I was invited to join the Bailey and Befus families on a wagon day trip to Kananaskis Country on August 1, 2015. Mother Nature was playing nice that day and we woke to blue skies and warm weather. The day started with everyone meeting at the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Turner Valley. After all, where else would you meet to enjoy a hearty breakfast prior to a wagon ride? With our bellies full, we headed down the Cowboy Trail, hung a right at Longview and made our way to the Cat Creek Day Use Area. Everyone pitched in to unload and ready the wagons and we were on our way in under an hour.
Our destination was a place Dale and Terry referred to as the Beaver Ponds. You couldn’t ask for a better day in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Sunshine, the smell of pine trees and wide open spaces as far as the eye could see made a person happy to be alive. We arrived at camp a couple hours later, un-hitched the horses and unloaded our picnic. Some of us took a walk down by the creek and others relaxed in the sunshine. We lit a campfire where Teamster and Master Chef Dale cooked our lunch of gourmet smokies. The ride home, or in this case back to the trucks, is always quicker than the ride in. The horses have the uncanny sense of knowing they are going home and they really pick up the pace. When the wagons were loaded and the horses were back in the trailer, we were all saying our goodbyes. Dale asked what I was doing on Monday, which was the August Civic holiday. I had no plans and he told me to be at his place at 10 a.m. He had field work that needed to be done, horses that needed to be exercised and I was going to learn to drive horses.
I drove home that afternoon with the biggest grin on my face and thanked God for the beautiful day, my friends, and my amazing luck. Monday couldn’t come soon enough!
I’d seen the horses harnessed often enough but doing it myself proved to be an experience. In addition to learning the names of all the parts and pieces, there was an order than needed to be followed when putting it all together. In my old life, when faced with learning a new procedure, I would sit at the table and make detailed notes which I could refer to again and again until it became second nature. The barn is a little different than the office I used to have in the Crystal Palace in downtown Calgary and on this fine August day, I was getting learn-on-the-fly procedures on harnessing the ponies. Fortunately, I’ve never been afraid to ask questions. The only stupid question is the one you are scared to ask when you don’t know the answer. Not only did I have harnessing procedures to commit to memory but there was barn protocol to follow as well. The horses are brought into the barn in a certain order. Deviate from that order and chaos will ensue. I could use the equipment but it had better go back where I found it. The horses leave the barn in a certain order. Deviate from that order and chaos will ensue. Don’t forget to close the gates…before you let the horses loose at the end of the day!
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t get it all right for a couple of weeks but practice makes perfect, right? And no horses that I forgot to halter escaped through the wide open barn door! Oops….
The thing I remember the most about the day I threw my first harness was something Dale said to me. There are many ways to do things and everyone will do it differently. But if you use our horses and our equipment, you’d better learn to do it our way and we’ll get along fine. Then he smiled. I like black or white—not that gray area in the middle. When something needs to be said, it is either this way or that way, not that fuzzy, sugar coated middle of the road statement that some people give you to avoid hurting your feelings. My training was off to a great start!
Terry had the Belgians harnessed, Dale hitched Hank and Pete and I got Shelly and Nelly hooked to a set of harrows. We headed to the small field next to the barn and worked the dirt for the afternoon. Dale took a short ride with me and gave me more instruction on the do’s and don’ts of driving. He told me to talk to the horses. Tell them my life story, talk about the weather but talk to them while driving. And remember to use my man voice when I needed them to do what I asked. I wouldn’t fully appreciate the reasoning behind his suggestion to talk to the ponies until many weeks later. I knew I had a great team to learn with and as long as I kept the harrows away from the fence posts, I’d be okay. It also helped knowing Dale and Terry were driving beside me, keeping an eye on my circles around the field. On that day, I did what he said and for the few hours we played in the dirt, Shelly and Nelly learned a lot about me, my family and about how grateful I was to be at this place in my life.
Over the next few weeks, I went driving as often as possible. I would lie in bed at night going over the steps of harnessing. I would review the steps in my head on my drive to the barn. Terry was with me the first couple of weeks when I harnessed and he helped me when I made a mistake. Soon I was feeling confident enough to harness by myself but he would always come to the barn and do a check to make sure I’d done it right. He’d help me hitch then turn me loose in the dirt and the sunshine.
Harnessing and hitching procedures eventually become second nature for most teamsters and they go through the motions easily. I’ve stood beside a teamster a time or two and have offered to help them get their horses ready. More times than not, the offer was gracefully declined as they prefer to do the harnessing themselves. Harnessing horses is not rocket science. However, not harnessing properly can be a lot like launching a rocket with a leaky seal. Miss a step, clip something backward, or catch a line under the hames and you might be headed for an explosion in which you have no control. I call it my launch procedure. First I go through the check-list mentally then I physically put on the harness and finally I double-check everything before we leave the barn. I often drive with Rhonda and it is very easy to getting chatting in the barn and I lose my concentration. Because I’m driving Shelly and Nelly, I have two horses to get ready. Rhonda always helps me hitch the girls and since I’m not that fast at harnessing, I always feel I’m running behind. Rhonda never makes me feel that way—it is a self-imposed pressure I feel. It can really throw my concentration though and it is when I’m in a hurry that I make mistakes.
However second nature the steps might become, getting complacent with the routine and not paying attention can easily be a recipe for disaster. I’ve said it many times since my first driving lesson and I remind myself often. I’m feeling confident in my abilities, but I’m far from being competent. Understanding the difference is important. Every time I drive, I learn something about horse behavior, the equipment I use or a potential risk involved in this hobby. I’ve met many teamsters in the past couple of years that easily have over 150 years of combined driving experience. No matter their years of experience, they know their personal limitations, they don’t take unnecessary risks and they never assume the most well broke horse is bullet proof. The greatest learning I have received from these folks is that taking short cuts will eventually get you into trouble. So yeah, I might be a little slow at getting harnessed but consistently doing all the steps in the right order helps ensure I make it back to the barn without any incidents.