Ask a Teamster: Securing the Neckyoke
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
We got a team of well broke part Shire geldings about a year ago and they have taught us a lot and taken care of us since then. I have not had any problems driving them so far, but I do have a neckyoke question. A man near us had a bad wreck because the neckyoke slipped off the end of the tongue when he was driving his team. One of his horses was injured and since the wreck they both are too terrified to be driven safely. Now I’m concerned that this could happen to me. I wonder what caused the neckyoke to come off and how I can keep it from happening to me and my horses or should I just not worry about it? A neighbor suggested I could tie my neckyoke to the tongue but no one else with teams around here does that or even seems concerned.
I would appreciate any advice you could give me on this subject.
Mike Ellingston, Ohio
Because of my deep love, respect, and compassion for horses, I feel we have an important responsibility to do our very best to insure their comfort and safety. I started out with a pretty traditional approach to owning and working with horses – naturally I liked and admired them, and cared for them well, but also related to them primarily as animals to be controlled and used for my own pleasure, and to get the work done. Eventually, I came around to making their comfort and needs my first priority – rather than have the priority be my whims, desires, goals, and ego. Over time I began treating them with greater reverence and honoring their incredible, but often misinterpreted, sensitivity, intelligence, and willingness to please. Feeling about horses and understanding their natures as I do now, causes me to take very seriously my responsibility to them – not only to care for them and treat them kindly, but to keep them as safe and protected from upset and harm as possible. Every time we harness a horse and hitch him to something, whether it’s a log, vehicle, piece of equipment, or whatever, we are putting him at risk. I feel we have an obligation to prepare our horses, as best we can, mentally, physically, and emotionally for whatever we ask them to do with us, and to prepare ourselves as well. Beyond that, we should take all reasonable precautions to provide them with safe living environments and working situations. What we do with them, when we do it, how we do it, the equipment we do it with, and the care and precautions we take, are all important considerations for the safety and well being of our horses, and for us and others involved.
I was extremely fortunate to have some extraordinary mentors in this horsemanship business. Among the multitude of things I learned from them were a whole bunch of seemingly minor safety tips that were not necessarily in common use. Some are common knowledge, while others perhaps are not, but in many cases people simply don’t/won’t take the time, effort, or attention to detail to use them. Many of the close calls, mishaps, and wrecks I’ve heard about, witnessed, or experienced myself over these many years with horses would likely not have occurred at all, or might have been less serious, had Glen, Addie, Ed, Tom, or Doris been there to say: “Turn that snap over and snap it facing the other way so she doesn’t hook her bit into it,” or “You better finish teaching that filly to stand still before you try to hitch her up,” or “If you want me to drive that team you’re going to have to chain the neckyoke to the tongue,” or other of their seemingly minute, endless, and detailed, but always wise safety tips. Over time I came to recognize and be impressed by the fact that these great teachers of mine rarely, if ever, had uncomfortable or upset horses, close calls, mishaps, or wrecks – while less fastidious horsemen often did.
In view of this, it should come as no surprise that I always chain or otherwise secure slip on type neckyokes to the tongue so they don’t come off and cause an accident (figure 6). Neckyokes unexpectedly coming off the tongue have caused countless problems, the likes of which have caused injuries, psychological damage, and even death to horses, and to people as well. Unfortunately, the man you describe in your letter found this out the hard way at the expense of his horses. Making sure the neckyoke is chained or otherwise secured to the tongue every time you hitch a team is a quick and easy way of eliminating a number of dangerous situations. I have trouble understanding why anyone who knows about the procedure would not do it. And yet, it seems the majority of teamsters still do not secure their neckyokes to the tongue. Seatbelts come to mind here. They are proven to prevent and reduce injuries and save lives, are quick and easy to use, and yet we all know lots of folks who don’t/won’t buckle up.
With most common types of team harness the neckyoke is an essential component of both the steering and hold back systems. In addition to holding the tongue up, neckyokes permit the horses to pull/push the end of the tongue with them as they move right or left, thus steering the vehicle or implement. As part of the hold back system neckyokes function by transferring the – slowing, stopping, backing, and holding back the load – actions of the horses to the tongue, and thus to the vehicle or equipment.
