Ask A Teamster: Kicking into a Quarter Strap
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
This past August one of my horses kicked up with a back foot, got it caught in a quarter strap and broke the strap. He was unhitched, just standing tied to the fence and seemed to be kicking at flies. He panicked when his foot got caught and fell down. Struggling to get up he broke the strap. He didn’t seem to be hurt but it shook him up for a while. Is this a common problem or was it just a freak accident? Is there any way to prevent it or should I just plan on replacing the straps when it happens? What is the potential for injuries? – Brian Fellows from Kansas
The paired quarter straps connect either side of the breeching to the rear end of the pole strap (also called team martingale), and are essential components of the hold back mechanism of the harness (Figure 1). A properly adjusted hold back system (breeching, quarter strap, pole strap) has very little slack in it when the team is hitched to equipment or vehicles which have a tongue, hence the quarter strap don’t hang down below the abdomen very far. However, when a team is not hitched to a tongue and neckyoke, the pole strap hangs loose from the collar strap and allows the paired quarter straps to hang well down below the abdomen. In this position there is space enough between the abdomen and the quarter strap for a foot to kick over a strap. The quarter straps are directly in the kick zone, and present an easy target for a rear foot going after flies on the belly. What you have described occurs commonly enough to warrant some preventive measures – not only to avoid breaking quarter straps, but perhaps more importantly, to prevent injuries to the horse. Potential injuries include, but certainly are not limited to, pulled muscles, tendon and/or ligament damage, nerve damage, head and eye injuries, and fractures. Even if no injury occurs I feel our equine partners are worth of protection from the unpleasant and stressful aspects of such a mishap.
As with so many things when working with horses, the key here is to be endlessly thorough and creative in figuring out all the measures we might take to prevent problems. My late friend and mentor, Addie Funk, was a wizard at this. He went to extremes to reduce the potential for problems and mishaps – in short, he was very particular about how everything was adjusted, set up, and done with horses and mules.
It’s unrealistic to expect horses not to kick at their belly when something “bugs” them. During fly time, or whenever you notice kicking behaviour, I recommend that you take some of these preventive measures:
1. Take measures to control fly populations and problems.
2. Keep the quarter straps pulled up against the belly where it is unlikely, though not impossible, for a foot to get between the belly and the strap. When horses are hitched to a tongue the quarter straps are automatically up along the contour of the belly if everything is adjusted properly. When unhitched, or hitched without a tongue, we can simply pull the pole strap forward until the quarter strap come up against the belly and then snap, buckle, or tie it up in that position.
3. Unsnap the quarter straps when unhitched, or hitched without a tongue, and snap them up out of the way.
4. Use side backer style harness (Figure 2. Also referred to as Jack Strap style, side strap style, twin neck yoke style, etc.). This style harness holds back the load with straps from the breeching down the sides of the horse (cleverly referred to as side straps) rather than a pole strap and quarter straps. Nothing underneath the horse to kick into.
5. Use harness without pole straps, quarter straps, and breeching when a tongue and hold back system is not needed (eg. Lead harness, stone boat, skidding logs, harrowing, etc.).
Now let’s discuss each of the above options in more detail. 1. Take fly population control measures and use repellent on the horses. Put repellent on after harnessing so it doesn’t cause irritation under the harness – especially under collars. We have good success with fly nets when working, and use homemade, fringed nosefly masks when necessary.
2. When a team is properly hitched to a tongue and positioned so there is a little tension on the traces, the holdback system (pole strap, quarter straps, and breeching) will contact the horse throughout their length, but not be snug. If this system is adjusted too loosely, which is quite common, the quarter straps will hang down away from the belly. Before considering other factors be sure the breeching is not adjusted too low – very common. It’s difficult to get the quarter straps up against the flank and belly if the breeching is not up where it belongs. Slack quarter straps can be raised by hooking the trace chains shorter at the single trees. However, be certain that doing so leaves enough distance between the horses hind legs and the single trees so that the legs don’t hit the single trees under any circumstances. If for this reason the trace chains shouldn’t be shortened, then the quarter straps (and/or pole straps if adjustable) must be shortened. If you shorten the quarter and/or pole straps be sure this doesn’t bring the neck yoke too close to the horses chest and front legs. If you cannot leave adequate distance between the neck yoke and the chest, and between the hind legs and the singletree, and at the same time have the quarter straps up against the contour of the abdomen, then the tongue length between the double tree pin and the neck yoke is too short for your team.
