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The Three Abreast Hitch as a Training Aid

The Three Abreast Hitch as a Training Aid

by Jim Huggard of Highland, UT

Lynn, I am writing this nearly two years late. I don’t seem to do anything when I should. If I live long enough, I hope to find the time to correct this flaw in my personality.

In 2001 I brought my two big mules (Nell and Bell) to your sale at Redmond. You and your staff were most helpful and I appreciated the way in which you helped all the folks on both sides of the selling. Your ability to appease both the seller and the buyer is amazing. As I stood back and watched I was impressed at what was taking place. I meant to write just to say thanks and never seemed to find the time. Your expertise, good nature, and willingness to insure fairness on both sides did not go unnoticed and I want to just say thanks. So a big late THANK YOU!

The David-Bradley spreader you insisted I bid on is a gem. I have welded a bench seat to it complete with seat springs. When it comes to spreading the bull, two shovelers are better than one. So it stands to reason that both shovelers have a place to ride to unload it. Besides while one is away unloading by oneself the other tends to migrate to the house “cause there is nothing to do.” The spreader is a classic and I am glad I have it.

While I have your ear (eye in this case) I would like to say how much I enjoy your publications. I have subscribed to the journal for years and I have found your books on driving to be the best ever written. (I have loaned mine out many times.) Speaking of the journal, I mentioned to you in 2001 of a little project I was working on and I promised that I would put it in writing and send it to you to see if it would be useful to print as an article in the journal. Two years late(r) here it is.

The honest truth is I talked my good friend, Mel Andersen, (get to know him a little if you can) into bringing his team of Haflinger’s to the sale this year and thought to myself, I am embarrassed, I will see Lynn Miller and Doc Hammill and I have not even sent a note of thanks or put my idea in writing. So here it is, if you can use it, go ahead. If not, please let me know and I will forward it to a mule publication. My purposes in this is not gain or fame, it is to help someone on the same journey I am on. I have given a copy to Doc so the two of your can review it and see if it makes sense.

I am looking forward to seeing you-all again and hope everything is well with you and yours.

Again, thank you, your friend, Jim

The Three Abreast Hitch as a Training Aid

What I have come to call the “triple tree trainer” is simply using a three abreast hitch to bring mules along slow and deliberate to train them to pull triple, double and single.

I am certain that I am not the first to use this device as a training method. I first saw a tongue designed similar to this hooked to a restored fire engine at the Mule Day’s parade in California. It was then, as I studied the hitch, it occurred to me that it would be very useful in helping me overcome some difficulties in training mules to the tongue and to shafts.

Some of the problems I have encountered with a fresh animal hitched to a standard tongue is he will want to “V” out away from the tongue. Another problem is when I start to train one to the shafts for single driving is the confinement and the weight of the shafts on the back pad. It is a sensation they never experienced driving as a team.

The Three Abreast Hitch as a Training Aid

The ‘triple tree trainer’ is basically a set of straight shafts with a swivel (with stay chains) evener, 3 single trees, and a solid type neck yoke (and neck yoke chains if needed). It is easy to make. I use 2×1 steel tubing in a thickness of .93”. It need not be too heavy but stout enough to do the job. I build most of the entire unit out of this tubing from front to back including the single trees. For heel chain connections I use 3/8” quick links and weld them on with the link open to accept the heel chain. You could use a steel loop and make this connection solid if you desired. Please refer to the drawing.

To start a mule or horse in this device it is essential to do all of the normal groundwork before you hitch to this. This does not take the place of any preliminary training. This is a training aid used in addition to the tried and true fundamentals of teaching mules to drive. It is a training aid, not a short cut. The rest of this article assumes all the normal training has taken place up to and including the initial first harnessing and groundwork.

My training cart is a 4-wheeled home-made all steel unit with brakes and a receiver hitch welded into the center of the rear. It has 15” truck tires and a seat wide enough for three big men. I call it my mule-powered four-wheeler. With the drop hitch in place I tow a trailer or can use a drag disc or a harrow. I have hitched to it with shafts (made from 1” sch. 40 steel pipe), standard tongue, or my triple tree trainer.

The Three Abreast Hitch as a Training Aid

To start I will lead up to three mules behind my training cart with three seasoned mules hitched to the triple tree trainer. The colts on back are getting used to the sights, sounds, and smells of being out on the road. The colts are harnessed or saddled, sometimes I will have a Decker pack saddle and a couple of light bed rolls on the mules before they ever get their first harnessing. I may lead two well-trained mules on back just haltered, one on each side of the trainee. The trainee can in this way get used to the cart albeit the rear end of it with a couple of his stable mates.

When the trainee is coming along well and behaving as he should on the rear of the cart and handles every situation in a satisfactory fashion, then he is brought to the front and loaded into the shafts at the hitch rail. I watch the trainee close and let him tell me by his behavior when he is ready. This may take only once on the rear of the cart or it may take several sessions. I don’t make this decision in haste.

