It’s time for another family gathering in Hooper, Utah. All the cousins scramble onto the big hay wagon, drawn by a team of Grandpa Parker’s Clydesdale horses, for a ride around the small farming community. During the ride Grandpa says, “This isn’t much different from the way the pioneers traveled across the plains.” The children smile because they know that Grandpa’s bay horses aren’t much like oxen.
Usually Grandpa takes smaller groups for rides in the pony wagon pulled by two teams of Shetland ponies. Shetlands are one of the smallest breeds of horses, whereas Clydesdales are large draft horses. Both breeds of horses originated in Scotland and were used for coal mining there. When laws were passed in the 1800s banning children from working inside coal mines, the hardy little Shetlands were used to pull coal tubs back and forth along railroad tracks. The huge, powerful Clydesdales’ job was to pull large carloads of coal away from the pitheads.
Grandpa Parker’s Shetlands are unusual—they are albinos. Most Shetlands are black, bay, chestnut brown, or gray, but Grandpa’s have no colored markings in their pure white coats. The rims of their eyes and mouths are pink. Grandpa loves to harness the albinos.
When the pioneers came to Utah, most people knew how to harness animals to wagons. But now, because people travel most often by car, harnessing is becoming a lost art. Grandpa Parker hopes to pass his harnessing skills on to his grandchildren.
Grandpa learned to harness horses by helping his father. By the time he was eight, he could harness a dog to a small cart and ride around his parents’ dairy farm. By the age of twelve he could harness his family’s horse to a two-seater cart. Harnessing requires more, however, than just knowing how to put on the harness. You have to know how to train and handle horses and how to get along well with them. And you have to practice your skills often. You need to learn how horses are likely to behave in certain situations, and you must study each horse’s temperament. It takes patience, a good memory, and love.
Here is how Grandpa Parker harnesses his horses: First, he ties each to a stall where the animal is unable to move about. He checks it to see which harness he must use, because the same horse is always hitched in the same position in the harness, however many horses are hitched together. Each harness is adjusted carefully to fit the horse exactly.
After deciding which harness to use, he puts on the neck protection, or collar, buckling it on top. The collar is made of tanned leather stuffed with straw to make it soft. Grandpa’s harnesses were expertly made by some Amish people in Pennsylvania. Next, the hames are set into grooves on the collar. The hames are metal supports with small brass balls on top. The secret to making the collar fit right is the proper adjustment of the hame strap, or hame tug.
Now the bellyband is fastened under the horse’s stomach just behind the front legs. Next, Grandpa fastens the crupper (pronounced crooper) to hold the backstraps in place. A horse may have a hard time getting used to the crupper because it loops under its tail.
After fastening the crupper, Grandpa adjusts the breeching, which keeps the wagon from pushing against the horse’s legs, especially when it goes downhill with heavy loads. A Yankee breeching is a showy harness that goes over the top and back of the horse’s rump. This is the kind that Grandpa’s albino Shetlands wear. The Clydesdales wear a box breeching, which reaches around the horse’s rear and under its tail. The box breeching is stronger and more dependable for the heavy loads that the Clydesdales pull.
The next thing that Grandpa puts on the horse is the bridle with its long reins that reach back to the wagon seat. The bridle fits up over the horse’s ears and under the chin, and its metal bit goes inside the horse’s mouth. This is what guides the horse.
If you pull the left rein, the bit will be tugged to the left, and the horse will turn that way. If you pull the right rein, the horse will turn right.
The last step is to hitch the horse to the wagon. Grandpa backs his albino ponies up to the wagon, but the Clydesdales are especially trained to step over the tongue, or divider, of their wagon. Then the tugs, or traces, are clipped to metal rings on the singletrees that are, in turn, attached to a doubletree.
Now the horses are ready to take the family for a ride. They trot as though they love to pull in their harnesses, and they are lucky to have someone who loves to train them.
After an enjoyable ride over to the park and back, Grandpa pulls on the right rein for the horses to turn into the area by the corral where he can unhitch them by reversing the harnessing process.
The children slide off the wagon, already looking forward to the next time that they come for a visit to Grandpa’s farm. It was a fun ride, but they are glad that they don’t have to ride on a wagon day after day or walk all the way across the plains as many pioneers did.