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

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Bethany A. Caskey

“There are no shortcuts,” Doug “Doc” Hammill proclaimed at the beginning of his four-day driving clinic at the Natural Gait outside of Harper’s Ferry in northeastern Iowa. “Or should I say, there are no good shortcuts.”

His white hat, collarless shirts, gentlemanly manner and matter of fact statements were all in keeping with a country horse doctor from another century. Some may also consider the subject matter of his clinics a by-gone and lost skill as well.

The students were for the most part older baby boomers from all over the upper Midwest who were getting into horses again or first time horse owners who at last could satisfy the desire they had for a horse. Each had personal reasons for wanting to learn to drive, from the romance of it, to rounding out their horse’s education, to fine-tuning the driving skills they already had. The horses they had brought to the clinic ranged from a two hundred pound miniature to two thousand pound Brabant crosses.

Doc was joined for this clinic by his stepfather, Tom Triplett, who had spent 30 years with the forest service packing mules into the wilderness and driving teams.

Doc credits the horses and the mules as his greatest teachers as well as other talented horsemen and women. “The way to develop your own horsemanship is: if it works, hang onto it. If not, move on. The horse will find the holes in any technique.”

Doc’s approach is non-violent and less forceful than many old “traditional” ways of training a horse or mule to drive. He believes in training the human. “It is up to us with our reasoning abilities to learn how they learn. Our horses should trust us and respect us, but allow us to be the leader.” Doc’s teaching is a way of learning to interact and communicate with another intelligent being and not a list of rules. Our relationship with our horse is the greatest insurance of our safety. Intimidation works only as long as our intimidation is greater than the horse’s fear of other things.

Communication is much different in a driving situation than in a riding situation. We have only two ways to communicate – our voice and our line contact. We give up our body contact with the horse when we drive. There are no leg aids and no weight shifts. Instead we need to use our voice effectively with volume, speed, tone, rhythm and inflection to communicate our desires. Doc also recommends the use of a “stick” or wand to reassure and caress the horse. We also need to learn effective communication through the lines, and Doc teaches a rhythm method of driving using pressure release alternating left and right. A mechanical “team” was on hand for the students to practice this technique before they moved on to a real team. They also took turns driving each other around so each could feel not only what the driver feels, but the communication – or lack of it – that is transmitted through the lines.

It was not until the afternoon that the student’s horses added to the teaching. One mule came into the arena, brayed and pawed, digging a hole in the sand. When her owner corrected her, she replaced the pawing behavior with a yawing movement of her lower jaw until she could return to digging a ditch in the sand. The owner took her for a walk, but once she returned to be tied, the mule returned to her displaced behavior. Tom Triplet came over and commented on the excellent quality of the bray in the mule and laid his hand on her. He rubbed and stroked her roached neck and withers. Within moments the molly sighed, cocked her rear leg, lowered her head and relaxed.

Proper harness fitting was next on the agenda. Correct collar fitting was described and demonstrated. The ratios of hames to collar length, the proper positioning of snaps and pole straps, sweeneys and the problems of collars that are too long or too short were all discussed. Each horse that had harness was harnessed and the harness adjusted to fit. Each one had a place or an adjustment where the students could learn from the many examples.

Should we use blinders or not? “Let the horse decide.” Doc advised. “All horses should be desensitized enough to allow for not having blinders.” He recommends training both ways and then make an educated choice.

Several carts and wagons were on hand. Aspects of tongue and shaft weight were discussed and analyzed. Pointers were given on the things to look for in a vehicle and the things to avoid.

All parts of the clinic were hands on for the participants. Steady, well-trained teams were present so students could experience actually driving a horse or team if their horse was not yet ready to drive on a vehicle.

Build a foundation! We now have the tools, the techniques and the time to build our relationship with our horses correctly. When you get a horse, trained or not, start from scratch and build. This is your relationship with this particular animal. It is never too late for a new beginning.

Doc Hammill

As the needs, problems and interests developed, one on one instruction began, some with Doc and some with the capable co-instructors he had on hand to assist. Theresa Burns gave several students their first experience in driving and Steve Wood’s easy and straightforward help put both new and experienced students at ease. Groups and singles spurred off into different areas of the facilities to work on what they needed or wanted to learn. Some of the student horses had their first drive by the end of the clinic; some just got introduced to the concept while their owners gained knowledge to continue on after the clinic. Each time, the horse decided the pace of the lesson.

