tobrakeornottobrakeThe topic of whether or not to have brakes on two-wheeled vehicles has often been discussed among those who drive them. In my opinion, there are pros and cons to both ways. Let’s start at the beginning.


The basic balance of a two-wheeler is of crucial importance. When you pick up the shafts of the cart, they might feel heavy, but if the cart is balanced properly, when the driver gets in the seat, you should be able to hold the shafts with your little finger. The weight of the driver should ‘balance’ the heaviness of the shafts so hardly any weight is on the horse’s back. Many two-wheelers have seats that can be adjusted forward or back to balance the cart. If you push the seat forward, you will have more weight in the shafts and if you push it backwards, you will have less. You have to adjust the carriage again if you have two people riding in it to counteract the additional weight. Some carriages are so sensitive to weight ratios that if you lean forward or back you can raise or lower the shafts. I’d much rather have a bit of weight on the shafts so that if I lean back a bit on the back rest, I won’t lift up on the shafts and create discomfort on the horse’s belly by lifting up on the over girth.


There are two different kind of brakes used on carriages. Drum and disc. ( pic 1, disc brake) (We need a pic of a drum brake) Drum brakes are more common on wooden two-wheeled carriages and disc brakes are more often seen on more modern metal carriages. I asked a carriage builder why this is and he said that in his Mennonite community he has to replace wooden wheels quite often and drum brakes are much easier to get the wheel off of than disc brakes. He also said that disc brakes drag just a bit all the time.

When you add brakes to a two-wheeler and use them going down a hill, the pressure of the brakes adds to the weight in the shafts and therefore onto the horse’s back, changing the balance. What happens is that when you apply the brake, it pushes the axle back and torques the body of the cart, resulting in the shafts being made to point downward.

I held the shafts on one of my two-wheelers with brakes while my husband sat in the seat and applied the brake. It felt a bit heavier, but not terribly so. I would think that if you had a wide enough saddle to accommodate the shafts of a two-wheeler, you wouldn’t be adding too much weight by using brakes. I always use breeching, even if I have brakes. You must fit the breeching perfectly so it’s not too high or too low. If too high, you run the risk of it riding up under the horse’s tail and causing severe discomfort and if too low, it might scoop the horse’s back legs out from under him.


I think that you have to ask yourself first, “Do I really need brakes where I drive?” Here in South Carolina, it is so flat I hardly ever use my brakes. Brakes are used to slow the carriage down, never the horse. If you try to slow the horse down by stepping on the brake, the horse will feel that the carriage just got heavier and will try to pull harder to move the heavier load. I use the brakes to keep my hands the same distance from the horse’s mouth so my reins don’t get too long and I don’t lose contact with my horse. The brake also helps balance a horse down a hill or a downward turn.

Your horse must be fit and strong enough to hold the carriage back. It takes really more strength going down a hill holding the carriage back than it does going up. If I had a young horse that didn’t have much muscle, I certainly wouldn’t be going up and down extreme or very long hills with him with or without brakes. I always scout out where I’m going to drive before taking my horse and carriage out. I don’t want to be surprised by getting to the bottom of a huge steep hill with a horse that is not accustomed to hills, or the top of a steep or long downhill either for the same reason. You have to build up the horse’s muscle for him to be able to deal with these situations.


When you take your cart out for the first time in the spring, make sure your brake fluid container is full and that your lines don’t need bleeding. (pic 8) Make sure your brakes work and are not rusty or full of dirt from the long winter standing in the barn. There’s nothing more dangerous than counting on your brakes and then realizing they don’t work!

Plan your drives with your horse’s fitness and strength and experience in mind. Don’t go where you don’t know. Scope it out first. Build up to the hills. Make sure your breeching fits and your whole harness is in good repair. You don’t want your breeching to break when you need it going down a hill. Make sure it’s wide enough to spread the weight of the carriage over a larger area. There should be a tight hand’s width between the breeching and the horse’s butt when you’re pulling back on the shafts so the traces are tight. Any looser and your cart will come too far forward and pull forward on the saddle through the shaft tugs.

Make sure the saddle is wide enough for the same reason. The saddle should spread the weight of the shafts over a larger area. I believe that brakes can be a great way to make your horse’s job of pulling your carriage easier for him, but you have to get the whole set up right and know how and when to use them.

Check your brakes regularly throughout the driving season. Brakes can and do fail and an ounce of prevention can be very valuable.

Many car or motorcycle repair shops are good at checking carriage brakes. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, go find a friendly repairman who is willing to take a look for you.

1. Disc brakes, more commonly seen on modern two-wheeled vehicles. Drum brakes are more common on wooden, older two-wheeled vehicles.
2. This breeching is too low.
3. This breeching too high.
4. This breeching is just right.
5. This breeching is too tight.
6. This breeching is too loose.
7. This breeching is just right. A hand fits between the breeching and the horse.
8. Jaye Winkler at Myopia in 1981 driving her Lippitt gelding.

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