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Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

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


Hello, hope all is well with you!

I have been working with the Fjords most weekends. The results are positive. Every time I spend time with all of the horses, I do think of myself as their trainer now, and am thoughtful in all contact we have. The Fjord’s ground manners have improved so much as a result! I learned and benefited so much from your workshop, and do use it daily!

I continue to review what I learned in your workshop with your four Horsemanship videos, and am so grateful to have those. We covered a lot of material in the 5 day workshop, and having the videos to help troubleshoot as I encounter situations with my horses is a tremendous help to me. I appreciate that what we learned in your workshop closely follows and is reinforced by the videos. Thanks!

So here are a couple of QUESTIONS:

1. My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. I remember it was even long for the Suffolk team. We added chains to the heel chains that are on the Fjord harness, so the chains are quite long, maybe 4 feet. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off (at the back) and drill the new holes for the bolts, etc. to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion?

2. I remember checking the relationship between the pole strap-quarter strap-neck yoke to the butt-chain and tugs in the workshop… so everything had a similar tension, right? I do this and think that everything is ok, but I’m not sure what would not be correct (maybe one component too loose or too tight??) I’m not finding this covered on the videos, or at least not yet, anyway. As we drive over rough terrain, and go up and down short hills, I see something bothering the horses, and I am wondering if the quarter straps are becoming too tight? I am able to watch this only from the driver’s position, so don’t get a good look. The vehicle is the forecart, and of course the pole is fixed and rigid and doesn’t ‘give’ at all as we move across bumpy ground. Any ideas?

Thanks so much for the help Doug… my progress and enjoyment with the horses is very positive, so much because of your methods and encouragement.


Cathi Greatorex, Washington

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 1

Dear Cathi,

Having responded to your Question #1 in the last issue of this magazine, we will now turn our attention to your second question. In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule. I feel that once the basic concepts, considerations, and requirements are understood, proper “hitching tension” can be learned and perfected through experience and practice. Apparently, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about important details of this process out there, because it’s extremely common to see horses hitched with the hold-back system adjusted out too long (Ask A Teamster, SFJ, Winter 2006), and/or traces (tugs) hooked too long – often dangerously long on both accounts. Although in my observation it seems less common, the problem of horses hitched in too tight also exists.

In workshops and clinics I find myself wishing for better ways of helping students get a feel for recognizing the somewhat elusive “perfect hitching tension” that you are wondering about. Perplexed by this while considering your second question above, it occurred to me that other clinicians/instructors would likely have some helpful viewpoints, perspectives, and ways of describing and teaching this hitching consideration. So, I decided to seek responses to the question from other respected professionals who conduct workshops, clinics, and schools on driving and working horses in harness. They all accepted the challenge – willingly and generously sharing their time and expertise. What follows are their excellent and much appreciated responses to Question #2.

NOTE: The harness in the photos is the butt chain style harness which I use rather than the more common heel chain type. Though the traces, butt chains, and rings on the single trees (instead of hooks) look a bit different than heel chain harness, the adjustments and dynamics we want to illustrate here apply to either style. – Doc Hammill

Steve Bowers’ Response:

Dear Cathi,

You seem to have some questions about how to hitch your team of Fjords so they are properly suspended between the traces and the breeching. I explain this by telling folks that it requires “straight line thinking”, both when harnessing and when hitching. When you harness your pair of Fjords with their team harness, you are taking the first steps toward safe and comfortable hitching if you adjust your harness properly to a line. That line is the line defined by the hame. In other words you need to adjust the quarter straps and pole strap so the forward limit of travel of the coupler snap (or breast strap if you are using the old jack strap style of harness) is in line with the line defined by the hame. This adjustment is carefully made and reconsidered once or twice to make sure that each horse is standing “square” when the adjustments are made. You can’t get the harness adjusted properly if the horse is standing “stretched out” or if the horse is “bunched up” with his feet.

A further consideration when adjusting the harness to the line is that you could accomplish this harness adjustment goal either by adjusting the pole strap or the quarter straps, or both. My harnesses all have a loop in the end of the pole strap which the belly band is going to pass through, keeping the quarter straps held up (less slack) for a neater and safer look. The loop in the pole strap also makes a secondary braking system out of the surcingle in case of harness failure at points further back. The thing that is interesting about your question #2 is that you report that the horses act a little upset when holding the load back and when going over rough terrain. I have noticed in the picture you sent with the questions that your quarter straps appear to be adjusted very short and your pole strap appears to be very long (photo #1). It might be that your quarter straps are so short that they are getting an unintended grip on your Fjords’ bellies when holding a load back and when the tongue whips because of rough terrain. I like the quarter straps to reach clear to the belly band because then they aren’t gripping the underside of the horses’ bellies and putting pressure down there when it ought to all be put onto the breeching. If your pole straps don’t adjust, I’d recommend trading them in on pole straps that have a loop for the belly band to go through, and straps that have easy adjustment for length.

