Farming Magazine - October, 2012


Working Horses: What's in a Line?

By Vicki Schmidt

Reins are for riding. Lines are for driving. Knowing the difference sets you apart in conversations with draft and driving strangers. Call them reins and they'll know you're not a studied or seasoned driver, at least not yet.

The length of your driving lines should match your intended task to help prevent tangles and allow for smooth handling of the lines.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

Driving lines for drafts and horses in general are a major means for transmitting communications to our equine counterparts. They can be made of leather, bioplastics, woven twine and a variety of lesser-known materials. A driver's preference can come in many forms, and there are pros and cons to the styles and ways of use.

One characteristic drivers have a strong opinion about is the width of the lines. One-inch lines are usually preferred by those with large hands. For those with smaller hands, especially women drivers, 7/8 or .75-inch-wide lines win out. Some drivers like .5-inch-wide lines, which are less expensive, but these narrow lines are often characterized as too sharp. Many drivers find them uncomfortable, as they tend to cut into hands, especially if the driver isn't wearing gloves.

The second characteristic discussed is length. The ideal length is determined by your primary driving activity. Shorter lines, 16 to 20 feet in length, are a favorite for single-horse chores, especially for logging firewood. When working with a forecart or longer equipment, lines up to 28 feet long are a better choice. Using longer lines than necessary adds a tangle factor. Lines that are too long can tangle on equipment or wheels. If it's in your budget, consider having more than one set of lines so you have the proper lines for different driving activities.

As a general rule, lines are attached to the bit with buckles or snaps. There are pros and cons for each, and the major factor comes down to safety. Since snaps tend to break easier than leather or biothane materials, many pubic and professional venues do not allow the use of snaps for attaching lines. Buckle-in lines have the reputation of being safer than snaps, but as with any harness part, you should inspect the lines and hardware before every use. Snaps are much easier to use, but realize there is more loss of soft contact than when using buckles due to the "bend in the line of communication" where they snap onto the bit.

To complicate things a little more, some styles of bits, most notably the popular army bit, also known as an elbow bit, will not easily accommodate 1-inch lines of any material. The smaller slots on the shank part of the bit are used for attaching lines in a "bitted down" position. Utilizing these leveraged points of connection are often limited to .75-inch lines or smaller.

Drivers and teamsters who work or show in damp or rainy weather quickly learn that leather lines can be extremely slippery when wet. Moisture also destroys leather's ability to hold protective oils that keep them soft and pliable. On the other hand, biothane-type lines are less slippery when wet, and moisture does not destroy the materials. As an added bonus, lines made of biothane type materials do not harbor mold or mildew as easily as leather lines.

Cold weather can also affect the various materials quite differently. Leather lines can become stiff in cold weather, and this limited pliability can have a negative effect on the lines' ability to communicate efficiently to your draft. Biothane lines will not get stiff in cold weather and are less likely to retain "memory" if buckled into the same position for months or even years. Leather with memory is an asset if you never need to adjust a buckle or strap, but memory can also add to wear points and weakness if it makes it difficult to clean and oil leather.

Lines of any type or fashion are only as good as their stitching and buckles Quality leather or biothane lines made with inferior hardware or stitching that may fail at a critical time are dangerous. Learn to recognize quality work and products when choosing your lines, and, above all, work to keep you, your family, your customers and your horses as safe as possible.

With either bio or leather lines, an increased level of safety and connection will occur with the use of well-fitting, high-quality gloves. For some drivers it's a challenge to find a style of glove that fits and works well for driving. As with leather lines, leather gloves will feel the best and work well in ideal conditions, but letting moisture become will result in a decrease in control. Sporting gloves, especially those designed to stay efficient in wet weather such as golfing gloves, can provide the ideal fit along with safety.

There is little that complements a good drive with your favorite draft as well as a good pair of lines and a good pair of gloves. Blessed is the driver who enjoys all three.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working farm specializes in drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.