In my practice, I rarely use bucking straps (aka. kicking strap.) That doesn’t mean that I’m against them. I have several students who keep bucking straps on their harness because their pony has been known to have a buck or two here and there.
The purpose of the bucking strap is to prevent the horse from getting the hind legs over the shafts or dashboard of the carriage should he buck. It doesn’t actually prevent bucking, it just limits the height that a horse can achieve if he does give a buck.
Routing a bucking strap correctly can make a big difference between it working correctly, or just hanging on your harness as a decoration. Here’s a short video of how to correctly route a bucking strap:
Taking the Right Route
When I meet a driver who has a bucking strap on their harness, I usually inquire if the horse has had a problem with bucking. Many say “No, but it’s there just in case. I don’t want to take any chances.”
There are two problems with that. The first is that the bucking strap doesn’t actually prevent bucking. If the horse does give a buck and feels the restriction of the bucking strap for the first time, he may accept it, or it can panic the horse. Generally, horses are reasonable in their reaction to the bucking strap, but it’s not a guaranteed outcome.
The second, more troubling problem is that most people misroute their bucking strap. This is especially worrisome if the horse has a history of bucking. A misrouted bucking strap will do no more to prevent a buck than a pretty hat will make you a better driver.
My most recent experience with a misrouted bucking strap was just a couple of years ago. I was trying out a very athletic horse for a client. The trainer who was representing the horse was someone I know, trust, and respect.
At some point on the drive, the horse in question thought I’d benefit from a close inspection of his hind shoes. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he showed me those shoes with great energy and enthusiasm. Both feet came over the dash easily, until on one of the bucks a hind leg landed on the wrong side of the shaft. This went a long way toward slowing him down, so we were able to get him stopped quite easily.
Once the other trainer was at the horse’s head I hopped out and quickly went about the task of unhitching the horse. I remarked that I was glad to see that she had a quick release style bucking strap on him, which made the process of unhitching much quicker, safer and…
It was like the words I said had to float around in the air for a bit, then slowly seep into my brain. I was unhitching a bucking strap… because the horse had just had a bucking fit… and bent up the carriage… and put a leg over the shaft.
I vaguely remember that when she brought the horse to me, I noticed that the bucking strap was not routed “my way.” But we were at an event, and we were just fitting this drive in between each of us working with clients. Besides, the trainer had as many or more years in the sport as I do. One tends to be deferential when it comes to working with other trainers. They do as they do, and I do as I do. I really didn’t think too much about it… until I was unhitching the horse after the bucking fit.
All ended well. No one was hurt, the carriage actually wasn’t bent, up. It was just a shaft that had turned in the socket. We were re-hitched and on our way again in no time. I did, however, re-fit the strap “my way.”
So let’s look at how the bucking strap was routed that allowed the horse to get into trouble.
The Misrouted Bucking Strap
Most people put the bucking strap over the horse’s croup, just behind the hip strap. Then they pass the strap more or less straight down, wrapping it around the shaft of the carriage once or twice, before returning to buckle the strap.
I’m not an engineer and I don’t have all kinds of video or photos to study and give a perfect explanation as to why this routing doesn’t always work, but I’ve seen this vertical arrangement fail to contain a buck more often then I’ve seen it work. Here’s my theory:
If we look at a horse’s buck, it’s rotational in nature. If the bucking strap is on the horse’s hip, it rotates forward as the hind-quarters rise. Since the strap is wrapped loosely around the shaft (see “Squeeze Play” below), it can slide freely up or down the shaft. That action disengages the restraining force on the horse’s upward movement.
Added to this rotational motion is the fact that a buck sends energy toward the rear (right where you’re sitting!) As the horse kicks rearward, he’s kicking underneath any potential restraint provided by a misrouted bucking strap.
Enter the Crupper Bucking Strap
One good innovation is a bucking strap that is fixed to the harness at the crupper. The bucking strap has two slots in it, that allow the forked billets of the crupper to pass through the bucking strap. Once the crupper is fastened into place, the bucking strap sits on the horse’s dock. This gives the bucking strap much better leverage over the horse’s hind end, should it become lighter than air.
However, that alone does not solve the problem. The critical ingredient is an anchor point for where the bucking strap engages with the shaft of the carriage. In order to prevent the hind end from getting in the air, the bucking strap must grip the shaft of the carriage forward from its location on the dock. There are two ways to accomplish this.
You can put a footman loop on the shaft of the carriage to pass the bucking strap through. (The footman loop for your holdbacks will be too far forward.) The location should be just about even with the breeching ring when the horse is standing in the carriage. This is an easy adaptation to add to any carriage with wooden shafts. However, with a marathon vehicle, it will take some welding.
A less permanent solution, but one that seems to work well, is just changing the routing of the bucking strap on its way to the carriage shaft. Draw the bucking strap on a forward angle along the horse’s hip toward the front of the breeching. Then pass the strap through the breeching ring before wrapping it around the carriage shaft. I find in most cases it works best to pass the bucking strap from inside to outside through the breeching ring. That said, there are always exceptions, so do what works best with your horse/carriage combo.
In my observations, routing the bucking strap as I’ve described above is very effective for catching those occasional bucks from a horse who gets a bit light in the hind end. Bear in mind, he can still have a low-altitude kick and buck. This won’t prevent him from kicking the carriage or trying to buck. It just prevents the back end getting high enough to go over a shaft or the dash.
The bucking strap in no way is intended to “hold the horse’s butt down.” Its sole purpose is to prevent the back legs of the horse from getting high enough to kick over the dash, or over the shaft of the carriage.
Catching the horse’s hind end mid-buck can have the effect of discouraging the horse from trying it again. In the best case scenario, that act can prevent a horse from taking a single buck or two and turning it into a raging bucking fit.
If the bucking strap is adjusted too tightly, it can cause more harm than good. I’ve seen horses bolt into a full-blown runaway because the bucking strap was fitted too tightly. Even if a tight bucking strap doesn’t scare a horse into running, it can cause rubs, and limited the horse’s movement. I’ve even heard reports that some horses have developed scar tissue leading to lameness from being driven with a restrictive bucking strap.
When fitting the bucking strap, the horse needs to be given enough room to move freely through all of his gaits. That can mean different things to different horses. A horse with highly animated motion will need more room than one who is a much flatter moving horse.
A general rule of thumb is to buckle the strap such that you are able to put at least one hand width under the strap before it engages. If you have a marathon or other vehicles with wide shafts, you’ll need to leave more slack for the horse to move from one direction to the other.
Everyone has their own reasons for using, or not using a bucking strap. It’s not a fool-proof safety device that will save the day in every situation. That said, they’re damn handy when you have a pony who seems to have a helium-filled tail. The key is to make sure you get it applied correctly so it has the best chance of helping you out when you need it.