Once the harness on both horses is adjusted to the line, it’s time to get your team hitched up and begin to experiment with which link in the heel chains to hook into to get “the line” while hitched. When harnessing, your horses participate in the adjustment process by having them stand square. When hitching, the horses also need to participate in a particular way. When making hitching adjustments, your horses need to be “in draft”. ”In draft” means that they are leaning into the load. The traces are tight when in draft. The definition of a well hitched team is: when properly harnessed, hitched, and in draft, viewed from the side, there should be a straight line, defined by the hame, which extends through the breast strap, the coupler snap, the neck yoke rings, to the stop on the bottom of the tongue. If you adjusted your harness properly before hitching, the forward pressing of the horses’ bodies when pushing the load assures enough slack in the breeching that the horses are not being at all pressured at the rear when in draft. Hitching this way assures that your horses are hitched neither too loose nor too tight.

Being hitched too tightly compresses the horses, which interferes with their freedom of movement, which could cause all kinds of behavioral and physical problems. When viewed from the side, the breast strap will appear to veer forward when the horses are in draft. People who have trouble keeping their hames in the groove of the collar are usually hitching too tightly.

Being hitched too loosely is also not a good thing to do. When viewed from the side, loosley hitched horses will not be exhibiting a straight line defined by the hame. In this case, the breast strap will appear to veer to the rear of the hame line. Being hitched too loosely is the beginner driver’s favorite hitching error, and it leads to some major problems. Most notably, this type of hitching allows the neck yoke to creep forward toward the end of the tongue. If the neck yoke is not properly fastened to the tongue, it can release the tongue, causing it to fall to the ground. This sort of story never has a nice ending! Another bad thing about hitching too loosely is that it complicates rein handling. Most teamsters can competently handle about two feet of rein area. When hitched too loosely, the area of rein being handled by the driver increases just enough to make proper rein handling (when going over hilly terrain) nearly impossible for anyone but an ape (they have long arms). The third problem with being hitched too loosely is that such looseness can upset your horses. When starting a load, loosely hitched horses are half a stride down the road before they bang into the trace pressure. Likewise, when stopping, a well trained pair will be comfortably stopped and then half a second later the load comes crashing into their breechings! Loose hitching exposes your horses to unprotected whacking by the sideways slapping of the tongue when going over rough terrain.

I hope that this is easy enough to understand. I know it gets sort of technical and might seem a little complicated, but this is the sort of thing that many teamsters appear to avoid thinking about entirely! If you take the time to get yourself well educated on these details, you’ll be going a long way toward making your future driving activities enjoyable and safe both for yourself and your horses!

All The Best,

Steve Bowers

Bob Olson’s Response:

Doc, I am much better at doing, than trying to put in writing, so hope this helps and makes sense. Before I address the subject at hand, I’d like to add my opinion to Dave’s (Engel) excellent points (Ask A Teamster, SFJ, Winter 2006). As to the pole length, we find that with the ‘big’ horses we like to see generally, as an example, on a rubber tired farm wagon, 9’10″ from the evener pin to the neck yoke stop. Of course this will vary with the taller vehicle. Also, I’d be sure and emphasize that if the neck yoke is not fixed on the pole/ tongue, and is the loose type that it needs to be secured with a safety chain or strap. There have been stories told of horrific accidents that have occurred due to the neck yoke coming off the end of the pole.

Re: Hitching short enough in the traces.

I suggest starting with the inside trace on a team, then hook the outside trace and repeat same process on the 2nd horse. Determine whether to drop 1, 2 or 3 chain links. This is done by trial and error. Once the team is hooked to the single trees, I recommend having a helper lead the horses up into the collars, until the traces tighten, then pull back on the breeching. I like to have 3 to 4 fingers (2 to 3″) of space between the breeching and the rump. If this is not the case, then either drop or take up more links on the trace chains to achieve that distance. The primary reason is for proper balance of the horses in the start and stopping of the load of the vehicle. If too loose, there will be too much movement between the vehicle and the horse, there by causing a ‘slapping’ effect on the rump and jerking action on the neck yoke, similar to a whip lash. A delayed action such as this causes confusion in the horse and teamster, which doesn’t create a good partnership. Nor does hooking the horses too tight, as this causes chafing and creates a binding effect.

