I have always liked the winter season. Late fall and winter were the seasons my brother and I looked forward to each year. It was the time of the year when we could do many things we liked to do. In addition to the normal amount of chores, which involved the livestock and poultry, we found time to run a two-mile trap line twice a day; hunt the rabbit, squirrel, pheasant and quail in season and even went along with Dad and the neighbors occasionally when they took the hounds out at night to chase and tree raccoons.
Let’s not forget the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays! We would get some days off from school and it was a time of celebration at our house plus a time of visitation with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins whom, in some cases, we had not seen in a year or better.
Just like many other families, in those days, we burned wood to heat the house and provided fuel for the cook stove which was used summer and winter to prepare the food for the family meals. There were three stoves in the house I was brought up in.
One was a heater located in the living room. It was only used in the winter when we had company and the living room was used on that special occasion.
The second heater was in the dining room. This stove always had a fire in it when the weather became cool or cold. During very cold weather spells, Dad kept the dining room stove fired all night. Since the dining room was always warm, it became the primary center for our family activities during cold weather.
The kitchen was a wonderful place for us boys. The big old kitchen stove had a stove top to cook on and an oven to roast or bake the wonderful foods that mother prepared. It also was our source of hot water; as water was heated in a reservoir located on the right end of the stove.
About three feet above the top of the cooking surface of the stove was an enclosed space which ran the length of the firebox and oven. It had two doors and was called the “warming closet.” Mother could keep her prepared foods warm in this area. Sometimes when she was not using it, she would allow us boys to put our wet gloves or mittens in there to dry them out.
There was always a fire kept in the kitchen stove, winter or summer. One can easily understand it took a lot of wood to fire these stoves in a year’s time.
My dad took us boys to the woods as soon as we were able to drag a two-man cross-cut through a log. There were no chain saws available at that time. We worked up some magnificent stands of oak, elm, hickory, butternut and ash with the two-man cross-cut saw, axes, wedges, a maul and black powder.
I believe it was at that time that I developed a lasting fondness for the good, faithful, well-broke draft team.
I remember as a little boy watching and helping Dad as he hitched on to “snake” a log out of the timber. We never said that we “skidded” a log; we said we “snaked it.” This apparently was the local term in use at that time.
Dad always borrowed a single draft or a team from the farmer who owned the land where we were working. There were no fancy horse trailers and pickups in which to transport one's own stock back and forth to the job. You borrowed the horse power needed from the farmer.
I learned at a very early age that a well-broke steady horse is ideal for work in the woods. I also learned that people will latch on to any opportunity to have their young stock worked by competent teamsters.
In our area, horsemen would begin training or “breaking” their 3-year-old stock as soon as the corn was picked, which was in the late fall. This idea and timing were excellent choices as the 3-year-olds could be broke to hitch and drive and then worked all winter on a feed wagon, manure spreader and hay racks. It sure did them good to go to the timber and “snake” out a few logs a time or two.
Late fall and winter were the right seasons for horse breaking as nothing tired an energetic 3-year-old more quickly than to be driven on a bobsled through 10 to 15 inches of snow, especially if a crust was on it. Bobsleds, narrow and wide track, were used with or without snow in training the 3-year-old draft horses.
Some readers might wonder why 3-year-old horses were “broke” at that age and not when they were “younger,” like maybe as 2-year-olds. The answer is simple in that the farmer broke them at three years and worked them all winter doing the farm chores. In the spring they were 4-year-olds and mature enough to go do a day’s work in the fields. These horses were expected to earn their board and room and not “lollygag” around the show ring.
I once knew a real old-time cowboy. He was born in 1862 and I first met him in 1960. His mind was sharp and he was still riding a horse and working in a hunting camp. I asked him about the horses that he rode in his younger days. I inquired, “When did you castrate them?”
He looked me straight in the eye and replied, “The horses were always on grass. We gathered them up and cut ‘em when they was four. We broke ‘em out when they was five and we rode the ____ out of them when they was six.” Quite different with today’s stock, don’t you think?
Dad was a pretty fair hand with a team. When we needed a horse or two to “snake” a few big logs he would always get them from the farmer. If it was a team, you could bet your last dollar that one of them, usually the left-hand horse, would be as we called them, “a winter student.” I will say that we never got a wild, nervous or mean one. The “student” was usually quiet, easy to handle and safe to be around and hitch. People seemed to appreciate their stock being worked in the woods.
Before 1941, I spent as much of my time as I could riding with Dr. F.L. Roach as he made his veterinary calls in the country. I had the most spare time during the winter months, so I got to observe a number of farmers “breaking” horses. Of course there were many farmers in those days who never raised a foal and never “broke” a horse. They bought horses when the need arose.
There are as many ways to train horses as the individuals involved and the horse being trained. One shoe does not fit all the feet involved.
I believe there are certain phases in a good training program which all the “winter students” have to master in a given order.
First of all, the horse cannot be a “halter puller.” If it has this bad habit or should it develop in the training period, this must be addressed and remedied before any more training is undertaken.
Secondly, the horse must be “sacked out.” This is a very important procedure in that the animal learns to accept the harness and the presence of people. They learn to work in a world of sights and sounds which up to now have been very foreign to them. Again there are many ways in training a horse to accept the presence of man and the surroundings into which he may be introduced. This phase of the horse's training must be undertaken before anything else is done.
During the third phase of training, the draft horse learns to be ground-driven, to stand, to back, to sidestep and to pull a small light load. It also learns three very important commands. They are: "whoa, back and giddup." These are the most important commands a horse can ever learn. Others can be added in time but the “winter student” must respond well to these three primary commands.
From phase three the horse moves into the fourth and last phase of its training. Here, it learns to draw a load, to be hitched to a vehicle and various implements, often with one or more other horses. Under the expert guidance of a good trainer, it learns to work at various jobs.
This phase of the animal’s education will probably never end. Horses are like humans in that they learn over a period of time. They do not forget, so it becomes important that they are not exposed to the wrong conditions. The word “work” is very important in this phase of the horse’s education. On the farm, there are many jobs for a horse to do in the winter. If possible, the “student” should be hitched every day and used on a variety of jobs with a teammate.
My dad often said, “Work gives a colt and a boy good sense.” There was a time when I would have disagreed, but not now–since I am older and can see the results.
The fourth phase of a horse's schooling will span its lifetime. The teacher’s methods and skill will have a lasting effect on the pupil. A good honest, well-broke horse is not turned out overnight. It is the result of hour- upon-hour of work under the sharp eye and steady hand of an understanding and patient instructor.