January 13, 2016 by The Dog Rules
This post was inspired by Fletchwolf’s Learning to Drive
My uncle John had/raised/showed Shire horses because he liked them. I don’t recall him ever making them actually work except at haying time. Shires are HUGE draft horses reportedly descended from the “Great Horse of the Middle Ages” and perhaps later crossed with Friesian Horses. These largest of equines were in high demand as War Horses during the Early and High Middle Ages because their size enabled them to carry a knight in armour. They are also quite gentle giants. One of my memories of them is that nothing excited them more that the pit-a-pat of pouring oats.
(I found this photo online to show the relative size of a Shire to a person. They are supposedly the largest draft horse.)
I was nearly six. A sturdy kid who delighted in being on the farm. It was haying time. This is a very weather dependent activity. Everyone on the farm capable of working was expected to jump in and help. Family members who had moved away from the farm often showed up to lend a hand too. It could be simple things like kids running lemonade jugs and cups to the workers out in the field. The women cooked up a storm to feed everyone. Everyone worked until the sun went down in order to get all the hay baled, into the barn and safe from the rain.
This particular year Uncle John decided I was big enough to be useful (read that as actually work like my older cousins) and attempted to teach me how to drive the little tractor so that I could help out by ferrying wagons, both empty and loaded, between the barn and the field where they were baling.
It was a wonderful theory. Uncle John drove the tractor out into an open space and waved me over to learn how to drive it. There was no way I could sit on the seat and even begin to manage the clutch. I had to stand on it with both feet to depress the pedal far enough to disengage it. The next trick was to try to gradually step off the clutch so that the tractor didn’t stall. Try as I might that darn clutch wouldn’t cooperate. I would try to shift my weight slowly off to the side and at some random point that pedal would launch me into the air like a spring and the tractor would stall. I lost count of how many times I tried. Clearly I wasn’t quite big enough to manage the tractor.
Never the man to be deterred in a plan, Uncle John was looking over toward the horse paddock and mumbling to himself. A few minutes later Uncle John called “come hold this horse” and handed me Bess’ lead rope. She was a kind mare and poked her head down to inspect this little human that was suddenly attached to her. I petted her velvet nose and marveled at how big she was. Her hoof was the size of my mom’s biggest dinner plate. That she was standing quietly tethered to little kid didn’t occur to me as anything special. By this time Uncle John had Bert mostly harnessed. Soon Bess was also in harness and they were attached to a wagon.
Now came my crash course in driving a team. Standing on that wagon with the long reins (Uncle John called the reins “lines”) wrapped around my arms up past my elbows and looking at two of the biggest horses I had ever encountered in my life, I can tell you that I was a little worried about how I was going to get them to go where I needed them to go. To this day I can still hear my Uncle saying “You can holler, can’t you?” I nodded yes.
I was to yell gee (pronounced “jee”) to turn right and haw to turn left whilst giving the appropriate pull on the rein. To stop this magnificent team I was to yell “whoa” and pull strongly back on the lines. (I achieved this by bracing my feet on the front rack of the wagon, leaning back with my full weight on the lines and hollering WHOA! as loud as I could.) Uncle John’s horses were accustomed voice command as well as someone pulling on the reins. That’s a good thing. Alone Bess was so big that, were I holding on to her halter, she could have lifted me clear off the ground by the inconsequential raising of her head to look at something in the distance.
The last advice my Uncle gave me was to trust my horses and give them a wide path for turning the wagon so the load of hay wouldn’t topple. I was ready for my first job.
The next year I requested to drive the wagon with Bert & Bess. The tractor wasn’t nearly so interesting.
(BTW did you know that in North America the driver of draft animals sits on their left, so animals will turn right to the gee command, and left to the haw command. In England the driver stands to the right of the animals, reversing the relative directions they indicate (i.e., an English trained team of horses will “haw” to the right, while an American trained team will “haw” to the left — in both cases towards their driver.)