Ask A Teamster: A Common Collar Fitting Challenge
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
I’m trying to fit a collar to a new horse I just got and I can’t seem to get it right. It seems close to fitting but the problem is it’s too tight on the sides a few inches below his mane, but it fits okay on the sides down lower. I’m also not sure how it should fit at the bottom of his neck above his chest. I see some horses that have a lot of space there and others with the collar almost touching the bottom of the neck. My guess is it’s a little too long there.
When I lengthen the top hame strap and then buckle the bottom one it is better up high on the sides of his neck but gets too tight down lower on the sides, and doing that makes the collar hang down even longer at the throat.
I’m wondering if I need a different collar or if you think there might be a way to make this one fit? Any advice you can offer will be appreciated.
Selecting the right collar and the proper hames to go with it and getting the hames adjusted just right for a perfect collar fit requires an interesting combination of science and artistry. Sometimes luck and magic are necessary as well. The variation of sizes and cross-section shapes of equine necks is infinite – and subject to change in the individual animal from time to time. The options we have for collar and hame sizes, shapes and styles, and for various hame adjustments, though daunting in number, is by comparison limited. For example, if we assume that a person could reasonably use 6 possible top hame strap settings (holes for the buckle), 4 bottom hame strap settings (holes), and 3 possible ratchet notch settings on the hames there would be 6 X 4 X 3 = 72 different setting options. Many times I witnessed my mentors, Addie Funk and Tom Triplett, fuss and experiment with collars, pads, and adjustments for days to get them just right – only to make changes and fuss again as the shoulders first shrunk from the compression effects of the initial work, and then later bulked up from the exercise and conditioning. Change also occurs as young animals grow and mature and when equines of any age gain or loose weight. In older animals, the muscles tend to progressively shrink.
I am extremely concerned about the number of horses that I see driven and worked with improperly-fitting collars. Typical maladjustments include, but are not limited to, too tight or too loose on the sides up high on the neck (location A on the photos), too tight or too loose on the sides down low on the neck (location B on the photos), too long at the throat (location C on the photos). Although it is a serious problem when it occurs, I seldom see collars that are too short in length and therefore too tight at the throat. Any place on a collar that fits too tight can cause discomfort, excessive pressures, soreness, and reluctance to pull (balkiness). Any collar area that is too loose will allow excessive movement of the collar over the adjacent skin and underlying tissues. Such excessive movement creates friction and heat and can potentially wear the hair off and damage skin and deeper tissues. In addition, horses often attempt to alleviate the discomfort caused by ill-fitting collars by working in abnormal postures that can result in secondary musculoskeletal problems. Some examples of such postures would be holding the head higher or lower than normal, to one side or the other, or rotated with the nose out to the left or right; curving the back (up, down, right, or left); or dog tracking (rear end traveling to the right or left of where the front end travels).
Both in terms of the comfort of the horse and functionality in pulling, the collar and hames are the most critical components of the harness. A well-fit collar and properly-adjusted hames are an important first step in assuring the comfort, performance and safety of our horses and mules as they work for us in harness. It is imperative that they fit extremely well to prevent horses from developing physical and psychological problems from pulling loads. Although it involves a bit of geometry and physics, and more than a little trial-and-error, it is imperative that we learn to accomplish that perfect collar fit that our animals deserve.
I very commonly encounter the exact collar fitting puzzle that you have described. While it seems very logical to create more width near the top of the neck by lengthening the top hame strap, in reality doing that alone often does not accomplish what is really needed. Collars have somewhat of a teardrop-shaped hole in the center, and many new collars seem to have less curve and width up near the top than a well-muscled neck requires (diagram 1). The majority of the horses I encounter are not so thick in the upper portion of their neck as to need a full-sweeney collar, but many do need a little more curve (width) to the collar up there than many collars offer. Note the different shapes of new collars in diagram 1 and diagram 2. It is also imperative that hames are the appropriate size for whatever collar they are used with. If the hames are too short or overly long for the collar it will be difficult or impossible to get the point of draft where it belongs or to otherwise get the hames fitting on the collar properly Select hames one to two inches larger than the collar size.
We cannot change the shape of the neck hole in a collar at one location without changing its shape in all other areas. However, the measurement around the inside perimeter of a collar is not going to change when we adjust the shape of the collar. So, in order to increase the width up high on the neck, as you need to do, we will either change the width somewhere else, change the length, or a little of both.
If the collar is a little long for your horse, as you suspect, the extra length can likely be converted into more width where you need it. The procedure described and illustrated below is the method that works best for me:
Photos 1 thru 8 show a collar that, like your description, is tight up high on the sides of the neck (A), fits fairly well on the sides of the neck down lower (B), and is a bit too long (C).
Photo 2 is the same collar as Photo 1, with the hames buckled on in such a way as to not change the shape of the collar.
Photo 3: Notice that both metal hame loops on the top hame strap are in the highest notch on the ratchets (E).
