When I drive to Fergus Falls, I scan the huge wheat, soybean and cornfields and marvel at the large farm machinery that does the work in our modern times. Old farm boys like me remember a different time, when workhorses did the heavy pulling. In 1918 there were 26.7 million workhorses in America. We had a pair of broncos, Bill and Roanie, on our little farm up by Fosston. They came from South Dakota and were considerably smaller than a Belgian or Clydesdale, but they had a lot of grit and pulling power.
I remember my older brother Leonard teaching me how to handle a walking plow when I was 8 years old. He tied the end of the lines in a knot and looped them around my back. That freed up my hands to grip the handles of the plow. I was doing OK until the plow hit a big rock. The handles were ripped from my hands, and the plow flipped forward, spooking the horses. They took off, dragging behind them the overturned plow and little Ozzie by the lines. Good thing my brother was there to stop the horses.
Bill and Roanie were our most valuable possessions. They did the work of tilling the land, plowing, cultivating, pulling the seed drill, the heavy binder, the bundle wagon that carried the shocked grain to the threshing machine, and finally the grain wagon that carried the wheat, oats, or barley from the thresher to the granary. When we sold the grain, we had money to put food on the table and buy other necessities. Before we bought our first tractor, none of that would have been possible without the help of our two broncos.
Bill, the gelding, was easier to handle than Roanie, the mare. So when Leonard sent me out in the pasture to bring the horses up to the barn, I would take a halter and a pan of oats to get Bill’s attention. I held the halter behind my back, because if they saw it, they would think, “Oh, oh! The kid is gonna lead us back to the barn and that means hitching up and pulling the hay mower or binder.” Yes, horses are really smart.
It’s important to remember that horses are “prey animals” not predators. They are not the hunters; they are the hunted. What does that mean? They are fearful of danger. They are easily startled by loud noises or movement in the shadows that might be a grey wolf or a pack of hungry coyotes. Handlers who train horses are keenly aware of that characteristic when breaking in a green horse. They must assess several factors, certain traits of individual horses, and with experience and intuition apply that information in a practical manner. Thus comes the term “horse sense.” Or as W.C. Fields once said, “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people!”
In preparing this essay, I visited my cousin Dave Kaste on his farm north of Ashby, where he keeps 40 workhorses. My first question was — how are horses like humans? Dave was quick to answers, “Horses are better than humans because I never had a horse lie to me.” Well, that got things started, and we had a wonderful visit on his front porch. Dave told me that a good handler has to develop a friendly working relationship with a horse. It is best to be gentle and kind, but also firm.
I got the feeling that physical punishment doesn’t work; however, one must show the horse that you’re in charge. Dave talked about a balky horse, one that just stops and doesn’t move. Dave said, “You can’t let him get away with that because it will become a habit. You have to talk to the horse, pet the horse and stick with it until he moves.” He told me about working with green horses. “It’s best to hitch them up with an experienced horse, because they learn by watching what a trained horse does.”
Driving home from Dave’s farm, I couldn’t help relating training horses to my experiences as a teacher and parent of three sons. Like a good handler, teachers must understand their students, their fears and insecurities. But in working with youngsters, we must also be firm. And like training horses, physical punishment does not work. It takes understanding, patience, and love.
Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.