Using Gee and Haw

By Bethany Caskey

Let’s start with a quick quiz. Read the following and pick out the errors:

A driver and his team are traveling down the lane with a wagon. As they near a left handed curve the driver shouts “GEE!” in a loud voice. The team picks up speed and trots around the curve.

You probably picked up on the first error immediately. A left hand turn would mean the driver should use “Haw” as the verbal signal. Secondly, a soft voice is more effective in cueing horses than a shout, which would indicate the driver’s tension or haste.

But did you know?

Traditionally and technically, the verbal “gee and haw” commands should be used only when the horse or horses are required to make a turn from a standstill? 

On the farm the driver’s hands are often needed to operate the machinery and it is necessary to rely, at times, on one line attached to the near horse and on verbal commands, to drive his team. Since the driver must rely in part at least upon spoken words to convey his directions, at least the near horse must be taught the extra signals and commands, such as “gee” and “haw.”

The working horse should be taught a few words and each should stand for a definite action. It is especially valuable when horses pass from one owner or driver to another if the standard vocabulary is taught to each horse.

There are six standard words of general use:

“Whoa” means to stop and stand still.

“Get up” means to move forward.

“Back” means to move backward.

“Steady” means to give attention to the work at hand and slow down.

“Haw” means to turn to the left.

“Gee” means to turn to the right.

For the purpose of this article, we are concentrating on the “Haw” and “Gee” commands and how to teach them to our horses.

Some call it “swinging,” or in different parts of the country, “fanning” to the left or right when asking for a turn that goes to the side without going forward. When gee and haw are used exclusively for that type of turn, it warns the horse that the only direction required of them is to the side, not forward or back.

Gee means “go right” and Haw means “go left” and many teamsters rely on the use of these verbal commands.

For example: While your team or horse is stopped and on a slack line, the left line will need the slack taken up. The horses should be thinking about moving forward and to the left. You say “Haw” in an audible tone and continue with the amount of pressure you need to swing the horses to the left with the left line and at the same time restrict any forward movement with steady pressure on the right or supporting line.

The use of the “outside” or supporting rein is one of the most important tools of the driver. When a horse is ridden, the rider puts the horse ‘on the outside rein’ using their weight, inside leg, outside leg, outside rein and possibly, a whip. When driving, although lacking many of the same aids, the driver can accomplish the same goal. If the horse is properly cued by the inside rein, the supporting rein will control speed, arc of the bend, lateral movement and more.

Any horse hitched to a vehicle or a load will move his body differently than he does when at liberty or when being ridden. A horse has to learn to keep his body straight while going around a tight corner in shafts. The horse will have to not only keep his body straight, but will have to scissor his feet laterally as he moves around the turn. The horse is most comfortable making a tight corner turn in shafts with his head and neck straight out in front of his body and letting his feet make the scissoring movements into the turn. If the horse bends his head too far around the corner, his opposite hip will push into the shafts causing the horse to stagger around the turn instead of stepping around.

The movement performed by the horse is partially what would be known in western riding as a “side pass” or a “full pass” in English riding. A true side pass (all four feet moving to the left or right with the long axis of the body remaining parallel to where it started) cannot be done when hitched but is possible in harness if the horse(s) are not hitched to anything. “Fanning” or “swinging” to one side would mean the front legs travel farther sideways than the rear legs and the long axis of the body changes.

The driver needs to handle the lines so that the horse can keep his body straight and centered in the shafts. Instead of only pulling on the inside turn line, the driver needs to know how to keep tension on the opposite or supporting line, to control the turn of the head and neck. Many times, the driver will initiate the turn with the inside line and then uses the opposing or supporting line to keep the head and neck in front of the body as the horse completes the turn. The same method works for a single horse or a team.

Teaching or training can begin long before the horse is old enough to actually be hitched and driven. Conditioning the young horse to a verbal command will aid in the performance of that command once in harness. In the horse and driver relationship, the horse’s ability to understand the request of the driver is limited by the driver’s ability to provide proper cues and the horse’s ability to physically perform the request. In developing the relationship, it helps to use as many naturally logical aids as are possible.

