Harnessing the Single Horse Safely and Comfortably

by Bill Morong

Part 1 - Introduction

The sport of carriage driving is growing, and as the years pass, many beloved elder drivers along with their wealth of experience are being replaced by those who have found the joy of partnership with horses, but like me, may not have benefited from a total of more than a few minutes of experience with horses while growing up. Additionally, as the sport progresses, previously uncommon demands are placed upon driver, horse, vehicle, and harness, which may require new techniques to be added to traditional knowledge. This writing is devoted to trying to help modern drivers and their horses enjoy driving safely and comfortably.

Harness Function

The harness must unify the combination of driver, horse, and vehicle. It mechanically connects the horse and vehicle and joins in purpose the driver and the horse.

The communication system of the harness, bit, bridle, and reins joins horse and driver.

Three systems connect horse and vehicle:

  • The vehicle support and steering system centers on the driving saddle.

  • The draught system centers on collar and traces.

  • The braking system centers on the breeching and holdback straps.


What follows is a detailed explanation of the structure, function, fitting, safe use, and care of all components of these systems, together with a brief discussion of what is appropriate.

Part 2 - The Communication System

The driving communication system comprises the reins, bridle, and bit of the harness, complemented by whip and voice aids. The driving experience differs from modern transportation in that the driver only indirectly controls the acceleration and direction of the vehicle, the horse being entrusted as the agent of the driver's will. It is amazing how well our compliant partners do this task. Our duty is to provide clear indications through an effective, comfortable communication system.

The focal point of the communication system is the bit (7), the varieties and use of which could fill a whole book. Suffice it to say that the bit must fit the mouth, being wide enough not to pinch the lips, but not so wide as to give indistinct directions. It should be accepted by the horse by his moving up to it, to give gentle but distinct contact. It should replicate at the mouth the touch of the hand.

The bit is connected to the hand by reins (11) . For carriage driving, reins should be brown or russet throughout. The reins must be securely fastened to the bit by buckled billets. Billets are subject to wear. Always examine them when harnessing up. Average single-horse reins are fourteen feet long -- cow hides average seven feet -- so joints in reins are inevitable. Joints should be very smooth to avoid catching in the terrets (23,34). Joints should not be much thicker than the reins themselves, nor should they be much stiffer, or wear by flexing will occur where the thick and thin portions meet. Stitching must never cross reins except at a very gradual angle. Always examine joints of reins.

The hand parts of reins must be of such width as to comfortably fit across the inside of the space between joints of the partly flexed fingers. This is a personal measurement. Improper width will cause discomfort, which will degrade the hand in a manner noticeable by the horse. Handparts should flex around the fingers, but be firm enough to be pushed through the fingers when shortening reins. Various grip-enhancing features may be built into hand parts. Wrapping, plaiting, and lacing are common. Both plaiting and lacing hold grit, are difficult to clean, and are not usually considered appropriate for lady whips, who generally most need grip enhancement. Wrapped handparts are not popular in this country, but give excellent grip, are appropriate, and do not retain dirt. Anyone suffering from impaired ability to grip should consider wrapped handparts. A small buckle may connect the ends of the handparts of reins. For safety, this buckle must have a weak tongue, and the hand parts will preferably be narrowed at this buckle to cause weakness, lest one be dragged by the reins.

The bit is supported in the mouth by the bridle. Let's consider the driving bridle in order of the adjustment of its parts. The crown (8) passes behind the horse's ears and over its poll. Both ears and poll are very sensitive, so a comfortable crown is necessary. Discomfort may cause the horse to shake his head or to back without being asked, or both. The crown should be long enough to allow the brow to pass below the cartilage at the base of the ear, while remaining above the bony prominence below and forward of the base of the ear. This placement must be closely controlled and varies greatly even among closely related horses. If the crown fits poorly, replace it. The crown must have nicely rounded edges and may be padded. The crown is usually fitted with a buckle front and center to hold winker stays and a face drop. The crown may be built with a layer and rings for bearing rein attachments. Bearing reins are forbidden in some driving events, but may be useful with some gluttonous ponies in tall grass.

