Draft Horses

Doc Hammill's Step-by-Step Checklsit for
Hitching a Team

Start in front - end in back. Reverse for hitching.

Doc Hammill**
** This checklist article appeared as part of Jenifer Morrissey and Doc Hammill's article Hitching Safely in the June/July 2012
issue of Rural Heritage magazine.
  1. Pre-position and the vehicle. Whenever possible, pre-position the vehicle or piece of equipment in a place where the team can be tied while hitching, especially in the case of an inexperienced driver, horse, or team. At a minimum, pre-position the vehicle in a way that the horses have a physical and/or visual barrier rather than open space in front of them.
  2. Safety Check the vehicle. Be sure the neck yoke is chained on, and the double tree pin is secured. Do a general equipment safety inspection. Have everything you will need on the vehicle or equipment prior to hitching.
  3. Position the horses for hitching. Drive the team over, back them onto, or lead them into place relative to the tongue and position them for hitching. ALWAYS have the bridle on and lines attached and functional before hitching. NEVER unbuckle the lines from the bits or remove the bridle when a horse is still hitched to anything.
  4. Secure the horses. Whenever possible, tie your horses. If the horses aren't tied, have your header hold one of the cross checks in each hand near the bit of each horse. The header should stay in this position until released by the driver from their duties. NEVER trust the horses to stand. NEVER let go of the lines or rely totally on a header. NEVER tie the lines up on the vehicle or equipment unless the horses are tied. If the horses are not tied, ALWAYS keep the lines in your hands in case you need to "talk" to or control the horses with them. Whenever you hold both lines in one hand keep one finger between them and ALWAYS know which line is on top so they are not crossed when you put them in two hands again. Doc always puts his right line on top so as not to get them mixed up.
  5. Attach the neck yoke. Hook the neck yoke to the breast strap and pole strap of the least experienced horse first, then the other horse. If the breast and/or pole straps attach to the neck yoke with snaps, be sure all snaps are hooked facing towards the tongue. All three of the ring areas on neck yokes are potential finger eaters so be careful.
  6. Check the neck yoke center ring position.Double-check that the neck yoke ring is against the stop on the tongue. If it's caught forward when the traces are hooked, on a bolt head for instance, and slips back later, everything could be hooked too loose. Back the horses a little if necessary to keep the ring against the stop until the traces are hooked and holding it there.
  7. Hook the inside trace chains. Moving to the rear, it's especially important to be conscious of your safety when behind the horses and in front of the vehicle or equipment which is now attached to the horses by the neck yoke. Always bear in mind that the action of the double tree and the two attached single trees can be like a guillotine. If one horse moves, the space between a single tree and the double tree can close and crush a finger, hand, arm, foot or leg. The same is true for spaces between the double tree and the front of the vehicle or equipment. It's generally a good idea to hook the trace chains of the least experienced horse first because once hooked, the outside trace will set a boundary to help keep him from stepping away from the tongue. However, it is more efficient and less time is spent behind the horses if you step behind the first horse and hook the inside chains of both horses, followed, after stepping back out, by hooking the outside chain of the first horse. If two people are hitching, I recommend that one person hook both inside chains because only one person is in the vulnerable space behind the horses and in front of the vehicle or load. If you are dropping three or more links, put the end link over the link being hooked before hooking the chain. This minimizes the chances of a swinging chain end hitting a horse's leg and surprising it. ALWAYS grasp chain links and single tree hooks without putting fingers through them so you can continue to count to ten.
  8. Hook the outside trace chains. Always step to the outside before hooking outside trace chains so as not to trap yourself in the space between the horse, single tree, and the two trace chains. First, hook the outside chain of the horse you stepped behind to hook the inside chains then go around and hook the outside chain of the other horse. NEVER step or climb over the tongue to get to the other side; always go around.
  9. Check adjustment between pulling system and hold back system. Assuming the hold back system on each harness is adjusted properly prior to hitching, the length at which the trace chains are hooked will determine how tight or loose the horses are confined in the harness when hitched on a tongue. Too tight and they become uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and can develop friction sores. Too loose and they will be alternately slapped or bumped by the britchen and the collar when changing from the pulling mode to the hold back mode and visa-versa. To test for the appropriate relationship of tension between the two britchens and the four trace chains first note if there is any slack in the chains. If there is, then the britchens should be fairly snug against the rumps. It there is no slack in the chains, as when the horses are pulling, then you should be able to either pull both britchens straight back one to two inches from the rumps, or, if one britchen is fairly tight, the other should come back three to four inches. ALWAYS check both britchens, not just one. Adjust as necessary by hooking all four chains shorter to tighten things up, or longer to loosen the adjustment. Be sure to unhook the outside chains for safe access to adjust the inside chains first, and then adjust the outside chains last.
  10. Double check everything. Check bridles, lines, and all hitching to make sure everything is as it should be.
  11. Untie horses or release header. If the horses have been tied, take up the lines and move to your driving position before having a helper untie the horses. If you are alone, take the lines with you to untie the horses. However, keep in mind that once the horses are untied the lines
    will not work until you get back towards the rear half of the horses. The driver must ALWAYS be in position on the vehicle with lines in hand before any passengers board the vehicle, and all passengers must be off before the driver gets off.
  12. Wait long enough to "light a pipe" before starting the team. Spend the time double checking everything visually while managing horse behavior.

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Doc Hammill and his partner Cathy Greatorexoffer workshops and private clinics year-round as well as instructional videos on working horses in harness, including techniques for safely hitching and hitching and preventing wrecks. (www.dochammill.com)

This checklist article appeared as part of Jenifer Morrissey and Doc Hammill's article Hitching Safely in the June/July 2012 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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