Spring Tuning for Carriages

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


The sunshine and warm air is here for many of us, and on its way to others. The struggle of getting out to the barn and going for a drive doesn’t seem so hard now. As you pull that carriage and harness out you’ll want to make sure that they are in good working order. Take this time at the beginning of your driving season to assure the rest of your season goes smoothly. If you don’t have time to do it well right now, what makes you believe you’ll have time to do it again? Thoroughly wash the carriage

This goes a long way in the maintenance of a carriage. It is easy to dismiss rust or a crack as dirt. Even if it is “just dirt”, the grit in that dirt can lead to wear and corrosion if left unattended. There are dozens of methods of washing a carriage, and you’ll want to find one that suits your style. Here are my suggestions. Rinse the carriage thoroughly before beginning to wash it. Use a steady pouring stream of water, such as a hose without a nozzle. Resist the temptation to spray the carriage with even a moderately high pressure hose. A modern carriage with modern paints may withstand this abuse. However high pressure water combined with the dust, dirt and grime found on your carriage may still create and abrasive agent. This can have results as benign as dulling a finish to driving that abrasive between critical bearing surfaces. Avoid using hot water, especially on painted wood. The quick change in temperature will cause the wood, and the paint to expand and contract at different rates. This can lead to cracking or frost heave like bubbles in the paint. You won’t notice the first time this happens, but continued over time this will lead to premature aging of the wood and paint. I have always had success with car wash soap on painted and natural carriages. They often contain water softeners, and anti-spotting formulas. My personal favorite is made by Turtlewax, called Zip-wash. It takes considerably more soap to wash a carriage well, than it would to wash a car. This is because there are no broad surfaces for the soap to spread on. So each wipe with a soapy sponge cleans only what it touches. Use the softest sponges and wash brushes you can find. Use plenty of soap, and take your time. Rinse as you wash, working from the top down. Avoid areas of the carriage that have grease until you are nearly done washing the carriage. At that time use a soft rag, or felt towel in the areas that the grease is encountered, and wash toward the source of the grease. A heavy paper towel is often needed for those last bits of grease. If you plan to touch-up the paint, don’t wax your carriage. The wax will make touch ups more difficult to do well. I use Turtlewax Express Shine. Do not spray the wax directly onto the carriage. It will go into crevices that you will not be able to buff out. Instead, spray the wax onto a terry towel and wipe it onto the carriage. Buff it off soon after it dries, working on one part of the carriage at a time. This is the time to quiet those squeaks and squeals. I have had the most success with a product named PB Blaster. This is a long lasting spray lubricant that has very good penetrating properties. Start at the front of the carriage and work back, symmetrically. Carefully spray surfaces where metal moves against metal. Most importantly the clevises or joints that connect the springs to each other or the carriage. Spray a small amount along each leaf of the springs. If you have a very squeaky carriage it may be necessary to momentarily slide a shim between the springs to allow the lubricant in. Do not use this lubricant on bearing surfaces that require grease such as the fifth wheel. A felt or heavy paper towel will be needed to gently wipe the access spray. Avoid trying to wipe every last bit of off every surface. It should not harm your paint, and you may end up creating more of a mess than you clean.

