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Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

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 Tongue Length

Dear Cathi,

Thank you for your kind words. It is tremendously rewarding for me to be able to devote my full time and resources to helping good folks like you and their horses. You have come a long way and deserve to be congratulated on how carefully, safely, wisely, and well you have brought your horses from barely trained broodmares to working nicely as a team. The fact that you put their early training on hold and took a year to learn what you needed to know before proceeding with them is commend- able. And, you did learn well – I’m proud of you.

Response to Question 1: Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics. The extremely long trace chains that you have rigged up are essential for hooking your team to the long tongue, but no doubt a bit unhandy. Such long chains are bound to swing, sway, and flop on the horse’s legs more than standard length chains. With a team hitched so far from the vehicle, one also needs to be sure the lines are long enough so that the hands holding them are not too close to the ends of the lines, and therefore unsafe. I scrutinized your photos with my magnifying glass and was pleased to see in photo 1 that your lines are plenty long enough, and that you were indeed sitting on them to secure them.

In my workshops and clinics I insist that lines be long enough, and that all drivers sit on the extra line (or otherwise secure the ends) as insurance against completely losing one or both lines if they are fumbled, or when a horse jerks them by stumbling or rooting his nose. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to see someone driving with their lines free to be yanked out of their hands and off the vehicle or implement. Ground driving with hands too near the ends of the lines is a dangerous practice as well, as it takes surprisingly little for the ends to be pulled through the hands and gone. I know of numerous runaways and wrecks caused by just such mishaps, and one man who died because of injuries from a wreck caused by losing a line. Please, folks, sit on or otherwise secure those lines.

I like to use a driving stick as an extension of my arm/hand to communicate with the horse(s) at times when driving. Mostly, I use it to rub and caress their rumps when stopped – to relax and comfort them, and strengthen our friendship/ companionship bond. When necessary, after asking horses to back up I use the stick to help signal them when/where to stop. It’s also used to set a rear boundary to prevent or check unauthorized backing up, and if needed, as gentle encouragement to move out forward upon being asked. Having the rear ends of the team so far from the driver would require quite a long stick which could be unhandy or awkward.

As your photos demonstrate, a tongue that is longer than necessary for a specific team (within reason) is workable. Therefore, if a person has a need for the long tongue with bigger horses, but wants to use the same equipment with a small team, the long tongue will work with the small team (again, within reasonable limits). However, a tongue that is definitely too short, relative to the size/length of the horses, can cause problems and be unsafe, and therefore dangerous (more about that later). The point here is that it’s better to have a tongue somewhat too long rather than too short. Of course, just about right is best.

Although you did not specifically ask about considerations and procedures for determining how much to shorten the tongue on your cart, I’ll go into some detail on that as it might be helpful to you and other readers.

Adjusting the Holdback System: In my mind, making sure the holdback systems on the harnesses are properly adjusted is important in any case, but doubly so before choosing the tongue length for a given team. If we measure and calculate the length the tongue needs to be while the holdback system adjusted out too long, and then have to shorten the quarter straps later to make it right, the trace chains may no longer reach to the singletrees. Conversely, if the holdback system is adjusted too short (too close to the horses’ chests) when the tongue length is determined, lengthening the quarter straps effectively moves the horses closer to the singletrees – maybe too close.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

photo 1

In your first photo (photo 1) it appears that the holdback components of your harness (brichen, quarter straps, pole strap) may be adjusted out a bit too long. I say this because the point of attachment of the pole straps and breast straps onto the neckyoke appear to be too far out ahead of the horse’s chests. This is exaggerated with the mare on the right, either because her hold-back system is adjusted out relatively longer than the other mare’s, or because she is out ahead of her partner just a bit, or perhaps a combination of the two. It’s always risky to make a call like this from a photograph because things can appear differently in photos than they actually are. A simple test for proper holdback system adjustment can be made by using a straight edge about 4 feet long. Anything like a ruler, board, pipe, conduit, etc. will work as long as it’s straight and rigid. With the horses harnessed but not hitched to the cart, lay the straight edge up and down along the roll of the collar and in contact with the front edge of the hame (photo 2). The bottom end of the straight edge should extend down below the level of the pole strap. We will call the line formed by the rear edge of the straight edge when it’s in this position the “hame line”. With the straight edge in position, pull forward on the hardware that attaches the pole strap and breast strap to the neckyoke. Take all the slack out of the brichen, quarter straps, pole strap, and breast strap – just as it would be if functioning to hold back or back up a load when hitched. You may need to move your hand up or down to be sure there is no slack in either the pole strap or breast strap. With everything in this position the pole and breast strap hardware on a properly adjusted hold-back system should come no further forward than the “hame line” (photo 2 and figure 1).