There are several basic neckyoke designs all of which necessarily allow each end of the neckyoke to pivot forward, backward, upward, and down, and thus accommodate the various positions the horses might assume in relationship to one another. Neckyokes that slide on and off the end of the tongue are in common use and come in a variety of lengths and styles, most of which work on the same basic principle (figure 1). A large ring or hole at the midpoint of the neckyoke simply slides over the end of the tongue and comes to rest against a stop on the tongue cap (figure 2-C). The stop keeps the neckyoke from sliding more than a few inches onto the tongue. A properly adjusted harness and correct hitching is necessary to keep these neckyokes from sliding back off the end of the tongue. Unless all four trace chains are hooked just the right length on the singletrees the neckyoke can slide forward, come off the tongue, and drop the tongue to the ground. This is one of the shortcomings of the design. But because they slide on and off the tongue the slip on style neckyokes can quickly and easily be transferred from one tongue to another, thus eliminating the need for a neckyoke on each piece of equipment that has a tongue. This is also a very strong, durable design for a neckyoke, as I’ll explain shortly. Another similar, but less common, neckyoke has a rod that slides into a hole in the end of the tongue, rather than a ring that encircles the tongue. For safety, this style should also be chained or otherwise secured to the tongue.
Other types of neckyokes permanently attach to the end of the tongue rather than sliding on, and don’t have to rely on the harness and the team being hitched, to keep them from coming off. Interlocking eyebolts, chains, or other mechanisms connect these neckyokes to the tongue (figure 3). Unless they break or come apart, there is no danger of such neckyokes accidentally detaching from the tongue and causing problems. Why then would anyone take chances with a slip on type neckyoke? The economy and convenience of needing fewer neckyokes, and of being able to quickly and easily switch them between pieces of equipment are logical answers. Also, the strong ring around the tongue does not compromise the strength of the tongue like drilling it for a neckyoke bolt does. Slip-on neckyokes tend to be a stronger and stand up to wear and tear and abuse better. Permanently attached neckyokes have traditionally been used more for equipment where forces and demands are not as great. For example, field equipment like plows, cultivators, drills, etc., and vehicles used in towns and cities. By comparison, equipment such as farm and freight wagons, bobsleds, etc. which were subjected to heavy loads, bad roads, rough terrain, and hard use traditionally had the more durable slip on yokes. Of course, there are exceptions, such as buggies and light sleighs where slip on yokes are pretty much the norm (figure 4) – not for strength so much as convenience, and also because the light, thin pole (tongue) on these lighter outfits would be weakened excessively by bolting through it to attach the neckyoke. For bolt on neckyokes I recommend that the tongue be reinforced with metal where it is drilled for the bolt.
THE SYSTEM DESIGNED TO KEEP NECKYOKES ON THE TONGUE
With properly adjusted harness, if all four traces are hooked to the singletrees at the proper length, the horses and attached neckyoke will be held back so the neckyoke cannot slide forward and come off the end of the tongue (figure 5). However, if even one trace is not hooked to a singletree, and one or both horses move forward more than a few inches, the neckyoke can slide forward and perhaps off the end of the tongue. The same thing can happen if all four traces are hooked, but hooked too long, because the horses and attached neckyoke are not held back far enough in relationship to the end of the tongue. With the team hitched and in the pulling mode, the overall distance from where the trace hooks (at the singletree) to the end of the neckyoke, determines the position of the neckyoke in relation to the end of the tongue. This distance is controlled primarily by the length of the breast straps and the length the traces are hooked. To shorten this distance and move the neckyoke back from the end of the tongue we can hook the traces shorter, shorten the breast straps, or both. To lengthen the distance and move the neckyoke forward on the tongue, we can hook the traces longer, lengthen the breast straps, or both. Our choice of which of these to do is based on some other considerations. For example, will shortening the traces place the horse’s rear legs too close to the singletrees? Will lengthening the breast straps drop the tongue too low, or create a forward pull on the hames that will pop them off the collar? In our concern to hold the neckyoke well back against the stop on the tongue we must be careful not to hook the traces too short and bind the horses in too tightly. They must have enough room to be comfortable, so as not to rub hair off, create sores, or cause them to become irritable, claustrophobic, or panicked. Perhaps you’re beginning to see that there is a delicate balance here, with lots of variables, and little room for error. That is why using a safety chain or otherwise securing our neckyokes to the tongue is so important (figure 6). The master horsemen and women that I learned from knew how to get all the adjustments and relationships just right, yet they still insisted on strapping or chaining their neckyokes to the tongue. They knew what could happen if they didn’t.
