Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding

Ask A Teamster: Intro to Skidding

by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana


My name is Joe Troyan from Nelson B.C. I took your driving course at the same time as Cathy, Lon and Terry. I have been driving my mules for 4 years now, but want to skid with them. They have always been driven with a pole (tongue). How do I go about starting? Like how far from heels to evener etc.? Any tips you could give me would help.

Thanks, Joe

Hi Joe,

It’s good to hear from you. Cathy and I have received occasional reports on you and your mules from Lon and Terry since you were all here together in 2005. I’ll be happy to answer your questions and share some important considerations and safety concerns about making the transition to skidding with your mules. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any fancy Fjord mules like yours around here to use for the photos – Cathy’s Fjord horses are as close as we could come.

Familiarizing and Desensitizing:

A very important consideration whenever we introduce horses, mules, or donkeys to anything new, different, or changed is to do so in a series of small steps (baby steps). Doing so permits us to test their reactions little by little rather than introducing too much, too soon, too fast, which can easily overwhelm them. It’s much easier and safer for equines to accept a little bit of new, or different, or change than it is for them to accept a lot. You may find that nothing about this new type of work concerns or frightens your mules. Or, you may learn that some (or many) seemingly insignificant sights, sounds, feels, smells, or “whatevers” will be perceived as threats. In my opinion, it’s best and safest to introduce new and different things not only in baby steps but also to start the process in a small, safe pen or corral. Once an appropriate progression of baby steps have been tested and perfected there, the process should be reintroduced in several progressively larger controlled environments – small pen or corral, larger fenced area, familiar pasture, etc. In my DVD set Teaching Horses to Drive – A Ten Step Method I demonstrate a progression of baby steps toward pulling a log by first unhooking just one trace and letting the chain drag as I ground drive in the corral. Next I drag just the other trace, and finally both traces. This is followed by dragging a single tree by one trace, then by both, followed by the single tree with a chain dragging behind. A rail or small log is added next and when appropriate we start all over in the next larger enclosure and repeat the steps. It’s tempting to skip a step or two when things are going well, but I encourage you to take the time it takes up front – it will pay off. Never advance to the next step (test/lesson) until the mules have assured you at least three times around the pen that they are comfortable, relaxed and confident with the step you are on.

What may seem like an insignificant change or step to us can often be a reason for significant concern to prey animals like equines. Be creative and think of all the sights, sounds, smells and things they might feel on their bodies associated with the new job of skidding logs. Desensitize them to such things as a chainsaw, your fluorescent orange hard hat, limbs and trees falling, sticks cracking, etc. right at home. Then take them to the woods and tie them up where they can observe and become comfortable with you falling and limbing trees, moving brush, clearing skid trails, etc. Since your mules will be new to skidding logs it’s worth the time to make a few trips up and down the skid trail to make sure the animals feel safe and comfortable before you ask them to pull anything there. Lead them up and down the trail at first if that’s what it takes to get them completely comfortable. If they are completely relaxed and comfortable with it you may be able to ground drive them the first time. You can test whether to make the first trip or two with or without the rigging by how they react as you first start out. If you decide to start with it be prepared to unhook it or turn back at the first sign of concern or anxiousness on their part. When you are sure they are ready (but not before) hook to a light log and pull it a short distance as a test. Never hesitate to unhook from a load at the earliest signs of anxiousness or concern rather than wait until things escalate to confusion, fear or panic. Animals that remain relaxed and calm and feel safe rarely have wrecks.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #1
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #2
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #3

Trace Chain Extensions:

I assume your harness, like most, has traces with heel chains (photo 1) rather than butt chain style traces with hooks attached to the end of the traces rather than chains (photo 2). If so, you will probably need to add extra links of chain to the heel chains to make them longer. Heel chain traces are typically made with only 6 or 8 links of heel chain attached which provides enough length for hitching to vehicles and most farm equipment, but not necessarily enough to drag a singletree or team rigging on the ground. Without adequate heel chain length the singletree can hit the animal in the rear feet and legs when dragging the singletree on the ground without a load attached (photo 3).

