January 31, 2008

The Single Horse Hitch

We have an old family story that shortly after my great grandfather emigrated to the West from Switzerland – when he was working for a well-to-do farmer as a day laborer. One of his jobs was to hitch up the buggy for the farmer, his wife and family. Not having been around livestock much, his new circumstances were unfamiliar and he had a lot of learning to do. One morning when he hitched up the buggy to a single horse, he forgot to attache the tugs (or hames) to the single tree. But everything else was done to perfection. When the good farmer and his dainty wife climbed aboard the surrey, settled themselves down and drew up the reins, the horse calmly stepped forward, pulling itself free of the carriage shafts, which then dropped to the ground leaving both the vehicle and its occupants behind. Though eventually they were able to laugh this incident off, it was somewhat of an embarrassment at the time – why – everyone knows how to hitch up a horse! Or do they? Not so much these-a-days. So here is a brief explanation of how it is done, followed by a poem, “The Battle of Britchen” which relates a true tale of breaking an older horse to harness.

First, you need to learn what the various parts of a harness are and where they go on a horse. Basically, you will have a driving bridle with blinders (or blinkers), neck collar or breast collar, a harness saddle (or surcingle), backstrap and crouper and what is known as a spider, which are the leather straps used on the hip of the animal coming off the backstrap, some of their uses include the hold-back straps and the britchen. Coming off of the collar are the hames (also called tugs) which are the thick multi-layered leather straps that actually attach the harness and horse to the vehicle. The tugs often have a short chain on the end that is attached to the single tree of the carriage. (Am I talking Greek yet?) And of course there are the long reins.

Once you have all that figured out, the biggest rule in harnessing is to put the harness on from the front going backwards and to unharness from the back going frontwards. To start off, you place the collar over the horses head and then put on the bridle with the blinkers. Then comes the saddle, which is not what you are thinking, but a light version that basically just holds the whole contraption to the horse. It buckles on the left and has loops for the carriage shafts to slide through and hold. Once the saddle is on, you attach the back strap and crouper and then you pull the tail over the top of the britchen, sometime called a butt strap. At that point, you pull the carriage around back of the horse, and with your helper, push the shafts through the saddle loops, and attach the tugs to the single tree. Then you hook up the pullback straps to the spider. Lastly, you run the reins through the saddle rings and clip them to the driving bit. A quality set of reins will buckle together at the driving end so that they don’t slip away. Once all that is done – you’re ready to go. Some horses are trained to cue from a whip, others from voice and still others - like mine - from the ever so light touch of the reins – not only on the bit, but practically everywhere on their bodies. When you unhitch, you do the same but in reverse order.

A horse well broken to harness is one of life’s little pleasures – and has been for eons of time. So – having said all that, here is my poem. This photo is of my hitching up one of my sleighs for a high-speed romp through snow with a couple of friends last week.

The Battle of Britchen
by Paul Kern

Dan’s a Quarter Horse of Doc Bar blood,
Of cuttin’ horse stock was his stud.
Quick on the laybacks, ropin’ and such,
Faster sideways with just a touch.

But I needed a horse in the hames,
I needed a horse with long reins,
Full harness, surcingle and britchen,
Who’d stand a stop without twitchin’.

Now Dan’s got a real nice disposition,
Even when to hitch you’re a fixin’.
Not too goosey ‘bout all that stichin’,
Collar, hames, surcingle and britchen.

Dan stood there calm and trustin’,
To a buggy, we then hitched him.
That first confined this horse, this mover.
Blinders, plow bit, cinch and crouper.

Buggy shafts and tugs went through,
On both sides like the Amish do.
All done up with blinkers of leather,
This could make for stormy weather.

As we made him pull that thing,
He commenced to buck and swing.
T’warnt so much the shafts and hitchin’,
It was the crouper and the britchen.

The crouper loop commenced to wiggle.
Dan kicked out when he felt the jiggle,
When he pushed north, his back would bend,
The britchen slunk on his southbound end.

‘Neath the crouper were his tail knuckles,
Above were straps and metal buckles.
In the thick of this rubbin’ and itchin’
Dan declared the Battle of Britchen.

His laybacks this time weren’t at a lope,
Backin’ up he pulled at the safety rope,
Twistin’ and backin’ and buckin’ as able,
It was time for me to turn this table.

The shafts were of metal - not to break,
The harness gave up no real estate.
Dan was stuck this he knew,
He’d calm back down once he blew.

And blew he did with a twist and a pout,
Backwards not forwards, he couldn’t get out.
A pull on the reins only pushed him more,
Back we rolled over that pasture floor.

Then a thought became quite clear,
His neck was straight in line with his rear.
This made for a one-horse overdrive,
Dan seemed to have the strength of five.

Then another thought occurred to me,
This straight line broken ought to be.
Dan pushed left, I pulled right,
And so I entered into the fight.

His head went up, his head went down,
I tugged the rein and held my ground.
His neck then bent despite the shafts,
His over-drive ran out of gas.

Dan found the edge of common sense,
The top rail of his mental fence.
He stopped and stood there in his britchen,
Like nothing happened, no hair a’ twitchin’.

The light went on in Dan’s ol’ head,
The harness ain’t a thing to dread.
Fact’s it’s easier than ridin’
No weight to carry, just move out stridin’.

I now have a horse for my cabriolet.
To pull my wagon and I’d like to say,
When ridin’ and drivin’ both are mixin’
Dan’s an old veteran of the Battle of Britchen

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