Getting hitched – Part 1

This is the point at which you stop and do a self-evaluation. Is your horse ready to hitch? In the last article I talked about how long putting your horse on the outside rein can take. If you haven’t confirmed that lesson, set this lesson aside until you do. Read the part on harness and vehicles and leave the rest until you and your horse are ready. The next set of lessons usually goes very quickly so you can do this and the following in a relatively short period of time.

The information I am giving you is aimed at the average horse. Your horse may be an exception, so use your knowledge of your horse to guide your decisions.


You are now at a point where you require a harness, and I’m not an expert on harness. I know what I need and where to get it. The kind of harness you need depends on the type of driving you intend to do. So let me give you what little guidance I can about harness. Additional information is available in the books mentioned in previous articles.

There are two basic types of harness; collar and breast collar. Collar harness has a relatively inflexible stuffed, shaped collar that fits over the base of the horse’s neck and to which metal curved bars (hames) are attached. Collars are difficult to fit as each horse has a unique configuration of neck, chest, withers, shoulder, etc. For a collar to fit correctly, it must be fit to the horse that will be wearing it and it is not interchangeable from one horse to the next. Collar harness also requires more conditioning of the parts of the horse the collar will rest on. As a first harness, I do not recommend collar harness.

Breastcollar harness does not have a collar that fits over the horse’s neck. It has a wide, thick leather strap that goes around the front of the horse, much like that used to hold a saddle forward, but without the break in the center front. This type harness can be used on many different horses by a simple adjustment of buckles.

There are many things about a harness that are variable. Some have removable traces, which can be a real bonus. Some are built narrow and elegant for fine harness driving and/or have lots of patent leather, others are made thicker and wider and of first quality leather to stand up to the rigors of marathon and provide support (wider saddle) for a two wheeled cart. Some have lots of patent leather and some have little or none. Some harness are rigged for pair driving, some for singles.

This is probably where I should stop and explain, the saddle width of a harness is measured from the front of the saddle to the back of the saddle. The saddle on my harness is four inches wide. Saddles come wider or narrower, usually narrower. Narrower is okay for a four wheeled vehicle, where the horse is only holding up the weight of the shafts, but not for balancing a two wheeled vehicle. Remember, if you want your horse to come out and play nice with you, you have to make sure you keep him comfortable.

Decide what kind of driving you want to do and what kind of vehicle you intend to use. If your interest is recreational driving, you don’t need an expensive, flashy harness. A good sturdy utility harness will do, just make sure it has a wide enough saddle to support the shaft weight of the vehicle. These are available new for about $500 to $900. If you intend to combined drive or drive recreationally, a good sturdy utility harness will do just fine! Make sure the harness maker understands you need marathon weight harness and the harness maker will make everything wider and heavier to accommodate you.

If you don’t mind polishing brass, get brass fittings and be prepared to spend up to ten hours preparing your harness for show. Otherwise, get stainless or chrome plated brass fittings and don’t take on the ‘pleasure’ of continually cleaning brass. (I, personally, hope I never have to polish brass again the rest of my life.)

Don’t buy a harness with rivets. They are neither strong nor safe. Staples used to hold one end of keepers is acceptable. Most good mid-quality harnesses will have keepers stitched at one end and stapled at the other. Make sure the staples are properly seated and there are no rough edges that will touch your horse. Check the stitching where it touches the horse. Sometimes, stitching on the girth or breeching will be rough, lumpy or have knots which will irritate your horse’s belly or hind legs. If you buy a used harness, clean it thoroughly and have any worn or cracked pieces replaced before you oil it.

If you do buy a used harness, check the quality of the leather. If it feels supple, thick and flexible, you should be okay. If it feels spongy or limp or cardboardy, give it a pass. Don’t discount it just because you see a piece of two that are worn to the point of needing replacement. You might be able to get the harness at a good price and replacing pieces is easy and relatively inexpensive.