Re: Hooking single.

When the horse is in the shafts, the end of the shafts should be approx. at the point of the shoulder. Hook the traces to the vehicle, maintaining this position, then hook the hold backs. Next either lead the horse up to tighten the traces, or pull back on the vehicle Again there should be the same distance of 3 to 4 fingers between the breeching and the rump. To obtain this distance either loosen or tighten the hold backs only, since the length of the traces has already been established with the end of the shafts to the point of the shoul- der.

In conclusion: Hitching and un-hitching being a ‘critical’ time, care should be taken to seek professional help, i.e., workshops, schools and “knowledge- able” friends and neighbors.

Bob Olson

Kenny & Renee Russell’s Response:

Hi Doc,

In response to your question regarding how to determine if traces are to loose or to tight. Well, this is what we do. Here at our farm, we make this determination by first hooking the team to the wagon or forecart, then stepping the team up into draft to tighten the traces. Looking from the side, we now determine whether the traces are to loose or to tight by drawing an imaginary line down the hame line, straight to the ground. We want the breast strap, neck yoke and the stop on the tongue, all to fall in this imaginary line. If this does not all fall in line, causing the traces to be to loose or to tight, we make the adjustment by lengthening or shortening the links in the heel chains. With this adjustment made, we check to see if the pole straps and the quarter straps are not too tight while working, nor too loose which would allow the wagon to run upon the team when stopping or going down a hill.

One of the dangers of hooking the traces to loose with a slip on neck yoke is that the team can walk off the end of the tongue, allowing it to fall.

Remember, the team pulls with the traces, not with the neck yoke.

Thanks Doc for giving us an opportunity to participate in this ask a teamster question.

Kenny & Renee Russell

Jay Bailey’s Response:

Dear Doc,

I just got the Winter SFJ and read “Ask a Teamster”. Your thorough description of how to adjust the hold back system should help many of us adjust our harnesses to a finer degree. Having read question #2, so follows how I approach the question:

In general, all the straps on a western harness, both hold back system and tugs, should be snug, but not tight when the team and vehicle are standing on level ground. The rule of thumb I use is to comfortably be able to slide my hand between the britchin and horse’s rump, depressing the flesh only slightly. At the same time the tugs should be snug but not taut and the quarter strap/pole strap assembly should likewise be snug to the horses but not taut. The weight of the tug chains will bow the tugs slightly out of a straight line from the evener to the hame. Over all, my aim is to have things as tight as possible (no slop or unnecessary looseness) without causing rubbing or irritation to the horses, particularly by the britchin and pole and quarter straps.

In reading the question, “as we drive over rough terrain, and go up and down short hills, I see something bothering the horses, and I am wondering if the quarter straps are becoming too tight?” First, I would go through the hold back system as Doc described last issue, making sure everything is in proper adjustment. If it appears the quarter straps are still bothering, I would check again that they are not twisted or have any sharp edges or points digging into the horses. (There aren’t supposed to be any, check with your hands and eyes to be sure.) If I found nothing there, is it the pressure of the strap it’s self that is causing the discomfort? Is the horse used to having pressure there along the flank/belly. Most of the time there is no significant pressure there. If quarter strap pressure is the problem, I would address that not hitched or in harness at first. More on that later.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

diagram 1

New England harness (diagram #1). How tight to adjust the britchin: New England (NE) or D ring harness differs from western (straight tug, bellybacker harness)(diagram #2) in one major way. The tugs have a large (4″) D sewn into the tugs where the back pad and belly band meet the tugs. The quarter straps,(often called sidebackers) instead of joining under the belly, go along the flank to the D ring in the tug. From the front side of the D ring a pole strap goes forward to a jockey yoke- part of the 3 piece neck yoke used with NE harness.

Each D ring has 6 straps attached to it: Counter clockwise from the top: 1) Back pad strap – supports weight of the tug and therefore the pole on this type of harness. 2) side backer from the britchin ring – hold back system. 3) Long tug to evener, (pulls load). 4) Belly band, (holds tug angle steady and pole strap down). 5) Pole strap to jockey yoke (part of neck yoke – brakes). and 6) short tug to the hame (provides pull). The tugs, 3 & 6 form a straight line through the D ring from the hame to the evener. 1 & 4 the back pad and belly band form a vertical straight line through the D ring and 2 & 5, the side backer and pole strap form a horizontal line through the D ring.