The brow (1) is attached to the crown at the rosettes (9). Rosettes may bear a monogram or badge if consistent with the rest of the harness. The brow prevents the crown from slipping off the horse's poll. The brow must be long enough to allow the crown to clear the cartilage at the rear base of the ears. If it is not, replace it. The brow must be nicely rounded, especially near the rosettes, or sores may occur. The brow may bear a decorative chain or front. The front should rest in a channel and be attached only at its ends so that a piece of thin cardboard can be slipped under the front during cleaning. Usually the brow has a loop on its inside center to retain the face drop (2).

Bridle cheeks (5) connect the billets of the crown to their respective bit rings. The cheeks may bear winkers (4) to restrict the horse's wide peripheral vision. Winkers are often patent leather on black harness and pigskin on russet harness and may bear a monogram or badge. Winkers should be cupped to avoid touching eyelashes and must not have anything sharp inside that might injure the horse's eye. Upper cheek buckles into which crown billets buckle center the winkers over the eye, and must be correctly adjusted before any attempt is made to control bit height. The ideal position for upper cheek buckles is in the second or third hole down from the rosettes. If nothing close to this is possible, together wih centering the winker on the eye, the winker is not the right size. A rule is that one hole shorter than the hole used be available, in case of billet breakage. This rule applies to all adjustable billets in the harness. Winkers may be square, dee shaped, hatchet shaped, or round, in accordance with some now seldom-observed proprieties, or more usually according to your taste.

Adjust the noseband (6) height at two fingers below the bony prominence of the cheek. If the noseband is supported by straps from the upper cheek buckle, adjust it after the upper cheek buckle is adjusted. Separately supported nosebands may be needed to avoid interference with bit action, but may not hold the winkers securely against the face.

Now buckle the (10) throatlatch to allow your fingers to pass inside it with the head carriage normal as if under way. The throatlatch may be round or flat with round corners. Ideally, the buckles will be level with the upper cheek buckles. Horses' necks vary seasonally, so more than one throatlatch may be needed for best fit. After adjusting the throatlatch recheck winker position.

Lower cheek buckles control bit height. Adjust them to produce the desired "smile" (two wrinkles are average). Recheck winker height and readjust, if necessary, then recheck bit height.

Now adjust the noseband. It should not be loose, but the degree to which it should be tightened is a matter of some conjecture. In any case, check that the buckle isn't gouging into the jaw bone. Some nosebands have a two-buckle closures to allow centering under the jaw. The noseband stabilizes the bridle, so check previous adjustments. If there is no room for the noseband above the bit when the noseband is two fingers below the bone, the problem is not the bridle, a bit with a shorter shank is needed. Alternatively, the noseband may be hung separately in this instance. Most nosebands allow some free movement relative to the cheek. Otherwise bit action may be restricted. Some nosebands are attached with separate pierced loops of leather -- watch for chafing around these.

Now adjust the winker stays (3) by unbuckling the winker stay billet, spreading the winkers, and rebuckling the billet to narrow the winkers as desired. If the winkers cannot be adequately spread or narrowed, the winker stays may need modification or replacement. If the correct adjustment is obtained, but the winkers subsequently narrow on their own, stiffened winker stays may be needed.

A face drop (2) may be suspended from the winker stay buckle. The billet of the face drop should pass through the brow loop and under the winker stay billet. The drop may bear a monogram or badge.

Bearing reins are sometimes used to control head carriage and to discourage grazing. They connect the waterhook to both rings of a separate bridoon bit, passing through gag runners on bearing rein drops suspended from the crown. The bearing reins should not be attached to the driving bit. Bearing reins become more severe as the gag runners are raised. Bearing reins should allow the neck to be lowered enough to allow the whole spine to be straight when the horse is in draught. Overcheck reins are not usual in carriage driving.

