Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2

Work Horse & Mule Harness Design & Function Part 2

Bridles, Bits & Check Reins

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

This is the second 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 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 2

Somewhere there are unwritten rules against quoting yourself but I find those stinky and useless in this age when holographic and cosmo-geekic actualities keep programmers, grammarians and copy editors up til well past 8 pm at night worrying about staying ahead of themselves and the dumpster fire that is the modern English language. Let the trowel wielding begin.

As was stated last issue, we are working on a big book about harness. It is a work in progress. It suits me to, at the same time, run this series as articles in the Journal because it helps me with my editing and organization challenges for the coming book. Please do not expect to find this material, exactly this way, in that book. Some of it may be, but most will not flow that way. So, in keeping with the slosh of this material, from book to article and back again, I offer here a quote of the current form introduction which may or may not be used later.

Harness Introduction

In the late sixties, 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. There is a lot of good information available, some of it through our own books. But the subject of work harness is vast and various as evidenced by the hundreds of design variables we see in the many old catalogs in our archives.

How’d it go in the beginning? It wasn’t obvious at first, took some time for me to figure out the subtleties of fitting animal to harness. Sure, at a glance you can see that the collar goes around the neck and the harness hangs over the back and hips, attaching forward to hames and collar, and backwards to the pulling apparatus or singletree/doubletree, but there’s more to it than that.

The subtleties I spoke of have to do with function and fit. As the mule or horse steps forward, into the collar, the comfort with which it displaces the load, drawn from behind, is directly proportionate to how well the collar fits. If the collar is too tight it pinches and shuts off the breathing. If the collar is too loose, either in length or width at point of draft or contact, or ‘argues’ with the shoulder, top of neck and perhaps even sides to create serious discomfort which can lead to sores and a baulky horse. Moving back over the animal, in a basket-brichen (or breeching) harness style, the belly band should fit loosely as should the quarter straps running from brichen forward to pole strap. The brichen or breeching should be neither too high nor too low, preferably running in a line to the connections with the two quarter straps. If too high, you lose efficiency in backing and braking. If too low the same is true and the animals feels something is wrong as the motion of the hip is impaired. (Note the exception represented by Yankee or hip brichen harness design.)

Most of what we are talking about is either leather based harness, or a synthetic harness built on the same structural principles. There are variables that employ a combination of leather and nylon webbing, bio-thane or nylon based materials, ropes as lines and even sometimes chain tugs or traces.

By definition, we might be forgiven thinking of harness as a restraint system for equines. We may be but I won’t, because fifty years plus of experience and observation has shown me that most of us as teamsters are the limited and limiting element in the teamster’s craft. The best working equines frequently exalt. We seldom do. Fifty years plus of experience has taught me that a lifetime is not long enough to fully appreciate and absorb all the mysteries and peculiarities of working horses and mules in harness. To return to my now familiar excuse as apology, “the longer I do it, the less I know and the easier it gets.”

The harness, rather than a restraint, is best and most usefully seen as a translation and enabling device; it translates the motion of the willing equine into a motive power the teamster might direct. When we insist that it is primarily a restraint system we limit what is possible in the relationship with the working animal(s). While it is certainly true that, with beginners, safety must be paramount; if we insist that the animals are not to be trusted without restraint there is the common risk that we carry that limiting attitude, and damaging set of demands forward with us throughout our teamster life.


For centuries, workhorse and mule bridles have been designed to allow the teamster on the lines to turn, back and stop the employed animals. If properly constructed, adjusted and fit they will be comfortable. If they are the wrong size, poorly constructed and rough-edged they can be pure misery for our working partners. The ‘honorable’ thing to do, as my old friend Les Barden might have said, is to use some common sense and get the right gear for the horse’s sake.

Here are a few of the less obvious fit issues: 1.) The crown strap, which runs behind the ears and over the poll, or top of the head, should be adjustable as it needs to fit each individual animal properly. Its’ length should fit down to the top of the jaw on both sides so that the adjoining

2.) throat latch drops naturally along and inside the jawline. (Some bridles, while seeming to be large enough and fully adjustable, actually crowd and pinch the ears quite a bit. When a horse tosses his head with bridle on, it should be taken as an indication that something doesn’t feel right for him. Check to see how the fit is around the ear base and back side.) If the brow band is too long, the throat latch will drop ahead of the jawline and make it impossible to adjust (see diagram). The throat latch must be snug enough, and well behind the curve of the jaw, so that it is hard for the animal to rub the bridle off entirely. (Something, it should be noted, which does not happen when an (optional) over-check is employed properly.)

