HITCHING UP THE TEAM
Awhile back while in conversation with my son I discovered how little he knew about the workings of a team of animals pulling any kind of implement. And once again I realized how fortunate I was to have the little experience of my youth and exposure to my grandfathers. While a single team, two animals, is not real complicated, it is not something you can just step up and do. I think I’ll mainly talk about a three team, six horse hitch for a stagecoach.
Stagecoaches, so called because they ran in stages of usually about five-teen miles, between team changes, were generally pulled with either a two or three team hitch. On relative level, firm ground a hitch of four horses was usually sufficient, hoverer in soft, sandy soil or hilly country six animals were required. In the movies the coaches are often seen traveling at a fast run for no good reason, this would quickly tire and render the teams useless very quickly. On level ground a good team was kept at a steady easy trot. The coacher ran on a pretty normal schedule and were predictable as to arrival times. Each station knew when a coach was due to arrive and had the next team ready to be exchanged.
While teams were matched to size, each animal while in service had its own harness adjusted to fit its size. And a horse or mule would generally travel between only two stations back and forth as rest time allowed. The men who worked at these stations had to know animals and how to fit the harnesses on properly, and keep them and the animals in good repair. A poorly kept harness could rub a sore on the skin of a horse and render it unable to work. A twisted harness was as bad as one with a rough edge. The animals were what kept the wagons rolling. Proper care, feeding and checking of hooves were a everyday part of a holsters job.
Lets consider the three team hitch, comprised of the three sets of horses. The two nearest the coach or any wagon for that matte were called the Wheelers, the second the Swing team and the lead naturally the leaders. The wheelers were always the largest, strongest horses available. They were the ones who actually turned the front wheels. (As a side bar here in the twenty mule teams (really ten teams), there were only eighteen mules, the wheelers were always large draft horses).
Starting with the wheelers, they were positioned in front of the front wheels separated by the wagon tounge. The tounge was attached to the front axle carriage by a heavy bolt that allowed the tounge to flex up but not down to allow for the unevenness of the roads. Now here in aanother side bar in the movies you see the hero jump down onto the this area and reach down and pull a pin out to detach the horses from the vehicle. Just ain’t so, first a pin would be venerable to working itself out on its on accord, and simply wouldn’t work to allow the tounge to flex up. Attached to the tounge was a cross piece called a doubletree. This extended to each side to just behind each horse. Attached to each end by a steel ring was a single tree. This cross bar had a link in the middle connecting it to the double tree and had a peculiar kind of double hook for attaching the traces from each horse to it. The end of the tongueextended past the horses and had a steel loop on it, this allowed a second tounge to be secured to it. The second tounge also had a double and single trees configuration. This second also had the loop on the end allowing a third doubletree to be attached to it if a third team was to be used.
Well have I lost you yet? If you are still here I really begin to try to lose you now. Starting with the wheelers, the real work horses of the hitch Their harnesses started with the collars. A collar is just that a heavy leather device that wraps around the horsed neck and rests against its shoulders. Collars came in neck sizes for depth and width and had to be fitted to the animal. It had a leather belt that closed it at the top of the neck and was padded either with straw or horse hair. It was wide at the throat and sides and had a ridge that stood up next to the neck. Next to this ridge and resting against the wide part were fitted what were called the Haynes. These were the metal or wood pieces you see that are usually capped with the brass balls, (purely decorational). The Haynes are held in place by leather straps at the top and bottom which pull them snugly against the collar. On the Haynes are a series of rings and one heavy connector on each side. These I”ll explain in the next paragraph.
Getting to the harness proper, while it looks like a lot of leather each piece is carefully thought out. The trace is the heavy leather strap that runs from the Haynes to the single tree and what pulls the coach along. A trace is usually about three inches wide and several layer thick. at the single tree end there is a short length of chain whick hooks on to the peculiar hook I mentioned, allowing a quick change of teams. A trace is quite long and heavy and if not supported would drag or droop and trip the animals, so comes into play all the straps seen draped over a horses back Just behind the horses shoulder are support straps with loops to hold up the front of the trace and at the hips are a second set. Now on the wheel horses there is a strap that passes around behind the horses rear hips, this runs around to the front of the horse in a continuous band. At the front of the horse there is a strap or chain that connects to the end of the tongue. This is how the wagon is backed up if needed When the horse id backed the hips push against the rear strap and after the slack is taken up the chains on the front of the harness pull against the tongue this is why the wheelers are the largest of the teams also. So all these straps are what all the smaller straps are supporting. This is also why each horse has its own harness because adjusting all these fittings are time consuming. Consider the trace alone it had to be supported of the ground but when the animalis pulling has to have a straight pull from the Haynes to the singletree.
The swing team is hooked much the same way the wheelers are. Almost always there id the free floating tongue, just in case a third team needs to be hooked up. They also have the breast strap with chain or strap to support the front of the tounge. The leaders do not have the tounge as it would not serve any purpose. They simply hook to the front of the second tongue. they do have the breast strap and are connected together by a lead running from their breasts. This keeps them from running apart.
Now all these animals have a bridle, with a bit in their mouths for control. And here is where I relised how little my son understood about the handling of a team. He thought only the front two horses had reins. Each team has its own set of reins, for a total of three. Each team is structured in the same way so I don’t have to cover each of them. Lets start with the wheelers. The left hand horse will have a rein attached to its left bite, and the right hand horse to its right bite . The rein will come back and pass through one of the rings on the Haynes and on back to a ring on the harness about the shoulder then on back to the driver. Now for the complicated part on the inner bites of each horse there is a rein passing through the Haynes, but then it crosses over to the others horses harness at the shoulder then attaches to the outside rein. Then when pressure is placed on the left horses out side rein pressure is felt on the others horses inside rein. In other words both horses feel the pull on their left bite and know to turn left.
This is done on each team, so the driver has three reins in each hand. Now why you are probably wondering? The next time you watch a western watch closely when the six horse hitch swings into town. If you are lucky and the director wants to show the special he will have a short shot from on high as the swing around the corner. (and another side bar, this is why western towns had wide streets , so wagon teams had room to maneuver.). Watch closely the leaders will almost go all the way across the street before beginning to turn. When they swing the second teams starts to make their turn, cutting the corner a little sharper. The wheelers cut even closer, If each horses hover were coated with different color paint you would see six diffrent sets of tracks around the corner with the wheels even a little in side of them. A driver has to be able to tell each set of horses when to do their job.
Now a good driver had to know his teams, all of them. There were always some slackers that would try to get smart and just run with the rest of the team without pulling, and he had to know who they were and make them work. Kinda gives you a new prospective to Old Charlie Pankhurst from a way back in my earlier foray into “The Women Of The Old West” don’t it.
Well thanks for riding out this missive with me, hope to see you soon again.