Lets Talk About Harness
Lets Talk About Harness
Figure 1 – This style of shaft tug is frequently found on Amish harness.

Let’s Talk About Harness

by Barbara Lee of Nearside Harness, Oregon City, OR

Let’s Talk About… Efficient Harnessing

Difference in leather and coated synthetic webbing.

The coated synthetics are NOT as forgiving of friction as leather. Excessive friction will cause the coating to delaminate, or wear off the webbing prematurely.

This is not necessarily a bad thing! Friction means rubbing, and rubbing, however slight, may mean an increase in the work your horse is doing. Just as importantly, it may indicate an uncomfortable adjustment, which your partner is suffering in silence, or objecting to in the form of disobedience. At any rate, unnecessary friction will damage your synthetic harness prematurely. It will also tell you that you may be harnessing inefficiently! Before you condemn the synthetic as inferior, take a close look at your turnout and determine if you have rubbing that can be eliminated by a minor change in harnessing. Excessive wear in the breeching straps, with corresponding wear on the traces is a red flag – you have interrupted draft, which means you ought to make a change in your harnessing technique.

Leather is much less likely to point out these harnessing inefficiencies.


So all that said, let’s talk about bridles. I recall a comment made once, wondering if a synthetic bridle was causing white spots at the poll due to heat buildup. My humble opinion is no – I have driven a kajillion tough miles in synthetic harness and have never incurred white spots. White spots are an indication of pressure, not heat, and my guess is that they would occur as the result of relentless pressure from a curb bit. Or possibly a too-short browband creating a tight fit?

Driving bridle browbands should be a little roomier than riding bridle browbands, to accommodate the winker brace (which fits UNDER, not OVER the browband), and sometimes the teardrop.


An OPTION, winker design is an OPTION, sometimes dictated by correct turnout to certain antique vehicles, or breed ring rules. It’s nice to have a wire in the winker brace to move the winkers in or out, but some of the very finest harness in the world comes WITHOUT the wire. At any rate, if winkers are used, they should be adjusted by means of the crown buckle only (the buckle on the bridle cheek into which the crown buckles), so that they are centered over the eye.

Teardrops (face drops)

Are ornamental. They originated to minimize mismatched white on the faces of pair horses.


We need an entirely different post to address nosebands. They are critical to the function of the bridle.


The bit is raised/lowered in the horse’s mouth only by adjusting the bit billet on the bridle cheek with the corresponding buckle. Do not use the crown buckle to raise/lower the bit.


Generally frowned on by American Driving Society, but obligatory in some breed ring rules. Know your rules! Side checks tend to be more forgiving than overchecks, so if checks are used, generally the sidecheck is kinder to your horse.

Let’s Talk About… Efficient Breast Collar Adjustment

The breast collar style harness is by far the favored harness style amongst carriage drivers. Fitting of a neck collar is a crucial study and a simple, well-fitted breast collar is by far to be preferred over a poorly fitted neck collar. If you are new to neck collars, plan to do a lot of experimenting, spend some money, and try to find someone knowledgeable who can help you. Fitting breast collars is a simple matter, and one breast collar will fit a great variety of horses.

Generally speaking, a breast collar must be adjusted at a height that will be above the point of the shoulder, but not high enough to interfere with the windpipe. There is a nerve that passes over the point of the shoulder, which feeds the muscles across the shoulder blade. This nerve is vulnerable to injury, and continuous pressure from a too-low breast collar can sever the nerve, resulting in “sweeney,” atrophy of the shoulder muscles.

But is this where it ends? NO! Breast collars are especially efficient for lightweight vehicles, where the angle of draft is high. This means a traditional carriage, like a Meadowbrook or runabout, where a line drawn from the front of the horse to the point where the traces attach to the vehicle is more or less horizontal to the ground.

Now, picture a horse attached to a vehicle with a very low angle of draft, say a vehicle with the singletree maybe 12″ off the ground. The breast collar passes in a more or less horizontal plane around the horse’s chest, until it comes to that back neckstrap billet/uptug, where the trace takes a sudden, downward plunge. What is happening? All that weight of the vehicle, which should be borne by the breast collar, is now suddenly coming to bear across the top of the neck! I haven’t seen this personally, but I have heard stories of white pressure spots and atrophied nerves across the neck at the position of the neckstrap. Look at your turnout and watch it in motion if possible. Look at that neckstrap, if you have a low-draft vehicle, and decide for yourself if your horse is drawing the load with his breast, or the top of his neck! What would you feel if you were to put your hand under the neckstrap when the horse is in draft?

