Hitching My Miniature Horse: The Easy Entry Cart
"I got my minis for the kids/grandkids/etc. The sellers said the mini drove and I drove it on their property. But I don't own my own cart. What should I get?"
That statement sums up a comment I get on a near weekly basis. Don't get me wrong! Miniature horses are wonderful as pets: they are the most economical horse to keep, have outstanding temperaments, are good with kids of all sorts and never fail to make one smile. They do, however, love to have a job. Working minis tend to be happier and healthier. Pulling is what they were bred for; driving is what they do best.
An Easy Entry Cart
The "general standard" for mini carts is commonly called an "Easy Entry" cart. It is called this because the wheels are set behind where one enters the cart, allowing the floor of the cart to be lower and easier to step into. This simple design works well for small children, older drivers, physically challenged drivers of all ages, as well as allowing comfortable foot room for tall drivers.
The easy entry cart is inexpensive, easy to maneuver into a trailer or truck bed, and is of a standard size and design, making parts attainable. One last advantage, not often considered, is that the shafts are nearly always a "U" shape, and bolted on. They can be ordered in a variety of sizes, or altered to suit, if necessary. The cart portion and wheels remain the same, but if one acquires a mini of another size, only the shafts need replacing, not the entire cart.
A local miniature horse drill team all purchases their easy entry carts from a particular retailer then has a member alter the length of the shafts to suit each horse individually. He generally lops off several inches, then bends the shaft tips out and away from the horses' shoulders. While the original length would be fine for most uses, shortening the shafts a bit makes them more comfortable in the sharp turns and pivots required by drill maneuvers.
One would really rather not do this for a more expensive cart. While 2" or 3" doesn't sound like a lot, consider a horse who is only 29" tall! Particularly when that horse is a pivot horse. Several owners do purchase a separate shaft set for trail driving, where a longer shaft, i.e., the original length, adds stability. The low price tag on an easy entry style cart makes this possible.
What Should I Look For?
One should always be mindful of the welds. A good weld should be of a suitable size for the joint, smooth with no rough edges, and well connected to the parts it is supposed to be holding together.
The cart, in general, should be strong—not just look strong—but actually be strong! Just because you are hitching a diminutive horse does not mean you are hitching a weak horse. Pick up the back of the cart and drop it. There should be no rattles, creaks or worse, cracks. Pull the shafts to the outside and inside, up and down. They should spring back to the original shape. If you can bend them out of shape by hand, think what a 300-pound horse will do to them.
Shaft tips should smooth and bend away from the horse slightly. Usually, there are rubber or plastic tips at the very end. Pull the tips off and check how the edge of the shaft has been addressed. If the pipe was just hacked off, jagged or rough, with a rubber tip slammed on, consider how the rest of the cart might be finished. Why? Well, those rubber tips do fall off and there is your horse's shoulder on a jagged piece of pipe! The rubber tips are more durable than plastic. One can purchase replacements at any store that carries household goods, usually in the furniture accessories; they are the rubber feet for chairs. Black is better than white, and the heavier the better. It doesn't hurt to purchase extras and keep them on hand.
Shafts should have what is called a "footman's loop" wherein is buckled the breeching holdback strap. This strap is located on the harness and holds the breeching in place by connecting the breeching to the cart. Breeching acts as a brake and keeps the cart from rolling up on the horse's rump, making it a good idea for trail driving, or driving on hills. If there are no footman's loops on the shafts, you will have little purchase for the holdback straps.
All the pipe should be of a suitable diameter, with a suitable thickness. Skinny pipe with skinny walls is asking for trouble, regardless of its location.
Note, in the photo above, that there are also reinforcements to and within the shafts themselves.
The first reinforcement is an angle bar that runs from the shaft itself back to the frame of the cart. This dampens bounce as well as keeps the shafts at the correct angle for the horse. This angle bar is usually bolted. If needed, it can be removed and the angle can be changed.
The second set of reinforcements are within the corners of the shaft "U" itself. These are welded reinforcements and cannot be changed in any way. If the weld breaks, it should be re-welded. If one side needs re-welding, the opposite should be carefully checked, and possibly re-welded also.