If you can’t find a used harness (hard to find a good one but it may be your best value) and you order new harness, think about the width of rein you are comfortable with. Usually, leather for harness reins is heavier (thicker) than leather used for bridle reins. Harness reins are also cut wider. While you don’t have a lot of choice as to the thickness, you do have options on the width. If you want reins that are narrower or wider than average, you will have to let the harness maker know when you order. I have really short fingers to go with my short little legs and I cannot wrap my fingers comfortably around the normal width driving rein. I know other folk with really long fingers who gripe every time they have to use my nice narrow comfy reins. Order what is right for you and just let the trainer or clinician suffer! They don’t have to live with the rein width. You do!

If you intend to show, there are a few other things you need to keep in mind. If you buy a brown harness, you will need to get a natural wood vehicle with brown painted metal (this is what is traditionally correct). If you buy a black harness (reins are always brown, regardless) you can use any color vehicle. If you use a natural wood vehicle with black harness, black painted metal should be appropriate.

Take the time to research the different kinds of harness. Don’t buy harness with thimbles unless all you are interested in is show ring driving or driving recreationally where it is flat. Thimbles are little cups that fit over the shaft tips and stop the vehicle by pushing the saddle into the withers of the horse. Thimbles usually come only on fine harness, but are also found on some pony and utility harness. Instead, buy a harness with breeching. Breeching goes around the aft end of the horse and is what passes for brakes! Without breeching (or thimbles), the vehicle will run up on the back of your horse!

One more thing. Don’t buy a harness with conway buckles. They are by far too hard to adjust and are neither traditional nor attractive. The one person I know who did ended up spending extra to have a local harness maker replace the conway buckles with conventional buckles.

If you buy new harness, be prepared to send at least one piece of harness back to the maker for adjustment. I never seem to get the breeching long enough and end up sending it back (larger than average horses). For you, it might be something else. I also have two girths. This allows me to adjust my harness from a 14.3 hand Morgan to a 16.3 hand Trakehner.

If you elect to drive your horse open (no blinkers), you have some choices.

  1. Use your riding bridle or, if your harness is black, buy a black riding bridle.
  2. When you order your harness, request open cheek pieces.
  3. If you buy used harness, get someone to make you open cheek pieces.
  4. Take the blinkers off the cheek pieces you bought.

If you want to drive with blinkers, check and see what kind come on the harness you are ordering. If you don’t think they’ll work for your horse, let your harness maker know. There is an almost infinite variety of blinkers styles and sizes available.

Now, with all of this in mind, most of the books I have recommended have something on harness selection, purchase, fit, suitability and more. As you will see as you read, everyone has an opinion on harness. Select what seems the most logical to you and run with it. Experience will correct any errors you make. If you’re concerned about your choice, ask for advice. One more person’s opinion can’t hurt and you might hit on something that finally makes sense to you!


I do not advise you try to start your horse driving in a four wheel vehicle.

In the beginning, your horse will be learning an entirely different way of using his body. He will have limitations he has never experienced before. Don’t complicate things by giving him a vehicle that bends in the middle! Believe me! It isn’t the safest thing you could do!

If you really want a four wheel vehicle and your horse has a bit of experience in some other horse sport, find a good used two wheel to use for the first four to six weeks. (That means four to six weeks of driving, not four or six weeks of having it parked in the carport while you look at it when you go by). When your horse is done adjusting to being a driving horse, you can sell it. You should be able to get the same amount of money for the vehicle (assuming you paid a reasonable price) as you spent when you bought it. I only recommend this for horses that are experienced and have been used for other horse sports. If your horse is all around green, expect to spend an appreciable amount of time in a two wheel before graduating to a four wheel. When I say ‘an appreciable amount of time’ I mean up to one year, depending how often you drive.

There is a lot of information available on vehicles, by far more information than I personally have been able to digest. On this, too, I have a few things to say. (You could have guessed that, couldn’t you!)

Regardless of the style vehicle you select, make sure you can get out of it easily and quickly. (I have a really handy leap!) The ability to bail safely can get you to your horse’s head quickly, averting the escalation of a problem! If you want something a little fancier and more complicated, get it after you have your horse trained and adjusted to driving. There is no point in spending the money until you know your horse is drivable and you really want to drive, and will be comfortable driving.