The pole straps are hooked to the 3 piece neck yoke which functions similarly to an evener or double tree, and the tugs are hooked TIGHTLY to the evener. With a NE harness, the tugs are much tighter than would be possible with a western harness. By tightening the tugs and lastly the pole strap on the nigh side of the nigh horse which has been left loose for this purpose, the weight of the pole is carried by the back pad, through the D ring and the pole straps in front and the long tugs to the rear, leaving both the short tugs to the hames and the side backer to the britchin not tight or loose, but snug. This is possible since the D ring breaks the straight through pull of the tugs and the hold back system and keeps the horse from being squeezed from front and back when the tugs are pulled tight. So, with NE harness, the britchin should always be snug but not tight on the horse, whether hitched or not, and the hand should be able to be inserted between britchin and rump depressing the flesh slightly if at all.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

diagram 2

Just a word about the application of “Pressure and Release”. Working with horses is all about pressure and release. The pressure may be applied with the hands – on the lines, the halter or the horse’s body. It may be applied with the voice, the body or another aid. (An aid is anything used to extend or amplify the pressure that is being applied.) The most important thing is that the pressure is released AS SOON AND THE HORSE GIVES THE DESIRED RESPONSE!

In the case of the quarter strap bothering the horse, in a location where the horse feels secure (tied in own stall, round pen, etc.), using a soft lead rope, starting around the neck or any place the horse is accustomed to having pressure applied, put some pressure on the both ends of the rope, hold it for a couple of seconds and release provided the horse didn’t react negatively to the pressure. (Pressure and then release as soon as the horse gives the desired result – doing nothing). Do this again and again moving the rope to a slightly different position each time. This shows the horse over and over that if he gives us what we are asking for, the pressure will diminish or go away. Whenever the horse shows unease, keep the gentle pressure on the rope, talking to him quietly, until he stops trying to move away from the pressure and INSTANTLY take the pressure off the rope. Repeat until the horse understands that this pressure is ok. Gradually move the rope to around the belly and back to the flank where the quarter straps go using the same process.

Be well.

Best Regards, Jay

Les Barden’s Response:

The exacting fit of the properly adjusted D-ring harness assures ultimate comfort and safety for the horse. No tongue or twin-yoke weight is on the neck. The shoulders carry only the collar and the hames. The short, forward tugs are locked at 90 degrees to the hames by locating the D-ring with the market straps and girth. The girth needs only to be snug enough to prevent the D-ring from riding up, which could alter the right angle pull on the hames.

The forward side-strap from the twin-yoke to the D-ring and the long tug from D-ring to singletree must be tight enough to suspend the pole. The desired height of the pole end can easily be attained by tightening the heel chains. All this is thoroughly shown and explained in the video: “The D- Ring Harness”.

As with any harness, the breeching should be located high on the rump and just below the pin bones. It should come into play immediately when re- quired. The breeching should be snug but not indent the muscles when the horse is not holding or backing.

When standing, no straps are tight on the horse. No extraneous weight is on the neck. As the horse moves, the collar cannot move up, down, or sideways. When he backs, the breeching tightens the rear side straps which, in turn, tighten the forward side straps attached to the twin-yoke. Ideally, a straight line of straps is achieved from the breeching ring to the lug hook at the yoke.

The desired effect of the correctly adjusted D-ring harness is a comfortable fit, a safe control over tongued vehicles, and an opportunity to customize each horses harness so as to present him with the dignity of a neat arrangement of straps which follow the form of the horse and his function.

This may seem complicated to those who have not witnessed the horse- saving comfort this harness affords the horse. Remember that once a D-ring harness is properly fitted to your horses, you have only to hitch into any tongued vehicle simply by selecting the number of heel-chain links necessary to suspend the pole at the prescribed height. No longer are needed spring planks, tongue trucks, suspended poles, stiff tongues, etc. to relieve the neck of yoke and tongue weight.

Les Barden

Doc Hammill’s Additional Comments:

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 2

When hooking the traces and checking the “hitching tension” on a team it’s important that the horses be in proper position close to, and parallel to, the tongue. If one or both horses have their rear ends swung out away from the tongue, the outside trace(s) will have to bend around the horses’ rear leg(s) (photo 2) – rather than follow a straight line from the hame to the single tree hook. If the traces are hooked and “hitching tension” is checked while one or both horses are forcing the outside trace(s) outward with a hind leg, then the traces will likely be hooked too long. The tension may feel right when hooking the trace, but once the horse(s) move into proper position things will be too loose (photos 3a & 3b).