A “solution” to this problem was once posed to me, to somehow attach a strap from the breast collar to the saddle, to alleviate pressure on the top of the neck. But that doesn’t work, as you would only be transferring the load from the neck to the saddle. If you drive a two-wheeled vehicle, which may already be badly balanced, you have just added tremendous down pressure to the saddle.

What is the true solution? In the case of a vehicle with very low draft, the solution may in reality, lie in the use of a neck collar, where the trace is hinged to the hame, and the load can be borne along the length of the shoulder blade. Otherwise, if your horse exhibits pain, or reluctance to draw the load, this may be an area for you to examine. We have modified vehicles in the past to raise the draft and minimize the problem. If that’s not an option, you might see if you can lengthen the rear billet of the neckstrap to achieve a more agreeable angle of draft, allowing the breast collar/traces to pivot more on the front uptug, but then I think you will be causing the front of the breast collar to raise up into the throat. Experiment, if this seems to be a problem for you, to see if you can minimize the discomfort and inefficiency for your horse.

One final inefficiency in the breast collar/low draft equation, is the stress it places on the stitching that holds the rear uptugs in. Keep a sharp eye out for damage in this area, to prevent the uptugs tearing out.

Let’s Talk About… Efficient Trace Adjustment

This is not rocket science. I will reiterate the old advice for trace adjustment, and throw in a few caveats.

With traditional full-length shafts, the trace is generally adjusted so that the tip of the shaft is at the point of the horse’s shoulder. Generally speaking, the trace will pass neatly between the saddle and shaft tug billet, or through the loop created by the wrap strap, through the loop created by the breeching strap, perhaps through a loop of leather on the shaft, to the singletree. This is how we all learned to do it, and it works fine with traditional, high-draft vehicles (those where the traces are more or less parallel to the ground when hitched to the vehicle).

With short marathon shafts, one would want the trace adjusted so the shaft tugbearing strap on the saddle is centered on the saddle when the horse is in draft.

But along come the new vehicles with singletrees mounted well below the horse’s hocks. A great many horses hitched to these new vehicles are still being hitched in the traditional manner. But take a close look. In many instances, the trace will pass along the side of the horse uninterrupted, until it passes through the breeching strap loop, where it suddenly takes a downward plunge. This is referred to as “interrupted draft.” You are witnessing friction which will make your horse’s job more difficult, interfere with the free movement of the singletree, cause some of the draft to be taken across the horse’s croup, interfering with his hind leg action, and prematurely damaging your harness.

The solution is simple: Obtain a pair of trace carriers from your harnessmaker, to suspend from your breeching. Take the traces out of the breeching strap loops and the ones on the shafts, and pass them through the new trace carriers, thence to the singletree.

This same consideration is also important if your traces are being pulled “out” by a loop on the shaft, etc., then “in” to the singletree. Get rid of the interrupted draft.

One very bad form of interrupted draft comes in the form of a too-narrow singletree. The object of interference then becomes the horse. The trace is forced out, rubbing against the wide part of his barrel, then in, rubbing along his back legs before attaching to the singletree. Traces popping off the ends of your singletree? Check it out. A traditional singletree, about 42″ wide, creates a desirable “wedge,” where the traces clear the horse’s barrel and legs, and forward pressure when the horse is in draft tends to pull the traces “onto” the singletree, instead of pulling them off.

Lets Talk About Harness
Figure 2 – This Shaft Loop is affixed to a “Sliding Backband” Saddle. The backband slides through a channel in the saddle tree, and encircles the entire girth.

Let’s Talk About… SHAFT TUGS

First of all, we’ll take care of the terminology issue. By “shaft tug”, I refer to the loop of material, suspended from the saddle, through which the shaft passes, and by which it is supported in a more or less horizontal position. They are also frequently called “shaft loops.”

Such a minor piece of equipment, why bother with an entire article! In reality, the shaft tug serves multiple purposes, and an understanding of these functions may help you fine-tune your turnout for optimal performance.