I prefer a single seat village, dog or road cart (one bench seat – will carry two people). My village cart was made in 1963 by an old timer in my area. To date, I have replaced the box (pre-kicking strap days), the box support board (rot), the shafts and the wheels (old age/general wear and tear). If you’re getting the idea I’ve replaced everything but the metal, you’re right! I like this vehicle so well, I even have had it copied. So did some other people! It is very well balanced, doesn’t bounce unless the horse isn’t moving forward (a good indicator I need to push my horse forward) and is really quite stable. It has a 56 inch wheel width, 42 inch wheels (44 inches with the rubber tires) and is adjustable in height! It will fit everything from a 13.2 hand pony to a 15.2+ hand horse!

My point; pick your vehicle to fit your horse and make sure the vehicle has enough room between the shafts for your horse to bend! Heike Bean and Sarah Blanchard’s book Carriage Driving has really good diagrams on shaft width that will give you a good idea of what you’re after. Your biggest problem may be finding a vehicle with enough room between the shafts! Many manufacturers follow the traditions set down by coaching, which dictates a fairly narrow shaft width. Fortunately, I was able to customize my cart and increase the shaft width at the barrel and hindquarter of the horse.

The perfect two wheel vehicle has these attributes:

  1. Enough room between the shafts (the width of your horse’s hindquarter times about 1.6, more if you like lateral movements in harness) at the horse’s hindquarter.

  2. The tugs on your harness can be adjusted to make the vehicle level with the tip of the shaft near or at the point of the shoulder.
  3. When the driver is in and the cart is level, the shafts at the point the tugs rest weighs no more than fifteen pounds.
  4. When you are in the vehicle, your waist is about level with the horse’s withers.
  5. You can get in and out of the vehicle easily and quickly.

It’s a bonus if the vehicle is also comfortable. Some can be real stiff or bouncy.

If you order a kit or pre-built vehicle from a manufacturer, make sure you find someone in your area who has same and check it out. If it isn’t what you need or the balance is wrong, find something else.

If you are buying a used vehicle, check to see the material the vehicle is made of is sound. Check to see the wheels are sound! When in doubt about anything on the vehicle, consult a wheelwright. A wheelwright is one of the few people who is knowledgeable enough to evaluate your intended purchase for soundness and is able to replace any unsound pieces or items you break!. If you need to find one in your area, ask around. Someone will know of a good one or will be able to steer you away from a not so good one.

Getting hitched

So, if your horse bends reliably, your first priority when hitching is your safety. Your second priority is your horse’s safety. Driving is not for the faint of heart, equine or human. As you work your way through the steps necessary to get your horse hitched, you will discover how ready (or not) you and your horse are.

Where to start

The first item you will use is a harness. You will long line your horse with pieces of the harness until nothing about the harness bothers the horse.

Start with just the saddle. Fasten the tugs down. (Some harness have buckles and some have wrap straps.) Run the long lines through the tug loops and long line as usual until the new equipment is old hat. Add the back strap and crupper (no breeching). Long line as before. Add the breeching carrier and breeching.

At this point things may get interesting! It’s probably better if you don’t just let the breeching flap around. Though your horse has long lined enough to be comfortable with things flapping around his legs, if your horse bucks at the breeching, the breeching will probably fall off the outside of the horse’s hindquarters, pulling on the backstrap which will pull on the crupper which could bruise the tail. None of this is necessary! Avoid this negative experience completely!

To avoid this problem, I use elastic rope or elastic side reins and fasten the breeching either to the girth or, if the harness has removable traces, to the trace buckles of the breastcollar. With the elastic holding the breeching so it just touches the horse, the horse is allowed to trot, canter and buck without restriction. The elastic keeps the breeching in place while allowing the (ing) hold back straps (refer to your books for the names of the harness pieces) to flap around. If you want to be ultra-careful, pull the hold back straps off and long line just with breeching. Then, when your horse is ready, add the hold back straps and let those babies flap! This is all stuff your horse must learn to take in stride.

