Here at Alberta Carriage Supply we’ve sold more wagons in the last 20 years than anyone else in western Canada. We’ve seen them at work in the field, on the road and in the mountains.
A wagon for your horses (well, mostly for you, really) is a big investment and one that should be well researched. Having made the decision to buy one is a great step forward in getting your horses to work.
The next step is to make sure you get the RIGHT wagon.
There are many things to consider when deciding on what kind of wagon to buy. If you can, decide on the type of driving you plan to do and where you’re going to do it.
Here are some things to think about when purchasing your wagon.
How much weight can your horse(s) handle? Horses are like people; they’re all different. Their age and history will have an affect on the load that they can handle.
A horse with a lot of heart will pull more than one with little heart. Physical condition is another important (and related) factor that determines performance.
To simplify things, we’ll use the general rule of thumb that a fit horse, doing continuous work with occasional heavy pulling and short rests can pull three times its own body weight on flat road, two times on bad or hilly roads and its own weight on very bad roads, in fields, sand or mountainous terrain.
No matter how fancy you want to get with your wagon, there are certain basics that really shouldn’t be “nice to haves”.
Brakes are an important feature to have (we’re being a bit cheeky, we know!). They help you navigate down a steep hill or hold the wagon off the horses while resting on inclines/declines. They also keep the wagon stable for passengers getting on or off. You have a choice between manual or hydraulic, two or four wheel and disc or drum brakes. Some like the two-wheel on the back, others like them on the front. You can have a four-wheel system, controlled with one brake pedal or have the front and the rear operated independently with two pedals. It’s pretty much personal preference.
A handy thing to have on any hydraulic system is a valve to lock the brakes on so that when you are resting the horses you don’t have to maintain pressure on the pedal and it gives you a parking brake when you’re unhooking. Of course it’s always a good idea to block the wheels as well when you’re parked as over time brake pressure can dissipate and you may find that you’re wagon isn’t where you left it. Hydraulic brake lines should be tucked up and out of harm’s way where they won’t snag on obstructions.
When it comes to steering there are two choices: automotive and fifth wheel. The big advantage of fifth wheel is how sharply you can turn. The disadvantages are pole slap on the horses while covering rough or uneven ground and hazardous maneuvering on side hills. Automotive steering with the linkage behind the axle is preferable as this will help reduce sway if you’re going to tow it into place with a vehicle.
The automotive steering on my wagon may not turn as sharply as fifth wheel but I can still do a U turn in twenty seven feet which has always been sharp enough. Whichever style you get, make sure there are plenty of grease fittings on pivot points and steering linkages. Don’t be afraid to use them. Changing parts that are worn or seized is an inconvenience – but if that part is a seized king pin, it’s a real chore!
When it choosing a suspension, consider where you’ll be using your wagon, the body style, the material used in the construction of the wagon body and the loads that you’ll be carrying.
There are three types of suspension: bolster or coil springs, leaf springs and rubber torsion axles.
Bolster springs are the most economical and are all right when driving on reasonably good roads and trails but they can be noisy. They have grease fittings but it takes a while for the grease to work it’s way around in them. Ask the builder to pre-grease the inside of the sockets the coils sit in and the stems of the angles that go inside the coils prior to assembling the wagon. The other disadvantage is they don’t have any rebound control so if you’re going to be covering rough ground with your wagon, especially river crossings, they aren’t the best choice. They have a pin in the stems to keep everything together but they will top out, resulting in a lot of banging and discomfort for you and your passengers. You can address this problem by adding gas shocks but unfortunately, not all manufacturers offer them (and if they do you’ll be up to the cost of the next best option, leaf springs).
Leaf springs are quiet and give a very forgiving ride making them very popular with many drivers.
The third choice is rubber torsion axles and they deliver a very stable ride especially with heavy loads. The thing to remember is that with rubber torsion the body of the wagon is bolted right to the gear. On rough or uneven ground there is a lot of twisting going on with the gear and that twisting is transmitted to the body. A rack style body or one with low side and end panels it doesn’t present much of a problem but if your body style is one with large side panels (like a hitch style) there could be a lot of cracking that shows up, especially if the material used to construct the body is solid board. In this case the leaf spring would be a better choice as it acts as buffer between the body and gear or even better the leaf spring combined with rubber torsion axles.
Both pneumatic tires and wood wheels with solid rubber both will stand up to the rigours of the trail. An optional runner set may be available for winter use, which will give you both a wagon and a sleigh in one vehicle.
A top with a front and a rear curtain will add to the versatility of any wagon. The top should have two panels on each side, which can be rolled up independently of one another. This gives you the option giving passengers in the back a view while keeping the sun off them or keeping the back buttoned up while travelling on the trail. This will keep all of your stuff on board and won’t leave a trail of lost gear behind you. It goes without saying that being able to sleep in your wagon is preferable to tenting it.
In the event that you’ll be using your wagon in the evenings, a lighting package will add greatly to your peace of mind and safety. Whether it’s just head and tail lights or turn signals and side marker lights, LED lights are best as they’re bright and they demand less power so you will go longer between battery charges.
Other Bells and Whistles
Other extras to consider are whip sockets, cup holders, cushioning on passenger seats. Making the rear passenger seats removable will add to the versatility of your wagon and give you additional seating around the campfire. A lift spring on the tongue will also take some weight off the horses.
Body Materials and Finish
The type of material used and the finish is something else to think about. Wood bodies flex, so unless a plywood or hardboard is used, stay away from automotive paint. It’s very hard and brittle and won’t flex with the wood, causing cracks in the paint and eventually peeling. A solid board wagon body, stained and sealed with a clear coat looks nice but touch up of the inevitable nicks and scratches can be difficult and large surface areas will also be prone to cracking.
Recently one of our manufacturers started using PVC, the same material that drain pipes are made from except it’s injected with air (like an Aero chocolate bar) to make it lighter. It stands up to the rigours encountered by a horse-drawn vehicle very well and is the choice if you like a high gloss automotive finish.
Whether the body is built with solid board or plywood, all ends and edges should be sealed prior to the assembly of the body. Also make sure that the paint used is an exterior grade, which will afford UV protection.
Last and not least think about where you’re going to store your wagon. Inside a heated building is NOT ideal. It will result in drying and cracking of the wood especially if the unit was brought in from an area where the ambient humidity is higher. In an unheated building or simply undercover where it is protected from rain and direct sunlight is best.
This should help you make an informed buying decision but when the inevitable questions start to pop up and you need some guidance, feel free to contact us and we’ll help you out.