Here are some exercises to teach your horse the proper way to “Gee” and “Haw” regardless of their age.

Put yourself in the safer area to avoid being flattened or struck in case of problems.

From the ground, with a halter broke horse and a driving whip or stick in hand, take your horse to a good solid wall or fence. Not a barbed wire or electric fence, but a sturdy board or paneled fence, or a building wall. Using the solid object in front of the horse makes it easier for the horse to understand your requests.

Start on the left or right side, it does not matter which, but realize wherever you start you must repeat the exercise on the opposite side. Your horse should be at a right angle to and about one foot from the wall. Do not stand in front of the horse. Face the shoulder of the horse in the area that will keep you from getting run over or struck if the horse should move forward too suddenly.

Take the halter rope in your hand. The left hand if you are on the left side, the right hand if you are on the right side. Grasp the rope close to the snap, about six to eight inches from the horse’s mouth. You can also do this exercise with a snaffle bridle. Your hand should be like a fist with the thumb up. This may seem like a minor detail, but the angle here gives added strength. Your other hand will be holding your whip.

Horses are excellent at remembering patterns, so keep the same cues and systematic routine for each move you ask of the horse. Remember to say the horse’s name first. This is to wake them up and let them know you will be asking for their full attention in a moment.

Pull back on your lead just enough to rock the horse’s weight back over his hindquarters, but not so much as to have them step back. If you want to teach the cue for the right, use your left hand to move the horse’s neck and head over to his right (or your left) just a little as though asking for a turn. Don’t get confused here because your left and right will be a mirror image of the horse’s left and right sides. The right hand with the whip comes up against the left side of the horse’s barrel and acts like the supporting rein. The wall or fence keeps the horse from going forward. Your whip hand is blocking turning to the left. You have narrowed down the choices the horse can make. Speak the command “Gee” in the same tone and volume you use when driving. If the horse does not move, repeat the command and use the whip to gently tap the left side of the neck and barrel. If the horse steps over or even starts to lean in the direction you asked for, stop all pressure with both hands, relax and pet him. The harder time he has understanding what you are asking, the longer you should wait and pet before asking again. When you feel he is ready, start over from the beginning by asking for a weight shift back and then a step or two over. Keep repeating until you can ask for and receive a couple of steps sideways. Repeat the entire process on the other side. Before long, and the amount of time it takes will depend on you and the horse, when you give rein or rope pressure to the side and command “Gee” or “Haw” the horse will step sideways without the tapping of the whip. Try for more and more steps each time after a success.

Move this exercise out into an open field without the support of the wall or fence. See how well the horse does without the barriers. If you have problems, go back to the barrier.

You should have the horse understanding the basic left and right verbal commands now. You can enhance the power of your supporting rein with another exercise on the ground and in a halter. Loop your lead rope over the withers on the opposite side from where you are standing. You should stand now between the horse’s shoulder and his head facing him. Say his name and then state your command, either “Gee” or “Haw.” With light  pressure on the rope, use your whip in both hands to move the horse away from you. He should move his forequarters away while his back feet stay relatively still, as you walk the horse around his hindquarters for a quarter of a turn. If he does not move, bump his face and neck with the wand of the whip. Never strike the horse with the whip. If he steps backwards to avoid you, bring him back to the spot you started, rub him, place your body a step back toward his shoulders, and ask again.

Enhance the power of the supporting rein by driving your horse away from you for a turn on the hindquarters.

The time is right to transfer this movement and command to ground driving the horse. The tools you will need are a harness with turrets or a training surcingle, a snaffle bridle or a halter, driving lines and your whip or stick.

Start again with your horse parallel to the wall or fence. This time you are behind the horse with the driving lines run through the turrets and to the halter or bridle. Speak his name and ask for the little shift of weight backwards with the lines. Give your command to “Gee” or “Haw” then support that command by using light and steady pressure on the supporting rein to keep the horse from forward movement and initiate the turn with the opposite rein. The horse’s front and back legs should cross in a modified sidepass. If the hindquarters lag to much, tap the top of the rump with your stick or whip to motivate his rear. Be polite! You are not in a position where rudeness will benefit your health.

