Home & Shop Companion #0078
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
I did a silly thing last week. One day when I finished working Lucy, I threw her collar up into the hay loft. This is not the silly bit; it is something I often do to keep it out of sight of acquisitive eyes, and with a layer of hay already up there, it had a soft landing. Then without going into the barn I put some hay up there on my own, a few grab loads, dropped in a row underneath the track and dumped from my position standing on the wagon. By the time I went up there to move the hay to the sides of the barn, the collar was already submerged, and I forgot all about it. A couple of days later I realised what I had done, so I sharpened the end of a quarter inch rod and used it like a mountain rescuer after an avalanche. It took some time, but after cutting the stack with a stack knife, which is a lot harder now than when the hay has settled, I am now reunited with the collar.
As it turned out, I didn’t really need it, because for the first time ever I have had a horse with a sore neck. It was a shock to see it, the wrinkled skin being a sure give away, but the skin wasn’t broken. I washed her shoulders with salty water, and then started to work out why.
The areas of wrinkled skin were at the lowest part of the collar, something you might expect if the collar was too loose, but this was not the case here, because the collar and collar pad are a good fit, and the pad is still fairly new, but old enough to be worn in. Without doubt, cutting hay in hot weather is hot sweaty work, but the sore shoulders appeared after turning hay, which is much easier work. However, with the short shoulder chains which attach to each shaft of the hitch cart, the pressure is not as well distributed between the two shoulders as when using long traces and a swingletree, so that might have contributed, too. But the other difference is that I use a different set of hames when the horse is in shafts, and they were sitting slightly lower down than the ones attached to the western breeching harness. So next time I use the hitch cart I will have to see how I can readjust them.
Another factor is that Lucy’s collar is an adjustable collar, which can be altered in size and shape inadvertently depending on how tightly you do up the bottom hame strap. Using an adjustable collar is not a preference; I prefer a fixed size collar, and with Molly, once she was full grown, I always used a pulling/logging collar because of its rigidity and larger bearing surfaces, and the traces were kept further away from her sides.
Over recent years I have been thinking that the position of the traces on American collars is probably a bit lower than optimal. My reasons are – that if you want to spread the weight or pressure over a surface, you tend to attach the weight at the centre of that surface, in terms of area, – that the wheatland hames which allow height adjustment above the normal point would not have been developed if enough people hadn’t wanted a higher point of attachment, – and that English collars and hames have the hame hook in a slightly higher position. I have even seen photos of English hames with a second hame hook positioned just below the hame ring, with traces that split at the back band, one half going to the lower hame hook and half to the higher one. This method, however, must not have found favour and it disappeared, probably because it did not work well, and I am convinced that the average line of draught with that particular set up would be too high. The American point of draught does however offer a big advantage because the trace, just behind the collar, sits on a lump of muscle whereas a little higher or lower it would rub on a part where a bone is just underneath the skin. The British collar gets round this problem by being built much wider at this point [the ‘draft’ of the collar is much bigger] so the traces are kept away from the horse’s body, whereas in Luxembourg and parts of Belgium and Germany, their solution is that the foremost part of the trace is a steel rod which bends outwards at this point.
As far as I know, the only reasoning behind the positioning of the point of draught has been based on trial and error, but there is a way of measuring pressure between surfaces that has been used under saddles, for example. This is the pressure mat, which, as its name suggests, is a mat full of small pressure sensors which connect to a computer and give an ongoing readout in the form of a map, so you can tell where the pressure is greatest and how it changes as the horse moves. About 10 years ago the pressure mat was used in an experiment to compare collars, in a collaboration with the University of Wolverhampton, but regrettably, the experiment did not compare useful things, such as the point of draught, or how the shoulder moved under the collar with each step. Worse still, there were numerous inconsistencies in their methods, basic flaws that would shame any self-respecting physicist or horseman, rendering any conclusions questionable, but at least it did show that the pressure mat was a useful tool. Unfortunately, no well-conceived tests have followed.
I know there will be plenty of people who will think that we just need to pay attention and watch the horses, because if it is done right, it works. And I know that to be true. But that doesn’t mean that some simple but intelligent research using modern measuring techniques couldn’t improve the design, fit or adjustment of harness and make our use of horses more effective and comfortable.
In the meantime, today I had another look at Lucy’s harness. I shortened the collar one notch on each side so the draft point is theoretically raised by half an inch, and then I shortened the top hame strap a little, but probably I should drop the top hame straps one notch on the hame too, but with an adjustable collar that might pinch the length of the collar a bit smaller too, because these adjustable collars, though handy, particularly with growing horses, are not so precise as a fixed collar. So I am keeping an eye on it for now, but I suspect I should buy a fixed size collar.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.