When a team is properly hitched to a tongue and positioned so there is a little tension on the traces, the holdback system (pole strap, quarter straps, and breeching) will contact the horse throughout their length, but not be snug. If this system is adjusted too loosely, which is quite common, the quarter straps will hang down away from the belly. Before considering other factors be sure the breeching is not adjusted too low – very common. It’s difficult to get the quarter straps up against the flank and belly if the breeching is not up where it belongs. Slack quarter straps can be raised by hooking the trace chains shorter at the single trees. However, be certain that doing so leaves enough distance between the horses hind legs and the single trees so that the legs don’t hit the single trees under any circumstances.
I always chain or otherwise secure slip-on type neckyokes to the tongue so they don’t come off and cause an accident. Neckyokes unexpectedly coming off the tongue have caused countless problems, the likes of which have caused injuries, psychological damage, and even death to horses, and to people as well. Making sure the neckyoke is chained or otherwise secured to the tongue every time you hitch a team is a quick and easy way of eliminating a number of dangerous situations.
In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.
The breeching (also brichen) is a component of the hold back system. It permits a horse or team to slow down, hold back, stop, or back up the load when they are hitched in shafts or to a tongue. It’s critical that the breeching be adjusted at the proper height and angle for safety, proper function, and comfort of the horse.
With most common types of team harness the neckyoke is an essential component of both the steering and hold back systems. In addition to holding the tongue up, neckyokes permit the horses to pull/push the end of the tongue with them as they move right or left, thus steering the vehicle or implement. As part of the hold back system neckyokes function by transferring the – slowing, stopping, backing, and holding back the load – actions of the horses to the tongue, and thus to the vehicle or equipment.
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:
I work at a farm that uses their team of Percherons to farm, give hayrides, spread manure, etc. One of the horses gets his tongue over the bit. I’ve been told he’s always done this since they had him. I have always thought: #1. You have very little control, and #2. It would hurt! The horse is very well behaved, does his work with his tongue waving in the air, and sometimes gets his tongue back in place, but at that point it’s too late. They use a snaffle bit. Any suggestions?
Although the rope and pulley hitch for multiple hitches is elegant in its simplicity, it has always seemed to me to be a great disadvantage that both leaders and wheelers need to be driven, rather than using buck ropes on the wheelers. Besides having to manipulate four lines in your hands, there are often levers to be moved at the same time. That is quite a handful, and if the horses are occasionally a handful as well, you can’t rely on the hitch to hold back half the horses, as when using eveners for the leaders and buck ropes on the wheelers.
Back in the early eighties, when we were on an extended road trip up to Ontario, Canada and back through New England to Ohio Amish country, we had occasion to visit a small collar making shop where Kristi took these photos. We recently had to move our archives and I found these pictures in an envelope. I do not remember whose shop it was and have lost any notes that I took. But I vividly recall the action in the first photo as it mechanically stuffed chopped straw into the shaped leather tube which would become a work collar. The second apparatus was a size specific press for shaping the stuffed collar form. And the last tool pictured is a stretching table where the anchored, nearly complete collar was gently beat with a wide round hammer to even out any lumps in the stuffing.
Farmers who are good horsemen know everything that is presented here: yet even they will welcome this leaflet because it will refresh their memories and make easier their task when they have to show hired men or boys how to adjust equipment properly. Good horsemen know from long experience that sore necks or sore shoulders on work stock are due to ignorance or carelessness of men in charge, and are inexcusable.
The efficiency of horse labor depends to large extent upon the serviceability of the harness. To get the best possible service from both the horse and its harness is an important factor in the profitable operation of a farm. A broken trace or hame during the rush season may cause an expensive loss of time, besides much inconvenience. Improper adjustment of collars and other parts may soon put the horse out of service with sore neck and shoulders. A rotted and weakened line or hame string may result in a serious accident and injury to both horse and driver. Also, because clean well-kept harness adds a great deal to the attractiveness of a team, the farmer should take pride in keeping his outfit in first class condition.
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.
It is more difficult to keep some horses in a respectable condition than others. The slab-sided, upstanding type of draft horse requires more grooming than the more compact, chunky individual. The latter is usually an easy keeper in other ways than grooming. It is not considered good practice to groom too heavily during shedding time, for the new coat is generally a trifle coarse if the old hair is removed too quickly. All grooming should be done when the horse is dry, especially thorough cleaning and grooming to remove dirt, sweat, and falling hair, otherwise sore shoulders will follow.
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.
In regards to how to stitch harness lines, when I make mine I cut 2-3 lengths 1.5 inches wide out of the hide on its longest side. The ends of these strips of leather are rounded and then run through a skiver to taper them. These tapered ends are laid together and stitched in an oval pattern. Then I usually also rivet it. If you don’t taper these ends before stitching they can catch the harness and you can lose your control of the lines.
A great deal of interest has been shown the last several years in using multiple hitches in horse farming, especially in spring fieldwork. The question often asked is how to keep it simple and easy in driving and assembling the hitch as far as lines are concerned. We demonstrated our method at the Horse Progress Days at Mt. Hope, Ohio in 2003 and have been asked numerous times how we drove four, six and eight-horse hitches using only two lines.