Part 3 - The Vehicle Support And Steering System

The main component of the vehicle support and steering system is the saddle (31) or pad. The saddle is essentially a wide, padded, stiffened strap over the horse's back. The saddle comprises a tree, to which flaps (31) are affixed, topped by a skirt (33), and supported on padded panels. The saddle, if black, may have patent-leather skirts, welts, and pug seat. Flaps may be patent, but patent flaps lack durability. For russet saddles, pigskin is proper wherever patent leather would be used on a black saddle. The saddle is fitted with terrets (34), which guide the reins, a waterhook (35), which anchors the bearing rein, and to its rear a crupper-strap staple, and it may be fitted with a purely decorative pug seat.

The horse steers the vehicle by pushing left or right into the saddle. For two-wheeled vehicles the horse, through the saddle, supports the front of the vehicle, in which case the saddle must be wide enough to distribute the weight transmitted through the shafts. The saddle must not, however be so wide as to prevent proper ventilation of the horse's back. About four inches is average for a thousand-pound horse with a two-wheeled vehicle. For four-wheeled vehicles, the horse bears only the weight of the shafts, and the pad can be narrower. The saddle is stiffened by a tree. Trees may be rigid, spring, or soft. Rigid trees must fit, spring trees ought to fit, but are usually too rigid to conform, and soft trees allow the saddle to become misshapen if incorrectly stored. A rigid tree must be formed to fit the angle of the horse's back.

The underside of the saddle is padded. Sufficient padding must be installed to lift the gullet of the saddle above the withers so that with the full vehicle weight applied a finger will fit above the bony processes of the vertebrae. Sometimes the padding is contoured to fit the horse. The padding may be quilted, which causes it to grip the hair of the horse and allows a looser girth. The finer the quilting, the greater the grip. Decorative tufts are sometimes applied, which are harmless along the ballasts, but should not be applied where they could irritate the horse's skin, as tufts are difficult to clean and tend to harden.

There are two styles of saddle flaps, tapered straight-sided, and swelled, but their selection is dictated by a consideration more important than mere taste. Straight-sided flaps are usual, and usually retains the shaft-tug best. Some horses have withers swelling forward like the mouth of a trumpet, and ribcages swelling rearward in the same manner. With this conformation, unless the saddle flaps can be twisted nearly ninety degrees in a few inches, the rear edges of the flaps will dig into the ribcage. Swelled flaps are needed to provide the needed flexibility for this situation.

The saddle is retained by a girth (38). The girth may be padded, but is better made plain, with a slippery-when-wet inner surface. If both saddle and girth grip strongly, chafing may occur in distance driving. The width of these parts is a compromise between good distribution of forces and good cooling. On some horses the girth tends to ride forward, causing girth sores. A girth in the form of a low isoceles triangle can be acted upon by the pectoral muscles, driving the girth back out of harm's way.

The single horse saddle is provided with shaft tugs (36) to transmit the force of shafts to the saddle. There are three types of shaft tugs: English(or open), French, and Tilbury. English tugs are common with straight-shafted, two-wheeled vehicles, and gigs. With English tugs, if shaft stops are fitted, examine the slots of the heads of the screws attaching the shaft stops for burrs, as such eat English tugs. French tugs are used with two-wheeled vehicles with upward curving shafts, and when the vehicle is incapable of being balanced. French tugs are often considered to be fancy, but the are very practical wherever the shafts must be held down, as would usually be done with English tugs and a wrap-girth. Since they are both fancy and practical, French tugs are very versatile. Watch out for tacks and staples attaching leather shaft covers as they eat the leather lining of French tugs. Tilbury tugs are for four-wheeled vehicles.

Vehicles should be balanced never to apply more than momentary upward shaft force, but to avoid more than ten or so pounds of downward pressure on each shaft. Balance is obtained by moving weight fore and aft of the axle, usually by sliding the seat. Changes in the number of passengers may require changes in balance. With English tugs, ideal balance is indicated when the shafts begin to float in the tugs when climbing a steep hill. The tugs may be supported by a running backband (32) which slides from side to side in a channel inside the saddle. This arrangement allows the horse and saddle to rotate within the shafts as the horse moves, which is easier on both horse and passengers. A running backband must never be used on a four-wheeled vehicle with articulated shafts, or one shaft may rise and the other fall -- an embarrassing predicament.

