Farming Magazine - December, 2012


Working Horses: If the Cart Fits

By Vicki Schmidt

Photo by Kim Morrison Photography,
Logging out some firewood and dragging fields with your favorite chore horse is fun, but there comes a time when most owners start thinking they'd like to take the family for a drive. Enter the need to learn the finer points about shafts and carts. Hooking your draft to a cart for the first time takes a bit of homework, and that starts with knowing what size cart is proper for your draft, as well as determining the safety of any used cart you might think about purchasing.

Before shopping for a cart, ask yourself what type of terrain you'll be driving on most of the time. If it's field and woods roads, then you should look into purchasing a cart with rubber tires. If finished roads and maybe a little showing are in your future, then a cart with rubber-rimmed wooden wheels might better suit your needs. Forecarts, which you can use for pleasure driving as well as attach equipment to, are a favorite all-around and economical choice for a cart.

Understanding the dynamics of how your draft, the harness and the shafts all work together will give you a better understanding of how to choose a cart that properly fits your draft. Shafts for any horse-drawn cart flank alongside the horse and form the steering mechanism. Shafts connect to the horse and harness with the use of the shaft loops, holdbacks and tugs. Shaft loops hold shafts at the proper height, while holdbacks keep the cart from moving too far forward. Holdbacks also work with the breeching for braking and backing actions. Tugs, also known as traces, convert your draft's "push" into the collar into "pull," which moves the cart forward.

Shafts are either made of steel or wood, with the best wooden shafts often made of hickory or oak. Proper balance of the weight of the cart on the shafts is a vital and often overlooked characteristic when drivers are shopping for their first cart. If the shafts feel heavy in your hands, they will be heavy on your horse's back, as they weigh heavy in the shaft loops. Heavy shafts are often a sign of a poorly made or maladjusted cart.

Proper sizing of the shaft to your draft is important, as the shafts should not protrude more than an inch or two past the front of the collar, nor be so short that they sit behind the collar. For drafts, most shafts will be in the 87 to 92-inch range of length, depending on the style of shaft. Measure from the tip of the shaft to the crossbar, which is found near the seat of the cart and connects and stabilizes the two shafts. Shaft lengths shorter than 87 inches will be found on carts that are designed for smaller draft animals.

The measurement between the shafts for a draft that is 16 to 18 hands tall will be anywhere from 24 to 30 inches. While there is some ability to adjust for too much or too little width between the shafts, strive for a proper width, with shafts that are just a few inches wider than your draft at the point of the back pad.

If choosing a wooden-wheeled cart, the height of the wheels is an indicator of the size of the draft animal it is designed for. A cart with 48-inch-high wheels is for a smaller draft (those less than 16 hands), while wheels measuring 52 inches high are designed for full-sized draft horses averaging 17 hands or more.

While there are many good used carts available, be sure to thoroughly inspect any used carts, especially those made of wood. Check for evenness in the shafts and seat areas, as well as rot, cracks and breakage, especially where wood is covered with any material or painted with several coats of paint. Wheels that have rested on bare ground or on a hard surface for several years may have damage or wear that is hard to repair.

The decision to use your chore horse in shafts will open up options for productive work as well as relaxed rides and outings. Take the time to make sure the cart you purchase is solid, safe and properly sized for your draft.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working farm specializes in Shires and offers lessons and training for work, sport and show.