Training Goats to Pull Carts
Goats have been used as cart animals for over 4,000 years. Why not train yours?
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Why don’t more goat enthusiasts teach their animals to pull carts? Goats have been used as cart animals for over 4,000 years. Why not train yours?
When selecting a goat to train for harness, choose a healthy animal with good conformation. Larger breeds can pull more, and those with a calm personality work best. Does should only be worked if they’re not being milked; a milking doe already has enough demands on her body. Bucks work well if they’re under a year old, but mature bucks are too distractible. Wethers are often the best choice.
No particular breed is better than another. Work with the breed you love best, that gives the most “heart.” Mixed breeds can work every bit as well as purebreds.
Training a goat to harness should start at a very young age. Most goats take well to a harness if they’re already used to being handled. When starting to train a goat, make the experience enjoyable for the animal. Brush him everywhere, especially where the harness touches. This beautifies the animal’s coat and keeps irritants from occurring, and makes him look forward to the harness experience.
When training, find a place as free as possible of distractions to ensure you have the animal’s full attention. Clip his halter close to a fence post or other immovable object so he can’t move around while you put on the harness.
For the first few times your goat wears a harness, just take him for a walk and let him get used to the feel. He must learn the harness is not threatening, and this also gives you the opportunity to see how well the harness fits.
During this early stage, reward him with frequent praise: verbal, physical (petting and brushing), and edible (treats). Collectively this is known as feeding his ego — since everyone knows how vain goats are! A happy goat is a cooperative goat.
Don’t forget to use verbal commands — walk, whoa, back-up, trot, gee, ha, etc. — as you train. Speak in a clear, firm voice, and have the animal perform the command each time you say the word. By the time the goat starts pulling a cart, he’ll understand the commands.
Next, exert a little pressure on his chest by pulling back on the harness (mimicking the feel of pulling a cart). Then stop and feed his ego again.
Training should be 15 to 30 minutes, twice a day, every day. More than that and the goat may balk; less and the goat won’t learn.
Training to Pull
Next, do NOT hook the goat up to a wagon, but simply go for a walk, leading the goat with one hand and pulling the wagon behind you with the other.
This is because wagons are noisy. You don’t want your animal to get spooked from a rattling object attached to him. Give him two or three days to get used to having this strange thing following him. Don’t rush this process! Remember to feed his ego as he learns to cooperate.
When the animal is at the point where he remains calm, you can hook him to the wagon shafts. Make sure shafts fit correctly to the loops on each side of the harness. Attached to the shafts, these loops become brakes when stopping or going downhill.
Choosing the correctly sized cart or wagon is important. Anything too big may injure or overwhelm the goat; and anything too small will be too light for safe pulling. The vehicle should be in good repair, with axles and tires working properly.
If the cart or wagon does not come with shafts, it will need to be modified. DO NOT have a goat pull a wagon by the handle! Using a wagon handle (instead of shafts) is dangerous, especially going downhill, because it has no braking system.
There should be no cargo (or passengers) at first. Take the goat for a short walk and make a big deal of how wonderful he is (feed that ego again!).
Gradually add weight to the wagon. Firewood is excellent because you can gradually add more pieces and get the goat used to pulling heavier loads. Don’t start him off with too heavy a load or he’ll get discouraged. Lighter loads also prevent sore muscles.
Training to Drive
Once a goat knows how to pull, it’s time to teach him to drive. This is when a driver controls the animal from behind while seated on a cart or wagon. Driving lines clip to his halter, running through a harness loop all the way back to the driver.
Training to drive is best done with two people — one behind in the cart, the other up front holding a lead rope attached to the halter. The lead-holder’s job is not to control the animal, but merely reinforce the driver’s directions (turning left or right, stopping, etc.).
Incidentally, don’t say “giddy-up” and use driving lines to slap the goat’s back. This teaches him to move whenever he feels the lines on his back. Try carrying a driving whip — NOT to whip the animal, of course, but merely to cue him and reinforce the verbal commands. (Use a driving whip as an extension of your arm. Tap the animal to reinforce a verbal command and cue him to go forward or turn.)
Goats don’t have the power of horses, so don’t overload their capacity. A rule of thumb is to load no more than one and a half times the goat’s weight — and that load should include the weight of the harness, shafts, and cart.
How long will it take to train? As much time as the goat needs. There’s no shortcut.
Types of Goat Harnesses
Goat harnesses differ depending on what function the goat is performing. Most people use an “all-purpose” or cart harness, suitable for a wagon (four wheels) or a cart (two wheels). Whatever style is used, the harness should include a breeching (butt piece). A breeching engages when an animal slows down or travels downhill, and it works to brake or stabilize a load.
Goats can also use a wagon harness, which is similar to a cart harness but geared only for a wagon. The difference is the hold straps for the shafts — these are missing in a wagon harness because wagon shafts attach to the vehicle in a different manner and the wagon has four wheels for balance.
Don’t use a dog harness for a goat. Dogs and goats are built differently.
Above all, never ever have a goat pull anything using a collar. This can easily crush their windpipe and kill the animal. The safety and comfort of the goat should be a handler’s top priority.
To Bit or Not to Bit
Goats can be driven by either a halter or with a bit. Which is the better choice?
That depends on how well the animal is trained, as well as where he’ll be working. If the goat performs in a public setting (such as a parade) where control is imperative and there is little room for error, a bit might be a better option.
Do NOT use a bit of any sort when a goat is first being trained to harness. Trainers who use bits on their goats often use equipment designed for miniature horses. One trainer uses a 3½-inch miniature horse French link snaffle bit “since goats appear to have fairly low palates.” She chose a copper bit since goats like the taste of copper.
One warning about using bits: the handler must use an extremely light hand on the lines. If too much pressure is applied, the goat could react by rearing or otherwise struggling to get away from the pressure.
With a little patience, you could have a superb animal worth his weight in gold as he prances in a parade or pulls his weight around the homestead. Enjoy!
Featured image: James and Harry Stidham, c.1918. From the collection of William Creswell. Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/88645472@N00/8356730964
Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.