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #4
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #5
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #6
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #7

If you need to add chain links to your heel chains it can be done with snap on trace chain extenders of various lengths (photo 4), quick links (photos 5 & 6), cold shuts, welding links on, etc. If snaps are used they must be of high quality and strong enough for the work. Quick links must be oversized compared to the chain they are used with or they will not be as strong as the chain (photo 7). They loosen up with use so tighten them often with a tool. Using cold shuts or welding links together does not allow you to remove the extra links when they are not needed for skidding. Regardless of how you add chain links, be sure all surfaces are smooth so they don’t irritate or injure the legs. Official heel chain can be purchased from harness shops in lengths of your choice. Although the long links from side chains of large truck and small tractor tire chains may not exactly match the heel chains on your harness they will do nicely.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #8
Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #9

Some teamsters get by without adding more chain to their traces by dragging the singletree empty by just one trace – in this way the singletree doesn’t hit the horse heels (photo 8). With a team one trace chain can be unhooked from each singletree allowing the rigging to drag farther back so the singletrees are less apt to hit the back feet or legs (photo 9). I don’t encourage this because without both traces hooked the animals are pulling an empty singletree or team rigging with pressure mostly on one shoulder – rather than on both shoulders equally. Also, the traces, trace chains, and singletrees tend to crowd the rear legs on turns.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #10

Shortening Up to Pull the Load:

When you have determined that your trace chains are long enough or have modified them to be so, you are ready to experiment with how much to shorten them up when pulling various loads on the ground. When your mules are ready to pull a load it’s best to hook the chains shorter for the pull (photo 10). Properly shortening the trace chains to put the load closer to the animal(s) can maximize draft advantage and create upward lift on the front end of the log(s) – so they don’t dig into the ground as much and pull harder. The reason trace chains can be shorter when skidding a load than when simply dragging just a singletree or team rigging is because the resistance of a the load causes the singletrees/rigging to lift up off the ground allowing some clearance beneath for the rear feet. Typically, the resistance of heavier loads will pull singletrees up higher and lighter loads will allow them to hang closer to the ground. Because there are so many variables it is important to check how every load is pulling. Be sure to allow enough length so that if your mules hit an extended walk or break into a trot unexpectedly, their feet/legs will not hit on the singletrees. It may take a bit of experimenting to get a sense of where to hook different loads.

CAUTION: you must always be certain that the length you hook the trace chains is long enough so the singletree(s) will not hit the legs – whether or not you are pulling a load.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #11

Trace Carrier Extensions:

There is another very important consideration when pulling anything on the ground whether a single horse, team, or larger hitch is used. Nowadays most harness is designed to pull vehicles, farm equipment with wheels, and other things with a hitch point up off the ground significantly. Perhaps for this reason trace carrier straps are seldom long enough for pulling things with a low hitch point, and the trace carriers are apt to hold the traces up too high even when they are adjusted as long as possible. This causes the traces to be held upward by the trace carrier rather than follow a straight line from the point of draft on the hames to the hitch point on the load (photo 11). When animals pull a significant load this way the force of the pull on the traces causes a downward pull on the trace carriers and hip straps and thus a downward pull on the top of the hips. The animals don’t appreciate this. Many animals are willing to pull very light loads with this maladjustment, but quickly become upset or balky when asked to pull heavier loads.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #12

It’s important that your trace carrier straps are long enough to remain slightly loose when pulling any load so they don’t hold the traces up, cause a bend in the traces, and pull down on the hips. I commonly encounter this situation when away from home at workshops. In such cases I extend the trace carrier straps by using leather straps, light rope, baling twine, etc. to eliminate the problem (photo 12).

Another way of eliminating the downward pull on the trace carriers is to hitch the load at a greater distance from the animal(s). However, doing so can potentially reduce the lift on the front end of the load and make it pull harder and/or change the angle of draft.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #13

Use a Safety Hook:

For safety be sure the grab hook you use on the single tree or team rigging has a handle and a swivel. The handle is essential to prevent hand injuries and/or loss of fingers if the animal(s) should move when someone is holding, hooking, or otherwise manipulating the hook. A swivel on the hook will allow logs to roll over without binding up chains or chokers. Without a swivel, a skid of logs that rolls or flips over can turn the singletree of a single animal or the doubletree of a team end for end and upside down. When this happens the traces and trace chains become twisted around the rear legs. It’s getting harder to find the old safety grab hooks (photo 13), but a modern version (photo 14) is available from Sampson Harness Shop in Gilbert, MN.

Ask A Teamster Intro to Skidding
Photo #14

The chain or choker you are skidding with should always be unhooked from the singletree or team rigging anytime you are handling it. If it is hooked to the animals in any way do not attempt to hook to any type of a load or skid. The risk of injury is too great because the animals could move. Hook the chain or choker to the log(s) first and the mule (or mules) last, and always unhook from the mules before attempting to remove the chain or choker from the log(s). ALWAYS !!!

Additional Information:

Skidding Logs and Poles, Ask A Teamster, SFJ, Vol. 28, No. 1

The Advantages of Butt Chain Harness for Logging, Ask A Teamster, SFJ, Vol. 25, No. 2

I hope some of this helps you, Joe. Please contact me anytime if you have new questions or I can help you in any way as you proceed. Cathy and I would love to see you again. Please contact us if you are coming this way.

Take care, stay safe, and have fun,


Doc Hammill lives on a ranch in Montana. He and his partner Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness – through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and his horsemanship video series.