SOME NECKYOKE PROBLEMS AND POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES
1. Horses Stepping Ahead During The Hitching Process
Problems: One or both horses stepping ahead after the neckyoke (unsecured) and the tongue are hooked up in front, but before the last trace is hooked behind. The neckyoke slips off the tongue and the tongue drops to the ground.
Consequences: Reactions from horses can vary from standing there stone still and giving you “that look,” to freaking out and tearing off in a full blown runaway. Horses can be injured by the dropping tongue. A person can be injured by the tongue or by the spooked horses. The teamster may intentionally or unintentionally jerk on the lines, hurting the horse’s mouths, verifying their fear, and either get lucky and stop them or terrify them more. Horses can run off and have a wreck without the vehicle if no trace chains were hooked. Horses can run off dragging the vehicle by one or more trace chains, but with no steering due to the tongue flopping around on the ground until the wreck happens. The same things can occur if one or both horses step back forcing the wagon back and the wagon rolls on back letting the tongue drop out of the neckyoke. Other scenarios not mentioned here.
Prevention: Chain or otherwise secure the neckyoke. If the neckyoke cannot come off, the tongue cannot drop and this problem and consequences will not occur.
Note: There is a cardinal rule of hitching a team that I want to be absolutely certain everyone reading this understands because not following it is extremely dangerous: When hitching a team ALWAYS hook the neckyoke and tongue up first and the trace chains last. When unhitching a team ALWAYS unhook the trace chains first and the neckyoke and tongue last.
2. Traces Hooked Too Long
Problems: The tongue could drop as the horses step up and take the slack out of the traces, or the neckyoke might stay on the tongue until a harder pull, faster speed, a bump or jerk or whatever, causes it to slip off and drop the tongue. Anytime a tongue drops from the neckyoke when a team is hitched we have complete loss of the holdback system which relies on the neckyoke to keep the vehicle from flying ahead and hitting the horses.
Consequences: With luck the traces will not be hooked long enough that the neckyoke will slip off. If the tongue does drop out of the neckyoke and the horses don’t stop, the tongue can beat up or even break legs as it flails around. The horses drag the vehicle but steering is lost so it flips or rolls, or the tongue can jab in the ground and catapult the vehicle, sometimes on to the horses (as happened to an old timer I knew). The vehicle can slam into the horses from behind injuring them and/or fanning the fire of their terror. Other scenarios not mentioned here.
Prevention: Adjust harness properly and hook traces the correct length. Chain or otherwise secure the neckyoke. If the neckyoke cannot come off, the tongue cannot drop and this problem and consequences will not occur. (However, there are other disadvantages to having traces too long).
3. Trace Coming Unhooked While Driving
Problems: Same as 2 above
Consequences: Same as 2 above except for first sentence. Others not mentioned here.
Prevention: Same as 2 above. Traces hooked too long are more apt to come unhooked. Be sure the trace fastening mechanisms are in good shape. For example singletree hooks bent open a bit come unhooked more easily.
4. Breaking a: Singletree, Doubletree, Trace, Breast Strap, Top Hame Strap
Problems: Can cause the tongue to drop out of neckyoke as in 1 and 2
Consequences: Various possibilities from 1 and 2 above, and other scenarios.
Prevention: Good, sound equipment and careful, controlled driving. Chain or otherwise secure the neckyoke. Have a well trained, dependable team that will stop and stand.
5. Neckyoke or Its Hardware Breaking
Problems: You know.