When the trainee is loaded into the center of the triple tree trainer he has a well-seasoned mule on each side of him. We, at this point, don’t even bridle the trainee. You could bridle at this point, just don’t attach lines to the bit. He is in harness with the heel chains resting in the trace chain keepers on the harness. The trainee at this point is not hitched. He is just walking along in the center attached only with the lead rope from the halter to the front solid neck yoke. At this point I sometimes connect a single set of driving lines to the side cheek Dee’s of the halter (more on this later). Tie the lead rope at a good length so the trainee can get his head up to a normal walking position but no longer, then tie off the loose end so it doesn’t get tangled. The mules on the outside are hitched with the lines just as if the center mule was not there. The lines simply cross the trainees back and connect in the normal team fashion. You may need to adjust a few additional inches on the inside lines to get the lengths right because of the extra width.

Now we are ready for a road trip. I like to have one of my friends with me at this point. In my circle of friends we often help each other train the mules together. I drive the team and my friend holds the lines from the halter of the trainee then we trade off. It is important that these are good hands on these lines and that these hands respond on queue. If you have an arena, this is a good place for the first session. I don’t have mules tied to the back when there is a green trainee hitched up. The idea here is to get out on the road and make some turns and stops and starts and to reinforce the voice commands to the training he learned in the round pen. When the gee’s and haw’s are given, then pressure is applied to the right or left line attached to the halter. When the stop command is given, even pressure is applied until the mule responds. When lines are attached to the bridle of a green colt and he does not respond, an enormous amount of pressure can be put on the bit causing soreness in the animal’s mouth. We have all seen or have been the guy with his feet pushed against the dash pulling for all he’s worth on the mouth of a green trainee. We want to avoid this at all cost and keep him light so we start with just a halter until the voice commands are well learned.

After this concept is accepted well by the trainee, I then attach the heel chains one link longer than the outside mules. The trainee is not pulling his share but is pulling some of the weight of the rig. In a standard double hitch with a trainee on the outside, he may try to form a “V” with his body by moving his rear away from the tongue. This causes the trace on the outside to bring him much discomfort and this has the potential of a good wreck (I have been there). In the center not quite pulling his share, the trainee is in a more controlled environment. At this point the bridle of the trainee can be added and instead of using any lines, simply run a ½” cotton rope from his bridle rings to the inside hame of the outside two mules (lines still can be used as well as the ropes). Leave the outside team lines just as they have been. Don’t have the ropes too tight, just snug enough that when “gee over” is commanded, then the tug will be felt and the trainee will respond. If the trainee is into the bit at this point and has the potential of trying to run away, then you could enlist the help of Lynn Miller’s buck back rope method attached to the bottom ring on the halter (where the lead rope snaps). In this way, the trainee will pull the load with his nose.

Some of the weight of the triple tree trainer can be added to the trainee with a rope or a leather strap attached from the 3-way snap (where the neck yoke connects or loop around the bottom of the collar) then tied around the center loop on the front of the trainer. In this way the trainee is brought up slow to the effects of a little tongue weight on the collar but not all at once.

Now comes my favorite part of the process. This part is the reason I put any thought in the first place to using this as a training device. I have had a couple of dandy wrecks when first introducing the trainee to shafts. The weight and confinement of the shafts coupled with being all alone freaks some critters out completely. The confinement of the shafts up to this point has been taken care of. I had Bernie Sampson at Sampson Harness build me a pair of shaft loops that can be attached to most any farm type harness. They have plenty of adjustment so that I can start adding the weight of the shafts on the triple tree trainer a little bit at a time until the trainee carries the weight of the entire tongue while the outside mules eventually carries none. In this way the confinement and the weight have both been addressed.

At this stage of the method I attach single driving lines to the bit (take the ropes from bit to hames off). By this time the trainee is carrying the weight of the tongue by way of the shaft loops. He can also pull his share or even all the weight of the cart while the outside team takes the role of just being there. Make sure hold back straps are used (hold back rings are welded on the bottom side of the triple tree shafts to accept the straps) and that the hold back straps are adjusted properly. Here, again, an extra set of hands for the team lines is very helpful. If up to this point the trainee is missing something in his lack of response, then go back to the point in the training and start that part over. The trainee should be responding to voice. He should be comfortable in his environment. He should not be prone to flight or fight. The trainee should be a willing partner in all aspects of the training before he is considered safe for a solo act.

To get over the alone factor I have someone pony along side with a lead rope attached to the halter (I use a twelve foot lead that I can take a dally with if need be) for the first solo hitch in shafts. Again if you have an arena, use it. The more control you have over the entire environment the better. If all has went well up till now, it will not be a problem. The mule should take to it easy. If it is going well, the man on the pony horse reaches out and loops the lead around one of the hames and he just walks along for nothing more than security for you and the trainee. After some time you (and the mule) decide the time is right, move the pony horse away, out in front, and even to the rear. The driver should be ever alert with a good set of hands (not harsh) because remember our trainee has a light mouth. If you ever need those brakes, they will be there because they aren’t hardened from over use and abuse.

It seems at this point, I have the mule conquered. This is where I make my biggest mistake. The mule needs 30 to 50 repeated drivings or more at this point to really get a good handle on him. I tend to move on to the next project and don’t take the time to get the finish on them. Put the trainee to work and consistency will pay huge dividends literally “down the road.” Happy mules make for happy teamsters. Good luck and May God bless.

See ya “down the road.”