First of all, we’ll take care of the terminology issue. By “shaft tug”, I refer to the loop of material, suspended from the saddle, through which the shaft passes, and by which it is supported in a more or less horizontal position. They are also frequently called “shaft loops”.
Such a minor piece of equipment, why bother with an entire article! In reality, the shaft tug serves multiple purposes, and an understanding of these functions may help you fine-tune your turnout for optimal performance.
There is a synergy between harness and vehicle. The most perfectly balanced, easily pulled vehicle will provide nothing but discomfort to horse and passenger if it is not perfectly harnessed to the horse. Likewise, the most beautifully designed harness will be a torture trap for the horse, and suffer unnecessary wear and tear if inefficiently harnessed to the vehicle. This synergy is very evident in the type and use of the shaft tug, yet its importance is, I believe, little understood.
Tradition dictates that certain types of shaft tugs are used for certain types of vehicles. These traditions will always take precedence when correct turnout with antique vehicles for show is paramount. However as driving moves away from extreme fashion toward extreme sport, the type of shaft tug selected, and its correct use becomes a gray area.
This article is based on constant observation of the interaction between horse, harness and vehicle, fine-tuning hitching, redesigning equipment, testing and tweaking again. “Because that’s the way it’s always been done” is not one of our criteria. We just go out and beat the gear to death until we’re satisfied with the results.
Balance, Ride and the Horse’s Back
Balance is primarily a two-wheeled vehicle concern. Incorrectly hitched, both a poorly balanced cart, and a well-balanced cart will transmit jarring shaft motion to the horse’s back, and to the passengers. With a poorly balanced vehicle, the balance issue must first be addressed before the shaft loops will provide any relief. However, in an effort to relieve some of that jarring, many people will strap the shaft tightly into the shaft tug, trying to dampen the motion. This is not going to help; the shafts are now rigidly clamped to the horse, whose trotting body is springing up and down with every stride, taking the shafts with it. There is no relief from t he shaft weight for the horse, and chances are very good that he will develop a sore back from the weight, and the jarring motion, if he is asked to do any sort of real work. Some vehicle design flaws can be minimized with creative harnessing, but for true relief from a bad ride, you must address the vehicle balance issue.
A well-balanced vehicle is one that can be made to “float” along, with minimal down pressure transmitted to the horse’s back via the shaft tugs, bearing straps and saddle. It is my experience that some sort of readily accessible seat shifting mechanism is extremely desirable for hilly country. A winding axle is nice, but generally you must stop and get out of the vehicle to change the balance. In our light road cart, the balance is extremely fragile, and with two up, we change the seat positions regularly to suit the grade, in order to keep the shafts weightless across the horse’s back. In so doing, we not only relieve the horse of an unnecessary burden, but we also enjoy a very level ride, with practically no shaft bounce.
In four wheeled vehicles, the balance issue is minimized; the shafts are hinged to the front axle, and the ends will always rest in the shaft tugs, with just the minimal weight of the shafts transmitted to the horse’s back. That is, PROVIDED the horse is harnessed optimally. We’ll discuss this issue later.
Shaft tug types
There are many variations in shaft tug design, and many variations upon variations. This can leave the consumer bewildered, when faced with a choice.
Since carts are so popular, we’ll start with shaft tugs suitable for two wheelers. Leaving “quick release” and other “innovative” styles for a bit later, we’ll begin with the common “open” or “English” shaft tug.
Simple enough, but there are variations within this style. I will explain my preference, and give my reasoning for it.
First of all, the shafts tug works inseparably with the girth, or bellyband. The open shaft tug offers two options. In the first, you will have a strap, or billet, suspended from the bottom of the shaft tug, which buckles into an “over-girth”, or “safety girth”, or “false girth” (all terms which mean the same thing), which slides through loops of some sort on the girth, or bellyband. There are many different varieties of “open” tug, some of which are pictured below.