There is a synergy between harness and vehicle. The most perfectly balanced, easily pulled vehicle will provide nothing but discomfort to horse and passenger if it is not perfectly harnessed to the horse. Likewise, the most beautifully designed harness will be a torture trap for the horse, and suffer unnecessary wear and tear if inefficiently harnessed to the vehicle. This synergy is very evident in the type and use of the shaft tug, yet its importance is, I believe, little understood.

Tradition dictates that certain types of shaft tugs are used for certain types of vehicles. These traditions will always take precedence when correct turnout with antique vehicles for show is paramount. However as driving moves away from extreme fashion toward extreme sport, the type of shaft tug selected, and its correct use becomes a gray area.

This article is based on constant observation of the interaction between horse, harness and vehicle, fine-tuning hitching, redesigning equipment, testing and tweaking again. “Because that’s the way it’s always been done” is not one of our criteria. We just go out and beat the gear to death until we’re satisfied with the results.

Balance, Ride and the Horse’s Back

Balance is primarily a two-wheeled vehicle concern. Incorrectly hitched, both a poorly balanced cart, and a well-balanced cart will transmit jarring shaft motion to the horse’s back, and to the passengers. With a poorly balanced vehicle, the balance issue must first be addressed before the shaft loops will provide any relief. However, in an effort to relieve some of that jarring, many people will strap the shaft tightly into the shaft tug, trying to dampen the motion. This is not going to help; the shafts are now rigidly clamped to the horse, whose trotting body is springing up and down with every stride, taking the shafts with it. There is no relief from the shaft weight for the horse, and chances are very good that he will develop a sore back from the weight, and the jarring motion, if he is asked to do any sort of real work. Some vehicle design flaws can be minimized with creative harnessing, but for true relief from a bad ride, you must address the vehicle issue.

A well-balanced vehicle is one that can be made to “float” along, with minimal down pressure transmitted to the horse’s back via the shaft tugs, bearing straps and saddle. It is my experience that some sort of readily accessible seat shifting mechanism is extremely desirable for hilly country. A winding axle is nice, but generally you must stop and get out of the vehicle to change the balance. In our light road cart, the balance is extremely fragile, and with two up, we change the seat positions regularly to suit the grade, in order to keep the shafts weightless across the horse’s back. In so doing, we not only relieve the horse of an unnecessary burden, but we also enjoy a very level ride, with practically no shaft bounce.

In four wheeled vehicles, the balance issue is minimized; the shafts are hinged to the front axle, and the ends will always rest in the shaft tugs, with just the minimal weight of the shafts transmitted to the horse’s back. That is, PROVIDED the horse is harnessed optimally. We’ll discuss this issue later.

Shaft tug types

There are many variations in shaft tug design, and many variations upon variations. This can leave the consumer bewildered, when faced with a choice.

Since carts are so popular, we’ll start with shaft tugs suitable for two wheelers. Leaving “quick release” and other “innovative” styles for a bit later, we’ll begin with the common “open” or “English” shaft tug.

Simple enough, but there are variations within this style. I will explain my preference, and give my reasoning for it.

First of all, the shafts tug works inseparably with the girth, or bellyband. The open shaft tug offers two options. In the first, you will have a strap, or billet, suspended from the bottom of the shaft tug, which buckles into an “over-girth”, or “safety girth”, or “false girth” (all terms which mean the same thing), which slides through loops of some sort on the girth, or bellyband. There are many different varieties of “open” tug, some of which are pictured.

Figure 1 – This style is frequently found on Amish harness.

Figure 2 – This shaft tug is affixed to a “sliding backband” saddle. The backband slides through a channel in the saddletree and completely encircles the horse’s girth.

Lets Talk About Harness
Figure 3 – This is the style I use, and is also commonly found on Amish harness.

Figure 3 – This is the style I use, and is also commonly seen on Amish harness.

Figure 4 – A French Tug, in the open and closed positions.

