Farming Magazine - August, 2013


Working Horses: Team Titles

By Vicki Schmidt

A hitch of just two horses will act as both leaders and wheelers for maneuvering the load. The breeching of a harness assists with providing the braking action.
Photos courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

Every farm needs a good team, whether it's best friends, spouses, a great team of horses, or a single chore horse with a dedicated driver. It's a time-proven fact: a farm runs best with the right match of horses and humans.

When it comes to teams of horses, here are a few things to note. It's much more than just hooking two horses that look alike together. More than one team hooked together is called a multiple hitch. You will also hear multiple hitches termed four-up, six-up and eight-up. If you attend the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series, a treat for anyone who admires a draft, you'll see them listed in much the same fashion.

The leaders are the first team of drafts, hitched in front. This is the same no matter if it's one team or any number of multiple hitches. Leaders are brave and obedient. They are connected to their driver at all times and in every way: with driving lines, body language, spirit and words. Leaders guide the hitch and provide direction for the teams that follow.

With multiple hitches, wheelers are the team closest to the implement or wagon. Wheelers are generally the stoutest horses on the farm. They provide the slowing and braking action for the hitch, and they will also provide the bulk of the energy needed to start the load moving. Due to their role in assisting with braking action, the only breeching you'll see on a multiple hitch is on the wheelers. The breeching is the part of the harness that absorbs and transfers the forward energy, allowing the load to slow down, halt or fully reverse its forward movement.

All multiple hitches have one set of leaders and one set of wheelers. All other teams in a multiple hitch are called swing teams. A six-hitch will add one swing team for the middle team, an eight-hitch will add two swing teams, and so on. Swing teams are pure followers. They are guided by the leaders, and when needed they follow the slowing energy of the wheelers. A smooth-moving multiple hitch, whether at work, parade or show, is fluid in motion. It is a gifted horseman that can hold and guide this energy without mishap.

Leader and swing teams will not have breeching, as they do not contribute to the braking action of a multiple hitch.

When teaming horses, attention to shared personality traits is sometimes the hardest issue to overcome. Two horses that match well in size and color may not have the desire or ability to lead a hitch. In the same fashion, larger drafts that are physically designed to provide the perfect braking action needed for a multiple hitch may not have the personality to be followers, and will fuss and fight to "lead" even though they are placed behind other horses. Drafts are often like people; there are leaders and followers. Knowing your drafts and their respective traits and attitudes will help you place them properly for team or multiple hitch work.

There are differences between a harness for singles and those for working teams. Sometimes you'll see a harness set for teams that has no breeching. This is often called a "plow harness." This style of harness is used any time you won't need to back the load, or halt a load with energy other than what is offered by friction from the ground. You do not back with a plow or a log - or at least you should never have to. If you do, it's not going to be pretty. Ideally, your plowing and logging routes are planned in a fashion that will not put you and your horse(s) in a situation where backing up is the answer. If this situation is encountered while using a plow-style harness, unhooking from the load is a much better solution.

While similar in style, a plow harness is not the same as the harness on the leaders and swing teams of multiple hitches. When you see parade or show hitches, there is a decorative piece that comes down from the back called the spider. It adds flash and ornamental flair, and works to stabilize the trace; however, the spider does not function to move or influence the energy of the hitch.

Two drafts may match in color and style, but if one wants to lead and the other follow, it may take time and concentrated training for them to learn to work as a team.

If purchasing a used harness for either a single or a team, ask if it has a breeching. What may seem like a great deal on a used harness may only give limited use if it's a plow-style harness or designed for the lead or swing teams on a multiple hitch. If your work requires you to hook to a cart or implement where backing a load is required, a breeching will be needed. Breechings can be purchased after the fact, but it's best to purchase a complete harness designed for your goals.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. The farm features drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.