Home & Shop Companion #0089
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
I have had Lucy in harness a couple of times this week, and a good feeling it is too after six weeks of no horse work. The first time we moved some hedge trimmings for a neighbour with the sledge, after I had rewelded one of the runners back on, and she was a little keen, it being a breezy day, but today she was being a proper workhorse. We first brought back the water bowser to the house and as it was filling, I took off her cart saddle and put on a backband with trace chains to drag two bundles of brush to the field.
There are some people who are very invested in the type of harness they use, the D ring or Western Breeching styles, for instance, being debated this way and that, and over here there are still some who only show disdain for North American harness. I am not one of those, and have happily used my Canadian-made harness for the last decade. But now I only have one horse working, some of its advantages have diminished. The nice thing about the team harness is that you can go from dragging a harrow to hitching to a vehicle using the same harness, and this is something I often need to do. But now, always working with a single horse again, the cart harness we use here has distinct advantages. Firstly, you can transfer some of the weight onto the horse’s back with the large cart saddle which has a much greater bearing surface than the North American back pad, or the Scandinavian version. Also, because the shafts hang from a chain from the cart saddle, you can reverse the horse into position, lift the shafts and simply hook on the chains, rather than having to position two shaft loops, and then back the horse up some more. One disadvantage of our system, however, is that the short shoulder chains [tugs] pull on each shaft in turn as the horse moves that front leg forward, rather than the pull being equalised by a singletree, though mowers with shafts did use swingletrees, and on a forecart, for example, it would be easy to build in a singletree and use normal length traces.
A downside of our harness is that once a horse is regaled with cart harness, pulling a dragged implement is not possible. Today, when I wanted Lucy to pull the brush, I could have taken off the hames as well as the cart saddle and britchin, and put on the Western Breeching harness, but it was easier to use the trace chains and backband. I could then have gone straight to dragging the brush, but, as you can see by comparing the pictures, I also altered the position of the lines, passing them through an extra link hanging from the hame hooks. I like this position when ground driving because the line of the line is almost straight to my hands, so I can the feel the mouth better, and instead of the bit working only on the corners of the mouth, it also rests on the bars [the gums] so you have a doubled point of contact. I was told that this was a good thing to do, but not why, but it certainly feels like the horses are more comfortable with the lines like this. Moving the position of the lines does take a couple of minutes, but I feel it is time well spent.
When driving Lucy with the plough harness, it was nice to see her back end completely devoid of any straps, mostly because that is what I became used to when I learned, and it is a practise I continued when I only had Molly. In hot weather there is also some benefit in having less sweaty area under the harness. Hooking on to swingletrees, however, is a bit slower with this harness because you have to go forward to the back band to unhook the trace chains, rather than reaching up to the breeching assembly. So if you were yoking up to a mower, you couldn’t avoid going round in front of the cutter bar, even though it should still be in its raised position. Another difference is, if the horse gets its foot over a trace, it is much more uncomfortable than with a flat trace, so a ticklish, kicky sort of horse should have this happen early on in a safe setting.
So there are pros and cons; as my mentor in horse work often used to say, ‘you pays your money and you teks your choice.’
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.