The reason I like Figure 3, is because it allows me to set the dee, from which the billet is suspended, in a position which doesn’t tend to draw the shafts inward if the over-girth is buckled tightly. A strap coming from the outside of the shaft tug will have a tendency to force the shaft inward when tightened, and the friction between the shaft and the loop will spoil the ability of the cart shaft to float. It also causes unnecessary wear on the inside of your shaft loops, and in some cases, can heat the shaft covering material, such as imitation patent, and cause delamination and damage. If excessively tight, the friction between shaft tug and shaft may be sufficient to transfer some or all of the load weight, in draft or breeching, to the saddle.

With my adjustable-balance road cart, I use an “open” shaft tug, which is quite a bit roomier than what one would commonly encounter. As we are swinging along at a brisk trot, my horse, a small, lively Morgan with a big stride, springs up and down with each stride. My shafts are perfectly balanced, riding along dead level within the generous shaft tugs. As I watch, I can see that when the horse’s body springs upward, the shaft loop comes up with him. The inside bottom of the shaft tug almost contacts the bottom of the shaft, but not quite. As his body descends, the inside top of the shaft tug again almost contacts the top of the shaft , but not quite. With small shaft tugs, the shafts of my perfectly balanced vehicle would be thrown upward, bang the top of the tug, then thrown downward, banging the bottom of the tug, jarring both the horse (on his back and belly), and the passengers with each stride.

The other style of open shaft tug has no billet suspended from it. Instead, the girth is equipped with “wrap straps”. These look like the overgirth, except there are long straps extending out from the buckles, which wrap around the shafts, then buckle back into themselves.

This type of shaft tug is required for showing certain types of two wheeled vehicles. It is still supplied with many pleasure driving harnesses, and even some combined driving harness, by request. I see no specific objection to this arrangement being used on fourwheelers, where it can dampen shaft bounce, again assuming that the horse is correctly hitched to the vehicle.

Lets Talk About Harness
Figure 4 – A French Tug, in the open and closed positions.

Traditional turnout may require “French” or “Tilbury” tugs (these terms are used somewhat interchangeably) be used on four wheeled park driving vehicles, as well as two-wheeled gigs (Fig. 4). Plain, open tugs may be correct for family type four wheel carriages. If your aim is presentation classes with an antique vehicle, you must research the type of harness that is correct for your vehicle. Turnout requirements will dictate which type of shaft tug you must select for your vehicle.

Lets Talk About Harness
Figure 5 – A modern quick release shaft loop.

Other Styles and “Innovations”

The “quick release” shaft tug is a fairly recent innovation The release mechanism consists of an elongated buckle which terminates in a large loop, and a separate piece of hardware which is sewn into the end of the strap comprising the shaft loop (Fig. 5). The parts are slid together, and a strap passed through to lock them in place. The concept is that in an emergency, the strap can be pulled out, opening the loop, thus releasing the shaft.

These may have some value in an emergency situation, although I cannot relate firsthand experience with them. One advantage to the quick release shaft tug is that they open easily to accommodate short, closed-end competition shafts.

I believe it is important to have a plan in case of emergency, and not rely solely on quick release devices to save the day.

The wrap type shaft tug may be thought of as a recent innovation, but I have seen illustrations of it printed in harness-maker’s books from the 1800’s. I have made them, and tried them on a 4-wheel competition vehicle, and found them a bit awkward, as they offered no support for one independent shaft, while the other was being done up. I have had the off shaft fall to the ground on a marathon type fourwheeler while I was trying to attach the near shaft. A very dangerous situation; fortunately, the horse forgave me.

The loop created by this wrap style shaft tug, also had a tendency to creep downward, allowing the shafts to gradually lower. I didn’t care for them, and soon quit using them.

Tilbury, or French tugs were mentioned earlier. Please see Figure 4 for photos of this style in open and closed positions. It could be argued that they open easily to admit the closed end competition shafts, but otherwise, I see no particular reason to spend the considerable money they cost, for any purpose other than turnout, or show ring requirements. It is said in some old works on driving, that the French tug, in conjunction with a tug stop, allows one to dispense with breeching. This, to me, is a fashion statement, and I tend to disagree with it, for reasons I will cover in the next section. Other reasons we have turned up in our research on this type of tug, is that they were invented to minimize a poor ride on an awkwardly balanced, but fashionable two-wheeler.