Consequences: You know some of them too. Other scenarios.
Prevention: Good, sound equipment and careful, controlled driving. Metal neckyokes tend not to break like wood. If your neckyoke is chained on, the biggest piece of the neckyoke may end up still connecting one horse to the tongue, as happened to me once. It’s still serious but the tongue (and vehicle) may go where that horse does, although the vehicle can roll ahead and hit the horses, and the tongue will be hanging against that horse’s leg(s). Have a well trained, dependable team.
6. Doubletree Pin Coming Out
About ten years ago my wife, Laurie, and I agreed to help some folks with a covered wagon trip for tourists. We were to drive their teams and wagons. Before starting out the first morning I found and used heavy wire to secure the neckyokes on the wagons we were to drive. None of the other teamsters had their neckyokes secured, which is not unusual. As Laurie approached the lunch stop on the first day something spooked her team causing them to jump forward and try to take off. Fortunately, she held them, got them stopped, and calmed them down without further incident. As it turned out, the pin holding the doubletree to the tongue had worked up and fallen out, releasing the doubletree from the tongue, and causing it to fly forward and hit the team in the rear legs. Had the neckyoke not been secured to the tongue it would have slid off, releasing the team from the wagon with the rigging (doubletree and singletrees) bouncing along behind beating them in the hind legs with every jump. I doubt anyone besides Laurie and I even realized the wired on neckyoke saved the day. Of course, I was very thankful to have wired the neckyoke, but chastised myself for not noticing the doubletree pin needed securing as well. Needless to say, both of our doubletree pins were wired down by the time we left the lunch stop. Wire certainly isn’t my first choice for securing doubletree pins anymore than neckyokes, but it worked. My preference is to use a hard bolt for the doubletree pin, placing a washer and nut on the end of the bolt, and inserting a cotter pin thru a hole in the bolt just below the nut. This gives a double safety system – nut and cotter pin (without the pin nuts will come off). The minimum should be a doubletree pin or wagon hammer (lug nut wrench with a handle that serves as a doubletree pin) with a cotter pin securing it. Place a washer above the cotter pin. The spring will fall out, so use the old style, split cotter pins and bend the ends around the bolt with pliers.
8. Neckyoke Ring Hung Up On Tongue Cap Bolt
Problem: When hooking the neckyoke to the team the center ring (figure 2-E) will sometimes be prevented from sliding all the way back to the stop by catching on a bolt or rivet on the bottom of the tongue cap (figure 2-F).
Consequences: If you don’t notice and correct this before you hook the traces, the neckyoke ring will eventually jiggle loose and slide back to the stop. The result is that the traces could well be hooked too long after the neckyoke slides back. See number 2 above.
Prevention: Check for this EVERY time you hitch up. Modify bolt or rivet heads or nuts that the ring might catch on. Rivet heads or rounded bolt heads are best on the bottom of the tongue cap in front of the stop. Chain the neckyoke on so that the one time you forget to check for this it doesn’t cause a wreck.
METHODS OF SECURING NECKYOKES TO THE TONGUE
I’ve tried out quite a few methods of securing neckyokes over the years. Listed below are some of the worst and best, with my opinions on their respective advantages and disadvantages.
Twine and Wire: As handy as they are, baling twine and wire are poor choices for securing neckyokes. Although fastening a neckyoke with anything is better than not attaching it at all, baling twine or wire (even heavy wire) is an emergency only option for me. Twine is not strong or durable enough to hold up to the wearing and cutting actions and extreme forces involved, and wire subjected to the constant motion and forces will weaken and can break unpredictably. Please protect your horses, family, friends, and self by choosing a better option.
