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