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Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 3

Work Horse & Mule Harness Design & Function Part 3

Tugs, Traces, Belly Bands and Back Pads

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

This is the third 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 3
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 3
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 3
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 3
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 3

In the western hame and collar style harness structure, what translates the forward motion of the equine to a pull?

It is, for each animal, two parallel tugs moving back from their attachment to the collar-held hames along the animal’s sides clear back to where the tugs attach to the single tree.

(We discussed collar and hames in the previous segment.)

For the purposes of these articles, our primary focus has been and continues to be the western-style basket-brichen harness. Within that outline there are a few variables. Above is an old harness catalog illustration of a heavy duty, parade spotted, western three strap brichen harness with side-backers instead of pole strap assembly. To the right is the more conventional two strap brichen, unspotted, heavy work harness with pole strap backing and braking assembly. Note how the pole strap passes between the front legs. On page 75 (top) is another version of a side-backer harness, this one without back pads.

But back to the basics: as the animal steps forward into the collar, the hames, affixed into the groove along the outside circumference of the collar, provide a frame on which two tugs or traces attach one on each side of the animal. These pivot on the hames at a spot which coincides with the point of the shoulder. This beginning spot for the traces or tugs also aligns with the widest portion of the collar.

Forgive me for the simplification but let’s just use the more common term, tug, for the purposes of the rest of this discussion. That is, after all, what they do, they tug the load. (Trace is the more formal and long-lived term for this harness part.)

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 (see diagram above). 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.

It is worth noting in this context that the comfort and efficiency of collar and hames can be affected by: 1. Proper fit (collar size, hame length, hame strap attachments, etc.) 2. Proper length, position and adjustment of belly band 3. The conformation of the animals.

From the standpoint of equine conformation as it relates to pulling, what we look for as optimal is a natural angle of the shoulder face (or collar seat) to match the angle of the pastern. (See diagram above).

On the topside of the system, and optional, most harness styles employ a back strap assembly that also locates the tugs in a similar fashion to the belly band; belly band from the bottom – back pad from the top. The tugs usually have a position loop for billet straps on the bottom and back pad attachments on top.

Shaft Hookup Variables

“Market Tug” style harness and some plow harnesses have no back pads (or some people say saddles). The back pad or saddle comes into play when horses are worked in shafts and need to carry the weight that the shafts balance from the cart or implement. Attached to the back pad sides are shaft loop straps which hang and carry the shafts. (See diagram below ).

The vast majority of tugs have tug or trace chains permanently attached at their ends. Some employ butt chains which are separate from the tug and feature end rings. These chains are typically seen threaded at the end of single trees. By hooking one ring or link on the butt chain hook at the end of the tug, and allowing the ring on the other end to come to hold on the end of the single tree, you are hooked full out. By pulling that second ring forward to hook alongside the other ring or link, you have halved the distance, or doubled back and with this shortening of hitching length allowed for a more aggressive lifting action as the horses step forward. Butt chain harness has long been popular with woods or logging work.