A saddle with a running backband will have its terrets set far forward of its centerline. If a running backband is not used, bearer dees emerge directly below the saddle skirts. These dees are affixed by terrets centered on the saddle and by pad screws on both skirts. These dees support bearer billets to which the shaft tugs are buckled. The level of the shafts is adjusted by buckling the tugs up or down on the backband or bearers. Shafts (51) too high can cause a shaft over the neck causing an accident. If the shafts must steeply angle up toward the horse to be the right height at the horse, the vehicle is not high enough. Ideally, straight shafts are level and aim toward the place where a breast collar should lie on the horse's breast. Ideally, the shaft tugs should not rub on the girth billets (37), but since most saddle flaps are too short, rubbing often occurs.

Shafts must be securely held down by some type of shaft girth (39), which must be carefully examined, as its failure is very dangerous. With a running backband and English tugs, the backband often extends down past the shaft tugs to a shaft girth that runs in loops on the saddle girth. These loops must always retain the path of the shaft girth upon and below the saddle girth even when descending steep hills, or the horse's skin may be pinched between the girths.

It is often advantageous to couple the vehicle more tightly to the horse than is possible with the traditional arrangement of English tugs, in which case a wrap girth may replace the shaft girth. The wrap girth is wound around the shafts and pulls them in and down, which gives tightened control around obstacles. If the use of a wrap girth on a saddle with a running backband is desired, a shorter backband is fitted. Some English tugs are fitted with dees and billets at their bottoms. Examine these tugs carefully for cracks and wear by thinning where the dees pass through the tug bottoms.

French tugs are fitted with billets that hold down the shafts and attach to a shaft girth. Tilbury tugs function similarly to French tugs, but are appropriate for use with four-wheeled vehicles only.

Some racing or roadster saddles are fitted with shaft pockets or thimbles that fit over the shaft tips to transmit breaking force to the shaft-tug bearer dees. This system of braking is lightweight and works on flat ground, but is not appropriate for carriage driving, as it pushes the saddle forward when braking, and would soon sore a horse in hilly terrain. Similarly, shaft stops must be located and holdback straps adjusted so that the shaft stops do not act during braking before the breeching can transmit the force to the buttocks or chafing around the saddle may occur.

Part 4 - The Draught System

The horse accelerates the vehicle by pushing into a collar 21, through which force is transmitted through traces to the vehicle. The collar distributes the force of draught over a suitable portion of the horse's musculature. Two kinds of collars are used: hame (or neck) collars and breast collars 21.# Breastcollars are usual, except for the most formal turnouts and for heavy draught work. The breastcollar comprises a wide strap encircling the breast of the horse. It may be fitted with large buckles at its ends, into which the traces 26 are attached. Sometimes traces are sewn on, which limits adjustment and makes unharnessing in an emergency more difficult, unless suitable provision is made at the rear of the traces. If a breastcollar is used, more sawing motion will be transmitted to the traces than with a hame or neck collar. Therefore, with a breastcollar it is imperative that the vehicle be equipped with a pivoted singletree to facilitate this motion, or the horse may be sored. The breastcollar should be long enough so that its buckles are not riding on any part of the shoulder, but must be short enough to avoid interference with the saddle and shaft tugs, allowing for the movement of the horse. About two inches on each side between the foremost part of the saddle and the extreme tip of the breastcollar is< usually good.

The breastcollar is also fitted with uptugs 24 with buckles, which receive the billets of the neckstrap 22. The uptugs are subjected to much movement from the horse's action. They are weak points in the harness and should be examined for wear, pulling out of the breastcollar, and bent buckle tongues when harnessing up. The neck strap supports the breastcollar, the height of which controls the point of draught. The point of draught is the center, in the vertical direction, of the draught force. The point of draught should be low enough to avoid interfering with the windpipe, but not lower, lest the action of the arms be hindered.

