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Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1

Work Horse & Mule Harness Design & Function Part 1

Collars, Hames, Hame Straps, Chain Binders

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

This is to be the first of a multi part series presenting and examining the design and function of North American work harness. When complete it is our aim to include it in an extensive volume to be entitled, The Harness Book.


Due to the importance of the graphic layout in helping explain the relationships between equipment components, I have posted the pages from the Journal as they appear in the print edition. For ease of reading, the text follows the page images.


Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 1

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.

There are a number of key mechanical differences within North American harness design, such as the plug neckyoke versus the ring neckyoke, side-backer systems versus polestrap style, back pad styles versus market tug styles. Those are best explained after a straightforward introduction to the more common two or three strap western brichen-style harness. What follows is a part by part explanation of that aforementioned harness.

Sore Shoulders Preventable

Here’s the anecdote: You work your three abreast 8+ hours a day for two weeks, at plowing, discing, harrowing. Next comes planting. Coming into the stalls on this morning are two of your three with problem conditions you can see. One has what looks like a soft raised area under the skin on the point of the shoulder. Touching it reminds you of touching a boil. The second horse, on a similar location has a small pink flap of loose skin, pink because most of the hair is gone and it is sore. This had been a boil feature just like the former horse but now it has moved into new territory, it is now a full fledged collar sore. You know that this horse is out of the work string until the shoulder heals. And the other horse? Perhaps. There are things you can do and you might be able to avoid a longer layoff. But for someone who depends on these work animals to keep going there is a more important question. Could this have been prevented? Yes, by proper collar and hame fit along with daily attentiveness.

COLLARS: Horses and mules may be made to work in ill-fitting, improperly adjusted harness – for awhile. Please be assured, however, that long hours of hard work in poor fitting collars WILL result in problems for your animals and reduced efficiency.

Each horse harness utilizes two hame straps which might be made of leather, biothane or some synthetic/leather combination. The straps are usually 20 inches long but may be a few inches longer. Commonly they are fastened at a fixed position on the top, connecting the two hames. They are done and undone at the bottom when harnessing and unharnessing. They are sometimes used to make small hames fit, but this is not recommended. Extra heavy work may call for chain-style binders or fasteners as shown.

HAME STRAPS, or some ways to fasten the hames to the collar, are critical to the harness. It is impossible to make a collar-style harness function without them. And hame straps need to be adjusted tight to avoid mishaps. A loose hame strap can jump out of the collar groove and choke a pulling horse or tangle the harness.

Just as with humans, haphazard fit represents a wide range of abuse and neglect, from minor to excessive. Top atheletes know that their footwear and even clothing, can have a bearing on their performance. For them ‘perfect’ fit of a correct design is critical if they are to win.

Same with work animals, it can manifest itself as the difference maker between an outstanding teamster and a perennial novice.

Arguably the most critical harness piece, when it comes to proper fit, is the collar. There are four common types (notwithstanding the Irish collar with ticking face). They are: 1) full face 2) half sweeney 3) full sweeney 4) and mule. These speak to the design of the inside, bearing surface of the collar, where it makes contact with the neck and shoulders of the work animals. Full face collars are suited for slab-sided necks whereas the half and full sweeney have concaved shapes which accomodate thicker necks.

Far and away the most common construction features a sewn, shaped pair of tubes of leather, forward smaller in diameter (to capture hames) and main shaped to work with horse’s shoulder. The collar is stuffed with chopped straw. At one time in the past the most prized collars were hand made by hand stuffing with long straw. Chopped straw can in certain environs and situations become lumpy where that problem is less common with long straw types.

There are at least three different areas of concern for proper collar fit: 1. Overall length 2. Width and shape 3. Marriage of hames to collar. Separately, it is important that collar, and/or the collar and pad combo have no sharp or abrupt edges or features that might rub the horse or mule’s neck the wrong way.

On the first score: The collar, seated against the shoulder (as illustrated) should be just loose enough at the throat to avoid cutting off the wind when the animal steps forward to pull.

