The Six-Horse Hitch

Wheelers, Swings, and Leaders

Driving a six-horse hitch

Ben Holladay was a man who always did thing with a flourish. His drivers were ordered to arrive at each stage station with a gallop, if at all possible. It must have been quite a sight! With the driver's whip cracking furiously over the horses' heads, and the messenger sitting next to him blasting on a trumpet, the four to six matched horses would thunder down the road, and pull up to the Overland Trail Stage Station snorting and prancing. With the only other route to California around South America in a sailing ship, Holladay boasted that passengers on the Overland could get to Sacramento in an astonishing fourteen days.

The first priorities then were excellent, well-bred horses. The previous owners of the mail express line had used mules, thinking that horses wouldn't be able to stand up to the hard work and harsh conditions. The mules were considered to be more tractable, smarter and capable of pulling a heavier load, but they also proved to be cranky and slow. Holladay intended to run the mail and stage line with the swiftness and regularity of the railroads. Ben Holladay instructed his men to "spare no expense, and buy the best." And so they did. He paid the bill of over $500,000 for his new stock: 2750 of the best horses available which were sent to the stage stations. Each team, usually well matched of the same shade, would make the 15 or so miles between each station every day, then return the next.

Challenges were the norm of the day for the stage drivers and their teams of horses on the more than 2000 miles journey from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Driving the stages smoothly over a narrow, twisting mountain trail was probably the ultimate test of the driver's skill. Many of the travelers' diaries stated that 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", or team, consisted of three pairs of horses: the wheelers were next to the coach. They were the largest and most dependable of the team, weighing in at about 1250 pounds each. They understood the subtle jerks on the lines made by the driver, and were able to turn at the appropriate point. The center pair of the team were called swings and each weighed about 1100 pounds. The smallest pair, called the leaders, weighed about 1000 pounds, and actually led the team. From the driver's vantage point, the horses on the right were called "off," the horses on the left, the "near."

On any turn on a narrow mountain trail, the driver was required to turn each pair of animals separately. This was necessary so that the team did not become tangled up with each other, and overturn the stage. Most illustrations of drivers, and stages, show the driver wielding his whip to spur the team on. This was just not done very often. The driver had both hands full just managing the six lines. Any animal that needed to be whipped to perform, was not a part of the Overland team. Most often, the whip was carried by the driver only as a symbol of his importance, and in times of "showboating" when entering or leaving the station in a flourish.

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