Transfer your position to behind the horse and give the same cues.

Practice these turns in both directions.

Enhance this exercise by practicing with a set of false shafts. The horse will get accustomed to the shafts or the traces touching his body and you will have a visual of how straight your “gee” and “haw” turns are.

A pair of homemade false shafts can help train your horse to make accurate turns before hitching to a cart or wagon.

Assuming you have continued the other basic training necessary for driving your horse and you are ready to hitch to a wagon or an object, making a left or right turn from a standstill will be easily understood. If you feel the horse or team still needs to practice, put the horse while hitched at a right angle to a wall or fence. Do not get too close and get your tongue or shafts stuck against your obstacle! Some teamsters will use their brakes if they have them to keep the horse(s) from backing instead of turning. Give your cues, make your turn and come around to practice the turn in the other direction.


In any group of teamsters or drivers you can usually create a long and sometimes heated discussion on whether or not to use verbal or vocal cues with a draft animal. Some will use a non-verbal but vocal cue, such as a cluck or a smooch, but never use any words other than “Whoa.” Opinions are varied and all have their staunch supporters. A book from Storey Publications, Draft Horses and Mules, covers the pros and cons in detail in the chapter on harnessing and driving.

Horsemen who tend to work their horses with heavy use of voice commands, such as loggers, often use verbal gee and haw commands in combination with forward motion to minimize the need to use lines.

Most of the teamsters interviewed, use the lines as well as vocal commands for their horses. It becomes a double system with less chance of misunderstanding by the horses.

Doc Hammill says: “I personally choose not to use the gee and haw commands verbally when I have forward motion as I can steer anywhere I want with the lines. Fanning can also be accomplished by communication only with the lines without the verbal commands, but I do use them for fanning because I think it makes it easier for the horses to understand what I want. When fanning I do not want forward or backward movement, just a swing to the side. The reason I choose not to use gee and haw verbally with forward motion is that I am trying to limit its meaning to only fanning to the side with no forward or backward movement. By using the verbal gee and haw commands only for this maneuver from a stop and not when I have forward motion, it seems the horses are less apt to try to go forward rather than (or in addition to) swinging to the side. This way this pair of verbal commands each only means one thing instead of two.”

Originally published in Rural Heritage, Holiday ’08

To Bit or not to Bit

By Bethany Caskey

Archeological evidence suggested animals were domesticated for work in this order: the ass, the ox, the camel, the water buffalo (and perhaps even the reindeer and elephant) before the horse. It appears that toward the end of the New Ice Age (11,500 years ago) humans began using horses in a new way. Previously, horses had been kept as we do cattle today; chiefly for milk, meat and hide. Horses were put to work. The only metal work at that time was copper and pure copper would have been too soft and ultimately too poisonous to be used as a bit.

While there is some anthropological evidence that horses were ridden before they were driven, the most substantial evidence of domestication and use of the horse as a driving animal are the Sintashta chariot burials in the southern Urals, (Russia) circa 2000 BC. Horses may have been driven even earlier. The Standard of Ur, in ancient Sumer, c. 2500 BC, shows horses or some type of onager (an Asiatic wild ass) or donkey hitched to solid wheeled carts with a yoke around their necks and a ring in their nose, in a manner similar to that of oxen.

The Numidians of North Africa were introduced to horse riding from Spain around 1000 BC. They rode horses without any headgear at all, only a strap around the neck and a light crop to apply directional cues.

Somewhere among the nomads of the steppes between the Black Sea and Mongolia, the first “bits” were made of twisted rawhide pieces and cheek pieces of stag horn. At least these were the first “bits” anyone has discovered. If made of natural fibers or hide, early examples of “bits” would have not survived the ages.

Bits flourished with the bronze age and European horsemen hardly rode horses at all. Transportation was dominated by the driving aristocracy. Most bits were of the snaffle types we know today.

