As a draft animal, the horse offered the potential for the easy transportation of amounts of goods greater than could have previously been carried except by water. The difficulties of training horses to draw a vehicle must, at first, have been quite daunting. Since the horse does not naturally possess the concept of vehicles, it could be forgiven for thinking that the device attached to it is chasing it and, being a flight animal, its reaction would be to run faster in an attempt to escape.
Other strategies, like rapid changes of direction such as might be used to evade the pounce of a pursuing predator, and kicking back against the following object, would serve to make the process even more challenging and potentially dangerous. With most, if not all, horse-drawn vehicles the noise level rises as speed increases, further complicating the situation and adding to the panic. In this type of situation, the reaction of the horse is going to be one of blind-flight. Contrary to popular myth bits do not stop horses bolting, in blind flight survival itself is being defended - discomfort can be dealt with later, if you have survived!
A team of Shires
The basic nature of the horse has not changed since the earliest times and pulling any kind of conveyance is as potentially frightening to the modern horse as it was then. In fact, for a flight animal to consent to such an arrangement at all is fairly amazing, and something that should never be taken for granted. Many years ago, while living and working horses in Southwest Wales, there was a mother and daughter who were well known in the area for driving a Welsh cob in a gig. The cob was reputed to be ‘bomb-proof’, had never been known to shy or bolt, and was beautifully driven by the daughter. I did not believe then, nor do I now, that there is any such thing as a bomb-proof horse, but it would have taken a much braver man than me to have suggested to any of the locals that the cob was not, and could not be, one hundred percent reliable. One day the pair were out in the gig, the cob happily trotting down familiar country lanes when a grass snake crossed its path. Whether because such a sight was so unusual or because the cob had had a similar scare at some stage in its paddock is impossible to say, but it bolted, wrecked the gig and injured both passengers quite seriously. Later on, while working in the south of Spain, an English couple bought a small carriage in which to carry tourists about a quaint, small but busy, tourist town. The horse they purchased was a twelve-year-old draft stallion, of impeccable reputation while working in shafts in which it had had considerable experience. Such horses are not so common, and predictably the stallion had also been used to cover mares from which owners hoped to breed draft animals. It would seem reasonable that the stallion should, given its age, good behaviour and experience, have been left entire, but the decision was made to have it gelded and the operation was carried out. After what was considered a suitable period of convalescence the horse was again put between the shafts. The first trip with tourists was also the last, the horse lashing out with both hind hooves, destroying the carriage and leaving the, fortunately uninjured, tourists strewn about the road. Apparently nothing had occurred to frighten the horse and it was suggested by many that the reason for the accident was that the horse had been gelded, was aware of what had been done to it and the bond of co-operation had been broken irretrievably. No one could have said for sure what was in the horse’s mind but it must remain a possibility that somehow the events were connected.
The Cob type road horse commonly called a Roadster - typical personal transport before the advent of the car.
Such is the nature of draft work, particularly work in shafts rather than the slower, heavier work in chains, that a horse should be considered as working close to the upper limits of its tolerance. It is much more difficult to calm a horse when driving than it is while riding, and maintaining communication at all times becomes vitally important. The level of trust that the horse has for its driver needs to be very high, so that the driver’s words of comfort and reassurance are listened to and accepted. As with driving a car, the driver needs to be constantly looking ahead for potential hazards, it is too late to react when the danger is upon you and a decision is needed in what may be an entirely novel situation. Nor can a horse in shafts spin about in order to get a better look at the threat. The need to know the horse, its temperament, likes and dislikes, is also greater.
I once drove a Postier Breton in a small continental version of the American surrey. He was a brilliant little horse, built like an equine body builder, and his character was as large as his muscles. Each night we worked the tourist trade, starting at eight and going on until three or four in the morning. He handled the small, crowded streets superbly, nimbly avoiding the occasional drunk that staggered into his path. In traffic, he was calm and assured even when, on the drive home, a car or lorry overtook at high speed. It was not until the refuse lorries began working at a different time of night, so that our paths crossed, that I discovered his phobia. If one of the lorries approached, lights blazing like some titanic monster, he began to tremble, and as it drew closer so did his fear escalate until it was all I could do to keep him from bolting. We got to know the little side streets really well, and on sighting a refuse truck in the distance turned off the main route as quickly as possible. Had we worked at a different time of day I might never have discovered his fear of this one type of vehicle and, since in all other respects he was the ideal workman, I might easily have pronounced him perfect in traffic. Until the horse has been exposed to all possible conditions and events who can truly say just what its reaction will be?