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

photo 2

Perhaps you noticed the rope pulling the straps tight in photo 2. I’m alone up in the mountains being a hermit for the winter, and had to snap the photo myself. So I wired the straight edge in place, tied a rope to the pole and breast straps, ran it around a post, then over to where I could pull the straps tight with the rope while taking the picture. You can simply hold the straight edge in one hand and pull the straps forward with your other hand. Once you get the hang of it you won’t need the straight edge, you will be able to pull the straps forward and visually extend the “hame line” downward and quickly make your evaluation.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

figure 1

It’s very acceptable for the point of attachment of the pole and breast straps to the neckyoke to be anywhere in a range from at the “hame line” to a few inches behind it (towards the horse’s chest). But, in my opinion, the attachment point should never be out ahead of the “hame line.” If it is, the hold-back system should be shortened to bring it back into the acceptable range. To explain why this is important, and what can happen if the holdback system is adjusted out too long, let’s consider the example of backing up a loaded wagon. When a team attempts to back the wagon, the horses move back pushing the brichens behind their rumps back with them. As the brichens go back they pull the quarter straps back which, in turn, pull the pole straps back. Since the pole straps are attached to the neckyoke and the neckyoke to the tongue and the tongue to the wagon, the wagon rolls back when the horses back up. If the hold-back system for each horse is properly adjusted as I have described above, then all the force of backing the wagon is handled by the hold-back system (brichen, quarter straps, pole strap). And, the only force/pull on the collars, hames, and breast straps is the downward pull of holding up the weight of the neckyoke and the tongue (figure 1). However, if the hold-back system is adjusted out too long, with the point of attachment of the pole and breast straps forward of the “hame line,” then backing the load puts a forward pulling force on the bottom of the hames through the breast straps (figure 2). This forward pull on the bottom of the hames has the potential to pop the bottom of the hames off the collar (forward). Potentially, the hames could end up on the horse’s neck ahead of the collar – a situation that horses don’t appreciate, and which none of us wants to have to deal with.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

figure 2

Even if the hames don’t pop off the collar, the bottom of the collar may be pulled forward away from the shoulders and out of position. It’s hard to tell for sure, but this may actually be happening to your right hand horse in photo 1, as the collar does not look to be firmly against her shoulders. The collar also appears to be a bit loose on her neck (too large), which is likely because it is being pulled ahead to where the neck is thinner. It may fit her just fine when in the proper position back against the shoulders. Using a protractor to measure the angle between the line of her hame (“hame line”) and the line made by the breast strap in the photo, I get a 110 degree angle instead of a 180 degree straight line. I realize that the angle the photo was taken from is distorting things to some extent. Taking that into account, I still suspect the holdback systems need to be shortened a bit on both horses. When the bottom of a collar is pulled forward like this, the back straps tend to hold the middle of the collar back acting like a fulcrum. The result is a lever action which tends to force the top of the collar backwards and downward against the top of the neck. As might be expected, this can cause discomfort and/or irritation which can lead to horses acting up. Under certain circumstances, such as significant holding back and/or backing up of loads, collar sores may even develop. This dynamic might be causing or contributing to the “something” that’s bothering your horses as you “drive over rough terrain, and go up and down short hills”.

Generally, the quarter straps provide the adjustment for moving the pole strap/breast strap attachment point forward or back. We shorten the quarter straps to move the point back towards the horse, or lengthen both quarter straps to position it farther ahead. Some pole straps are adjustable for length, in which case shortening or lengthening the pole strap will give the same results – or a combination of quarter strap and pole strap adjustments can be used. Shortening the holdback system puts the horses closer to the neck yoke and the end of the tongue, which in turn positions them farther from the singletrees. Conversely, lengthening the holdback system results in the horses being farther from the neck yoke and end of the tongue, and therefore closer to the singletrees.

