A Six Horse Hitch:- To Entertain or Educate
By T. Rogers Gardham
If you don’t know if a six horse hitch is a wedding style where the participants get married on horse-back or a new dance craze that’s sweeping the Country or neither then your place is at Markham Fair on October , 2013.
To begin with, the six horse hitch most people will remember these as teams of large horses pulling large heavy wagons loaded with beer barrels, in fact anyone who has visited Busch Gardens in Florida will have seen pictures of these teams as a trade mark for the Brewery. Their major use in pioneer times was to pull plows for farmers as individual or teams of two horses. In fact they were probably one of the integral animals used to clear farm land and plant crops. These horses represent a class known by such names as HEAVY/DRAFT/DRAUGHT, which represents their ability to draw/pull/carry heavy loads. When knights were in fashion (Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain) they were also the animals that carried them. Imagine a 250 Lb man suited in armour with various weapons that’s a heavy load for a horse.
The Horse Breeds
There are four distinctive types/breeds of horses in this classification:
The Belgian originated in Belgium, in Europe. The lowlands near the sea needed a bigger horse for work in their heavier soils and on their docks. North American farmers used the Belgian, which was easy to keep, a willing worker, and had an amiable disposition. Today’s Belgian is a big, powerful and a great wagon horse. As well as being equally as effective in pulling competition as in hitch competition.
The Clydesdale originated in Scotland and takes its name from the river Clyde which flows through the district from which they come and was used for heavy haulage in the coalfields and on the streets of Glasgow. The Clyde with his flowing feather (mane), straight and snappy movement, and generous white markings is a popular hitch horse and may well be the most recognized of all the draft breeds to the urban dweller. The Anheuser Busch teams through TV have brought Clydesdales into millions of homes in North America.
The Shire was originally used during the Middle-Ages for military purposes when it was known as “The Great Horse” and reasonably so as the weight of many horse soldiers in armor was upwards of 400 lbs. for rider and armour. But in its uses for agriculture and commerce it became one of England’s national treasures in the 1800’s. Preferred colors are black, brown, and grey, with manes fine, straight, and silky hair.
The Percheron originated in France, near Paris, in La Perche district. The Breed is believed to be partially descended from Arabian horses encountered during wars with the Moors 735 A.D and probably was the source of the gray and white chargers so of the Middle-Ages. In size and shape they are similar to the Belgian, being well-muscled, short-backed, strong horses with substantial feet and legs.
Driving a six-horse hitch
One of the earliest North American usages of the six horse hitch was in long distance travel before the days of the railroad, in what was often referred to as “stage-coaches” mainly because they traveled across the country in stages changing horses at a variety of “way stations”. In the US one such was the Overland Stage Company and with the only other route to California by sailing ship around South America, it advertised that passengers on the Overland could get to Sacramento in an astonishing fourteen days. The Company owned 2750 horses distributed among the stations which were about 15 miles apart and carried passengers and mail westward one day returning east bound the next. The routes were often mountainous and treacherous and often travelers’ diaries showed they preferred to travel at night, so that they didn’t have to look at the cliffs, and narrow spots along the trail that the horses had to maneuver.
The six horse “hitch”, consisted of three pairs of horses: the wheelers were next to the coach. They were the largest and weighed about 1250 pounds each. The swings were the center pair each weighed about 1100 pounds. The leaders the front pair weighed about 1000 pounds each. The horses on the driver’s right were called the “off” side and those on the left the “near”. In negotiating a turn on a narrow mountain trail the driver, using only the reins, had to turn each pair of animals separately so that the team did not become tangled up with each other and overturn the stage.
While holding a whip, the driver seldom used it to spur the team on as both hands were fully occupied just managing the six lines. Most often, the whip was carried by the driver only as a symbol when entering or leaving the station in a flourish.
Judging A Hitch
Judges consider everything…horses, harness, wagon, driver, performance and overall eye appeal. Most points are earned for performance. The “drive” can account for 60% or more of the total points. Each horse should be clean, have a tight braid in its mane, a well-tied tail and be properly shod. Harnesses should be clean and fit the horse. A well adjusted harness should enhance and encourage snappy movement. No loose pieces of harness should be seen. The hitch wagon should be clean, of appropriate size to create an overall well-balanced appearance with the horses. Drivers should be poised, sitting straight in their seat and in complete control. His or her attire should be neat, clean and practical.
During the Drive
Look for uniformity of size, color, and stride in each team. A team should look as if it were one horse on the move. At the walk the stride should be long, showing a willingness to work. At the trot the feet should strike the ground solidly with joints flexing so that each foot lifts clearly off the ground with fluid movement. Backing up there should be smooth movement all the way through the turn, with the horse on the outside of each team picking up its gait slightly to stay head-to-head with the one on the inside. Some horses work better clockwise while other horses work better counter-clockwise.
When lining up each hitch comes in at a trot, following the directions of the ringmaster. The first hitch in sets the line. That line should be straight from the first to the last in line. Each driver allows enough space for the judge to make his individual inspection.
EACH TEAM HAS A SPECIFIC JOB . . . The Lead Team, makes the first impression on the judge, sets the pace, and is usually slightly smaller and more aggressive. The Swing Team, slightly larger than the lead team helps to make a rounded turn in the corners. The Wheel Team, the largest of the three teams actually steer the wagon. They are the only team to have a large piece of leather around their rumps which allows them to back-up the wagon.
Today, when you can step into your automobile and bring several hundred horsepower to life with the turn of a key, the term horsepower may not be all that impressive. But when you sit in the grandstand at Markham Fair on a pleasantly cool October evening under a full moon and watch six modern living, breathing behemoths decked out in black leather harness, fitted together with shiny polished brass bucklers, with speed, power, motion and direction controlled by a driver holding three black ribbons of leather in each hand then you will get a revelation of beauty, power and teamwork all rolled into one, your education and entertainment will be complete. Some call it being enthralled.
Markham Fair is pleased to present the Six Horse Hitch Competition on Saturday October 5, 2013, from 2:30 to 5:30 PM.
Check out the Heavy Horse Classes in the Prize Book.
To find out more about the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series, visit them on the web at www.naclassicseries.com.