3.) The cheek straps of the bridle also need to be of proper length to allow enough fine tuning to the fit of the bit. Too short and it is possible you will not be able to adjust the bit straps long enough for a proper and comfortable position for the bit. Too long and there is the risk that a loose bit will cause injury to the horse’s teeth or fall out of the mouth altogether. The bit straps typically allow two or three hole adjustment, but this may be insufficient. Check to see if the cheek strap length is too short for the size and proportions of the head.

4.) The nose band of the work bridle can, in certain situations, become an added discomfort for the horse. Pulling hard on the lines may put pressure on the bridge of the nose. While this could help stop the animal in a panic, with heavy-handed teamsters it could cause a baulky horse to result.

5.) The brow band, running across the forehead, needs to be loose and not gather the crown and cheek straps forward to irritate the eyes or ears. It may or may not feature an attachment or a slit for the blinder stays.

6.) The blinders restrict the side and back vision of the animals and should, in this author’s opinion, be cupped and well away from the eyes.

7.) The check reins, or the overcheck, serves to hold the horse’s head up, but hopefully, in a comfortable position. The check reins run through guides at the throat latch union, and either fasten to the top of the collar or go round one or both hame tops. The over check, ideally, runs from the bit sides across the face, between the ears and back to where it fastens at the collar or back pad.

8.) Blinder or winker stays are commonly fastened to the brow band center, or hung from the crown strap center.

NOTE: Itchy horses will develop a habit of rubbing their bridles and could end up pulling them off. Most times itchy horse are made because care has not been taken to have bridles, with no sharp edges, scratchy stitching, sharp edged rivets, or otherwise to fit comfortably. It is common in some parts, and especially at public events, to have the animals wear their halters under the bridles. In these cases similar care should be taken to see that halters are comfortable.

Blinders versus no Blinders

There are folk who believe that work horses and mules should be worked without blinders. They say to do otherwise is to disrespect the animals. This is not the place to invite prolonged arguments. Obviously the individual teamster is in a position to pick and choose. Suffice it to say that there are very few reasons why the properly trained animal cannot work well and safely without a blindered bridle.

However, know that the animals eyesight is quite different from ours and that even the best behaved and trained horse can be surprised by moving objects that appear other than what they are. We have tried working in open bridles with older well trained horses accustomed to blinders and their nervousness is real. Please use caution, common sense and compassion when presuming your notions on the working routine.

Please allow me my two cents worth: Look to the photo on page 80 of Les Barden’s team and note that with his bridle design and fit it appears almost as though these are blinderless bridles – but they aren’t. The point being that it is possible to keep some distractions at a minimum for the animals while still ‘honoring’ them with great freedom and comfort.


The bit is that instrument which goes into the mouth of the equine, hanging from the bridle, and fastening to the driving lines, check rein and sometimes curb chains. The bit and biting process is that arena where control argues with true horsemanship. Light and sure hands on the line result in partnership, heavy hands gripping and pulling and worrying, separate man and beast into a perpetual contest.

Bits commonly used with western harness encompass a wide array of styles. There are the straight bar bits with ring and bar diameters that vary. There are the snaffle, or jointed bits – ring-style, half cheek and full cheek, and an even wider array of levered or curb bits with straight bars, jointed snaffles, and some combined with raised port. These levered curb bits feature a design to gain leverage by fastening the lines lower on the shank. (See next page.)

Fitting the Bit

When you have determined what bit you wish to use with which animal, you need to determine the length required. This amounts to common sense, a bit that is too short will either pinch the sides of the mouth or not fit at all. While one that is too long will hold the bridle away from the cheeks and tend to cause the mouthpiece to saw back and forth when in use. Matching the horse’s mouth width, from outside cheek to outside cheek, is the key to comfort.