In modern rural life, the hitching post is often an afterthought. Sure, you can see these structures featured prominently outside of every saloon in old western movies, but farms today often lack the simple structure, which could come in handy when dealing with any large livestock — horses, draft oxen, haltered cattle — while at the same time adding an aesthetic feature to your place that points to the past.
We built two hitching posts and installed one out back near the pens and the other up closer to the house. The one by the house was set in a location that is good for working with the animals, but also adds a point of interest to the landscaping. It also serves as a good device to aide in beating out area rugs on vacuuming day.
Our hitching posts consist of three main wooden pieces — two posts and a rail — all of which need to be stout. Having been around stock most of our lives, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen horses panic for whatever reason and rip posts out of porches or yank boards off fences, mirrors off of trucks, etc. The stressful situation that ensues afterward — when the horse is in a complete panic and in a full run trying to get away from the debris now seemingly chasing it, all while a frantic person is yelling and desperately trying to catch the animal — is an incredible, fearful, horrifying yet all too common scene that can almost always be avoided.
Anyone who has worked with large animals for any length of time has seen one or more of these scenarios, probably more than once, and that’s why building a well-built hitchin’ post is a good idea.
The timbers can be made out of a variety of materials. You can use railroad ties or good stout posts for the uprights — you need two of these. Most timbers are cut in more than 6-foot lengths, so you can cut the best of what length is there. If possible, make sure there are no knots on the top foot or so of each post for ease of construction. I used 7-inch-diameter juniper posts for ours (it’s what I can harvest close-by), and I dug ours in about 7 feet apart, but that can vary depending on how long your rail is. I wouldn’t go longer than 7 feet. Be sure to scrape any thick bark off of the buried ends before setting the posts; if you don’t, they will decay over time, and your posts will never feel really solid in the ground. I like the top of the rail to be around 40 inches off the ground, but it can certainly vary depending on the size of animals you have and your stature; it’s simply what is most comfortable.
Trim the post’s tops level with each other. You can use a straight board to bridge the two posts to set a level on. After the two posts are level and plumb, pack the dirt in around each post really tightly with a shovel handle or another dirt-packing tool — just like setting fence posts. After the posts are set, it is time to move to the more technical aspect of the project: cutting the channels.
Putting it all together
Find the center on top of each post. Use a straight board or pull a string line from one center to the other. Next, measure the rail to determine just how wide this channel will be. Our rail is about 9 feet long and about 4-1/2 inches in diameter. This will hang over a bit on each end, and with a 7-inch diameter post you can cut a 3-inch wide channel in the post top to cradle the rail. Adjust the channel to the width of your rail material.
Now go back to the board (or string line) stretched from the center from post to post. From this center line, measure out each side half of the distance of the determined channel width (the diagram above shows ideal measurements). Draw these lines parallel with the string. Next, from the top of each post, measure down the diameter of your rail, plus 1/2 inch, and draw a heavy mark so it is easy to see. A typical rail will probably be a little smaller on one end, so keep that in mind and measure accordingly. Take a chainsaw and cut out those channels. I would cut the outsides of the channel first, and then use the saw to clean out the centers and saw down only to the diameter of the rail plus the 1/2-inch mark. You will still need a hammer and chisel to smooth out the roughness.
Take the rail and center it on the posts. Narrow down a section on each end of the rail that will fit in like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Even though you want a good snug fit, it cannot be too tight; if it is, it will split your posts as you hammer the joints into place. If it takes more than a few medium taps to sink the rail into the posts, either narrow the rail slightly or clean a little more out of the channel, removing just a little bit at a time and trying it out as you go so you don’t end up with a loose fit.
Once the rail is fit snugly into the posts, it is time to install a long bolt. I used 5/16-inch all-thread — and would not use anything smaller — to pass through the post and rail at each end. First, drill a 1-inch hole with a speed bit only 3/8 inches deep. This will seat the washer and keep the nut fairly flush with the post, so it won’t snag on clothing. Then drill a 5/16-inch hole through the assembly. I don’t have a long 5/16-inch drill bit, so I had to drill from each side and meet in the middle (the all-thread will bend a little if the hole is not perfectly straight). Next, install a washer and nut on each end, tighten, and then hacksaw off the excess threads and pound it with a hammer to smash down any sharp metal slivers. Finally, squeeze in a bead of silicone caulk at the joint to deflect moisture out of the seams and preserve their integrity.
That’s it. It can be built in an afternoon.
There are a couple things I want to point out. First of all, the weak point in any hitchin’ post is the center. Any large animal should be tied closer to the posts. Also, I like to throw down either pea gravel or course sand around the hitchin’ post. If an animal panics, this keeps them from getting full traction and will give you a chance to calm the situation before any serious damage is done.
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HM Ranch sells a DVD titled “Hoards Hillbilly Heaven,” a tour of HM Ranch. It is a poor man’s guide to low-cost, comfortable, off-grid living, featuring an educational workshop on using the scrap pile to build inexpensive utility-generating devices.