In North America, the natives found the white faced intruders had discovered the secret of controlling the “magic dog” to carry them. Like the nomads of Asia, they had only stone and bone tools and they learned to control the horse with a loop around its lower jaw and a another thong passing back over the withers. The Indian “bridle” worked well for over a century and no real improvements were made to it.

The snaffle bit or variations thereof, has dominated the driving world up to the present time. Some of the modern clinicians start colts in a snaffle bit, but many more start the animals in a rope halter.

            “There is currently a fad for bitless bridles. They work – most proponents of natural horsemanship start colts in simple halters. But, bitless bridles are not the optimum way to communicate with the horse. Skillful fingers, delicately handling reins attached to a bit, are the most effective and humane means of communication between horse and rider.

Are the advocates of bitless bridles correct when they say that the bit is a cruel instrument? Unfortunately, many riders misuse the bit. Go watch a John Wayne movie if you want to see a coarse and inhumane use of the bit.

*Dr. Robert M. Miller “Natural Horsemanship Explained” page 135

Dr. Cook’s Crossunder bridle

Horsemen, and in particular, teamsters, are tradition minded. With all of the resurrected techniques of natural horsemanship flooding the horse world, why do teamsters seem the last to change?

If you do an internet search, you find the bitless bridles being used in combined driving over courses where speed and accuracy count. Why would teamsters, who tend to work slowly and methodically, not embrace the use of the bitless bridles?

For the most part, tradition plays a heavy hand. It is difficult, if not impossible to find a work harness with a bitless bridle. Most teamsters do not care for the look of a rope halter on their horses in harness and also want blinders. There are manufacturers of bitless bridles specifically for the driving horse that produce quality leather and biothane bridles that could replace the traditional bridles of a harness. Unless a bridle breaks, most teamsters would not replace it just to go bitless and most would replace the bridle with something easily available from the harness shops or a farm auction.

So why would a driver go bitless?

Historically, lightness with a horse is the mark of a truly superb horseperson. As a species, man has used force to get what they want from an animal. Using force and fighting methods, we loose rapport with the horse. Does force and intimidation work? Of course it does. It has worked throughout history. It is not the best way of getting along with a horse. The best method is to handle our horses in a way that they want to be with us and they want to do what we want.

When we begin with severe signals, and then lighten up later, we never develop the degree of lightness that we can get if the process is reversed. If instead, we give the minimum signals until we get a positive response from the horse, the horse will begin to anticipate the signal and respond to the slightest request. Horses learn extremely quickly and after three or four experiences, will feel the lightest signal and anticipate the request and move in the direction we desire. We allow the horse to do what we want with a minimum of fear on his part and a minimum of effort on our part.

An older or “problem” horse or mule is more challenging to train than an unbroken or untrained animal. The solution is to start over from the beginning as though they had never been driven. Most horses and mules that are labeled “hard mouthed” are not hard-mouthed, they are hard minded. They have stopped responding to and resist the bit because they have been handled too aggressively during their training or working life.

The natural horsemanship clinicians have made the new information available to everyone. The majority of people do not, or can not achieve lightness, and do not understand how it works. The power of the bit is used by most as a method of force. It is effective in soliciting compliance from most animals. It serves as a safety measure for use by the less skilled. In the hands of a skilled horseperson though, it can be used to achieve the ultimate in communication.

Nutural Driving Bridle

Driving without a bit is obviously not for everyone. There are many reasons to keep using bits from a safety viewpoint. Changing the headstall to a bitless model or a rope halter without some remedial training for the animals can also be hazardous. The next time you start a colt, or are thinking about sharpening up an older animal, please think about the aspect of the bitless bridle.  Know that there are handsomely made bridles available if you decide to change and at the very least, when you drive with a bit, drive as though you don’t need one. There are good reasons for the changes in horsemanship these days. There are good reasons why the methods are better than most traditional methods and the drivers that are still clinging to the old methods may someday be left behind.

Originally published in Rural Heritage, Holiday ’08