Fully trained work horses can take years of training to get to grips with all of their equipment, different jobs and using voice commands. The jobs they do are so varied, from preparing a veg patch at home to ploughing at a demonstration in the middle of the city in front of thousands, one of which we did in Birmingham between a blow up wrestling ring and a woman demonstrating fire breathing! They need to be able to rely on you to lead them no matter how extreme the circumstances!
This is a process that we prefer to start at an early age if possible to minimise stress and make what seems abnormal to most horses seem normal to them. Our foals come into work with mum from 4 months of age. Not to actually do any work, but just to run alongside and see all the harness, hear all the noises, and enjoy bothering mum while she is focused on something else! Our mares with foals will come in once or twice a week to do some chain harrowing (which is nice and noisy) for about 10 minutes.
From 6 months old they are tied onto the side of mums harness for very short stints. This means they are stopping and starting when the voice commands are being given, something which they pick up very quickly, especially when the mare corrects them when they are not doing as they should! This also negates the need for conventional halter breaking as they get used to the feel of pressure on their head collar from mum, and are quite happy to go with her!
We are extremely mindful that breeding more foals is not necessary in today's horse market. Our best mares may have one or 2 foals in their lifetime, with one of our proven working stallions. These foals are with us for life, not least because they are usually the best horses we have. However we also bring in a small number of foals from outside (this year we bought 2 who hadn't made the grade for the breeder, and were heading to slaughter, for £40). These foals are given Auntie mares. Auntie mares are introduced to them as soon as they arrive, and they are kept away from the rest of the herd to bond together for a week or so. They then go through the same process as our own foals, learning by seeing the job! Some of our ladies, like our cob mares Opal, will even take more than one foal under their wing given the option, and spend all of their time licking or sternly disciplining them!
From a year old youngsters are introduced to a soft set of light webbing harness, and are tied on the side of working horses, to come along and see what's going on, without any weight to pull. This is done two or three times a week, for a few weeks before they are turned away again, to grow up a bit! At 3 they learn how to pull a tarpaulin in a round pen, in full work harness, and how to long line on their own, as part of a gradual progression. Usually at this stage they have seen all kinds of things going on around the farm, from escaped pigs to reaper binders and not much phases them!
At 4 they are brought into light regular work as either part of a pair, or a team. A lot of these horses come into work knowing our voice commands for stop, go, left and right. Having picked these up from being with the other horses. Those that don't are usually corrected by our the horses, with the flick of an ear, the swish of a tail, or if they really aren't paying attention with a nip! These corrections from one of their work much more quickly than human intervention, presumably because they understand it better! They also then have much less reason to fear their handler, which helps to build a stronger bond. Any older horses which come in for training are also given buddies to work with. A calm work horse can have a massive influence on a more nervous animal as they progress in their training. "If she thinks it's ok, it must be ok" is extremely helpful in reducing stress, and speeding up the process of making them comfortable with their work.
If they get on well in the workplace a select few of these horses are then broken in to work on a single line. A single line is a single rein which you hold, that splits where the saddle pad is on the harness to connect to the bit like normal reins. In the shape of a "Y". Small vibrations, or a light solid pressure which pass up the line can mean go left or right, or stop. This is extremely useful if you have equipment which requires you to use both hands to work it, and means as you adjust the equipment, you minimise accidental signals being given to your horse through the reins. This requires the horse to be very well trained to voice. Some will even work on voice alone, without the need for reins at all! Our best mare Dolly does this, which we discovered by accident, after doing a ploughing demo with her leading the team perfectly, only to realise at the end one of the other horses had rubbed off her bridle!