If your horse has a conniption fit over the breeching, just ignore it and long line as usual. When your horse has had enough, he will quit. Don’t escalate the conflict. Patience is the key. The worst horse I have ever trained was my young Dutch mare. The first day I put on breeching and elastic, she bucked on and off through our 45 minute lesson. The second day, she bucked for the first 20 minutes. The third day you would have sworn she had been wearing the breeching all her life. (The whole story is actually a bit longer than noted here. Pre-elastic, we were getting no where. But, thanks to a chat with Bill Long (my idol), the problem was solved.)

Now you have all the harness on and your horse has adjusted to the inevitable, it’s time to move on.

The second item you will need to hitch your horse is a stalwart and able helper. Give this a lot of thought. The most horsey, quickest moving, most unflappable person you can use the better. Don’t use a person who is a quick moving, nervous type. Your horse will react negatively to a nervous person. Don’t use someone who can’t move quickly and/or has no sense of self-preservation. Use someone calm, reassuring, strong, capable and knowledgeable about horses. Most importantly, use someone who will do what you tell them to do without argument! Unfortunately, that leaves out most husbands and wives!

The third item you will need is a good set of poles. These you will have to build yourself. The greener they are, the heavier and more flexible they will be. More flexibility means they are less brittle or rigid. Heavier means they have substance and will not bounce around, scaring your horse.

You won’t use the poles very long, but their importance cannot be under rated. Don’t scrimp here! When you don’t need them any more you can always wait until they dry and chop them up, build a fire and toast marshmallows. Just make sure you build them to last as if you were going to use them forever!


Here’s how you build them. You need two green poles, 13 feet long, five or six inches across at the butt and two to three inches across at the front, and one four by eight, forty-eight inches long.

To prepare the poles, get out your trusty horse rasp and rasp off anything that may scratch, cut or irritate your horse. If the bark is real pitchy, get out a big butcher knife and, with one hand at each end of the knife, draw the knife toward you against the pole, pealing the bark off. This is fairly easy to do when the poles are green. Regardless, I usually peal the bark back to behind where the tugs rest because a skinned pole is smoother than a pole with bark and I don’t need any unnecessary wear and tear on my harness or my horse.

It will probably take you longer to prepare the poles than you will need them, but do it anyway! The poles will teach your horse a massive amount in a very short time!

Now the poles are prepared for assembly, measure your horse from point of shoulder to point of shoulder across the chest. Lay your poles on the ground with this much room plus four to six inches more between the skinny ends. Spread the butt (thick) ends so the four by eight can be nailed to the poles about eighteen inches from the large end of the poles. The ends of the four by eight should be flush with the outside of the poles. Nail or bolt the board to the poles, two nails or bolts on each end of the board using substantial nails or bolts. Voila, you now have a travois. My latest set of poles has nice big spikes that go through the four by eight and most of the pole! If you miscalculate your nail length and your nails stick out the bottom side of the pole, make sure you bend the point over to the point where anything brushing over them will not catch (inanimate) or be hurt (animate). If you elect to use bolts, counter sink both the head and the nut so no part of the metal sticks above the surface.

The last thing you will need is a couple pieces of bailing twine. It’s better if you can find two that were cut right up against the knot. This ensures you have sufficient length to do the job. Cut the knot off and tie a knot in each end to keep the strands of twine from unraveling.

You have all the pieces you need and you’re ready to start! Pull your poles out to the area you use for long lining and go tack up your horse!

Long line your horse as usual with all the harness parts on (sans breastcollar if you have the non buckle on kind). Your horse will be able to see the poles on the ground. If he has a problem with them, long line him over them for a bit. If it involves extra effort on his part he will stop fussing and ignore them. If your horse hits them in the process of traveling over them, they should be constructed in a manner sufficient to take the extra wear and tear. Have your helper looking on. Your horse might as well get use to seeing that person standing around too!

When your long line lesson is complete, reroute your long lines through the terrets on the saddle. If your harness has rings on the neck strap do not use them. There should be nothing impeding your horse’s ability to stretch his head and neck down.

Ground drive your horse around while your helper pulls the poles around. Drive your horse behind, beside and in front of the poles. (I did recommend a strong helper!) When your horse is no longer bothered by the poles, stop and drag the poles up behind your horse.