Shaft Tugs, Tug Stops, Draft and Breeching

In an ideal situation, the horse will be harnessed to the vehicle so that all his tractive energy will be transmitted to the vehicle through his collar and traces, in an uninterrupted line, to his load. This means that no other part of the harness interferes with the traces in such a way that some part of the load may be borne by another part of the horse’s body.

In a situation where the shaft tug is tightly strapped to the shaft and the traces are too long, the shaft tugs will engage the load before the traces. The horse will now actually be drawing the load from his saddle, instead of his traces and collar! The entrapped shaft tug, attached by a strap to the top of the saddle, drags it backward into the horse’s spine. Attached to the girth by the wrap straps or over-girth, the girth is dragged backward and tightened against the horse’s barrel. This might not cause a lot of stress or pain to a horse hitched to a light show vehicle in a smooth arena, but it is clearly not desirable when asking the horse for more sustained physical effort, drawing a heavier load.

In other words, your trace length is critical to the correct function of the shaft tug, while the horse is in draft.

We frequently see vehicles equipped with “tug stops”, metal posts attached to the shafts just behind where the shaft tugs rest. They may be perceived as part of the braking system, but perhaps they should be thought of more as “emergency brakes” in modern carriage driving.

When the horse is required to hold back or stop the load, if the breeching is too loose and the shaft tugs are snug against the tug stops, once again the shaft tugs will be blocked by the tug stops and engage the load before the breeching does. This will drag the saddle forward, grinding the front edge down into his withers, and pulling the girth up into his armpits. The breeching must be of the correct length to come into effect without any of the load being transferred to the saddle. This can also happen through simple friction of a tightly strapped down shaft tug against the shaft, even if no tug stop is present.

A quick word about tug stops. The popular design of adjustable tug stops, with the moveable post, has a design characteristic that bears consideration. The plate that screws into the shaft has three threaded “bosses”, or bumps, that the post is screwed into. The two remaining threaded holes have round headed machine screws in them. The space in between these bosses becomes a sort of cradle, which traps the shaft tug, and prevents any sliding motion, forwards, or back. It is almost a certainty that the trapped shaft tug will engage the load before either the breeching or traces engage, and transmit it to the horse’s saddle and girth.

I realize this may be a very strong point of contention with some people, who believe that the tug stop is there to stop the vehicle. All I can say is that I’ve had it both ways and my sensitive horse objects to having to hold the vehicle down a hill with his saddle.

It is my business as a harness-maker to observe defects not only in my own designs, but traditional ones that originated out of a sense of fashion and not comfort and efficiency for the horse. My humble opinion is that the tug stop on a modern carriage is there as a safety device, in case a breeching strap fails.

This is a great deal to write about a seemingly insignificant piece of harness. I haven’t even mentioned that it is used in conjunction with the bearing strap from the saddle, to correctly position the shaft height. Make no mistake; there is NO PART of your harness that is insignificant. Every aspect of harnessing and hitching should be considered in modern carriage sport, and that includes understanding the interaction between equipment and horse. The horse cannot give you his best performance if he is distracted by pain. And what’s the sense of being more uncomfortable in this “pleasant pastime” than need be? Take time from your busy training schedule to really evaluate and optimize your harnessing and hitching. Both your horse and your vehicle may reward you with better performance with just the simple adjustment of a buckle or two.

Traditional harnessing evolved both for efficiency and fashion. These days the line between those two ideals is blurred by a lack of continuity in the use of horsedrawn equipment from that day to this, a loss of basic technology, and a romantic notion of how we THINK it was done in the Good Old Days.

There is nothing romantic about the extreme sport into which driving has evolved. “Pretty” and “Traditional” don’t necessarily get it when you have completely altered the mechanics of the horsedrawn vehicle that is designed not for transportation or pleasure, or even for horse or human comfort, but for participating in this extreme sport. Unfortunately, the mechanics of flesh and blood have not kept up. We have new materials to make harness with now, and we can slap the word “Marathon” in the name we give the latest model, but it all still works about the same as it did 100 years ago. Keeping this in mind, it becomes vital that the driver remain ever vigilant for ways to improve his harnessing techniques to safeguard his equine comrade. There have been many sacrifices made in the area of equine comfort and efficiency to obtain more speed and maneuverability out of modern vehicles. Minimize them where you can. Keep your partner uppermost in your mind when harnessing, and use your powers of observation to facilitate his work.