When not hitched, or hitched without a tongue, the pole straps can be pulled forward and fastened up in various ways to hold the quarter straps up. Pole straps with their own independent snap on the end (see Martingale diagram Figure 3) can simply be pulled up and snapped into one of the bottom hame rings, providing this holds the quarter straps up sufficiently without putting too much pressure between the horses front legs. The quarter straps can be shortened or lengthened a bit to make this work so long as the relationship between the pole strap and breast strap, and the distance from the horses chest to the neck yoke, and hind legs to single trees, are within acceptable limits when hitched. Since I use hame fasteners, rather than bottom hame straps on most of my harness, I have the option of snapping into any of the extra chain links on the hame fastener. This gives me length adjustment options. It also keeps the pole strap centered between the front legs, rather than pulling it against the side of one leg as when a bottom hame ring is used. A ring or dee incorporated into the bottom hame strap also works nicely, and a few chain links can be added if needed for extra length. CAUTION: Regardless of where you attach the pole strap snap, always snap it inward toward the horse so the bit cannot accidentally become snapped into it. Many close calls and more than a few wrecks have been caused by a bit accidentally getting caught in a snap (pole strap snap, breast strap snap, jack strap snap on side strap harness, etc.)
If your pole straps are the style without a snap, but have just a leather loop on the front that slides over the end of the neck yoke (see Figure 1), you can simply run the breast strap through the loop on the end of the pole strap, then snap the breast strap into whichever of the top two hame rings holds things where you want them. Or, if it’s handier, hang a light rope or strap from the hames to tie, buckle, or snap the pole strap up with. Actually, this last arrangement can be made to work quickly and easily with any style pole strap. However, avoid any design which uses a snap, common, hook, or other hardware that is positioned so the horse can accidentally get any part of the bit snapped into or hung up in it – a sure way to get into trouble sooner or later. This brings up another related subject that I feel compelled to mention here:
I strongly urge you to hook all breast strap and pole strap snaps facing inward toward the center of the neck yoke (throat and tongue of the snap inward), rather than outward. A horse is much less apt to accidentally get the bit snapped into these snaps if the throat and tongue of the snap are facing inward. The combination of the neck yoke and the diagonal inside half of the breast strap tend to block the bits access to the snap(s). However, when hooked facing out towards the end of the neck yoke it’s no problem for the bit to come into contact with the snap(s). The bit can very easily become snapped into them if they face outward. On the one piece hardware and snap combination variably called “breast collar slide and snap”, “combination roller breast snap”, simply “breast-snap”, and who knows what else (Figure 4) the snap unfortunately, doesn’t swivel. In addition, the ones I’ve seen all have the snaps facing the same way so that one snap on a team harness must face outward and thereby be subject to trapping the bit. By choosing a style with the snap bolted on, rather than riveted, one snap can be unbolted and reversed. This works well unless and until you reverse sides with the horses in your team, in which case you’ll have both snaps facing in the taboo, outward direction. And if you put lots of different combinations of horses together in teams, as we do, it can become very complicated. For this reason, and because it seems heavy and awkward to have the pole strap on the harness rather than on the collar, I don’t use this system. Another consideration is that, if this one piece of hardware breaks you lose the functions of both the breast strap and pole strap. Other folks use them, and like, or ever prefer them.
Much of this may seem unnecessary, or be dismissed or even criticized as insignificant detail. You can choose to treat it like that if you want. But, I’ve witnessed numerous close calls and more than a few wrecks that likely could have been prevented by snapping just one snap the other direction. These are examples of the types of things my old friend, Addie, was fussy about – and it paid off for him over many, many years of working horses and mules. A few weeks ago while visiting with a man who was inquiring about my workhorse workshop I happened to mention the positioning of snaps to prevent the bit getting hung up in them. He told me he had narrowly avoided a serious mishap recently when one of his horses accidentally snapped its bit ring into the pole strap snap. He was shocked and relieved to learn that something as simple as snapping the snap inward could significantly reduce, if not prevent, the chances of a repeat performance or worse.
