Draft Animal Equipment

Hitching with and without a Pole

by Valvert Lucius Fox
In the overall scheme of things, hitching with and without a pole are both necessary.

You would hitch without the use of a pole when you are: plowing with a walking or a sulky, drag harrowing, skidding logs, pulling a stoneboat, using an Acme harrow. You would use a pole with various implements: wagons, riding cultivators, work sleds, sulky plows (gotcha—a sulky can be hitched either way). These are just a few of the situations that come quickly to mind. You can probably think of a plenty more.

I use a pole or tongue whenever I can. The pole helps your team. They can turn a load easier with a pole while keeping their balance and feet better. With the tongue or pole a team always pulls toward the general front. The doubletree is directly behind them all the time. The tugs are putting little lateral pressure on their legs. The horses are relatively comfortable and their stamina is greater than if the traces were being pulled against their legs, as is the case when a pole is not used. The pull on their collars is more square or equal, as the tugs are kept fairly even by the doubletree.

Most teamsters are familiar with the pole that attaches to the implement and swivels up and down. This style is, in my opinion, the easiest for the teamster to use and easiest on the team. If the pole is on a wagon or carriage that will be pulled at a trot, this configuration is especially desirable, for the pole will gently move up and down as the horses trot. Even with this type of pole you have to adjust the harness so the brichen is snug, but not tight. Adjust the neck yoke so the head of the pole is 31" from the ground, where the tongue works best. I carry a small tape measure in my pocket so I can always check this height when I hitch.

The pole on my work sled connects so low that it takes a good deal of adjusting to get it down where it belongs. Here is where my D-ring harness comes to the front, for it adjusts quickly and easily. Varying lengths in tongue also necessitate harness adjustment to maintain the 31" norm in the pole head. A difference of 2" in the pole, either longer or shorter, calls for adjustments in your harness.

Depending on the configuration of your wagon body, the tongue might swivel up into a vertical position, getting it out of the way during stowage. If you have one of these and stow it with the tongue in a vertical position, tie it up there. Could give you a bad headache if, for whatever reason, it comes down upon you from that position.

Another type of tongue that is mostly found on old wooden wheeled farm wagons is fixed—it doesn't go anywhere. The entire pole sticks straight out at the height of about 31". A real knee knocker. This pole requires your team to back in or be led in one at a time. This style usually has a permanently mounted wooden neck yoke, at least the ones that I have seen and the one that I used at a Fall Harvest Festival a couple of years ago did.

I have heard of a tongue set-up that you leave hooked to your team as you move from one implement to another. I've never seen one myself. Don't believe I would use one. A fella could lose a finger or two if his team moved while he was in the process of hooking it in. Safety-wise I would fight shy of this type of tongue, even with my steady and reliable team.

If I can find a way to use a pole on any implement, why then I'm for doing it. I like a pole in a sulky plow, even though you can hitch and plow without it. The pole makes turns easier for the team to negotiate and helps stabilize the plow during the turns, so you're less apt to upend the plow at the end of a furrow. A pole, it seems to me, also gives you a little better control of your team. If I have my druthers, I'druther plow with a walking plow, anyway, because the walking plow is easier on my team.

My work sled has a pole, again because I'm convinced it's easier on my team. The horses can pull heavier loads without putting uneven pressure on the collars—without placing the bulk of the pull on one shoulder or the other.

Of course, at times you have to work your team without benefit of a pole. When you do, take the neck yoke out of the harness. If you're using jockey yokes you can leave them in or take them out. But you might have a long walk to get them if you have to hook to a tongued implement out in the field. Assess the situation well before taking them out.

Removing the neck yoke should not affect the way your team works. Nor should they work farther apart or closer together just because the neck yoke is off. The way your lines are adjusted determines whether your horses work closer together or farther apart. Usually your inside check line will be about 8" longer than the outside line for your horses to be balanced and working at the proper distance for a 36" singletree. Lengthen the inside check one hole for a 42" singletree. If you don't make these adjustments your team will work with their heads turned in or turned out, placing uneven collar pressure on one shoulder or the other. If you are handling heavy loads, as you would in logging, it won't be long before your horses are too sore in the shoulders to work.

Years ago in my neck of the woods loggers worked their teams without any lines—just by voice commands—and did not have the lines to hold the teams together. They used breast chains with a T-shaped device on each end that went through the breast strap rings on the hames. Eldridge O'Neal, who used to work teams in the woods, still has such a chain. I use one once in a while, when I have a horse that spreads out too much while I'm plowing.

Watching your draft (the angle of the tugs to the hames should be 90 degrees) is more important when you work a team without benefit of a pole. Use your heel chains to adjust the draft as much as you can. If you don't, the collars may pull down on the points of the shoulders, causing soreness.

When you switch the hitch, you also need to switch the way you drive. If you're going to change direction with a heavy load and no pole, in order to keep your pull directly from the collars to the doubletree or spreader (whichever you might be using) you have to stop your team and fan your horses (side-step or half-pass them) to the new direction. Then ask them to start the load in the new direction. By doing this you keep the pull even on both sides of the collar, and soreness out of the shoulders.

If you don't handle your team in this manner the tugs will put a great deal of pressure on the left rear legs in a right turn and the right rear legs in a left turn. In this instance the horses can't exert their full strength in moving a load. They will tire more quickly, too. Do it consistently and you will have chaffed legs.

— Remember —
Pulling straight away from your load helps prevent sore shoulders, necks,
legs, and sides.

Pulling straight is especially important when you are tied to huge logs like my friend Glenn French and a host of other horse loggers on the West Coast have to handle.

Hitching to an implement that has a pole makes life easier for your team. When possible, switch the hitch and take the tongue. rh horse logo

Val Fox works Belgians on his farm near Lincoln City, Delaware. This article appeared in Autumn 1999 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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