Ask A Teamster: Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses
Their Causes and Prevention
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
Unfortunately, trading wreck stories seems to be a common pastime of some teamsters. I’m sure those of you fortunate enough to not have experienced a wreck with horses have certainly heard stories of another teamster’s misfortune.
In those few seconds when our horses are panicking and out of control they can injure or even kill themselves or us. Even if no one is hurt, those moments of panic can destroy the horse’s trust and make him unsafe or psychologically unable to work any more.
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips.
Here are 10 of them:
Safety Tip #1: Always fasten breast strap snaps facing inward towards the collar, instead of facing out away from the collar. (See photo #1.)
If the breast strap snaps are hooked facing outward (away) from the collar, it’s possible for a horse – or his team mate – to accidentally hook a bit, bridle part, halter ring or hame ring into the snap. The result is a claustrophobic animal with its head trapped in an awkward, unnatural and uncomfortable downward position. When this happens, there is a great risk of panic and a wreck resulting in physical and/or psychological damage to horses, humans or both.
I once witnessed a wreck when a very well-broke, dependable horse hooked his bit ring into the breast strap snap, began fighting for his freedom, and lunged backwards dragging his team mate with him. The horse injured his mouth with the bit, and backed the wagon into a pickup truck. The wreck certainly was not the horse’s fault, and could have easily been prevented.
Unfortunately, it’s very common for harness to be set up so that when the team is hitched the breast strap snaps face outward. In fact, new harness often comes from the maker that way. It’s a simple matter to remove the breast straps, turn the snaps over and reassemble the straps so they snap inward. Once the breast straps are set up properly, snapping them inward is actually easier and quicker than hooking them facing out and a whole lot safer for you and your horses. (See photo #2.)
Safety Tip #2: Always snap combination snaps and pole strap and/or breast strap snaps so they face in toward the tongue. (See photos #3 and #4.)
This tip is similar to the first. Again, when these snaps are attached (to the neck yoke rings) facing outward, we have potential for the horses to catch their bits in the snaps when they rub their heads. Having the head trapped easily triggers claustrophobia and panic in horses, and often results in a disastrous wreck.
The paired combination snaps on a team harness usually come pointing in the same direction, so that on one horse the snap is safely facing inward and on the other horse the snap is unsafely pointed outward. Some of these snaps are riveted on; others are bolted on. If they are bolted on, you can simply take the bolt out and turn the snap around. If they are riveted, you don’t have that option without cutting the rivet and replacing it with a bolt. If you use combination snaps, be sure they are modified as necessary so they both face inward toward the tongue.
Some breast straps attach to the neck yoke with their own snap, and are used with a pole strap that has its own snap as well. When using such set ups, be certain that you snap both the breast strap snap and the pole strap snap facing inward on both ends of the neck yoke.
Although it’s not impossible for a horse to get a bit ring caught when the breast and pole strap snaps are pointed inward, it’s a lot more difficult because there’s very little room on the inside. But on the outside the bit and other equipment can very easily come into contact with the snaps.
Another option which offers no chance for a snap to catch a bit ring is a breast strap and pole strap design that attaches to the neck yoke rings without any snaps. (See photo #5.)
Safety Tip #3: Attach all lines to the bit with buckles instead of snaps. (See photo #6.)
Attaching the lines to the bit with snaps was an accepted method in the old days, and unfortunately still is today.
However, using snaps to hook the lines to the bits is just not safe at all. Snaps are notorious for breaking – usually when you need them the most. (See photo # 7.) In addition, an itchy or impatient horse can unhook them when he bumps or rubs his head on the neck yoke. He can also unhook or break line snaps when rubbing on his partner.
No matter what the scenario, when a snap is rubbed off or fails, you have completely lost control of your horse. Long ago, before I knew better, I had a couple of close calls and then a fairly serious wreck caused by line snaps breaking or coming off. And since then I’ve heard countless stories of near misses and serious wrecks due to line snap failures.
As with other snaps, if line snaps are facing outward, a horse can snag them and therefore his bit into a multitude of other harness parts – his or his partners. This can have potentially devastating consequences as the horse becomes trapped and panics. A vision of two horses that once got their bits snapped together comes to mind.
There are a lot of different types of snaps on the market. In my opinion, all snaps – except for one type – are dangerous on driving lines. The only snap I consider safe is a twisted line snap. (See photo #8.) It’s also called a twisted wire snap. I’ve never heard of them coming off and I’ve never had one come off myself. The downside is that they can be tricky to get on and off until you perfect the technique.