With the combination breast strap-pole strap hardware mentioned above the breast strap can be used to hold the pole strap forward and raise the quarter straps (when not hooked to a neck yoke) by hooking the breast strap into whichever of the top two hame rings works the best. Some adjustment of the breast strap might be necessary to get the quarter straps up where you want them. Just be sure that whatever changes you make work when you hitch to a tongue. As an alternative, you may choose to rig a light rope or strap from the hames to tie, buckle, or snap the pole strap up with.
3 and 5. Getting the quarter straps completely out from under the horse is the ultimate solution when they are not needed. They can be unsnapped from the pole strap and snapped up out of the way when standing unhitched, or when working hitched without a tongue. Most team harness has dees on the traces (near the belly band billet) for the purpose of hooking the quarter strap up to when unharnessing. The belly bands will hold up the rear end of the pole straps until you reconnect the quarter straps if the horses are standing idle, but if working the pole straps should be secured or removed. Quarter straps are sometimes snapped up to the breeching rings where they originate. This, however, creates a loop than can itself cause a problem if a horse gets a hind foot into it. On harness without the dees quarter straps can be unbuckled and removed from the breeching rings if necessary, or on some styles of harness snap up on the hip drops. If horses are left standing unattended for long periods of time with the quarter straps unhooked, or if worked (with or without breeching), it’s a good idea to use cruppers. They will keep the rear part of the harness from working itself to one side and sliding off the rump, and prevent the breeching from working up and lodging under the tail. Some of my harness has breeching which quickly and easily unsnaps at the hip drops for jobs where the hold back system is unnecessary. The quarter straps are eliminated with the breeching. It’s very handy.
4. I have several sets of side backer harness that we used for many years in the Flathead Valley. It was the style Addie preferred primarily because there were no quarter straps underneath to be kicked into. It was also safer for him not to have to hook and unhook quarter straps on many of the broncs he had to work over the years. People with back problems appreciate this style of harness for not having to bend over hooking and unhooking quarter straps. In the more rugged terrain of the mountains where we live now I prefer harness with quarter and pole straps. My reasons are that the side backer harness with its twin neck yokes allows the tongue to whip sideways on rough or rocky ground (and with the dump rake), and going down steep hills the end of the tongue can come up and bump the horses – no pole strap to hold it down.
If you choose to try any of these gimmicks be particularly careful not to get any of the harness parts so tight that it makes your horses uncomfortable, claustrophobic, or causes friction enough to rub off hair or cause sores. If horse will be driven or worked with the pole straps pulled forward and secured, rather than hitched to a tongue and neck yoke, it’s important to center the pole strap between their front legs to prevent chafing under one leg.
Before ending I’d like to mention some other ways horses can get their hind legs fouled and have a wreck. Just as with quarter straps, they can kick and get a hind leg hung up in one of the traces (tugs). Much like the quarter strap problems, prevention is a matter of working to minimize irritation from flies, making sure traces are not hooked to loose when hitched, and hanging traces up high on the trace carriers when unhitched. Many folks hook the last (end) link on the heel chain in the trace carrier rather than using the first link which shortens and raises the trace up higher – away from the kick zone. During fly time we get our butt chain traces up out of the way by hooking them into the breeching ring whenever we are not hitched. To reduce the chances of panic if they get into a trace, I recommend all driving and work horses be taught to accept the feel of the traces and chains on both sides of each rear leg. Anything that causes horses to pick their hind feet up higher than normal, or that affects their balance, can increase chances of a foot getting caught up in the quarter straps or traces, especially if adjustments are too loose. I’ve actually seen belly bands buckled so loose that I wondered if a horse might get a hind foot up into them. Deep snow, mud, or water; brush; deadfalls and other obstacles; slippery, irregular, and unsure footing; and fast gaits all qualify.
All this must seem like a lot of words about some little leather straps under a horses belly. But, in my opinion, to be done well this teamster business requires attention to details. I admire anyone who works horses with consideration, forethought, and attention to detail.
Any fool can hitch and have a wreck.
Happy driving and keep the slack out of your riggin’,
Doc Hammill D.V.M.
Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com