How to Train a Draft Horse


As with training any animal, training a draft horse takes time and, above all, patience. Draft horses when born can stand as high as 44 inches at the withers (shoulders), and can weigh as much as 175 pounds, so it is best to establish a good relationship with them from the time of birth. Keep in mind when training a draft horse that bigger horses sometimes require more time to react to commands so that while training, you will not correct or reprimand too early.

Things You'll Need

  • 10-to-12-foot long rope
  • Halter and lead rope
  • Driving bridle
  • Driving harness and lines (reins)
  • Double tree
  • Tire
  • Two 2-inch wide PVC pipes the length of the horse's body plus 5 feet
  • Cart, buggy or wagon

Teach Haltering, Tying and Leading

  • Draft horses, as with any healthy horse, stand up at birth. Establish a good relationship with a colt by placing your hand gently on both the chest and the rump. Light pressure is only required in the event the colt will not stand still. Whenever the colt is still, rubbing or petting all over will let the colt know you mean no harm. In addition, lifting and lowering the tail and combing it will help prepare the colt for that part of the harness. Repeat the process at least two or three times a day. The colt will get used to handling through grooming, as well. Brushing is a great way for the colt to get used to a kind hand.

  • Teaching the colt to lower its head is an important step for later bridling. Draft horses are usually too tall to reach the top of their heads, so they must be taught to lower their heads. You accomplish this by placing light pressure on the nose which automatically causes any horse to lower its head. Rubbing the nose gently will help the horse associate this lowering with pets on the muzzle, or, nose. The more you stroke the muzzle and get the horse used to you handling the head and ears, the easier it will be to put on the halter and bridle. When introducing the halter and bridle, let the horse see them and sniff them. Rub the halter or bridle over the neck, ears and muzzle. Soon, the colt will not be afraid of them and you can ease the halter or bridle around the head and ears.

  • Training to lead can be simplified by wrapping the lead rope around the saddle horn of a horse you are riding. The colt then learns by establishing a point where there is no pressure on its halter. At first, the colt will be either dragged by the horse you are riding, or run ahead and be pulled back. Eventually, the colt will learn where it is comfortable to be led. Another way to train a colt to lead is to tie the colt to a well-trained donkey or other colt that has learned the proper way to lead.

  • When tied, a horse should not pull back or balk, act restless or paw at the ground. Start out tying the colt near the mother to avoid restlessness. The knot should be made so that you can release it in a hurry if necessary. At first, a colt should not be tied to a solid object in case the colt balks. To avoid injury, tie the lead rope through an inner tube for flexibility. Observation is important during training. If the colt pulls back, you will need to clap loudly to get him to stop. Leave the colt tied in short sessions at first: five minutes, five times per week. After the colt learns to stand still, you can increase the amount of time it is left tied and tie it to something solid such as a hitching rail. A horse should be tied at wither level or above to prevent injury and decrease the amount of resistance the horse has if it should pull back.

  • An older colt can be trained in haltering, leading and bridling by establishing a relationship in a large round pen. The idea is to let the horse know who is boss by praising the horse when he comes into the center next to you. Eventually, the horse learns that as long as he does not come into the center, he will have to keep moving along the side of the pen. When he learns that if he comes into the center next to you, he gets petted and gets attention, the horse will follow you as you lead, and the haltering and bridling will be easier.

Teach Ground Driving

  • Using a 10-to-12-foot long rope attached to the halter, get the horse used to the feel of the rope around its hind legs by placing the rope around each back leg and rubbing gently up and down. At first, the horse may bolt away, but each time it gets more accustomed to it, praise the horse by rubbing the head and muzzle.

  • To get a draft horse used to noises which involve harness and pulling, approach the horse with a piece of plastic attached to a pole and start rubbing the horse all over with the plastic, while making noise by rustling it. If the horse balks, keep it restrained with the lead rope and continue trying until the horse isn't afraid of the plastic. Each time you touch the horse and it doesn't bolt, praise it and pet its head or muzzle.

  • To get a draft horse prepared for the harness, introduce the harness by rubbing the harness on the horse's body. Take the harness on and off repeatedly until the horse gets used to it. Continue to praise and rub the neck and muzzle each time the horse responds favorably. Help the horse get used to the harness by walking him while he wears the harness.

  • Keep the halter on for leading and put the bridle on over the halter. When the horse is used to the bridle being in his mouth, attach a long line to one side of the bit. The line will run to you. The other line from the other side of the bit will come around the side and back of the horse (a V-shape). Drive the horse in this matter until it can turn right and left, start and stop. Use voice commands with each maneuver and praise highly when the horse performs correctly.

  • When the horse is turning well, place both lines so that they go straight back from the bit to you. Drive on the ground as you would when the horse is pulling.

Teach Pulling

  • Introduce a draft horse to the cart or wagon he will be pulling early in the training stage. Let the horse smell and feel it. Each time the horse stands close to it and doesn't show signs of being afraid, praise highly by rubbing his muzzle, head and neck. Knock on the cart or wagon and shift it to make noises until the horse gets used to it.

  • To get a draft horse accustomed to having a wagon moving around it, lead the horse next to the cart or wagon and move the wagon around in both directions while leading the horse next to it (depending on the size of the wagon, you may need a helper for this step). For a smaller cart, pull the shafts over the horse's back on each side and over the rump. Praise the horse each time he accepts the movement and does not get scared.

  • To teach pulling, attach a tire to a double tree. A double tree is attached to the harness on either side of the horse and extends out the back of the horse at least 5 feet. In addition, rub a 2-inch wide PVC pipe all over the sides of the horse to get the animal used to the feel of the shafts of a cart or wagon. Place these pipes on the ground, attaching them to the harness. When the horse is used to the pipes on either side of it, place the pipes in the shaft holders on the harness. Allow the horse to pull the tire forward and to the left and right. Do not back up with the poles attached.

  • Add blinders to the bridle, continue to ground drive and let the horse pull the tire until the horse is comfortable with the noises and movements around him. It is always advisable to get a horse used to the sounds and movements around him without the blinders first. Ground drive the horse past mailboxes, over bridges and around culverts, then introduce those same areas with blinders.

  • Have a helper ready to hold a lead rope through the halter and hitch the horse to a cart or wagon. Practice stopping and walking at first. Introduce trotting once the horse is comfortable with having the wagon behind him.

Tips & Warnings

  • Learn the parts of a driving harness. Terrets are part of the breast collar tug. When the lines are placed through the terrets, the lines are kept from falling on the ground and are kept aligned with the sides of the horse and the wagon the horse is pulling. When practicing ground driving, the lines should never be placed through the terrets, but should be worked with directly from the bit.
  • Most horses respond to voice commands when taught. Give commands in a firm but gentle tone. Horses also respond to reflections in the voice. Always speak to a horse in a calm, quiet voice, particularly if the horse is nervous or scared.
  • Never tie a horse to a fence line (wooden or wire). If a horse gets "spooked," it could rear back, causing splinters and nails to fly and possibly serious injury. If no other place is available, tie the horse to a fence post.
  • Never tie a horse to a buggy or wagon wheel. If the tied horse gets scared and pulls back, it can spook the horse harnessed to the buggy or scare the wagon team and possibly cause injury to all the horses or mules. Even if there is no hitched team or buggy horse present, serious injury to the tied horse and damage to a buggy or wagon can result.
  • Driving practice should only be done in a safe place such as a round arena or fenced in area. When the horse has learned to ground drive properly, then it can be introduced to outside areas.

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  • Photo Credit Draft Horses image by Charlotte Fraise from horse hug image by Allyson Ricketts from horse & carriage image by Peter Helin from
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