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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

It was burdensome
training the beasts

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Here is an interesting thought.

For every mule, horse, oxen, steer or jackass used as a work animal down through history - and there were probably millions - someone had to train or break the animal to work.

Those animals raised on a farmstead were somewhat gentle, but those raised on the range or captured from the wild were more like wild animals.

Few journals or historical interviews record this particular phase of the Old West. Here and there, tidbits explain how the beasts of burden were trained.

The early Spanish trained rookie jackasses and mules by catching and installing heavy halters and lead ropes, then tying them to big logs.

They could drag the logs, but not far. They quickly became used to being tied, and to humans bringing them hay, grain and water.

A second process saw a personal rawhide pack saddle called an aparejo soaked, cut and fitted to the mule's size and back contours, then stuffed between the layers of leather with prairie grasses for padding.

The mule wore the wet pack saddle until it dried, then he was loaded, placed between two mule veterans, his lead rope tied to the mule's tail in front with the following mule's lead rope tied to his tail.

At times, there were rodeos, but a few long, hot days quickly converted him into a veteran.

Pairs of oxen or steers were matched up as yearlings, necked together with a rope swivel and allowed to graze the range until reaching the proper size for work.

They were always worked together, unless one died or was injured.

Both were rested until the mate was able to work again. Many refused to work without their mates and grieved for months when a mate died.

Rookie draft horses and mules were also tied to logs until gentled somewhat, and, after being harnessed, learned to pull heavy poles or logs around a large corral. When judged ready for work, they were hitched to a wagon in tandem with an older, experienced animal until they settled down.

It required months of work, proper conditioning and attitude adjustment before a draft animal became a top recruit to be trusted.

One journal, written by a teamster driving tandem freight wagons pulled by six-horse teams, mentioned briefly how he trained new horses and mules to pull. Once the rookie was gentle enough to be harnessed and handled, he was tied behind the rear wagon with a stout rope, then harnessed to pull a log or pole behind as the wagon moved along.

He quickly learned to keep up or be dragged, and that it was easier to pull the log as he kept up.

After a day or two of this regimen, he was ready to be introduced to the main teams. A six-horse group was led by a pair of leaders, followed by the second team and trailed by a pair of wheelers next to the wagon who were often the largest size of the teams.

New team members were started in the middle teams until they indicated their worth.

If they tried to push forward, a leader would kick him. If he hung back, the wheeler behind would nip his rump.

All the while he was learning, he was urged along by the driver's whip or pummeled with stones from the driver's bag.

Could this be the first example of home-schooling?

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
February 9, 2010 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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