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 3a

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 3b

As a learning exercise when working with students, I have them check the relative tension/freedom in the brichen and traces (tugs) of both horses when properly hitched – first, with the traces taught (in draft), and then again with the horses setting back into the brichens in the hold-back mode. This helps them learn to evaluate the adjustments when the horses are in either mode. It also helps them experience such things as one brichen being tight against the horse, and the other brichen free to be pulled twice as far from the rump as desired – slight change in the positioning of the horses will usually even things out so the brichens are equalized – hence, they learn that zero space under one brichen and twice what’s desired under the other will average out to be just about right. In addition, to hitching with proper tension (photo 4), we hitch “too loose” (photo 5), and then “too tight” (photo 6), (with an experienced, tolerant, dependable single horse and team) so students can see first hand the disadvantages, problems, and dangers of both types of maladjustment.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 4

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 5

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 6

When hitching alone, rather than put the team in draft to check the space under the brichens, I typically use the lines from behind to ease the horses back into the brichens (tighten the hold-back system). Then, I can simply check the trace chains for that ideal bit of slack that should be present when the horses are not in draft (photo 7). This seems easier for some horses than trying to get them to lean or step forward, and hold themselves in draft without actually moving the vehicle or equipment. Of course, if the team happens to hold the traces taught on their own after they’re hooked, I can simply reach up and check the tightness of the brichens, rather than pull them back to check the chains.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 7

Double trees that are mounted so that they pivot and hang down when not hitched require some special consideration with respect to “hitching tension” (photo 8). The weight of the double tree and single trees (rigging) pulling downward on the traces can either cause the traces to be hooked too long, so as not to seem overly tight. Or, if the traces are hitched the appropriate length, they will seem excessively tight due to the downward pull of the rigging – and the brichens will appear too tight as well. But once the horses move forward into draft the rigging and traces are pulled up into a straight line between the point of attachment of the double tree and the traces at the hame (photo 9). When in draft the horses end up closer to the neckyoke which effectively loosens the brichens – hopefully, just the right amount.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 8

My evaluation of proper “hitching tension” is a process that continues once I’m actually driving and working a horse or team. I want to see just a little freedom in the brichen(s) when in the pulling mode, and then the slightest freedom in the traces when in the hold-back mode. This is rechecked repeatedly over time and going uphill, downhill, pulling, slowing, stopping and backing. Such things as collars and pads seating themselves against the shoulders; and leather loosening up, conforming to the body, and stretching can cause what seemed like a proper “hitching tension” to loosen up over time and miles.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

photo 9

NOTE: When backing up or holding back significant loads horses compress (shorten) their bodies, thereby reducing their overall length. This results in the following consequences: 1. When body length is compressed there is suddenly more slack in the traces. This is because the hold back system keeps the horse’s rear end the same distance from the double tree, but the distance between the shoulders (collar and hames) and the double tree is reduced. With the distance between the single tree hooks and the hames reduced, and the length the traces are hooked unchanged, the traces become looser. 2. As the body length is shortened the back straps become proportionately “longer” (so to speak), allowing the brichen to move downward and assume a position lower on the rear quarters. If the brichen was adjusted lower than appropriate to begin with (which is a very common practice), then it can end up much too low when the body is compressed – during the acts of holding back, stopping, or backing up. With the brichen malpositioned down on the upper legs this way (rather than up just below the pin bones), horses can become uncomfortable, frustrated, upset, and experience restricted leg movement. When attempting to hold back, stop, or back up significant loads with low brichens, the rear legs can actually be forced too far up under the horse, potentially causing the horses to loose their balance, become incapable of holding back the load, panic, blow up, etc.

It seems I spend a lot of time considering things from the horse’s perspective. I encourage you to imagine yourself in the horses’ place during and after the hitching procedure. What would it be like to be hooked in too loose – sloppy and uncomfortable feeling? Jerked, bumped and/or slammed when starting, stopping, and otherwise changing speeds or transitioning from pulling to holding back and visa versa? And, what would it be like to be hooked in too tight – uncomfortable, claustrophobic, rubbed sore? Consider what “hitching tension” might feel best to you. Then, using what we have offered here, please try to give horse(s) your best consideration each and every time you hitch?

Thank you, Cathi, for your important questions.

Steve, Bob, Renee and Kenny, Jay, and Les, my sincere appreciation to all of you for contributing to this effort. I know that good people and their horses out there will benefit from this sharing of your wisdom.

Be kind, be safe, and enjoy those horses, Doc Hammill D.V.M.

Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series.