A Six Horse Hitch: To Entertain and Educate by Competition.
By T. Rogers Gardham
If you don’t know whether 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 to find out is at Markham Fair on October 5, 2019.
The term “six horse Hitch” will bring to mind for most people the teams of large horses pulling heavy wagons loaded with beer barrels, in fact anyone who has visited Busch Gardens in Florida will have seen these teams at work/show and their pictures are a trade mark for the Brewery.
The major use for these large horses in pioneer times was to pull plows and other farm implements for farmers. In fact they were probably one of the most essential animals used to clear farm land and plant crops. Surprisingly these horses were used as late as the early 20th Century for excavating cellars for large rural and urban houses by pulling large metal scoops to remove soil. 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 Galahad) it was these horses that carried them; and including the man, his armour, and various weapons could weigh upwards of 182kg/400lbs: a heavy load even for a horse.
The Horse Breeds
There are several distinctive types/breeds of horses in this classification of which you will probably see five at Markham Fair:
The Belgian originated in Belgium in Europe as 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 as upkeep was economical, it was a willing worker, and had an amiable disposition. Today’s Belgian is big, powerful and a great wagon horse, as well as being equally effective in pulling and hitch competitions.
The Clydesdale originated in Scotland and takes its name from the river Clyde which flows through the district from which they originated and was used for heavy haulage in the coalfields and on the streets of Glasgow. The Clyde with its 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 spectators. 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 for its power to carry and pull extensive weight. 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 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.
The Haflinger was developed in Austria and northern Italy during the late nineteenth century. They are relatively small, in comparison to the other draft breeds and are a chestnut color. They have distinctive gaits described as energetic but smooth, and are well-muscled yet elegant. The breed traces its ancestry to the Middle Ages; and was developed for use in mountainous terrain.
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 “stage-coaches” mainly because they traveled across the country in stages changing horses at a variety of “way stations”, which were about 30km/15-20 miles apart. In the early 19th century the only other route to California was by sailing ship around South America. The routes were often mountainous and treacherous.
The six horse “hitch”, consisted of three pairs of horses: the wheelers were next to the coach. They were the largest and weighed about 570kg/1250 pounds each. The swings were the center pair each weighed about 500kg/1100 pounds. The leaders the front pair weighed about 456kg/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. 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 and drivers had to maneuver.
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 horses. 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.
Spectators at the Fair should be aware of the importance of these “show competitions” to the competitors as each show awards points and ribbons to each breed in its Class and these points accumulate to allow competitors to qualify to enter larger shows where Classes involve increased entries competition is keener and judging involves wider scrutiny. Many of the Class Breed winners at Markham Fair will go on to larger competitions and the Fair directors are pleased to be a qualifying show for the National Haflinger Six Horse Hitch Championship Series.
Markham Fair is pleased issue an open invitation to all Fair-goers to be present at the Six Horse Hitch Competition on Saturday October 5, 2019, 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.