Chain and Quick Link: My all time favorite and the system I use almost exclusively now, is a chain fastened with a quick link (figure 6). Most importantly, it has the necessary strength and durability, does not come undone or fail, and doesn’t wear. It’s quick and easy to get on and off, is inexpensive, and doesn’t look too tacky. What more could we ask for? I keep a safety chain and quick link fastened to every neckyoke that I use. That way when I take a neckyoke out to put it on a piece of equipment (often hanging on the team as I go to hitch), I always have a safety chain and don’t have to guess at whether there’s one on the tongue or not. I use a 3/16” or 1/4” diameter chain from 16 to 18 inches long (figure 6-A) and a ¼ inch quick link (figure 6-B). My preference is for chain links measuring 1¼” by 7/8” since the quick link goes through easily. However, this size chain may be too large to thread thru some tongue caps, in which case you can try 3/16” chain with links 1½” by ¾” which should work and will still admit the ¼” quick link. I would not be comfortable using chain lighter than 3/16” unless it was on very light outfits where the lighter chain would still be stronger than other parts of the equipment – the ends of very light singletrees or neckyokes for example. If possible, all of your safety chains should be of a diameter and length that will work on each of your tongues. Otherwise, at some point you will end up ready to hitch your team only to find that the safety chain will not work. At times when I’ve forgotten a safety chain, or had one that wouldn’t work there’s been the temptation to hitch without it, just that one time, instead of dealing with the team while I go get one that works. In the past I sometimes took the chance, but not any more. My sense of responsibility to horses that depend on me for their well being and safety is more important than my being inconvenienced. Even if I’m only moving a piece of equipment a short distance on level ground I attach the chain. My usual method of chaining the neckyoke is to run the chain through the opening in the stop on the tongue cap, then through the hole between the end of the tongue and the front curve of the tongue cap, and finally, use the quick link to connect chain to itself and complete the circle, leaving as little slack in the chain as practical (figure 6). Although this method does allow the neckyoke to move it will keep it attached to the tongue. With this pattern of attaching the chain it doesn’t wear on the tongue or neckyoke. Alternatively, or if a chain is too short for this method, you can run the chain through the opening in the tongue cap stop, through the big center ring on the neckyoke, and then quick link the chain together. This technique holds the neckyoke ring closer to the tongue cap stop, but results wear and tear on the chain, quick link, tongue cap, tongue, and neckyoke ring. Unless the nut on the quick link is screwed closed tightly it can vibrate loose and the quick link may come off. I always use my leatherman type tool to tighten the quick link. (In my opinion everyone working around horses should carry such a tool at all times. Having a minimum of a knife, pliers, and wire cutter gives you the tools needed to prevent or deal with common horse emergencies. These simple tools have saved lives – both horse and human). An occasional shot of WD40 will keep your quick links working smoothly. Please resist the temptation to use snaps instead of quick links, as I’ve tried them and experienced failures – they come unsnapped and also break.
Hame Strap: Years ago I started out using a hame strap to secure my neckyokes. A hame strap is certainly preferable to baling twine or wire in my opinion, and is very quick and easy to use. However, even a good leather or synthetic hame strap does not have the strength and durability of chain. Leather deteriorates over time when left out exposed to the elements, and both leather and synthetic straps tend to wear and sometimes be cut by the metal edges of the tongue cap and the action of the neckyoke ring. If you use a hame strap, choose one that is strong and in good condition, not an old one that is worn thin, coming apart at the buckle, or dried out and lifeless. A good, strong leather safety strap is a reasonable choice for very light duty outfits like buggies, carts, and sleighs, since it will no doubt be as durable as some of the other components.
If someone has a different method they like, I would sure like to hear about it.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS and THOUGHTS
If the distance from the tip of the tongue cap to the stop is too short the neckyoke can come off the tongue more easily. However, the longer this distance the greater chance of a cross check sagging in front of the neckyoke and getting caught under the end of the tongue – a whole new safety issue itself. The distance from the tongue cap stop to the tip on work type vehicles and equipment traditionally ranges from 4 to 6 inches, buggies and lighter outfits are about 4 inches.
I sure hope none of you have any problems when driving your teams, but if you do, no matter what happens you will be FAR better off if the neckyoke stays on the tongue. Why not chain it on every time just in case? Remember: “There are a lot of shortcuts with horses, but there aren’t any good shortcuts.” – (Unknown)
Stay safe and enjoy those horses and mules.
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. www.DocHammill.com