Harness for the Working Horse

To describe in detail all the regional variations once found in the working horse harness of the UK would require a website in itself. The description of traditional harness here is limited to those types of harness currently in use and which can still be made by today’s harness makers, using fittings which are available from the few remaining saddlers’ ironmongers.

Some horsemen prefer the modern webbing harness and other recent introductions from overseas, which are practical and effective in some circumstances, and these are also described.

Traditional Harness

Although there is harness still in use which is over 60 years old, most of that which has yet to be unearthed from dusty lofts is now well past its use-by date. Those seeking harness with which to put their horses to work now find it necessary to start from scratch and order a new set of harness from one of the many very competent harness makers still to be found up and down the country.

There are four basic types of harness in use today which cover the needs of of 99% of those putting their horses to work – each designed for a different type of work situation. These are known as shaft (or cart) harness, trace harness, plough harness and pairs (or pole) harness.

Shaft Harness

For a full set of shaft harness designed for horses working with two-wheeled vehicles or double-shafted wagons, the following items are required:

  • Bridle
  • Collar and hames
  • Cart saddle or pad
  • Set of breechings

The bridle provides the horseman with a means of guiding the horse. Its main function is to hold a bit in the horse’s mouth, and through the use of reins attached to the bit the horseman is able to communicate with the horse, not only which way he wants it to turn but also when he wants it to stop and back up. To most horsemen these signals to the horse through the bit are supplementary to the voice commands which usually go with them. Most well-trained horses will react to the voice without too much use of the reins.

Most working-horse bridles in use today also have a secondary function – to restrict the sight-lines of the horse to a narrow forward and downward range. The arguments for and against the use of blinkers are numerous. It is sufficient to say here that horses can work in blinkerless bridles as well as blinkered ones, and many were trained to do so.

In the past, hundreds of different designs of bit have been used to fit onto bridles. Each one had its own champions, and although many of the old ones do still exist, for all practical purposes there are now only two basic designs made in the full range of sizes suitable for heavy horses.

These are the straight bar, with one face smooth and the other ribbed to give differing degrees of control when pulled against the bars of the horse’s jaw, and the Liverpool bit, a curbed driving bit which gives greater control over horses when they are being driven on the roads or in confined spaces, such as the show ring.

Whichever bit is chosen, it is essential that the bridle used can be adjusted so that the bar fits correctly and comfortably into the horse’s mouth. On a simple bridle this can only be done effectively by altering the length of the headstrap, as the ring of the bit is permanently attached to the ring of the bridle by a small non-adjustable link. On most Scottish bridles, the bit is attached to the bridle by small straps which can be used to adjust the height. On the London, or trade, bridle, a strap is fixed to the cheek of the bridle which drops down through the loop of the bit and buckles back up to the side of the cheek, giving plenty of scope for adjustment.

The next item required for a set of shaft harness is a well-fitting padded collar complete with a pair of hames. The hames form a rigid frame around the neck collar and provide a means of attaching a horse to its load. In Scotland and on the south-west peninsula of England 36 inch tug chains are used, which are attached to the shafts further back, nearer to the body of the vehicle.

Although many attempts have been made to find a substitute for the English-type collar which has a forewale solidly stuffed with ryestraw and an equally firm body similarly stuffed, each time the customers have returned to the well-tried but laboriously constructed English neck collar. Good collar makers are few and far between, but after many years of decline, the art of collar making is again being taught in an effort to fulfil the growing demand for good English-style collars.

Split or open collars, designed to part sufficiently at the top to slip onto a horse’s neck without having to pass it over his head, are still being made in south-west England where they have always been popular. At the other end of the country, the Scottish peaked show collars continue to be in demand for those who can afford them – although it is a growing problem to find a collar maker willing to produce them.

Cheap wooden hames are still being produced for working harness, but the manufacture of the traditional cased hames (a wooden core cased in iron and then sheet brass) ceased a few years ago. The alternatives being produced today are either a solid aluminimum-bronze casting or a half-round steel tubing which can be tailored to individual collars and even lengthened at the top to resemble the long showy hames which went with the Scottish peaked collars.

