Be super selective in this critical safety area. Just because the minimum age requirement by your liability insurance carrier may be 21 years old doesn’t mean that any 21-year-old that has driven a tractor “will do”. This is probably the last place you want to try to save on payroll expenses. First choice is always family or friends that you know have the experience and the personality that is critical to this position.
If you don’t have family and friends that meet that criteria and are willing to do it, we strongly recommend that you look for seasoned farmers in your community. These employees may end up being the highest wage earners for your seasonal help but this may be the highest risk area in your venue and you absolutely must be sure you have the right people in place.
2. Proper Wagon Design
Those of us that grew up in the culture where you didn’t wear seat belts or bike helmets and where we rode in the bed of a pickup truck going down the highway probably have also been on a few flatbed hayrides. Loose hay thrown on the wagon, legs hanging off the front & sides, and even tossing our friends off once in a while and watching them have to run and get back on while we did our best to not let them back on – those were the days! Today, that is a recipe for significant injury or death as well as the lawsuits that come with injuries (no matter how minor) in today’s litigious society.
This means having wagons that safely accommodate and contain your passengers. Safety railings on the front & sides that are sturdy and are designed with minimal rail spacing so that a child cannot crawl through. The back should have a gate or enclosure of some sort that is kept shut during the ride. There are many great design options out there that we won’t get into in this article but may be something we can cover in one of our upcoming YouTube videos.
This is one position that tends to get sacrificed when attempting to keep our payroll costs down. We try to get away with not having one of our staff on the wagon with our guests. This means that the driver now has to divide his attention between driving the tractor safely, and keeping a close eye on his passengers and correcting unruly behavior. Take your safety to the next level by having a staff member on every wagon.
This is a perfect place to put someone who is very good with people and is able to address any behavior issues that arise in a tactful but firm manner. This person can also a great marketing and market research tool. On a 15-minute hayride, they can really get the pulse of your customers. What they like, what they don’t like, where they are visiting from, answering their questions about other things that are available, reminding them to stop by the bakery on the way out, etc. This may be the most interaction your guest has with any single staff member on their visit so be sure to be strategic in who you place in this role.
4. Hayride Trail Selection and Maintenance
Another key to a safe hayride is your trail. Do not route your hayride through a parking lot or other area where you have guest activities. If you must crossover a pedestrian path or go through an activity area, you should have barricade fencing with clear signage that this is a hayride crossing area and caution should be observed. Kids get distracted very easy when attending our awesome venues and will wander into the path of a hayride in the blink of an eye.
The hayride route should also be kept free of potholes, rocks, ruts, or other things that would cause the hayride wagon to bounce or jerk hard. This type of jerking motion may not seem like much to you or I but gets amplified in infants and elderly and could be enough to cause injury.
Keep any overhead foliage trimmed up 14’ above the wagon platform. That may sound extreme but that eliminates the temptation for that teenage boy trying to impress a girl by jumping up and grabbing an overhead branch as they pass by. Your route should also be cleared to a minimum of 6’ on both sides of your wagon. This is especially true of fence posts, gates, barbed wire or other things that riders could get their arm stuck in on the way by causing serious injury.
Also, choose the flattest route possible. That won’t be hard for you that live in the “flatlands” but there are many areas where this is a real challenge. A moderate to steep grade opens you up to tractor brake failure or accidents caused by slippery conditions.
5. Loading and Unloading
Your loading and unloading area should be a large and flat area with plenty of room for your hayride to pull in and turn around with ease. This area should be fully barricaded with separate gated entry and exit points. Loading and unloading should never occur with the tractor running and in gear even though the tractor driver has “everything under control”. The tractor should be in neutral with the brake engaged before anyone is loaded or unloaded.
Specific policies should be established for this (see #6 below). Once you have unloaded the wagon, a qualified staff member should walk around the wagon looking for lost items, soft tires, fluid leaks, or other possible safety issues before loading the next group.
6. Policies and Procedures
Policies are a good idea for your entire operation but this is one area where they are a must. There should be a clear set of policies and procedures that your drivers and spotters know inside and out. This should include things like:
Your guest specific loading and unloading procedures
Your tractor specific loading and unloading procedures
Job expectations for your tractor driver
Job expectations for your spotter
Frequency of visual inspections
What to do with lost & found items
Hayride travel speed
Max number of passengers
How to handle those not abiding by the rules
What to do in the case of lightning or other unexpected bad weather
If you are running haunted hayrides, this will add an even greater amount of intentional safety planning to pull that off. In addition to all the points above, your actors will also need extensive training and written procedures to insure they stay within the safety guidelines you outline.
7. Tractor Sizing
I could not find any statistics on this but I would bet that the majority of cases involving multiple injuries from a hayride accident are the result of pulling a hayride wagon with an undersized tractor or other vehicle. A good general rule of thumb is that your tractor needs to be a minimum of 25% heavier than the combined weight of your wagon and the max number of occupants. That percentage needs to increase significantly if your hayride route includes moderate to steep grades.
It is very tempting on our busy days when we have a tractor down to just use the smaller tractor and be “extra careful”. This is not a risk worth taking as you may be putting the well-being of your guests along with future of your venue on the line.
8. Safety Chains & Proper Pins
Safety chains are a must! There should be a heavy chain (rated to handle the jerking force of a max occupant hayride) connecting the wagons front axle to the tractors draw bar or rear axle.
Also, farmers are known to be “resourceful” and use things other than proper hitch pins (bolts, rebar, rhubarb, or whatever else we can get our hands on). When you are hauling people and their lives are depending on you, don’t take any chances. Buy that $10.00 hitch pin that fits exactly as it should and includes the proper R-clip.
9. Maintain Your Equipment
Brakes, Brakes, Brakes!! Yes, it is also important to do all your other general maintenance on your tractor to ensure that it will start each day and run smoothly but the major thing to always go above and beyond in your maintenance schedule when it comes to hayride safety is your brakes. When in doubt, seek the help of a professional mechanic. If your tractor has a parking brake, make sure it is 100% functional as intended without the assistance of a bungie cord or bailer twine to stay engaged.
10. Signage & Sound Systems
Be sure to have easy to read signs in your hayride area and on your wagon to include:
Cost? Nothing frustrates our guests more than if they wait in line for something only to find out that they needed a special wristband, or ticket, or cash. Make sure that is clear in your pick up area as well as your general information board when they enter
Rules. Clearly outline in as few words as possible your main rules such as being seated at all times, hands and legs inside the wagon, no throwing hay, etc. There should be a sign at your entrance as well as on the wagon.
Allergies? If you are using Hay, you may want to have a sign stating that and the related allergy warning. If you are using straw, you may want to highlight that and the fact that it is typically hypoallergenic.
Times. A simple sign that says “hayrides run every 15 minutes” can head off questions and frustration of your guests in wondering how long it will be before the next hayride.
Fun Facts & Photo Ops. Give your guests something to do while they wait in line. Maybe some interactive educational boards or photo opportunity.
Also, a good PA system on your hayride can add another level of safety and enjoyment. The spotter or tractor driver can interact and give people a scripted tour of the farm as they go but it is also a great tool to communicate to your riders about rules, upcoming hazards, or emergency instructions. We have some recommendations for these systems on our Resource pages.
Hayrides are a centerpiece of many fall Agritourism venues but can also carry a high degree of risk if not executed properly. Be sure to give this area the attention it needs to make sure your guests stay safe while having the time of their lives at your venue.