The goal here is to attach the poles to your horse one step at a time. If your horse is super placid about this whole affair and couldn’t care less (most horses are like this), then you will be able to proceed very quickly. If your horse is nervous and watchful, progress as slowly as it takes for your horse to be comfortable.

Three more things.

  1. DO NOT EVER LET GO OF THE REINS. You can’t stop your horse if you don’t have hold of your horse! Don’t think you can count on your ability to grab the reins if something goes wrong. If you can have someone act as header for you, that’s a bonus, but do not ever let go of the reins!
  2. WEAR GLOVES. This tip we have discussed before! Your grip is improved with gloves and, should the lines go ripping through your hand, gloves will keep you from wearing a long line brand that really hurts.
  3. A header, in driving, is someone who stands directly in front of the horse, not touching or holding anything, but ready to grab the horse and correct should the horse move.

At this point, I usually hook the horse to the poles. With a few horses, I have put the poles around the horse and drug them with the horse between the poles. I only do this with horses that appear nervous or uncertain (usually green horses). This can be a little tricky with only two people, but it is do-able if your horse is reliable to your verbal aids. If you think you may need to do this with your horse, it’s easier if you draft another helper! The poles can be set down on the ground if the horse has a problem and everyone can step away until things calm down. Then you can try again, the next time progressing a little more slowly.

If your horse isn’t nervous (most couldn’t care less), go ahead and hook to the poles. If you have fixed traces, now is when you add the breastcollar. To put the poles on the horse, drag them to where they are directly behind the horse. With one person on each side (this is where a header comes in handy), lift the front until the tips of the poles are above the level of the horse’s rump and drag them forward. With the tips up in the air, if your horse steps back or sideways, he won’t be jabbed by the poles. You also won’t catch any harness pieces on the tips as you drag them forward. When the tips of the pole are just behind the tugs, drop the front of the poles down and run them through the tugs. Pull them forward until the tip of the pole is just in front of the point of the shoulder and the tug hangs straight down from the saddle.

Now stand a minute and let your horse adjust. If you built your poles correctly, they aren’t very light! If your horse should step sideways, he will run into one of the poles. Be alert and prepared to correct whatever your horse does! It is important your horse learn to stand perfectly still for harnessing. If you are consistent and persistent, your horse will eventually not need a header and will stand like a rock for you to hitch and unhitch no matter what is going on or how eager he is to get going. Remember, HO means the feet don’t move.

The next step is to fasten down the tugs. If you have wrap straps, use your best judgement and study the diagrams in the books. With wrap straps, I usually wrap in front of the tug and behind the tug before I buckle the strap. I can’t give you a definite formula because every harness varies. Just try and wrap both sides the same! Fasten them fairly snugly. If you have buckle down tugs, buckle them fairly snugly. You don’t want to suck the poles into your horse, but you don’t want slop either.

Now you fasten the traces. If you and your able assistant can each work on a side and fasten these simultaneously, that’s best. In the beginning, one of you to a side requires a header for safety. If you don’t have a header, do one side and then go around and do the other while your helper heads the horse. (When you go from one side of the horse to the other, go around the horse’s head so he can see what’s going on.) This is where the bailing twine comes in to play. If your traces have a slot (key hole) in the end for slipping over a sword point singletree, fold your bailing twine and slip the fold through the slot. Open the fold and pass the end of the trace through the opening in the twine and snug the twine up against where the baling twine running through the slot. This gives you a secure fastening without actually tying the bailing twine to the trace, and two layers of bailing twine through the key hole produces less stress on the leather than one. This also allows you to remove the trace from the twine without untying it, keeping the adjustment the same from one day’s work to the next.

If your traces have a cock’s eye (a version of a metal ring) or quick release, run your bailing twine through and tie as noted below. You will have to untie and retie for each day’s work (unless you use the quick release).

Take the two ends of the bailing twine and wrap them around the four by eight up close to the pole. Pull the slack out of the trace and tie the two ends into a bow with a nice long tag end to grab in case of emergency.