The reason I like Figure 4, is because it allows me as a harnessmaker, to set the dee, from which the billet is suspended, in a position which doesn’t tend to draw the shafts inward if the over-girth is buckled tightly. A strap coming from the outside of the shaft tug will have a tendency to force the shaft inward when tightened, and the friction between the shaft and the loop will spoil the ability of the cart shaft to float. It also causes unnecessary wear on the inside of your shaft loops, and in some cases, can heat the shaft covering material, such as imitation patent, and cause delamination and damage. If excessively tight, the friction between shaft tug and shaft may be sufficient to transfer some or all of the load weight, in draft or breeching, to the saddle.
With my adjustable-balance road cart, I use an “open” shaft tug, which is quite a bit roomier than what one would commonly encounter. As we are swinging along at a brisk trot, my horse, a small, lively Morgan with a big stride, springs up and down with each stride. My shafts are perfectly balanced, riding along dead level within the generous shaft tugs. As I watch, I can see that when the horse’s body springs upward, the shaft tug comes up with him. The inside bottom of the shaft tug almost contacts the bottom of the shaft, but not quite. As his body descends, the inside top of the shaft tug again almost contacts the top of the shaft , but not quite. With small shaft tugs, the shafts of my perfectly balanced vehicle would be thrown upward, banging the top of the tug, then thrown downward, banging the bottom of the tug, jarring both the horse (on his back and belly), and the passengers with each stride.
The other style of open shaft tug has no billet suspended from it. Instead, the girth is equipped with “wrap straps”. These look like the overgirth, except there are long straps extending out from the buckles, which wrap around the shafts, then buckle back into themselves.
This type of shaft tug is required for showing certain types of two wheeled vehicles. It is still supplied with many pleasure driving harnesses, and even some combined driving harness, by request. I see no specific objection to this arrangement being used on four-wheelers, where it can dampen shaft bounce, again assuming that the horse is correctly hitched to the vehicle.
Traditional turnout may require “French” or “Tilbury” tugs (these terms are used somewhat interchangeably) be used on four wheeled park driving vehicles, as well as two-wheeled gigs (Fig. 4). Plain, open tugs may be correct for family type four wheel carriages. If your aim is presentation classes with an antique vehicle, you must research the type of harness that is correct for your vehicle. Turnout requirements will dictate which type of shaft tug you must select for your vehicle.
Other Styles and “Innovations”
The “quick release” shaft tugs is a fairly recent innovation The release mechanism consists of an elongated buckle which terminates in a large loop, and a separate piece of hardware which is sewn into the end of the strap comprising the shaft tug (Fig. 5). The parts are slid together, and a strap passed through to lock them in place. The concept is that in an emergency, the strap can be pulled out, opening the loop, thus releasing the shaft.
These may have some value in an emergency situation, although I cannot relate firsthand experience with them. One advantage to the quick release shaft tug is that they open easily to accommodate short, closed-end competition shafts.
I believe it is important to have a plan in case of emergency, and not rely solely on quick release devices to save the day.
The wrap type shaft tug may be thought of as a recent innovation, but I have seen illustrations of it printed in harness-maker’s books from the 1800’s. I have made them, and tried them on a 4-wheel competition vehicle, and found them a bit awkward, as they offered no support for one independent shaft, while the other was being done up. I have had the off shaft fall to the ground on a marathon type four-wheeler while I was trying to attach the near shaft. A very dangerous situation; fortunately, the horse forgave me.
The loop created by this wrap style shaft tug also had a tendency to creep downward, allowing the shafts to gradually lower. I didn’t care for them, and soon quit using them.
Tilbury, or French tugs were mentioned earlier. Please see Figure 4 for photos of this style in open and closed positions. It could be argued that they open easily to admit the closed end competition shafts, but otherwise, I see no particular reason to spend the considerable money they cost, for any purpose other than turnout, or show ring requirements. It is said in some old works on driving, that the French tug, in conjunction with a tug stop, allows one to dispense with breeching. This, to me, is a fashion statement, and I tend to disagree with it, for reasons I will cover in the next section. Another reason we have turned up in our research on this type of tug, is that they were invented to minimize a poor ride on an awkwardly balanced, but fashionable two-wheeler.