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Harnessing Horsepower
Harnessing Horsepower
Allan Tullis stitching on the ‘britchen’ (part that loops around the horse’s rump to hold back a load) of a draft horse harness. He is using a Singer 97 stitcher.

Harnessing Horsepower

by Jo Chytka of Hemingford, NE

As you drive into Allan Tullis’ yard you get an inkling of what this man does for a living. The variety of horse drawn equipment like wagons, hay sled and mowing machine are not necessarily ornamental, they are utilitarian too as are the draft horses in the corrals. Allan operates two businesses from his rural Rushville, Nebraska home, one making harness and the other building wheels.

Allan has 15 years of experience working draft horses. He said “I grew up with saddle horses and cattle and I was used to being in the middle of a horse, then being behind one was just wrong until I got used to it.”

Harnessing Horsepower
Set of draft horse harness made for a man in Texas.

Allan mows and rakes his 100 acres of alfalfa with real horsepower. Additionally he moves the bales from field to stack and feeds in the winter with horses. A plan is in the works to build a horse drawn cart with an engine on it to operate his baler as well. Tullis said “I never spent a day on a tractor that I enjoyed. I just enjoy working the horses and that matters more than money.

Harnessing Horsepower
Allan feeding from a hay sled with (from left) Bobby, Ivy, Kate and Carl. (Photo courtesy of Allan Tullis)

Allan also used to raise and train draft horses and had 10-12 draft horse brood mares and a stallion. “Now I have cut down to three good teams. I like them too much; it would be too hard to sell them.”

It naturally follows that Allan’s two businesses are in occupations related to horses and wagons.

He is a harness maker and wheelwright.

Harnessing Horsepower
Allan’s harness shop showing a plethora of horse related items.

As we entered his harness making shop it just exuded an old-world atmosphere. A wood burning stove was heating the area and a subtle aroma of leather made it very pleasant. There was a vast amount and array of horse related items hanging, sitting and standing everywhere, which would take several hours to truly appreciate. It lacked the appearance of anything modern.

Allan began “I started making harness about eight years ago, here in my shop which is where I originally stored my harness. I used to have enough to harness 12 horses at once. Now I have two sets left that are for specific teams. I can just put them on and no adjustments are necessary.

“To learn to build harness I just got a good set of old harness and studied it. I make the complete set of harness, bridles, driving lines, britchens, everything except collars. I commonly don’t make collars, it takes so long to build them and they are very particular to fit, so I order those.”

Harnessing Horsepower
Allan Tullis’ preferred method of transportation to the shop.

“Some things in regard to harness making are different than they were 75 years ago: the size of draft horses has gotten bigger, and they can weigh between 1800-2500 pounds. You need to know head size, girth (around middle) and length of body measurements. All parts of a harness are adjustable; there is hardly a strap on them that is not. There are roughly 20 buckles on a single harness and a pretty good chunk of the cost is for hardware. I use mostly stainless steel hardware, or brass or chrome plated brass. Those materials absolutely will not corrode and damage the leather. Steel or iron was used years ago and is the worst thing for leather. When the salty sweat from a horse gets on the iron it rusts and subsequently destroys the leather. The biggest advance in harness making is not better leather, it is better hardware.

“It took me some time to find the best supplier for leather, it is not all created equal in price or quality. I tried some imported leather and it was just junk; some I threw in the fire. I now buy from only American tanners. I buy the best leather; I use it myself so know what holds up and works well. It absolutely does not pay to cut corners on quality of materials. I buy the leather in ‘sides’ which is 1/2 a cowhide. It takes three sides to make a set of harness (two horses), and I have four weeks of work in a set.

Harnessing Horsepower

“I have made a few sets of harness from nylon webbing, but they don’t have as long a life as leather. The nice thing is the only weight to them is the hames. I have also made some tugs (the straps that actually pull the load) with nylon webbing as the middle layer, the two outside layers are of leather.”

Tullis started out making just draft horse harness but now includes light horse, pony and mule harnesses, however the majority is still draft harness. I do harness repair too, but I don’t relish it.”

Harnessing Horsepower
Sample of sleigh bells made of cast brass; there are a total of 29 bells to a strap.

In addition to harness, Tullis makes straps of sleigh bells that have 29 cast brass bells in graduated sizes. Chaps, halters, bridles, breast straps, reins, and knife sheaths are all built in Tullis’ harness shop as well. Making the sheaths is a small sideline. There are knife collectors around the world buying them. “If I were younger and wanted to bear down there would be a good living in making them.” Tullis concluded “A set of harness costs roughly $1800. I don’t try to be the cheapest; I try to be one of the best.”

Allan’s harness can be identified by his maker’s mark: Pineview Harness, Allan Tullis-Maker, Rushville, Nebraska.

Harnessing Horsepower
Pete and Don in new harness. (Photo courtesy of Allan Tullis)