The cart saddle or pad is designed to take a small part of the weight of a shafted vehicle on the horse’s back. The saddle consists of a pair of pads which lie either side of the horse’s spine and are attached to a wooden frame or ‘tree’. This, in turn, is covered with a leather housing which keeps the rain off the pads. The bridge of the tree has a metal channel or trough and into this fits the back-chain or ridger, the purpose of which is to hold up the shafts of the vehicle. Ridger chains can be either single – or double-linked chain, but the latter is said to move more freely in the channel. There are also numerous regional designs of cart saddle, the most unusual being the Scottish saddle with its high chine in the front. Over most of the rest of the UK designs are being standardised to fit the patterns of the one or two suppliers of the wooden trees on which the saddle is built. The cart saddle is held firmly in position by one or two girth straps which pass under the belly of the horse and buckle to the saddle on the other side.

Cart harness is finished off with a set of breechings. This provides the horse with a means of reversing the vehicle by ‘sitting’ into the breech strap. The breech strap is attached to the shafts by short chains, so the whole cart and its load can be reversed. The breechings also acts as part of the braking system when a horse is going downhill and prevents the cart from overtaking the horse. The breech band is held up by hip and loin straps attached to a broad top strap called a crupper strap. In cart harness there is a small loop at the rear end of the crupper strap, not to put the horse’s tail through, but as a means of hanging the full breeching on a peg. The front of the crupper strap is attached to the cart saddle by one, or sometimes two, straps and as the front of the cart saddle is similarly attached to the collar, the full set of harness becomes one.

There remains one small, but very important piece of harness to complete the cart set – the ‘wanty’ or belly band. This is attached to the shafts of the vehicle, passes under the belly of the horse, and prevents the shafts tipping up when too much of the load in a two-wheeled car is behind the axle.

Trace Harness

Trace harness, sometimes known as long gears, is used when horses are coupled in line, one in front of the other. This can be to assist a horse in shafts to pull a loaded vehicle, or when the horses are ploughing heavy land so that the plough team can walk in line down the furrow. The bridle, collar and hames are the same as for the cart harness.

The special trace harness consists of a back-band, which is a broad strip of leather with fittings to hold up the 12 ft trace chains, and a crupper strap with buckles at the front end to fix to the meeter straps of the collar. The crupper strap runs the length of the horse’s back and ends in a crupper loop through which the horse’s tail is drawn.

This strap also keeps the back-band in position, and from a point near to the crupper loop, a pair of hip straps drop down on either side of the horse to hook into the trace chains, keeping the traces well clear of the horse’s feet when they are slack. A belly-band hooks into the traces forward of the back-band to help to keep the collar below the horse’s windpipe when in a strong pull.

Plough Harness

Plough harness, usually used when working a pair of horses side by side, requires the bridle, collar and hames as before and, in its simplest form, a plough-band or back-band to hold up the plough traces at a point between the hame hooks and the swingle trees, which are attached to the plough or similar implement. Many southern ploughmen prefer to use harness similar to the trace horse harness described above, but with plough-bands with hooks replacing the back-band with hook and ring used on trace harness.

Those ploughmen who like to put on a display of brass decorations use the trace harness, since the crupper strap provides a useful platform for attaching bell terrets and plumes on top, and through the provision of brass dees attached to the side of the crupper strap, they can buckle on various decorated side-straps, both in front of and behind the plough-band. No belly-band is needed as the downward pull of the traces keeps the collar off the horse’s windpipe.

Cotton plough lines are used to drive and control the horses when ploughing, and either rope, leather or chain couplers are used to keep the horses together.

Pairs (or Pole) Harness

A pair of horses harnessed together to a vehicle with a pole between them instead of shafts use special pairs harness. The four elements making up this harness are basically the same as shaft harness:

  • Bridle
  • Collar and hames
  • Saddle pad and breechings

However, only the collar and hames are of a similar pattern to those worn on most shaft harness. As pole vehicles are mainly used in a town situation, the bridle is usually of the London or trade type, with a full nose-band and a Liverpool bit attached to the extended cheek straps.

The pad is of lightweight construction as it is not employed to carry any weight. Its main functions are to hold up the trace chains and to act as a platform for a pair of ring terrets through which the leather reins are threaded, and a centre curl hook to which the meeter strap from the collar is attached.

The breechings on pairs harness are of lightweight construction as they do not perform the same function as in shaft harness. In pole harness, the braking action and reversing which necessitate breeching in shaft harness is taken over by a pair of pole chains from the front of the pole to the bottom chain of the hames. The actual braking action is controlled by the driver of the vehicle, who is provided with a foot brake acting on the rear wheels of the vehicle. The breeching is provided with a dock at the end of the crupper strap to go comfortably under the horse’s tail. The forward end of the crupper strap is attached to the pad, so that collar, hames, pad and breeching are all connected to each other.