When both traces are fastened, use the hold back straps (on the breeching) to hold the traces up against the poles just in front of the hindquarters. When you are done, do a walk around and check everything a second time.

Now, with you on one side holding one rein, and your helper on the other side holding the other rein, ask your horse to walk on. After two or three steps, stop. Stand there and let your horse think. A lot has changed for your horse. The poles vibrate as they drag across the ground. They also make noise and are heavy and stiff. After a minute to let your horse think and adjust, walk your horse forward another few steps and stop. You should get your biggest reaction on the second, third or fourth time. Try not to hang onto your horse, pulling on the rein only to bring your horse back to the halt. If you have a death grip on your horse, you’re telling your horse you are uncertain and things are not okay. Work in tandem with your helper. Tell your helper what you intend to do before you do it, using your verbal aids to your horse to help your assistant with timing.

After the third or fourth walk/halt, your horse should be ready to walk a bit farther. Remember, there’s a lot of new stuff going on around your horse. Be patient, calm and reassuring and give him time to adjust. When your horse can walk forward and remain relaxed, you are ready to start corners.

When you first start corners, you want to make the biggest corner you can make. I do all my work in a two acre field so I have 400+ feet to go straight before I have to make my first corner. That usually is plenty of time to adjust the horse to pulling the poles straight ahead and when I do have to corner, I can make a half-circle with a 100 foot radius. I usually don’t need a corner that big. Usually a 50 foot radius is fine for the first two or three corners each way.

You want to turn gradually until the horse’s outside thigh is brushing against the outside pole. The first time this happens, the horse will usually tense up. If he gets too tense, stop him and give him a minute or two to think. Start out again going straight and then gradually turn him until his outside thigh comes up against the outside pole. You want to be able to walk through the tension if you can. Make encouraging and supporting noises to help your horse understand, though this is new, everything is okay. Give lots of praise! After the first four or five strides on the corner, your horse should adjust and relax.

After three or four corners in one direction, cut across the diagonal and go the other direction. Remember, most horses have to completely relearn the same lesson on the other side. Repeat the corner lesson in the new direction.

Even if your horse is still fairly uncertain of the whole affair, this is where you quit for the day. You can repeat this lesson every day until it is so ‘old hat’ your horse is bored to death. Gradually increase the sharpness of the corner until your horse calmly steps over with the hind legs to accommodate the outside pole while continuing forward.

Somewhere in the middle of this whole affair, you should resume your ground driving position. When your horse is going quietly and calmly around corners and stopping and starting calmly, your helper should have slowly and quietly faded to the background, first walking along side without holding the rein and then slowly fading backward. It better, for the horse when you are ground driving, if you stay just behind the hindquarters and to one side. Your horse relies on you for security, especially when new things happen. You’re the head of the herd and the horse will look to you for cues on how to react to new things. If you are visible, quiet, firm and reassuring, your horse will take his cues from you and assume everything is okay. If he can’t see you, part of his security is missing.

If you have your horse hitched to the poles and you are driving him around without help and he couldn’t care less, goes around corners and couldn’t care less, stops and starts and couldn’t care less, you’re ready to hitch to your two wheel vehicle.

At this point, your horse must have the following skills before you can continue.

  1. Your horse walks forward quietly upon request.
  2. Your horse stops and stands quietly upon request.
  3. The pole pushing against his outside thigh causes him to quietly step into the turn.

I don’t know if you can really spend too much time on this lesson. The one caveat to that statement is, you develop a rhythm in training and your horse learns to expect something new every so often. If you continue to supply new experiences which are safe and successful, something unexpected will bother your horse much less.

I don’t advise trotting your horse in poles. It may simply be, because I am so short and my horses are, usually, so large, there is no way I can keep up if they trot right along, or no way I can ensure control if things start going wrong. If I was a pony aficionado, I might be able to keep up and maintain control. But then, maybe trotting in poles is asking for trouble because it is impossible to maintain my exact position in relation to the horse should something go wrong. Discretion being the better part of valor, I don’t trot in poles.

If you’ve accomplished the above goals, you’re ready to move on.