Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function
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.