A further function of the breeching in pole harness is to hold up up the trace chains towards the rear of the horses. A pair of looped straps, known as trace carriers, extend below the seat of the breeching strap immediately under the back pair of hip straps which connect the crupper to the breeching strap. Note that the decorated panels on pairs harness breeching are only seen on one side of each horse, and the inside straps are not usually decorated. Thus, each set of pairs harness has a nearside and an offside set of breeching.

The trace chains of pole harness, usually referred to as wheeler traces (to distinguish them from the leader traces worn by leader horses coupled in front of a pair attached to a pole), are provided with a large ring about one-fifth of their length from the hame hook. The pad is strapped to the top of this rig and the belly-band is buckled to the bottom. A second ring, attached to the first one by a connecting link, is used to couple the breeching to the traces by another length of strap. The ends of the wheeler traces traditionally have pigtail hooks so that a loop can be formed in the chain end to fit over the mushroom bolts on the splinter bar of the vehicle.

The use of belly-bands may seem superfluous on pole harness and trace harness, but most turnouts use them as a safety measure. Leader harness for pairs horses coupled in front of a pair of wheelers differs slightly from the trace horse harness already described. The bridles, collars and hames are the same as for the wheeler horses, and although a lighter form of saddle pad was traditionally used in the working situation, nowadays, where the teams are only shown in the ring and on parades, it is customary to match the leaders’ pads with those of the wheelers to give uniformity to the turnout.

There are no breechings on leader harness. A crupper strap, ending in a crupper loop to go under the horse’s tail, supports straps either side of the horse’s rump to hold up the leader traces. Leader traces have a ring at the end to couple onto the hook on the swingle tree. As there is no breeching strap, only a single ring is needed where the pad and belly-band are attached to the traces.

Leather driving reins are used on all town harness. For a single horse in shafts, a pair of reins would be about 12 ft long. For pairs harness the reins divide at a point about 3 feet behind the pad. The main outside rein goes to the outside of each horse’s bit by way of the rein terrets on the pad, and the coupling reins, similarly threaded through a rein terret on the pad, then cross over each to the inside of the bit of the opposite horse. These are adjustable, so that a pull on the left-hand rein will pull on the left-hand side of the bit of each horse equally, and similarly a pull on the right-hand rein should pull equally on the right-hand sides of both horse’s bits.

Modern Harness Developments

Over the past 10-15 years, items of overseas harness have been imported into the UK, particularly from North America, where the production of harness has always been on a very large scale. The Amish and Mennnonite communities still use horse power on their farms, and practising harness makers flourish. In particular, a growing number of horsemen who work their horses in this country are turning to American collar, which has the double advantage of being adjustable and cheaper than its English equivalent. These are usually worn with washable pads between the collar and the horse’s shoulders.

Another recent introduction to Britain is the Scandinavian system of harnessing for horse logging. This is needed for hitching a horse into the Scandinavian logging equipment which is increasingly being imported from Norway and Sweden: a specialised type of harness designed for use with specialised equipment.

For practical work some horsemen prefer harness made from nylon webbing; this is strong, lightweight, easily cleaned and cheap. The use of breast collars is common in eastern Europe and some nylon webbing breast collars are in use here, particularly when the horse is harnessed to a lightweight four-wheeled vehicle, for cross-country trials, for instance. However, the preference in the British Isles has always been for padded neck collars, so those who use webbing harness often combine it with a leather neck collar.

Conclusion

Horsemen must therefore consider which type of harness is best for their needs. For practical work at home, webbing harness, or a hybrid set, may be adequate or even preferable. However, traditional harness will no doubt continue to be used for shows and parades, and even ploughing matches. The future for traditional heavy horse harness manufacture in Britain, if there is one, must therefore surely be a gradual standardisation of the still numerous local styles to two to three basic designs using standardised fittings.

Ploughing

Heavy horse ploughing information & history

Forestry

Heavy horses for forestry & logging

Harness

Harness for the working horse

Farriery

Farriery for the working horse

Training

Training your heavy horse for work.

Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.

Clydesdale

Clydesdale information and breed guide.

Suffolk

Suffolk information and breed guide.

Percheron

Percheron information and breed guide.

Ardennes

Ardennes information and breed guide.

Natives

Native and working crosses information and breed guide.