Neckstraps can be made with single or forked billets. Forked neckstraps are best on horses with low action, but tend to make the breastcollar rock from branch to branch on horses with high action, which is most unsightly. A forked neckstrap is most useful with Fjords to move rearwards the point of support to minimize crushingof the mane. The neckstrap is usually fitted with neck terrets 23, through which the reins pass, to avoid atching the reins under the shaft tips. The neck terrets often introduce a bend in the line of the reins, which may interfere with the communication between the hands and the bit. To avoid this interference either use no neck terrets or adjustable-height neck terrets.

A false martingale 25 or breastplate may connect the front center usually fitted with a frog or drop that matches the face drop of the bridle. It may bear a monogram or badge, consistent with the decoration of the bridle. The false martingale is sometimes useful for preventing the unsightly forward separation of the breastcollar from the horse's breast that sometimes occurs when halting. It may also minimize rocking of the breastcollar from side to side.

The horse may push into a hame or neck collar to accelerate the vehicle. The neck collar is essentially an oval leather tube stuffed tightly with (preferably unchopped) rye straw. Its rear and inner surfaces are shaped to distribute draught force on the shoulders of the horse. Its outer surface is grooved and rolled to receive two thick, curved metal rods called hames. The hames transmit draught force to the traces, thence to the vehicle. The hames are retained in position by hame straps immediately above and below the collar. Sometimes metal links replace hame straps. The hame straps or their equivalent must be carefully examined before each use, as their failure can be disastrous. The hames must fit the collar tightly, and must be well tightened to the collar.

The hame collar should fit the horse perfectly, and should be used on that horse only. The requirement for perfect fit is so much more acute with the hame collar than with the breastcollar that its importance cannot be overemphasized. New collars though available, are very costly, and often fit improperly, as it is not usually possible for the collarmaker to do the fitting. A usually more satisfactory arrangement is this: Many harnessmakers have used long- straw collars, which they will allow you to try out. When you get a perfect fit, the harnessmaker will recondition that collar for you.

The collar should allow the admission of the four fingers of the hand held flat below the windpipe when the collar is strongly pressed onto the shoulder blades. But the collar must not be loose, and absolutely must not rock on the shoulder blades.

The best fitting collar is of no use if the point of draught is incorrect. Usually the collar will move up when the horse goes into draught if the point of draught is too high, and down if too low. If the point of draught is too high, the collar will ride up and press on the windpipe. Sometimes a false martingale is used to attempt to hold the collar down, which will likely pull the girth forward to cause chafing under the arm. If the point of draught is too low, the collar may sore the top of the neck. The solution is to obtain the correct point of draught. Some slight adjustment may be made by adjusting the hame straps. Tightening the lower and loosening the upper strap will lower the point of draught and vice versa. If this adjustment is inadequate, modification or replacement of the hames is necessary.

The hames are usually fitted with short straps with buckles, to which the traces attach. These are called hame tugs. Traces often buckle into hame tugs or breastcollars. Traces are long, strong straps that transmit draught force from the horse's collar to the vehicle. They are usually made of two layers of leather sewn together. They may be pierced with buckle-tongue holes on one end and are adapted to attach to the vehicle on the other.

For single-horse vehicles, an elongated oval hole, slightly wider toward the end of the trace, called a crew hole 27, is usual. For pair harness, the trace is usually fitted with a curved square metal trace link, through which the trace itself passes encircling the spool-shaped roller pin of the vehicle. For marathon vehicles with shackle-snaps, stainless-steel rings should be fitted. For vehicles with horizontal spindles on their singletrees, the traces must twist ninety degrees. In this case Hungarian style traces, which are round in cross-section will help avoid chafing.

Traces are subjected to continual changes of load that produce changes of elongation. They are subject to breakage by tearing or snapping at cracks, at the buckle and crew holes, and to failure by stretching, which can in severe cases cause the shafts to fall out of the shaft tugs, which is very dangerous. Always examine your traces before use, and forego your driving until they can be replaced if they are not sound.