Doc Hammill was born in Iowa in 1944. He was born with a passion for driving and was always more excited by the idea of driving than riding. When his parents still lived in town, Doc remembers getting up early only on the mornings when a pair of older ladies and their horse and buggy would make morning deliveries of produce to the house. Later when the family moved to a small acreage, a young Doc Hammill would watch for hours as an elderly Slavic neighbor worked his market gardens with a single old gray horse and machinery. At the end of each row, the neighbor would stop, take off his hat and mop his brow and chat a while. The rhythm of the work, the steady pace, the cadence of the machinery, was all hypnotic.

Doc’s first attempts to drive were with a goat and a little red wagon. He fashioned his own harness and rigged it so when the goat would move forward the handle of the wagon would rise. His second vehicle was an old buggy that sat in the yard. With a set of pretend lines and plenty of imagination, the buggy bounced along for millions of miles. So many, that the wheels fell off and the buggy continued its journeys sitting on its axles on the ground.

Doc’s family were not horse people and they did not have a family history using horses, but one year as a present, Doc received a Welsh pony, a saddle and a bridle. He quickly talked some neighbors out of a flat bed garden cart, nailed pine 2 x 2’s to it as shafts and tied the 2 x 2s to the stirrups of the saddle. No one knows if the pony knew how to drive or not, but Doc jumped up on his wagon like Ben Hur and drove off.

Eventually, Doc also got to experience his first runaway and wreck. Remnants of the cart, shafts and saddle came rolling to a stop in the driveway. His saddle was replaced for his birthday with a new set of harness for the pony.  An old wagon was found and repaired and Doc and his brothers made many camping trips using the pony and wagon to haul their gear.

Early in his life, after a trip out west, Doc knew he would never be content in the Midwest. After graduating vet school, he and a friend traveled west, looking for opportunities. In a small town in Montana, they stopped to talk with the resident vet there. As it turned out, that very vet had been calling the school, looking for them, but no one knew how to contact the travelers. The Montana clinic needed another vet and Doc was the one lucky enough to be chosen for the job. It was about this time that Doc acquired his first draft horses, and has had drafts ever since.

Doc later opened his own vet clinic in Kalispell. A side business of horse marketing and consulting led him to helping manage breeding farms and ultimately riding the wave of the Arabian horse popularity. Like the tulips in 17th century Holland, the Arabian market showed signs of waning and Doc decided to leave that business and let his partner carry on while he developed another sideline business in an old west recreation town at a Montana ski resort.

Old West Adventures began as a recreation of a western boomtown with canvas covered buildings. Sleighs in the winter or wagons in the summer would bring up to 600 people at a time to a full blown old west dinner, replete with country musicians, historic talks, a barn dance and barbeques. Doc would also host three or four authentic wagon train trips through the Flat Head and Black Foot reservations each year. The wagons would travel around ten miles a day, everyone wore period clothing and only limited technology was allowed.

Old West Adventures sold in 1995 and because he had always promised himself a year off at some time in his life, Doc retreated into the Montana mountains as a caretaker to the ranch he now calls home. When he sold Old West Adventures, Doc took his brief case and his wristwatch with an alarm to the Good Will and melded into the mountains.

Doc realized he would have to generate an income again at some point and started giving old west historic talks for Elderhostels on Indians of the northwest plains, cowboys and cattle drives, horses and mules of the west and legendary horse whisperers. From there, his life experiences started to merge and he began offering five-day workshops at his ranch.

During all these years, Doc learned from many mentors. Among the teamsters he remembers best were “Addy” Funk, Tom Triplett, Glen Phanco, and George Moore. The northwest part of Montana was “frozen” in time then and still inhabited by people that had lived their lives with horses. He feels it was unusual and fateful to have known so many old timers that were as detailed and dedicated to their craft and took horsemanship to a higher level.

Dr. Robert Miller gets credit for opening Doc Hammill’s eyes to a gentler horsemanship when he gave a speech and demonstration in the 1970’s at a state vet’s meeting. Doc returned home from that meeting determined to convert and practice this new methodology. He studied the horse masters of the turn of the 20th century and the new horse masters of the turn of the 21st century. In his vet practice, he had plenty of horses and situations to practice his new skills. Over time, with trial and error and constant study on many horses, the process unfolded.

Driving and draft animals have been left behind for some reason in the natural horsemanship movement and Doc has dedicated his retirement life and skill to educating people to find a better way of communicating with their animals.

Today it is no longer a matter of life or death for most of us to depend on the working ability of our horses. A resurgence of horse farming as a hobby, hand in hand with natural horsemanship – or gentle horsemanship – has given us more consideration for the horse’s emotional and physical wellbeing. We have more time to look at the world from the horse’s viewpoint. We are beginning to realize that intelligent animals should not have to suffer needlessly to provide us with work or pleasure. Doc Hammill offers a gentler way of teaching the human and the horse to drive and to work together.

Originally published in Rural Heritage, Autumn ’07