bruise or scrape the whole time I was there, unlike working here on the farm.)

Three Fjords!

After adequate preparation, I was handed the reins on the very first day. I drove Ann, the Suffolk Punch, down the road, up the hill, and back. Then I remembered to breathe. (I should do that once in awhile…) As I got used to handling the reins over the next week, the actual breathing part got easier.

Doc and Cathy teach four workshops a year at their ranch in Eureka, Montana. Each workshop has no more than five students. This means that we had a big enough group to learn from each other, yet each of our personal questions were addressed. In the six days I spent there, we learned how to:

  • Following the side rake.
    Side Rake in the hay field.

    bring the horses in from the pasture,

  • groom the horses and care for hooves,
  • put on the harness, including fitting and adjusting it
  • hitch to carts and wagons
  • ground drive
  • skid logs (little ones, mind you)
  • rake hay
  • use a walking plow with a single horse
  • cultivate with a team

That’s a great deal of information for one week. My head is still swimming, I tell you.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve been able to change a few things to make working with the horses a bit easier. They are now coming in from the fields a bit more readily and I’m understanding their actions and motivations better. My blind quarter horse will take more work, but I now have, I believe, better ways to deal with his confusion. Because he can’t see, he’s very sensitive to both sound and touch which makes training him a delicate operation. I’m working on having him stand quietly and we’re very slowly making some progress.

Doc and Ann

I’ve gained new confidence to work with my horses (and not screw them up). I can drive a team now. (I know! It’s shocking!) I just need to learn to breathe while doing so.

Other students from Doc’s workshops have gone onto full-time farming with horses and even driving competitions. If you’ve ever considered animal-powered work, this is definitely a great way to start learning. You can find out more information at his site, Many times, during the winter, he will travel throughout the West teaching classes. Catch one near you!

Learning from a Master

Cathi with Brisk and Solven

I had a wonderful time visiting with Dr. Doug Hammill and Cathi Greatorex in Eureka. I was able to meet their fabulous horses: the Suffolk Punches, the Fjords, Misty the Clydesdale, a Welsh pony, and Cody. We then had “dissolve your spoon” coffee (my favorite) and talked about internet tools and teaching about draft horses.

One interesting aspect to younger farmers is that they are treating new technologies much as older folks treat indoor plumbing or lawn mowers, as just another tool. Since they’ve grown up with it, there just isn’t a technological divide in their minds about how to use it. So, when they want to find out about a subject, what’s the first thing they do? They look it up online. Periodicals, which have been the traditional way to advertise farming services, are not the first resource for younger farmers although they do read them for a deeper understanding of things. To pass on the type of skills Doc Hammill has about draft horses to a new generation, an online presence is almost mandatory. Social media skills are rather important, too.

Doc with Kate and Ann

Doc driving Kate and Ann

There are several websites devoted to young farmers, including Greenhorns, Earthineer,  and the WA Young Farmers Coalition, (click on the Small Farm Resources link above for more on these). I encourage those who have years of experience to try to reach  them there. Cathi mentioned one thing keeping folks from enhancing their online presence: they simply want to be outside farming. Their passion is not sitting behind a computer screen. It’s riding behind a horse, plowing a furrow. It’s planting or harvesting. It’s not learning html. Are there any shortcuts to getting your business online? I think so, and I’ll share what I have learned in a later post.

Doc and Cathi have many great stories to tell (and if you attend one of their workshops, you’ll get to hear many of them). The best was this:  Amish kids have discovered battery-powered LED lights and have been adding them to their buggies. There’s nothing stranger than seeing a pimped-out buggy going down the road, lights a’blazing.

If you want to learn more about working with draft horses or perhaps attending one of Doc Hammill’s workshops, go to: Doc Hammill Horsemanship. He is the best trainer I’ve worked with.

Slow Food and Fast Horses

It rained and the deer repellent wore off. Last night, the horses chewed almost all the way through one of the 10″ posts. Today, the Sister fenced each individual post in wire, connected to the electric fencing. If that doesn’t keep them from destroying the paddock, I’m not sure what will.

Seriously, the horses need a job. You know how destructive teenagers can get when they are bored, especially when they top out at a ton apiece.

Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the local chapter of Slow Food. In some ways, I’m not really sure how to write about it. It only lasted for 1 1/2 hours but it felt like much more, there were so many ideas zinging around the place. The plans are ambitious but, with the number of motivated individuals involved, I think most will come to fruition. Stay tuned here for more details as things happen.

It’s snowing right now. This means that we’re all stuck on the farm. Some of us are working from home, but we’re all here. So, what’s the best way to entertain ourselves while snowbound? You guessed it; we muck out the horse stalls.

Now, there’s something quite philosophical about shoveling the daily contributions to the farm’s future, fully-composted fertilizer. Somewhere between the motion of sweeping and the organizing of neat little piles, I start thinking of the bigger cycles surrounding us. Tonight, I could hear a large flock of snowgeese on the way to their overnight grounds, a number of nocturnal birds kicking up a fuss, and the munching of big horses chewing hay. Everyone’s being fed and settling down for the night, the blanket of snow tucking everything in for a long nap.

It’s this routine that starts freeing your mind to ponder bigger things. When I’m alone, I contemplate the ebbs and tides of my life. I consider how my decisions have created my current existance and yet how new opportunities have completely changed the direction I’ve taken. Who could have known that only a few years ago, I thought I would never be able to live on a farm, play with horses, or grow my own food? Yet, here I am, and grateful to be so.

When there are more than one of us, we start chatting about plans for the farm, what we are going to plant in the spring, what buildings we want to improve, what cool wildlife we’ve seen hanging around. The snow starts falling harder. Then someone makes a crack about “frosted road apples” and how that’s NOT a breakfast cereal. We start giggling. I mention something about “poopsicles” and we all start laughing till we can’t breathe.

The horses, up to their eyeballs in hay, pay us no attention.