The customary way to measure this is to see if the flat of your fingers will slip between throat and collar. The most common mistake is to use a collar that is too long. When this happens the draft of the collar (the widest portion) slips below the point of the shoulder. The collar then rocks on the point of the shoulder and moves up and down causing sores at the shoulder and at the whithers. When given the choice the best teamsters understand that a snug fit is almost always superior to a loose fit.

There are two ways that higher end collar design might be employed to help with fit. Flexible throat collars, which feature a flattened flap of doubled leather rather than a continuation of the collar’s tube structure, allow that a snug fit may occur without cutting off the wind.

And the other design from days gone by was the pipe throat collar employing a metal (usually bronze) throat piece that was shaped to allow more wind.

On the second score: if the collar is too thin at the opening it will rub the sides of the horse’s neck. Choosing a correct design of collar should alleviate this. The full sweeney is best suited for a thick necked horse. If it is used on a normal neck it could cause problems with extra wear at the top and a rocking action while pulling.

On the third score: Collars are measured from the inside throat up to the inside top. Hames are measured from the bottom up to the mid range of the strap ratchet. If designed with the adjustble top hame strap ratchet, a pair of hames might be made to fit three to four sizes of collars. A 26 inch hame can fit, for instance, a 25 through 27 inch collar. Hames need to fit the collar. If the hames are too long or too short they can affect the shape of the collar and the way it fits the animal. All retail hames feature a straight run for most of their inside edge. Custom hames are especially made to bend slightly for a snugger fit in the collar groove. It is not common to see these employed and they are hard to find, but they do point to an uncommonly attentive teamster, as that matching curve will deliver extra comfort through a penultimate fit of the collar to the horse’s shoulder.

So much of this discussion would leave you to believe that a collar fit is a collar fit, end of story. But there are variables. The young horse in harness, for example a two or three year old, is still growing up and out. In the spring this horse will have a different size neck than six months later. Collar fit will need to be adjusted accordingly. On some farms with more horses than necessary it is possible to see dramatic weight gain on pasture that will have the collar be too small.

On my farm, from early on, I prized and prize having a wide assortment of collar sizes and shapes. I keep an eye open at farm auctions for any usable collars selling at reasonable or cheap prices. I learned the hard way that keeping my work string properly fitted in collars and harness gave me a leg up in being able to stay in the field.

PADS: It may seem confusing now to add notes on collar pads as a valuable option. Collar, or sweat pads clip on the inside of the collar and offer a cushion to the horse’s shoulder. While they are not essential to being able to realize efficient draftwork, they do offer an additional level of comfort and expand the range of fit possibilities. Customarily sweat pads run two inches larger than collars, this allows for the pad to follow the concave curve of the inside of the collar. Depending on the thickness of the pad, the horse that wears a padless 24 inch collar will need a 26 inch collar with pad.

HAMES: The most popular style of work harness hame is of tube steel construction (with or without ornamental balls on top). Steel reinforced hardwood hames are also seen in use. As illustrated, there are two common styles of attachments for the top hame strap. One has it where the strap twists and slides through one of two slots in the hame top. The other features a sliding ‘ratchet’ square that rests in one of three notches in the receiver; the strap threads this on both hames. This is the more common and most preferable setup.

Next issue: Bridles, bits, check reins, and lines. Part three: tugs, back pads, belly bands and pole straps. Part four: Brichens, quarter straps, hip straps, cand cruppers. Part five: Spreaders, center drop rings, doodads and Rachel straps. Part six: Buck back straps, cross checks, and gizmos.

The Consolidated Hame Company was formed around 1896 when the Baker, Carr & Company merged with Bartlett & Rowell. The Consolidated Hame Company purchased the Rome Hame Company and in 1902 were merged with various concerns which became known as the U.S. Hame Company.

Note: Early twentieth century commerce found it useful as advertising to dress up delivery horses through their harness as a means of ‘branding’ product and service. The most common example of this were Brewery Draft Hitches. Customizing hame designs proved a direct way to accomplish this.