Home and Shop Companion 0055

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

It has been a cold week here, at least by our standards, though nothing compared with what any of you hardy northern North Americans or Scandinavians are used to. The water in the troughs, both inside and out, has been solid, and the road is slippery in places where the cold wind hasn’t dried it off.

Home and Shop Companion 0055

Today, now that the temperature is above freezing, I took a load of water to the field. For the first time in months, I swapped the pole on the hitch cart for shafts so I could use Lucy on her own, though sliding the four-sided pole out of its square tubular housing required a big hammer. Next time I change it over I must remember to put some grease on it. The pole is held in position with two bolts, one placed downwards, without a nut, but the other comes up over, as we say in Yorkshire [and Scandinavia for that matter], so I can easily make a visual safety check by looking to see the locking nut on top.

Lucy hasn’t done nearly as much work in shafts as Molly because now that I have two horses it is often easier and quicker to do the work with two rather than one; even for jobs where one horse is adequate, using two means that resting time can be reduced. So instead of the usual western breeching harness, today I put a different set of hames on the collar and a British style cart saddle and breeching on behind. Picking it up is similar to the American style harness, the centre of the breeching goes over the right shoulder, and the cart saddle over a forearm, pulling the girth up towards you so you don’t trip over it. Then the cart saddle is lifted in position with both hands, a little forward of where it sits, and then pushed back with the lie of the horse’s hair. After the girth is dropped over the far side, the breeching goes over the back, then the girth strap can be tightened. This is something Lucy doesn’t care for much; in the early days she would have bitten me had she been able to, so I always buckle it up loosely at this stage, before pulling the tail over of the breech band. My style of cart saddle has no way of attaching it to the collar or hames, so I use a short strap, clipped onto a ring in the cart saddle which loops over the top of the nearside hame to keep it all together, but more importantly it keeps the hame rein from pulling the collar forward if she was to try to lower her head to eat. Then comes the bridle and the lines, and then I carefully tighten the girth properly.

Home and Shop Companion 0055

Hitching to British style shafts is a bit different from the light shafts used for light horses, because the cart horse, which is what we in Britain often call a draught horse, was often required to carry some of the load on its back, especially in a heavy tip cart [dump cart]. But the procedure is the same as when hitching to anything, first the horse control devices need to be in place [the bridle, bit and lines], then the steering mechanism, followed by the pulling mechanism, then the braking apparatus, and then anything else.

So after backing Lucy between the shafts [because she has no blinkers she can see where to go so I just back her with the lead rope and mostly let her do the steering], I lift the offside shaft and put the short shoulder chain under the shaft and hook it to the hame hook. This keeps the shafts up, as well as allowing the horse to take the hitch cart with her if she moved forwards. But I don’t want that to happen, so I keep the lead rope in hand all the time while yoking up. Then I throw the back chain over the cart saddle. This is noisy, so with a young horse it needs to be lowered gently, and then I settle it in the groove on top of the cart saddle, before going round the other side and hooking it onto the shaft. Then on goes the nearside shoulder chain, making sure my fingers cannot get trapped in the chain or under the hame hook should the horse move forward, before I go back to the offside and re-adjust that shoulder chain so it no longer goes under the shaft. Then on goes the breech chain on the rear hook, I push the belly band which hangs from the offside shaft a little further under the horse, and return to the nearside, hook on that breech chain and reach underneath for the belly band and buckle it up round the shaft, allowing an inch or two of air between it and the horse’s belly. Checking the height of the shafts is correct and the shoulder chains are the same length and the right length so that the back chain is vertical, I take down the lines off the hame top, fasten up the lead rope, and we’re ready to go.

When we got to the house, I checked the valve on the water bowser which I had unfortunately left open and it had frozen tight, so my workshop hair dryer was pressed into service to warm up the plastic and metal mechanism for fifteen minutes. While waiting for the water to fill, I tied Lucy up in the stable, removing her bridle and hanging it on the top of a hame while she ate a slightly delayed breakfast. Looking for a useful job to keep me warm, I decided to start the growing season by digging in the mustard sown as a green manure in the part of the greenhouse where the first and quickest growing vegetables will go. It still seems too cold to start sowing any seeds, even in the house, but it is good to have made a start, the crumbly soil taking no effort to turn over. So even in the coldest time of the year, the ‘seed’ of the fruitful season has been initiated.

With the water bowser partly full, but not as full as when I use both horses, Lucy has to lean forward in her collar as we ascend the small rise past our neighbour’s house, and it is quite a push into the breech band to back it up to the trough. But she does it fine, I block up the drawbar on the water bowser, pull the pin and send her forward a step and drive round the barn before she backs the hitch cart under cover. Then I unhitch, everything in reverse from before; coil up the cords, undo and keep hold of the lead rope, unbuckle the belly band, unhook the nearside breech chain. Then go round the front, unhook the offside breech chain, the shoulder chain, then back to the nearside and undo that shoulder chain, put my elbow under the shaft and lift so I have both hands to unhook the back chain and push it over the top to the other side – all done with the minimum of movements, the balancing system undone first, then the braking and reversing apparatus, then the pulling mechanism before immediately undoing the back chain to gently lower the shafts, still with the lead rope in hand.

Then I stop, for a few seconds, or a minute, almost every time, so Lucy does not associate the shafts being lowered as a sign to move. I check there is nothing Lucy can break, or bend or get caught on, and turn any of the hooks to the outside of the shafts. Then we wait a little longer, I give her a scratch on her neck and lead her forward one step, give her another scratch, and this time I back her up one step, for no other reason that one day I will need to. A third scratch, ‘good girl’, and I lead her forward.

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0055

Home and Shop Companion 0055