Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5

Work Horse & Mule Harness Design & Function Part 5

Lines, Spreaders & Center Rings

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

This is the fifth 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 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5
Work Horse and Mule Harness Design and Function Part 5

Work Horse & Mule Harness Design & Function Part 5

Lines, Spreaders & Center Rings

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

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.

  • * In N.A. team lines are made of lengths of strong leather or, in these modern times, sometimes a synthetic ‘Beta’ low-gloss PVC material product made by ‘Biothane’.

Team lines are one of the more obvious tactile proofs that a fourth dimension exists if only for those who trust and depend on their usefulness. Bear with me on this: with full sized team harness you might have two twenty-foot long lines, each transected by a short adjustable check line. Lay these two mirror lines on the ground and see how it is that the cross checks, always on the inside, can be adjusted to shorter than or longer than the main line. (Most commonly longer by inches.) Look over your shoulder at the two animals you will be asking to work together. The mare may be shorter than the gelding, otherwise they are a perfect match, unless of course you take into account that the mare walks slower than the taller gelding. Imagine them standing side by side, in harness, with the main controlling features of their positions being their hitch setup AND those two lines.

See in this drawing shown from overhead (top of next page) that the long, continuous, main-line portion runs along the outside of each animal, through the top ring on the outside hame and on to the outside of the bit. The short, adjustable, check line passes through the top inside hame ring on each animal before crossing over to the inside of the bit. OR, the check line runs through a ‘spreader,’ which allows the horses to stand slightly further apart, before moving on to the opposing animal’s inside bit. OR, the check line runs through the spreader AND a center ring which ‘gathers’ the two lines at their crossing to keep the geometry ‘collected.’ More later.

This author likens the world of a teamster to that of puppeteer with marionette strings in hand. But, of course and with certainty, the animals are not stiff puppets but rather sentient beings responding best to the subtlest of touches. Pull back hard on the lines and destroy possibility even as you might get the animals to stop or back up. Whisper to them and then touch the lines with a feather and the best animals will react with the soft and sure movement you require.

Structurally, team lines are commonly used when rigging larger field and wagon hitches, such as four-up, six-up and eight-up employing multiples of team spans. (See diagrams.)

The same can be said of abreast hitches as one common approach is to add stub cross checks to a basic team line setup. (See diagrams.)

Also, I know of teamsters who drive single horses and have customized quick ways to remove the cross checks altogether resulting in a set of single lines.

Once the geometry and dynamics are understood there are interesting variations available to the use of team lines, for example the header (see pics) and the buckrake.

I have spoken of what is possible in a gentle relationship with working equines, where the lines are lines of communication best kept open without abusive pressure. The lines are akin to strings on a musical instrument, they require a perfect tension, one which constantly reassures and reminds the animals of the position the teamster requires. Constant reassurement can be music.

Leather or Beta/Biothane lines are fastened to bits either by hardware snaps or by buckle assemblies as shown in these two illustrations.

Three and four abreast hitches (and those even wider, such as the six abreast shown on the baler on page 77) may be set up with team lines and separate individual check (or stub) lines or, in the case of some Amish communities, jockey sticks.

A Most Unusual Use of Team Lines: Turning a Header

At the former Dufur Threshing Bee, Mike McIntosh, of Redmond, Oregon, demonstrates how a grain header is turned.

The four abreast of Belgians is comprised of two separate teams working side by side. Two sets of team lines are used, attached in normal fashion one to each team.

As the horses are not attached to the implement except at the eveners, Mike is able to first stop the right team, and then swing the left team to ninety degrees offset, all by voice command. This done, Mike steps the left team ahead, the crazy wheel beneath him swivels and the right side team backs slowly. This allows the entire unit to pivot round entirely in place.