Out West

21st Century Working Horses

080419 plowingbee 040

The future of working with draft horses in modern times is bright, according to a new book.

By William Reynolds

January 2, 2018

 080419 plowingbee 040An 8-up team plows a field near Colfax, Washington.

I have been around horses for over 50 years, and I am certainly no expert. Call me a passionate amateur. But one thing I have found over all that time is that horses thrive when they have a job. It is easy to see the changes in them when they get focused on doing something, they simply come alive—be it under saddle or in harness.

So it was fascinating reading through writer Lynn Miller’s new homage to the ways—and growth in interest—of working horses. The book, Art of Working Horses (lynnrmiller.com), is a companion volume to his earlier book, Haying with Horses. The book is made up of stories, musings and ponderings Mr. Miller has experienced over a lifetime of working around and with horses, as well as being a lifelong student of the teamster’s craft with those he has met and worked with along the way.


One could loosely say this is a how-to book, but it is more of an existential how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. The book illustrates the many ways Mr. Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years—helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals. And like any grand relationship, each is filled with nuance and subtlety. Here, patience is truly a virtue, as most trust-sensitive tasks are.

So one should not look at this book as an A-to-Z primer. Rather, it enables the reader to ride alongside Mr. Miller and feel what he felt and see what he saw, helping all of us understand the gentle yet purposeful approach needed to be successful with horses.

The book itself is arranged as a journey, and one is swept up from Chapter 1 as Mr. Miller introduces us to himself as an earnest young man filled with exuberance, a bit of arrogance and a vitality that nothing was out of his reach. We watch him grow and learn from those around him and the chapters fly by with stories of success and frustration, but always directed at building a basis of understanding.

We learn about harnesses and harnessing, about bits and biting, and of course about the nature of horses. Did you know that horses eyes have many fixed lenses around the retina? And that horses look out of the top of their eye to see close and the bottom to see far, and these lenses rotate to focus from close to mid-range? In speaking of man’s potential relationship with horses, Mr. Miller writes,

One way I choose to understand man’s relationship with horses is in terms of electrical current. Horses absorb electricity from everywhere and they give it up only when circumstance or teams connect. When I work my horses I feel an unexplainable difference in myself that I understand as hum without sound. I see the energy of the natural world coming to me through my working partners. When I truly believe in this connection, as I work, my relationship with the horses and our performance together is balanced and effective.

Ask yourself, Do I look for this kind of connection with the people I work with everyday? Do I work to achieve that level of harmony and connection with my spouse or with those important in my life? It is here, about halfway through the book that it transcends its specific subject and moves into a greater realm. It reminds one of the wonderful writer Thomas McGuane—no stranger himself to writing great horse stories—who wrote in his short story, titled simply Horses, “Those who love horses are impelled by an ever-receding vision, some enchanted transformation through which the horse and the rider become a third, much greater thing.” I am sure Mr. McGuane would agree that the same transformation, as Mr. Miller describes, is the game changer whether one is riding in the saddle or working horses in harness.

WineryaHorse power in a tight-fit, winery setting in Northern California. Photo courtesy Lynn Miller.

The book is filled with photos and artwork by Mr. Miller, as well as historic drawings and diagrams. Horses and people are discussed with equal weight, and some forward-thinking topics are also presented—such as the future of working with horses and the practicality of animal powered-agriculture in the 21st century. Mr. Miller is very positive on that subject. You’ll see that more than ever, the use of animals on small family farms fits perfectly with the kind of quality, diverse and mixed crop efforts being undertaken on these farms and being truly appreciated by the consuming public, as seen by the huge growth of local, farmers’ markets all over the country and the public’s enthusiasm for “eating local.”

This is a book for anyone who loves horses, stories about horses, and stories about horse people. This is a book written by a man consumed with horses.

Leave a Comment