Because the animals push the load with their foreheads, there are several factors that affect draft. One of the most important is that the steers need to have short thick necks so that there is less tendency for the neck to curve or sway. This is why the preferred breeds for oxen in Nova Scotia are Hereford crosses, most often Hereford x Durham. The angle of draft is controlled by a pole, or wooden tug, that is attached to the yoke with two adjustable lengths of chain. The angle with which the tug meets the yoke can be adjusted so that when the steers push into the load, the draft neither forces their heads up too high nor down too low. Like all draft animals, they need a constant angle of draft that allows them to lift the load.
The harnesses are like the old saying about having Grampa’s hammer, but you twice replaced the head and three times replaced the handle. Over the last twenty five years I’ve added tail cruppers, changed the check straps, broke both belly bands and replaced them with saddle girths, repaired or changed numerous lazy straps, changed from swivel to D-ring heel chains, changed breast straps, hame straps, changed out the farm hames for aluminum pulling hames, and I’m on the third set of lines.
Readers of this publication will recognize the names of Albano Moscardo and Paul Schmit as authors of an important, multi-year series of scientific articles pertaining to animal-powered agriculture. It was, perhaps, only logical that their important work would find its way to formal publication beyond periodicals and website. We are pleased to announce that the first book of their multiple volume effort, Guidebook 1: The Harness for Draught Horses, has been published and is available to the public. The dramatic and appropriate clarity of this presentation, superbly enhanced by the illustrations of Albano, makes of it a most useful work of scholarship and applicability.
Regular readers of this journal will be well familiar with the amazing work of Paul Schmit and Albano Moscardo of Schaff mat Päerd in Europe. Their in-depth articles on new continental innovations in animal-drawn technologies have set a very high bar for future inquiries into the discipline. This handsome and eminently practical addition to their Guidebook series covers hitches and hitching of both European and North American types. In addition to the directly practical nature of the information, there is here a subtle and intelligent comparison of two different cultural approaches to the working of horses.
When first you become familiar with North American working harness you might come to the erroneous conclusion that, except for minor style variations, all harnesses are much the same. While quality and material issues are accounting for substantive differences in the modern harness, there were also interesting and important variations back in the early twentieth century which many of us today either have forgotten or never knew about. Perhaps the most significant example is the Walsh No Buckle Harness.
Here are fourteen work bridle styles taken from a 1920’s era harness catalog. Regional variants came with different names and configurations, so much so that we have elected to identify these images by letter instead of name so you may reference these pictures directly when ordering harness or talking about repairs or fit concerns with trainers or harness makers. In one region some were know as pigeon wing and others referred to them as batwing or mule bridles.
The work harness prevalent in North America over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries evolved slowly to its unique design. Stemming in the beginning from European engineering, which may have their origins reaching back to Greco-Roman and even Egyptian and Phoenecian ages, the primary influence has been the demands of function. Rather than get into arguments about what harness type or design is best, the purpose of this work is to build an introduction worthy of harness makers and arm-chair historians.
When I first looked intently at harnessed mules and horses and longed to understand how the system worked, it was the harness that confused me even more than the anatomy and movements of the animals, even more than the overall system. I saw a tangled basket of straps, chains, ropes, all seeming to have purpose. Yes, there were some diagrams in dusty libraries and old books and these did offer basic explanation of the structural design of some harness varieties. But those didn’t help me to understand in a truly useful way. It would be a few years before I would have my own first team and a pile of old harness to figure out. The little bit of book learning and diagram scanning I did failed to educate me. I have told the story before of how my innocence and arrogance got me into big trouble the first time I harnessed and tried to drive a team. Some of that tragedy came from the harness being put on all wrong, making it unable to function properly. That does not need to be the case with newcomers today.
The tugs, from their attachment to the hames usually traveling back along the animal, best perform at an angle of 80 to 100 degrees to the line of the hames. If the angle is significantly less than 80 degrees the tugs may pull up and back on the collar, but only if the belly band is not adjusted properly. When it is, this will ‘interrupt’ an aggravated angle preventing the horse from being choked by a forward rocking collar. If the belly band is too loose it won’t hold the forward portion of the tug in line. As each and every horse’s angle of shoulder is different, and as the head-set of a pulling horse may be more or less down or up, these factors will affect the angle of the shoulder at work.
The backing and braking structure for the western basket brichen team harness. Though it is secondary in the overall function and purpose of the harness, it is potentially the more complex and variable portion of the system. It is useful to keep in mind that these combined straps are specific and vital to its named operation along with the related essentials of keeping a rolling vehicle or implement from running up on the heels of the animal or team and holding the front end of the tongue or pole up off the ground.
Two horses or mules working side by side are generally referred to as a team. The customary procedure for ‘driving’ them is to employ team lines which, fastened to the outsides of each of two bits, provides that the teamster may apply varying pressure. With experience, training and maturity, the teamster might learn to softly send messages to each equine, through light pressure at the corners of their mouths, as to preferred direction, speed, and halt.