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Driving problems: It’s all in the proper adjustment

By Patricia M. Demers / Horsetrader columnist - November 17th, 2016 - About Driving

About DrivingWhen you have been exposed to driving as much as I have, you tend to see the same issues with harnessing, adjustment, and form-to-function almost every time you see someone driving.
When a harness and vehicle are properly adjusted to each other, the effect should be that the horse leans into the collar and can immediately be in draught, or lean back and be into the breeching. If the traces or breeching are incorrectly adjusted, then too much slop and slack is created that can be annoying to the equine trying to do his job.

Breeching adjustment. A very common problem that is easy to fix is a sloppy, loose and drooping breeching. Why should this matter? Breeching serves the purpose of brakes for the cart or carriage (if you don’t have actual brakes on the vehicle). Let’s start at the top of the equine’s back and work down. First, the hip strap MUST be over the hips. I refer to the “hip” as the top of the horse’s back, usually at the highest point. This is important, as the hip strap supports the wide strap with rings, referred to as the breeching. The rings of the breeching should be centered on the flank, or just slightly behind the flank. The hip strap should be buckled to place the breeching at the widest part of the horse’s hindquarters, where it has the most stopping power. You will find that this will also be directly in line with the traces when using a breast collar if you hold them parallel to the ground. The holdbacks are the long straps that are placed on the breeching rings and attach to the carriage shafts through the footman’s loops. (they are referred to as footman’s loops because in the past, the footman stood on the back step of the carriage, and a strap was placed through these brackets to which the footman held on to the carriage and not fall off!

This is where I see so many problems. Often times the footman’s loop (which is mounted on the underside of the shaft), is in the completely wrong position. When mounted too far back, the action of the holdbacks and breeching doesn’t work efficiently. This causes the carriage to continue to roll forward until it meets a point of resistance — the action of the breeching. When the carriage basically rolls past the horse between the shafts, the shaft tip travels past the point of the horse’s shoulder, and either pokes the horse in the face, where the bridle can get caught on the tip, or it pokes the horse in the neck, causing him to startle or counter-bend. When correctly placed, the footman’s loop should be about 6” – 10” behind where the shaft loop supports the shaft. There should be a straight line, not an angle, from the breeching and holdback to the footman’s loop. If there is anything more than a very slight angle, then the loop is too far back. Also, the holdback should not only go thru the footman’s loop but needs to wrap at least once in front of the footman’s loop and back to its self. When you have adjusted the breeching to the carriage correctly, you should be able to get a fist between the horse and the breeching strap – about three inches.

Shaft height adjustment. Now that you have the breeching correctly adjusted, you may find that the shaft tip may still poke your equine in the neck when you slow down or turn. This problem is solved by lowering the shaft loop one hole on the saddle. Depending upon the type of carriage, you may have straight shafts or slightly upwardly curved shafts referred to as Coupe or Gig type shafts. When properly adjusted, your shafts (straight type) should be parallel to the traces. If you have Coupe or Gig shafts, (curved) they need to be adjusted a few holes up, as the shafts, due to their shape fit a little differently. However, the point of the shaft should still be at the point of the shoulder. On some equines, if the shaft width is slightly too narrow, you may have to drop the shaft loop one hole, which drops the shaft tip to slightly below the point of the shoulder, which is much better than poking him in the neck, when the shaft loop is slightly too high. It’s OK to punch a new hole between the existing holes on the shaft loop hanger strap, if needed for a more precise fit.

Balancing a cart. Another point of comfort to your equine is the balance of the two-wheeled cart. In most basic terms, your cart is like a teeter-totter, where most of the weight of the body and driver/passengers being over or behind the axle. Your goal is to balance your cart so that the downward weight in the shaft loops — when the driver and or passengers are seated — is between zero and less than 10 pounds, maximum. You want things to as balanced as possible.
This can be achieved in a couple of ways, either by adjusting the height of the shaft loop upward or downward, or by moving the seat forward or backward so that the driver/passenger’s weight is over or slightly behind the axle. This adjusts the weight of the carriage backward or forward over the axle .
Think of the teeter-totter — you adjust the plank to longer or shorter over the fulcrum (axle) to equalize the weight. Without the equine, have a friend hold the shaft tips at the height of the equine’s shaft loops, and then have someone sit in the carriage. You can feel how much weight is in the shaft loops, and adjust as needed until you find the balance needed. You also want to make sure that your harness saddle is wide enough to support the weight. Its OK to add some additional padding under the harness saddle to support the weight if needed.


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