One of many workshops that Doc Hammill conducts each year teaches the students’ current capabilities but will be important later in their learning process – things such as hitching by yourself without a place to tie, hitching young or inexperienced horses, hitching horses in a team for the first time and hitching to and driving something unfamiliar and potentially frightening to the horse or horses.”
Standing Still Reliably
“I can’t emphasize enough,” says Doc, “the importance of teaching our driving horses to stop and stand still and to do so reliably. These are the most important lessons we’ll ever teach them. It should start when they’re young, and it needs to be reinforced every minute of every day that we’re with them. In addition to not letting them move their feet, we also need to manage their heads so they don’t get bridles, bits, halters, etc. hooked onto such things as harness parts, neck yokes, and shafts and perhaps rub or tear a bridle completely off.”
Doc’s friend and colleague Steve Wood teaches pleasure and competitive driving and trains horses to drive. Steve adds, “For a pair hitched to a carriage, almost 100 percent of tongues are self-supporting, (essentially suspended in the air), so the horses can’t be ground-driven into place. Instead, they’re typically led into position individually. This means the horses have to stand there for three or four minutes while the lines are attached and hitching is underway. So it’s even more the case that driving horses have to be trained to stand still reliably.”
Equipment and Harness Modifications
There are many things that could be discussed in the equipment and harness department that impact hitching and unhitching, but Doc would feel particularly negligent if he didn’t mention the importance of securing slip-on neck yokes and using what he calls a butt rope. “Many close calls, mishaps, wrecks, and injuries are caused when slip-on neck yokes that are not secured to the tongue accidentally slide off the end of the tongue,” says Doc. “This can happen more easily than most people think, both during hitching or unhitching and when actually driving. Consequently, all slip-on neck yokes should be secured to the tongue every time we hitch. My preferred way of securing them is shown in the diagram. Anything less than a 1/4-inch chain and a 5⁄16-inch quick link is not strong enough for forces that can be encountered.”
Doc continues, “One of the most common wrecks I’ve heard about over the years is horses spreading their hind ends and then getting head to head or even turning around and coming to the teamster. For this reason, I always recommend the use of a butt rope.“ (See “Key Techniques for Safe Confident Horses” in Rural Heritagevolume 36, number 5, October/November 2011.)
Ironclad Process for Hitching and Unhitching
Doc’s friend Steve Wood emphasizes the importance of a well-understood process for hitching. “Halfway hitched is the most dangerous time in driving, so you have to concentrate very carefully during that 90 seconds or you will forget something or do something incorrectly. A lot of people get distracted—‘Oh, wasn’t that a wonderful drive,’—and the conversation causes them to forget one strap or another. Because of multiple connections to the vehicle, with the single horse especially—with the hold backs and shaft wraps and traces—it’s easy to miss just one step that can have devastating consequences if not caught and corrected. And with young or green horses, when a driver forgets something, it changes the routine which can be stressful for the horse, heightening the possibility for an incident to occur.”
Steve continues, “Generally it’s another person who causes the distraction. On club drives, during family gatherings: the excitement can distract you as much as anything. Here’s my solution: I have a step-bystep check list. As a driver, hand that check list to your header. Make the header read off the list; it keeps him or her from starting up a conversation that might distract you during that critical 90 seconds. And remember that unhitching is the reverse of the hitching process; start at the bottom of the list and work back to the top. If people get distracted, especially when unhitching, they tend to do it backwards. When people are distracted, they tend to remember the first incorrect sequence (for hitching) rather than the second proper sequence (for unhitching). ”
Especially when hitching the back end, when the driver is between the horses and the vehicle/load, our senses must be on high alert for anything that could lead to trouble. By taking such steps as hitching the inside trace chains before the outside chains, we can preserve our escape route should the horses take an unexpected step in any direction, putting us in jeopardy.
Doc explains, “Hooking the outside chain first then stretching to reach over it and hook (or unhook) the inside trace will put you way off balance. Were you to fall in between the trace chains behind the horses’ feet and in front of the vehicle/load, you’d be in extreme danger of being stepped on or run over. Standing with the lines between a horse and the vehicle near the tongue while someone else hooks or unhooks is also dangerous since a horse could fly back and crush you against the vehicle or load or go forward and pull the vehicle or load into you.”
Doc adds another important point about his extreme teaching moment, “It’s unlikely that I would have been able to hang onto and control both horses if I had not had halters and lead ropes on them. I was able to quickly undo the ropes from the hames and use them instead of the lines (which became useless because the fallen horse was lying on them). Without halters on AND lead ropes attached and easily accessible, we are at an extreme disadvantage if someone needs to get control of the heads.”
The Importance of Patience If we regularly hurry through our harnessing and hitching routine, it’s very easy to teach our horses an unintended lesson. If we hurriedly groom, harness, hitch, and drive off then we are teaching them to be impatient. Doing so sets us up for trouble when at some point the process is delayed for any reason and we really need to have them stand and wait rather than go.
Doc shares, “There are exercises I use regularly for helping horses practice patience, relaxation, and standing still. For instance, I ground drive them into position on the tongue but don’t hitch anything up. I wait and concentrate on having them stand there patiently for varying lengths of time before hitching. Sometimes I even drive them away without hitching so they become accepting of whatever I choose to ask for rather than start assuming they know what will happen next. However, once we start to hitch up (or unhitch), it’s important that we follow through to completion in an efficient but relaxed way without distractions or delays.”
Doc continues, “Once you are completely hitched, driving off right away sets a very bad precedent. I have often heard my good friend, master teamster, and horsemanship clinician John Erskine share a story with students. Another teamster whom John admired smoked a pipe. Every time after this man hitched up his team he would sit on the wagon, clean out his pipe, refill it, light it, and get it going. Only then would he ask his horses to go. John’s advice to students is not to smoke a pipe, but rather to take the time it would take to light a pipe before asking horses to go after they get them hitched. John assures them that their horses will become more and more patient and safer and safer if they do so, and that if they don’t, the horses will go the other way. It’s great advice for when we unhitch as well.”
Doc concludes, “This incident came extremely close to being a disaster. If I had not been able to unhook the neck yoke to free the horses from the wagon, and/or if I had not been able to hold on to the horses and keep them from running off with or without the wagon, the potential for more significant lasting psychological effects and possibly physical injury to the horses would have been great. Though we were fortunate, I still fully expect the horses involved to be more anxious and concerned when they experience storm conditions in the future than they were before this experience.
“In hind sight, do I wish the horses had been tied up while I was hitching them for that particular demonstration? Yes, of course. The reason I show people how to do it alone and untied is because it is something that we and the horses need to know how to do. Sooner or later it may be unavoidable. However, when I’m demonstrating and explaining the process of hitching and unhitching, part of my attention is distracted from the horses and the process is slowed down, so in the future I’ll consider demonstrating the technique with the horses tied and let the students imagine that they aren’t.”