Photo 4: The width inside this example collar is 7 inches at A, 9 inches at B; and the length (C) is 22.5 inches.
Photo 5: There is absolutely no room to get my finger tips (1/2 inch thick) between the neck and the collar roll at A. The collar is much too tight at this location.
Photo 6: I can comfortably insert my fingers to the depth I want at B, but it feels a little tighter than I like. My fingers are 7/8 inch thick where they are under the roll.
Photo 7: The collar is too long since I can easily slide the entire thickness of my hand (2 inches) between the collar and the windpipe on the underside of the neck.
Photo 8: With the collar forced against the shoulders there is still too much distance between the inside of the collar and the windpipe. The collar is too long.
The goal will now be to change adjustments on the hame ratchets and hame straps to create significantly more width at A and a little more width at B, while at the same time reducing the overall length of the collar (C).
We can accomplish this by:
1. Lengthening the top hame strap by about 1/3 to significantly arc the strap over the top of the collar (Photo 9 below).
2. Moving the hame loops down to the middle notch on the hame ratchets (Photo 10). At this point, before the bottom hame strap is fastened, the hames should appear a little too high on the collar (if not the top hame strap may be too long).
3. Buckling the bottom hame strap, which forces the bottom of the collar upward and the sides outward. The collar is forced to become wider at A because, as force is applied by tightening the bottom strap, the arc of the top hame strap straightens out. This not only allows the hames to spread apart at the top, but also causes a downward push on the collar from above. With downward pressure on the collar from the top hame strap and upward pressure on the collar from the bottom hame strap, the collar is forced to become shorter in length and to expand out towards the hames which are now wider up near the top.
After lengthening the top hame strap, it typically appears that the point of draft will be too low, and that the curve near the bottom of the hames will be down too far to match the curve of the collar. However, moving the hame loops from the top notches on the hame ratchets to the middle notches (Photo 10) will raise the hames back up. As mentioned above, the hames should be a little higher than we want at this point, because they will be pulled downward by tightening the bottom hame strap. Some minor tinkering with the top and bottom hame strap settings may still be necessary get the point of draft where it needs to be and to get the collar length and widths at A and B just right.
Photos 9 through 14 show the results of making the changes described above.
Photo 9: Notice and compare the overall shape of the opening for the neck in Photo 2 (before changes) with that of Photo 9 (after changes).
Photo 11: After the changes, the width inside the collar is 8 inches at A, 9.25 inches at B, and the length (C) is 21.5 inches. The collar is now 1 inch wider at A, ¼ inch wider at B, and 1 inch shorter (C).
Photo 12: I can now insert my fingers to the depth that I want (to where they are 7/8 inch thick) at A.
Photo 13: I can still insert my fingers to the depth that I want (to where they are 7/8 inch thick) at B. It no longer feels tight, nor is it too loose.
Photo 14: The collar is now the proper length, since I can slide my fingers, but not my hand, between the collar and the windpipe. My fingers are 1 inch thick where they are under the roll, and they are touching the skin but not putting pressure on the windpipe.
Photo 15: With the collar forced against the shoulders, the distance between the inside of the collar and the windpipe is just what I want. The collar is now the proper length and will not choke the horse on a hard pull, nor cause the forces of pulling to damage the bony parts of the shoulder, as with a collar that is too long.
If a collar does not spread quite wide enough to contact the hames where we have let them out wider near the top you, may be able to spread it a little by hand without damaging it. With the collar buckled, but without hames, place your knee on the inside of the roll at the point where it needs to spread (A) and pull on the roll on the opposite side, repeatedly springing it out a little. Don’t attempt this unless the collar is close to fitting beforehand. Major reshaping of collars requires a different process which my mentor and stepfather, Tom Triplett, demonstrates in my DVD, “Fundamentals 4.” Working the horse a few times with a light to moderate load will also help force the collar out to the hames. However, be careful not to work too long or too hard until the collar becomes reshaped and fits just right.
We should always check the collar fit each and every time we harness up and periodically as the animals work each day. Different equipment and jobs, tongue weights, amount of draft, etc., can affect the way collars fit. Remember that checking the fit of a collar without the hames on is only a preliminary step. Recheck after the hames are on, and do final checks once the tongue and neck yoke are hooked and when actually pulling. Make sure the horse’s head and neck are perfectly straight and that the head is at the height where it is carried when the horse is driving or working – otherwise the collar will not fit at those times.
I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity to examine horses in harness and evaluate how their collars fit. We can learn from the ones that don’t fit properly as well as the ones that do. Practice changing adjustments simply to study the effects and to get a feel for the results of making various changes. Fitting collars is an art, and our skill will be proportionate to the amount of time we spend practicing.
Take care, stay safe, enjoy those horses and mules, and treat them well,
Doc Hammill lives on a ranch in Montana. He and his partner Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness – through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and his horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com