Check areas of failure on a carriage

You should have gotten your first good look over your carriage when you washed it. You probably know where all of the obvious trouble spots are as a result. Avoid the temptation to go strait to those spots, and instead make a methodical and complete inspection of the whole carriage. If you jump ahead to the obvious, and sometimes easy problems, another bigger problem may lay silently unnoticed. Since your carriage is built symmetrically, check each item, and compare it’s counterpart on the other side of the carriage. This redundancy can save you a great deal of trouble. Sometimes a carriage part can look strange to you when examined this closely. By looking at the other side, you may find out that it looks equally strange, and therefore correct. Likewise if a part is in disrepair, it will look different than it’s counterpart. Shafts (or shaves): Especially wooden shafts can be broken under the leather cover without anyone noticing. Check for cracks or other deformities that threaten the strength and flexibility of the shafts. Check that tug stops and shaft tips are securely in place. Shaft holdbacks (also known as footman loops): especially if leather; Check for cracks or loose screws. Pole and pole head: The pole head takes a lot of abuse through the year, especially or marathon and work vehicles. Check that all the fasteners, and bolts are secure. If you have a drop pole, and use a yolk, take a close look at the yolk and it’s method of suspension for the pole. Swingle tree(s): (a.k.a: single, whiffle, or whipple trees) Check the bar for cracks or other damage. Take a close look at the attachment to the carriage. This bolt is what pulls you and your friends around. Next make sure your hardware for the trace attachment is sound. Fifth wheel: Use your shafts or pole to turn the fifth-wheel all the way right and left. Investigate any binding or hesitation that you may feel. If yours is a modern vehicle you’ll need a grease gun. These are inexpensive and readily available at the auto parts store. Find out from your carriage manufacturer what kind of grease is already in there so you don‘t mix grease types. The fifth wheel will have several grease fittings. Fix your grease gun onto each fitting and squeeze grease in until you feel a firm resistance to the trigger, or grease no longer is entering the fitting, but squeezing out around the fitting. Replace any grease fittings that may have fallen off. If your carriage is equipped with a fifth-wheel brake, test it’s effectiveness. When you have found a setting that retards the freedom of the steering the desired amount, make a note to keep with the carriage. To grease the fifth-wheel of an antique, or traditionally built vehicle, you’ll have to get under the carriage. I prefer marine grease, but try to use the same type of grease that is already on the carriage. Use a Popsicle stick to smear a small amount of grease on the exposed bearing surface. Turn the fifth-wheel to expose the next section of the bearing surface. Over greasing this area will not afford any advantage.


There are numerous issues that can plague the suspension of your carriage. The springs take the bulk of the shock from the ground that you drive over. They move irregularly, even in the best conditions. So you’ll want to take a close look. It is not unusual to find springs that have slipped out of alignment. This can often be prevented by periodically tightening the bolts that secure the springs position to the frame of the carriage. Try to avoid damaging the paint by placing a cloth between the wrench and the bolt you are working on. While you are there, examine the spring for cracks. If you find any, bring the carriage to be repaired immediately. Wheels: A whole article could be written on wheels, their maintenance and failures alone. For your spring tuning, you should give them a thorough inspection. If you feel that they need further attention such as repacking the bearings, you should schedule another time for that project. One process will distract from the other, and neither will be completed as carefully as it should. Check that the tire is firmly attached over the full 360 degrees of the wheel. Carriages that do not have rubber are still considered to run in “tires”. The steel rim that encompasses the wheel should be attached without play or gaps. Rubber tires should be firmly mounted to their rims, once again without play or gaps. A pneumatic tire must not be under-inflated or there is a danger of the tire pulling off the rim from the force of a turn under weight. If you are using a carriage with wooden wheels, you’ll want to flex the spokes with your hands. They should be able to flex slightly with a moderate amount of horizontal force across the wheel rim. However they should not move appreciably in their attachment to the rim nor the hub. If they wiggle, clunk or slide in these joints, a wheelwright should be consulted. Next, put your carriage on a jack so that one wheel is slightly off the ground. For safety block the remaining wheels. Remember that the front wheels will have to be blocked in the front and back. Otherwise, the fifth wheel can easily turn, and allow the carriage to roll. Now spin the raised wheel, watch and listen. The wheel should spin freely with a regular diminishing momentum. If there is a hesitation in it’s rotation at a specific place, you should seek at the cause. When the brakes are disengaged, they should not cause any sort of abrupt stop in a wheel that has been spun and is “freewheeling”. If there is and abrupt stop, especially when spun hard, you brakes are adjusted too tight. You are making your horse pull more than the weight of the carriage. Adjust the brakes until the wheels spin freely, but stop solid when the brake is applied. Listen for any sounds the wheels makes as it spins. Metal wheels may have a rattle inside the spokes. This can be an early warning of rusting spokes. A wooden wheel that has dried and shrunken may click as it goes around. If this is the case, you should consider the wheel too loose to be safe. You should next remove the hub to make a visual inspection of conditions between the hub and the axle spindle. Depending on what type of hub you have, there should be an adequate amount of grease or oil surrounding the axle. This area should not be dry, or contain particles or rust. If it does, you should consider removing the wheels, cleaning the bearing surfaces and re-packing them with grease, or oil as appropriate for your carriage. If your carriage had oil hubs, you’ll want to pour 20w-50 weight gear oil into the hub until it is half full before replacing it on the wheel. If you carriage is of a modern build, and the wheels are on roller bearings, it is likely to have a grease nipple on the outside of the hub between the spokes. Before you replace the hub, fix your grease gun to the nipple. Squeeze in enough grease so that you see the older grease beginning to be pushed out of the bearings. Wipe away the older grease that has been pushed out, and replace your hubcap.