NOTE: whenever adjusting paired straps on a harness – such as quarter straps, back straps, hip straps – make sure that both of the paired straps end up the same length. Tom and I use a tape measure to be sure (counting the holes isn’t always accurate, even on some new harness). An exception is that while the front pair of hip straps should be equal, and the paired rear hip straps should be equal, the front pair can be a different length than the rear pair (and also the middle pair when a 3 strap brichen is used). This difference between front and rear straps is sometimes necessary to get the top and bottom edges of the brichen to make equal contact with the curve of the horse’s rump. Otherwise, there can be excessive pressure and friction on one edge of the brichen, and too little on the other edge, which can rub the skin raw.

Determining the Appropriate Tongue Length:

Once the holdback system is adjusted properly on both horses we are ready to determine what the length of the tongue should be. At this point, I suggest measuring the distance from the rear end of the tongue to the doubletree pin hole, and record this measurement. Assuming the doubletree is at an acceptable distance from the front of the vehicle or implement, this measurement will need to remain the same on the shortened tongue. Next, the critical distance along the tongue from the doubletree pin hole to the neckyoke ring needs to be decided.

I called on the expertise and experience of Dave Engel* for some specific recommendations and guidelines on tongues and tongue lengths. Below is Dave’s much appreciated contribution to this discussion:

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

figure 3

Tongue lengths – There are a few ‘rules of thumb’ that I have observed over the years and use. Your question involved wagon tongues, but there might be an interest in buggy poles also to your readers. There is a variation in lengths between the two, even for the same horse, and that is because of the differences in the configurations of the doubletrees – buggys having the singletrees mounted on top of the evener (figure 3), and wagons having them mounted in front of the evener – which some, you know, call the doubletree (figure 4).

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

figure 4

Buggy poles are designed to be 7’ from neckyoke to doubletree pin for ponies (400 to 600#); 8 1/2’’ for saddle horse (1000-1200#) and 9 1/2’’ for the draft horse (1800-2000#). It is not too difficult to extrapolate the in- between sizes (8’ for 800# mules, 9’ for 1500# crossbreds, etc.) and the only way to adjust lengths on a buggy pole is to trim the tip length, because of the bent portion of the heels on these buggy poles (figure 3). Wagon tongues generally require 1 additional foot in length strictly because of the nature of the doubletree. When you lay out a wagon doubletree flat, as it is when hooked up, this becomes apparent (figure 4). So I figure 8’ for ponies, 9 1/2’ for saddle horses, and 10 1/2’ for large drafts as a starting rule of thumb. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, and it’s not at all difficult to specifically fit a pole or tongue to the animal, such as in the case of your Fjord question.

One problem with using the “neckyoke to doubletree” measurement that a teamster might be familiar with, is that when they do the construction part the overall tongue length is often mismeasured by failing to add an additional 6” from the neckyoke to the tongue end itself, while buggy poles need 4” additional.

Your question posed proposed cutting off the rear portion of the tongue. Generally a tongue will have about 30” of no-tapered butt-end before it begins tapering to the tip. If these heel chains (with extensions) are 4’, and the regular heel chains are about 20”, this would require cutting off 28” from the butt-end which would begin to put the tapered portion of the tongue into the hounds, which will cause a poor, loose fit. Wagon tongues can be trimmed on both ends for length, but in this case they might consider trimming the tip end. This will bring the neckyoke back into the thicker portion of the tongue for greater strength, or it could be trimmed in thickness if considered too heavy. [In some cases, it might work best to cut some off the butt-end of the tongue, and the remainder off the tip end. DH]

Anyway, what I advise in custom fitting a pole or tongue to any animal is that while they are hitched to the rail, hook up your neckyoke and measure from the neckyoke center ring (or leather center on a buggy neckyoke) down the tongue to the end of the extended tug, less one chain link, and this is what you want for neckyoke to doubletree measurement. [The slack should be out of the holdback system when doing this. DH]

I hope some of this rambling is helpful. Stay warm!