The singletree, or swingletree, is located on the front of the cart's basket, at the center of the "U" of the shaft, behind the horse. The traces attach to the singletree. Not all carts have them, but yours should. It serves the purpose of comfort for the horse. Consider the other end of the traces: the breast collar. The breast collar should move with the horse's shoulders, allowing the shoulders to move freely. However, if the free end of the trace attaches to a static point on the carriage, i.e. hooks attached to the frame, the breast collar cannot move with the shoulders, creating a rub. Hooking the trace ends to a singletree on a pivot that moves with the horse allows the breast collar to move with the horse's shoulders, eliminating shoulder rubs, which can lead to sores similar to those created by a poorly fitting saddle.
There are some singletrees which should be avoided! The photo on top is an example of one. There are 2 holes at either end, through which may go a strand of leather—or other material—or which may drop a piece of metal, similar to a large staple.
The way this arrangement works is that the trace is brought over the end of the singletree, between the 2 holes. A strand of leather or "staple" is then dropped over, into the holes, on either side of the trace. The leather may be tied for security if long enough. The staple simply drops through the holes and stays by gravity.
If the single tree looks like the top photo, replace it immediately. A cart that comes with the single tree above I would find suspicious. I would wonder where else corners have been cut to lower the price. This would—and should—cause one to recheck other parts.
The bottom photo shows a "cockeye" hook. In this case, the hole of the trace is placed over the longer end, then pulled over the shorter end. When removing the trace, one pulls the trace over the short end, then over the longer. This type of singletree end is one of the safest for nearly all purposes.
Also note that the singletree itself is round and robust, rather than the flatter shape of the singletree shown above.
While the flatter shape will likely hold up while hitched, if the cart is dropped off a truck or otherwise upended, the flatter shape can snap, usually at the pivot point. In my original hunt for a used cart, I came across one with a single tree whose method of attachment I could not discern. It turned out that both ends had broken off between the holes, so the owner—who was not a driver—had merely sanded down the broken areas to make them look nice!
The first driving clinic I attended, I used a borrowed cart. My horse was a hothead and I didn't know a whole lot! The cart arrived and was unloaded from the truck. The singletree was the type in the top photo. As I hitched, I noticed on the singletree that one of the staple type pins was missing altogether; the other barely in the holes. I found a suitable piece of bailing twine, filled the missing holes, dropped the "staple" keeper in the other side and off we went.
For awhile I had my hands full trying to keep my hotheaded horse manageable, listen to the clinician, and avoid running over everyone else. When I did look down, I realized that there was NOTHING holding my traces onto the singletree! The staple had bounced out, and the twine had also worked itself loose. Only the fact that the horse was so forward, thereby keeping the traces taut, had kept him connected to the cart!
In the end, I ended up finding a couple sturdy pieces of twig to put in the outer hole - and praying it was enough to at least keep the trace from sliding off the end. They required several replacements - and gave the clinician multiple occasions to yell at me to look up!
A Word About Materials
Weight is important for a miniature horse!
I have two 33" minis in fairly good shape. One weighs about 280, the other about 310. I admit to weighing 115, and my marathon harness weights about 10 pounds.
A good easy entry cart may weigh anywhere from 80 to 120 pounds. Add to that, the driver and possible passenger(s). Some basic easy entry carts offer wooden floor and dash—heavier than the basic steel basket. Some come with fenders, some with all sorts of extra parts.
Consider that carts are 2-wheeled, placing weight on the horse's back, the size of the tyres and the area being driven—and that we would like our horse to be happy and pain-free!
This is why a movable seat is so important: one must be able to move the seat forward or back to balance the weight in the shafts! If the seat is too far forward, the weight in the shafts too much, the mini will find itself carrying too a large portion of your weight - and that of a passenger as well! If the seat is too far back, the shafts will "go light" resulting in them rising in the tugs; the weight being lifted and on the belly via the wrap straps. Neither situation is good!
Wheels are a concern as well. They are relatively easy to replace and change size, so keep in mind that the wheels on a used cart may not be the original. The basic EE cart comes with 20" wheels, which are not very big. Some owners replace them with a 24" wheel - especially if the mini is taller. A larger wheel will roll over humps and bumps more easily, giving a better ride for both you and your horse. Ask the seller if the wheels are the originals. If replaced with a larger wheel, ask if any modifications of the axle were necessary. If a longer axle was installed, check it and make sure it is healthy.