Adjust the traces by the hame tug or breastcollar buckles until the shaft tips are aside the points of the shoulders with the horse in draught. Shaft tips too far forward may catch reins and are unsightly; shaft tips too far aft may drop out of shaft tugs or may get over the horse's neck, causing an accident.

Traces may be reinforced with nylon to avoid stretching, but if reinforced for their entire length, they may not break if something solid stops the vehicle, injuring horse, vehicle, or both. Nylon reinforcement must be applied in accordance with sound engineering principles, otherwise it is best not used.

Trace extenders are occasionally used. Two additional cautions apply: One, make sure their connection to the trace cannot disconnect inadvertently -- especially common when the horse is not in draught; two, examine the crew holes of the traces carefully, as most extender couplings are hard on traces

Part 5 - The Braking System

For carriage driving, the usual braking arrangement comprises a breeching 45 and holdback straps 47. The breeching is essentially a wide strap, connected by its extension, the holdback straps, to the vehicle. When the vehicle pushes forward, force is applied to these two straps, which transmit the force to the breeching seat, which bears on the horse's buttocks. The breeching seat and holdbacks work for braking analogously to a breastcollar and traces for acceleration.

The breeching seat should be of such length that the loin strap 43 passes over the highest portion of the croup. Though they are uncommon nowadays adjustable-seat breechings can allow proper fit to different horses.

Like the breastcollar, the breeching seat is fitted (usually) with four uptugs 44, which receive the billets of a forked loinstrap. The loinstrap passes over the horse's croup, thus supporting the breeching seat. The level of this seat is adjusted by buckling into the correct holes on the loinstrap billets. The seat must press safely below the point of the buttocks, lest upon deceleration the seat ride up, causing the force of the vehicle to bear at the base of the horse's tail, likely causing a runaway turnout, kicking, or both. The seat must not be so low as to interfere with the movement of the legs. The chape of leather passing through the rings at the seat ends is subject to wear by thinning. Examine these parts carefully when harnessing up, as their failure can allow the vehicle to overrun the horse, causing an accident.

The holdback straps are looped through rings 46 at the ends of the breeching seat, through footman loops 52 on the vehicle, and around the shafts. These straps are adjustable in length by buckle holes and by wrapping around the shafts. They should be adjusted to give a clearance of four fingers between the breeching seat and the buttocks with the horse in draught. During the first few minutes of driving, the harness may stretch, necessitating readjustment of the holdback straps. The loop through the rings of the breeching seat is a common point of wear by thinning, as is the place on the holdback strap where the ring rubs. Examine these parts carefully when harnessing up.

A crupper strap 41 retains in position the loin strap, which passes through a slot in the crupper strap. The crupper strap is looped through the staple at the rear center of the saddle. It then passes directly along the spine, past the loin strap, then is split into a fork. A smooth tubular leather loop called a dock 42 is attached to the two branches of the crupper strap. The crupper dock passes under the base of the tail, retaining the crupper strap in correct position. If, as is usual, the dock is buckled on, the distance from the base of the tail to the loin strap can be adjusted. Adjust this distance before adjusting the more forward portion of the crupper strap. Then snug up the forward adjustment, but be gentle -- the strap shouldn't twang like a bowstring. The dock is stuffed with linseed (flax seeds) which are full of oil. As the dock is used, the seeds are bruised, releasing oil into the leather casing keeping it soft. It must be soft, for the underside of the tail is an exquisitely delicate and sensitive portion of the horse, very subject to being galled. When harnessing up, always examine the dock to assure that it is smooth, soft, and clean. Even a good dock sometimes disagrees with a horse if its texture, size, or way of moving is not right. This problem can cause violent kicking.

William Morong, Harness Maker

Camptown Harness

We have been making high-quality synthetic harnesses for driving since 1994.  This harness has been used by people from California to Maine and both sides of the Atlantic, in singles to four-in-hand, carriage and draft, for pleasure, commercial use and competition. Since we use what we sell, everything has been continuously tweaked and improved to ensure the best fit and quality for your horse.

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