Brakes on a carriage get half the attention that we give the brakes on our car. However the consequences of a failure can be equally distressing. If your carriage is equipped with brakes of any kind, they should be robust enough to hold the full weight of the carriage on a moderate to steep incline. Even if your are responsible enough to have breeching on your horse, you can not predict every circumstance that you’ll be in. If there is a failure of the breeching, or your horse stumbles, falls or becomes suddenly lame, you’ll need to be able to hold that carriage back for him. Likewise, it is taking a chance to depend on your brake system alone to slow or stop your carriage. Vanity and laziness are the only reasons people have eliminated this crucial part of the harness. Anyone who tries to argue that leaving the breeching in the barn for weight savings should look more closely at their conditioning program rather than the harness. The first place to check your brake will be while the carriage is still on the jack. Have an assistant spin each wheel that has a brake. Allow the wheel to freewheel for a rotation, then firmly apply the brake all the way. The wheel should come to an abrupt and solid halt. Your assistant should not be able to turn the wheel by hand while the brake is on. If the above is not the case, your brake will need to be adjusted. This means many things for many types of brakes. On friction and drum brakes there is usually an adjustment in the linkage or springs involved in the braking mechanism. If that adjustment has been maxed out, there is a good chance that the brake pads need to be replaced. In hydraulic systems these remedies may still leave your braking too soft. If this is the case you may need to bleed the brake system. I have found that a trip to a local open minded auto mechanic is the best way to get this done. Bleeding brakes can be tricky and very time consuming, and I’ve never been able to reproduce the results that a decent mechanic can get. If you do have hydraulic brakes, check the fluid levels in the reservoir usually located under the seat or reach of the carriage. If you have front and back brakes, you will likely have two reservoirs. Follow the brake lines from the reservoirs to their point of termination in the brake calipers. There should not be any leakage, kinks or breaks in the lines. Carriages with front brakes should be checked for symmetry in braking. In other words, make sure that the carriage is not pushing your horse left or right as you apply the front brake (wouldn’t you be happy to find something as simple as that to be the cause of all that counter bending in the corners?) On a hard surface pull the carriage forward at good speed, even a light jog. Have an assistant sitting on the box (make sure she doesn’t have a whip) apply the front brake slowly. If the shafts, or pole pull you hard one way or another, you have a problem.

Take one last look over the whole carriage for any loose screws, or nuts. These invariably can be found sitting in the seats just after the horse has been hitched. You’ll be able to approach the season with a solid piece of mind that you’ve prevented the most preventable error; human error.

Enroll in Andy's upcoming class, Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. EDT or 10:00 p.m. EDT for "Teach Your Horse to Move Off the Whip"  The whip is more than a motivational device for carriage horses. It's an aid to be used similar to a rider's leg aids. Learn to teach your horse how to yield from the whip for better balance and accuracy.

Then enroll in his next class, Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. EDT or 11:00 p.m. EDT for "Proactive Driving and Riding."  How to get ahead of your horse and control what he will do next rather than just reacting to what he just did

Check out Andy's website for more great information.