A final word on wheels. Tyres come in two basic types: pneumatic and solid rubber.
Pneumatic tyres are those which one must inflate, should have an inner tube. Many parts of the US are riddled with goat heads and other vicious stickers that are capable of puncturing the tyres. If the cart has pneumatic tyres, the best recommendation is to take the wheels to a bicycle shop, have them put in an anti-puncture strip, and anti-puncture fluid. This will allow you to have the more comfortable of a pneumatic tyre - and still get you home on two filled tyres!
Solid rubber tyres are not as soft a ride. They are hard rubber, after all. However, if you live in a sticker ridden area - or for whatever other reason find your tyres are chronically flat—a solid tyre may be your best option. Talk to your local bicycle shop and see what they put on their mountain bikes!
An Overview of a Well Built Easy Entry Type Cart
An Overview of a Well Built Easy Entry Cart
The above photo shows the basic points of a well built Easy Entry type cart - the most popular "first" cart among miniature horses. Apart from actual construction features, I have numbered the parts in order of importance, although all of the points are important to look at when purchasing. If any one is lacking, broken or of poor construction - particularly in a used cart - look closely and find out if it can be added or replaced. Consider the cost of the addition or repair as part of the cost of the vehicle and whether it is still worth the asking price.
1) Singletree, with the "cockeye" hooks. It is round and sturdy. It is also free to move. Periodically I come across a singletree that has been bolted stationary! The black "bars" on the singletree are actually straps that go around the singletree and the front of the basket. They keep the singletree from swinging so freely that it actually hits the horse's rump. If the cart does not come with this, one can easily purchase two dog collars of the appropriate length! The collars should be long enough to allow the singletree to swing, but not so long as to allow it to interfere with the horse. Grab a measuring tape and run it through the basket and around the single tree. Use that measurement as the middle hole on the dog collars so there is room for adjustment.
2) The seat slider. This rail allows the seat to be moved forward or back to balance the weight in the cart. The heavier the load, the further back the seat should go. Have a friend help with balancing the cart by picking up the shafts while the expected weight is in the seat and with the seat bolts loosened. The seat can be moved back or forward until the person holding the shafts feels like there is about 5 pounds in each shaft. From there, re-tighten the bolts. Remember, the weight in the shafts - and the person hands - is the weight that will be on the horse's back.
3) The shaft reinforcements. The bolted angle bar is below the "3" runs vertically. It can be changed, but does require some welding, possibly even a shorter or longer bar. Take this into consideration. The horizontal bar above the "3" is horizontal and welded. This is definitely an area to check welds!
4) The basket. Your feet go here, so make sure there is enough room for them! If the seat is moved all the way forward, and you have long legs, you may not be comfortable on a long - or even a short drive. It is also nice if there are whip and bottle holders in the basket. But if not, they are inexpensively and easily added. A fanny pack can be attached to the basket to hold a sandwich and other "necessaries"!
5) The seat. Seats come in varieties and colours. They can also be replaced. If you are a new driver, intend to travel with a friend, or have a fast moving equine, arm rests are good, as is a back. Many older drivers like to have a thicker pad in the seat. This too is easy and inexpensive.
When purchasing a cart of any sort, these things should be checked and taken into consideration!
All of these points to check are pertinent in any cart considered. I have laid them under the Easy Entry cart because this is the most commonly purchased cart.
That being said, any new cart under $200 is suspect. Just considering the price of steel alone, one should question where shortcuts have been made to make the price so low.
Cultivate your local bicycle shop; they are an incredible resource. My cycle shop owner couldn't imagine what I was doing! He taught me how to change my tyres, gave me reflectors, and a rearview mirror. He helped me pick out my pneumatic tyres, found me a great bike computer and taught me how to install and calibrate it. I brought in photos of the horse in harness. He recognized all the things he'd helped me with. To this day, he has the photos up in his office. They are right up there with his winning cyclists!
Most of the photos are of my own easy entry cart. I have, literally, hundreds of miles logged in on this cart and as you can see, it remains in great condition. The shafts are straight and even, the seat is solid and when viewed from the front, everything is straight and true. I have not been kind to this cart! I do keep it stored inside, but only clean it up for shows. Otherwise, it is out on the trail! After 5 years of driving, I still say it was well worth its price!
For those of you purchasing your first cart, I wish the same for you.