Horsey Memories

Photo:The Whipline Team

The Whipline Team

by W.G.Ling former employee CWS Farms Coldham

Pre war I was at the age of 18 a horsekeeper in Fenland, which consisted of parts of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire), some of Lincolnshire and the whole of the Isle of Ely, which again has now been swallowed up into Cambridgeshire. My reason for writing this is that we used to drive teams of horses in a manner which as far as I know was unique to the area, with a single rein which for reasons I will explain was always known as a whipline. In the photo the whipline is the yellow line leading from the middle horse, or line horse to the driver. I have coloured the parts for controlling the team for explanation.

Putting names to the team and some of its gear

From the rear, the right-hand horse walks in the furrow and is called the furrow horse. They are attached to the plough by means of heel trees, the wooden bits behind the team. The horses are attached to their individual heel tree with traces, which are adjustable at the collar for length. The line and furrow horses are then attached to the three horse tree. Notice the hang bye horse has two thirds of the length, so that each horse has an equal share of the load.


Control was fairly simple. The line horse was allowed to walk ahead of the other two, by lengthening its traces. The hang bye and furrow horses couldn’t draw level because of the two red ropes, called false lines. These were fastened to the bridle reigns at one end and to the line horses traces at the rear. The line horse then controlled the direction of the other two.

How to control the direction of the line horse

This was done by word of mouth and the use of the whipline. The line itself was quite light, thinner than a clothes line, and held in the hand of the ploughman by what was known as a “hand pad”. This was usually the end of a worn-out halter lead. This had a loop spliced into one end and the other salvaged end was joined to the whipline which in turn reached to the line horse’s collar where it joined a leather thong, which in turn joined a curb chain that went through the left hand bridle ring, under the jaw. The reason it was called a whipline was if a horse didn’t keep its place and didn’t respond to an encouraging word by use of the heavy hand pad, a smack would be administered by sending a crack down the line rather like a whip. It didn’t hurt and didn’t need to. Horses know the tone of one’s voice and responds to it.

The method

To go right a few light jerks was given on the whipline and the word (it wasn’t a word more a sound) “wheesh wheesh”, repeated and to go left a light but steady pull on the line and the repeated word “cup, cup, cup”. A well trained horse would only need word of mouth and indeed the whole team would respond to voice commands.

The working day

Teams had to be groomed, fed and harnessed ready to leave the farm at 7am, which meant a 5am start of the day for a horseman. On reaching the field, work i.e. ploughing and sowing etc went on until 3pm with half an hour’s break for docky, which was a real “ploughman’s” washed down with a bottle of cold tea. Teams were unyoked from whatever job they were doing at 3pm;an arrangement that was peculiar to the Fens. To plough an acre a day meant walking 10 miles.

Caring for the horse

Stable work, grooming and feeding the horses went on until 4.30pm then we went home for tea and returned in an hour to further feed (bait) the horse until 6.30pm. We were back in the stable at 5am the next morning. There were no overweight people and no fitness suites. In the 1930s if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. It had its good points???

Working the team

We worked to Murphy ’s Law; if it could happen it would. Sometimes a horse would spook, or slip and fall. A pheasant could leave its cover under a piece of stubble and leave the ground with wings cracking like a firework. In windy weather horses were always nervous and a piece of paper blowing in the wind could frighten them into doing the unexpected. It wasn’t unusual for a horse to get a leg over a trace and panic, with the possibility of doing itself and its fellows real harm as well as the ploughman whose job it was to put things right. Consequently all lines and halters were tied with a knot that would come undone with a single pull (Boy Scout stuff this).The team was fastened to the plough via the heel trees to the hake. This was on the leading part of the plough and was adjustable both horizontally and vertically. When correctly set a straight line could be taken from the horses collar along the traces and heel trees to a point about halfway of the plough body. Minor adjustments were then made so that the plough would run its course with the minimum of effort from the ploughman. It was usual to hold one plough hale (handle) and with the other guide the team with th whip line. This was not held by the hand pad, but on the line itself, with finger and thumb. The man told the line horse what to do with the most gently movements; the horse felt with its mouth, both understood the other.

This page was added on 28/02/2010.

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