How do horses or oxen deal with bringing heavy loads down a hill?
January 14, 2022 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I can't picture how you would get a wagon or sleigh both up and down a big hill. How do they do it?

Obviously the horses can pull the wagon up the hill, but how do they come down? Does the wagon go too fast and hit them at the back of the legs? Do you have to hitch them to the other side of the wagon and have it basically go backwards to slow the descent? What's the game plan for something like bringing a covered wagon over a mountain pass or climbing/descending hills in old San Francisco? Does the wagon have brakes? What if it's a sleigh?

Is it better to take the long way all the way around the mountain? Or, clearly they took wagons over the Rockies in the Oregon Trail days, so there must be a way. How does it work?
posted by blnkfrnk to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: The wagon had brakes.
posted by mskyle at 10:53 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]


Response by poster: Do sleighs have brakes? Or do you just wait for spring?
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:54 AM on January 14


Best answer: Yeah, sleighs can have brakes, too but I think they basically worked by digging into the snow.
posted by mskyle at 10:56 AM on January 14


Best answer: Some sleighs have brakes, too.

And horse harnesses may alternately/also have a back strap (breeching) that goes around the horses's "butt" in order to keep the shafts from moving way forward.
posted by mightshould at 11:00 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Best answer: There's a nice little summary here about carriage brakes. The key part is they don't stop the carriage cold, because if you did that your horse would be suddenly jerked backwards and might get upset. So mostly you slow down by asking your horse to go slower, and stop by asking your horse to stop, and let friction do the rest. But on a slope where the carriage would roll forward and put weight on the horse, you use the brakes to take that load off. The tech they're using there is newer, but I believe older ones would have followed the same principle and put some drag on the carriage or wagon rather than stopping it cold.
posted by flexible-footwear figurine at 11:01 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Besides brakes, the hitch would be sturdy and fixed without much give, if done right. Any movement backwards from the animals would push the wagon backwards, letting the animals act as brakes when stopped. Wagon teams would be sized appropriately to maintain control on mild hills.
posted by michaelh at 11:01 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Best answer: It was difficult and dangerous (content warning for animal lovers) & led to the invention of the San Francisco cable car system.
posted by bleep at 11:02 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Best answer: The Winters Heritage House Museum has a pdf about conestoga wagons that says:
A big problem for regular farm wagons is a steep hill. As you begin to descend a steep hill, a heavy wagon can very quickly start to roll too fast, and can roll right into the horses and cause a wreck. To solve that, farm wagon drivers have to stop at the top of a steep hill and chain the rear wagon wheels to the bed so that they cannot turn. The horses need to drag the wagon down the hill. This is more work for the poor horses, but is safer for everyone in the long run. The Conestoga wagon, however, has a brake system! This was a new technology for wagons in colonial times. The teamster can pull out his lazy board, and sit or stand on that. That gives him a good view of the road ahead, and the brake handle is right next to him. As the wagon starts down the hill, the teamster can simply pull on the brake handle to slow the wagon.
posted by RichardP at 11:02 AM on January 14 [9 favorites]


Best answer: Carts and sleighs were also equipped with shafts. Often the shafts were removable so you could take them on and off as needed. If the draught animal was in the shafts the cart could not run into them without the shafts breaking.

Here is a description of shafts, with pictures.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:03 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Pole-brakes and skid-shoes explained. It's easier taking the long-way round; as I discovered when attempting to cycle over a local hill on the crow-flies route rather than the 'main' road which skirted the hill more or less on the same grade. The Up was exhausting but the Down terrifying.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:05 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Not answering your question directly but the book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey goes into pretty good detail about the issues driving wagons with a mule team, including taking them up and down hills. It is a very fun, fascinating book about mules (including benefits of mules over horses) and the history of the trail.
posted by bondcliff at 11:09 AM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Best answer: Dog sleds have brakes!
posted by corvine at 11:32 AM on January 14


Best answer: Many harnesses have rigid poles, these would keep the wagon, sleigh, etc, from moving forward; the horse(s) still bear the weight, of course. I googled horse and wagon; here's an example image.
posted by theora55 at 11:41 AM on January 14


Best answer: https://www.loc.gov/item/2017787631/

Mountain ore wagon, note the big brakes on the rear wheel.
posted by nickggully at 11:55 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Best answer: In addition, covered wagons were often belayed down a mountain...the oxen were unhitched, a stout rope was rigged around a sturdy tree, and the wagons were lowered that way, without the animals being directly involved. I learned about this process when I was very young, from my mom who'd read it in a book about Washington state history (sorry, I don't know the book or the location where this happened).
posted by lhauser at 12:20 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Additionally, sometimes people would cut down trees and use them as a drag. This was used on the Oregon Trail in the steep descents from the Blue Mountains, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:32 PM on January 14


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