*Engel’s Coach Shop, Horse Drawn Vehicle Restoration, 105 South Main, PO Box 247, Joliet, Montana 59041, (406) 962-3573,

After considering the standard lengths and procedures that Dave mentions, I recommend that you double/triple/quadruple check – BEFORE cutting the tongue off – to be sure the length you choose will work for your specific horses AND harness. Don’t be like the fellow who cut the tongue off twice and it was still too short. Don’t forget about that measurement from the butt-end of the tongue to the doubletree pin, and the 6 inches (4 on buggy poles) that needs to go out ahead of the neckyoke on the front end of the tongue/pole.

The determination of how much distance there should be between the horse’s rear legs and the singletrees is critical. As mentioned earlier, a tongue that’s somewhat too long can be acceptable, but one that’s truly too short is dangerous. A tongue too short for the team hitched to it will not allow enough room for the horses to move freely between the singletree and the neckyoke. When a team is hitched, there must be adequate distance between the singletrees and the horse’s rear legs to assure the legs will not hit the singletrees regardless of the gait, speed, or difficulty of a pull. This safe distance consideration applies to other structures on vehicles, implements, and equipment as well as singletrees. At the very least, the horse’s legs hitting something might make them a bit concerned, uncomfortable, and/or irritated. But legs banged on singletrees and other structures have also caused horses to panic resulting in wrecks, runaways, kicking frenzies, tragic injuries, deaths.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

figure 5

As with most things concerning horses, some variables come into play here. Whether driving a single horse, a two horse team, or larger hitches, the higher the singletrees are from the ground the closer they can be to the horse without danger of the hind legs hitting them (figure 5A). Conversely, the lower the singletrees, the farther from the horses they must be (figure 5B). This is because the lower parts of the legs end up farther back than the upper parts as the body is propelled forward (figure 5). In general, the faster a horse moves the longer the stride, and the more room required behind the rear legs. Although most of us do not intend to run our driving horse(s), there should be enough distance between the rear legs and the singletree(s), and other structures, so that it would be safe to do so. Horses are flight animals and even the most dependable are not above jumping and running if things get bad enough – think yellow jackets. Another factor, of course, is the size of the horse(s). Obviously, bigger, taller, longer horses will require more distance than smaller, shorter, more compact ones. Keep in mind we are primarily concerned here with the length of the horses – there are long and short bodied horses in every weight category.

The option of hooking to the singletrees with various chain links, or holes, on the traces (tugs) gives us options to accommodate reasonably different tongue lengths, and singletree heights. So, every tongue does not have to be the absolute perfect length for a given team. There is an acceptable range which will work best, but remember: longer is workable – too short can be dangerous.

Adjustable Tongues: Adjustable tongues are an alternative to having just one length tongue, or to cutting off a perfectly good tongue that you might need for a larger team later. Some adjustable tongues can simply be unbolted or unpinned where they attach, and slid forward or backward and re-attached. We built a forecart this way many years ago. We can put a two horse team on it in the short tongue position with just a doubletree and singletrees behind them. But with 4 abreast, or 4 or 6 up we can lengthen the tongue to make more room behind the wheel horses for the larger, more complex, big hitch equalizer rigging. Another design is a two piece tongue that simply telescopes to different lengths. I have seen both round and square tubular metal telescoping tongues, and also square wooden inserts which slid into a square metal tubular base piece.

Mower Tongues: When shortening a mower tongue to fit a smaller team than mowers were designed for, there are a couple additional factors to consider. On mowers with gears running in an oil bath, the end of the tongue needs to be carried at a specified distance from the ground – 31 inches in the case of McCormick Deering. At this appropriate tongue height the surface of the oil in the gearbox is level, and bathing the gears properly. With a shorter tongue the proper height for the end of the tongue to be carried will be different. Specifically, that height will be something less than 31 inches depending on how much the tongue is shortened. This is fortunate since with smaller horses the tongue and neckyoke will naturally need to be carried proportionately lower.

With a smallish team it might be worth considering tongue trucks to eliminate the notoriously heavy tongue weight of the mower, rather than using a straight tongue.

Response to Question 2: Coming in the next installment.

Doc Hammill D.V.M.

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

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length