Farming Magazine - May, 2012


Working Horses: Choosing A Harness

Leather or Synthetics?
By Vicki Schmidt

If harness makers of centuries ago could see the styles and materials available today, they would be amazed at the choices. Not only have advances in technology made the life of harnessed horses more comfortable and productive, these same advances have made owning and caring for harnesses much easier. The challenge now is deciding which harness type and material is right for you and your horse.

Lighter weight combined with the fact they are much easier to care for have allowed bio-style harness to grow in popularity.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

Traditionally, draft and driving harnesses were made of leather, and one thing most horse people can agree on is that nothing lasts as long, looks as good or smells as nice as quality leather. However, maintaining a leather harness can be time consuming, especially if it's used daily or has lots of chrome, silver or brass hardware.

Leather is also often heavy, and if lacking in quality or care it can weaken and break. Modern-day synthetic materials, often termed webbing or belting, can overcome some of these disadvantages. Webbing materials are usually made of nylon or polyester and help determine the strength of the harness. Plastic coatings also increase durability, as the materials are more resistive to factors such as sweat, dirt, heat, cold and moisture. In addition, sunlight, cleaning materials and improper storage don't have the same damaging effects on synthetics as they do on leather.

The family of biotype synthetic harnesses (often referred to as bio-plastics) are coated with polyurethane and are the most popular type of synthetic harness material. These products are also available in a form called Beta Series. This is used mostly in driving lines and is coated with vinyl instead of polyurethane. Increasingly popular BetaLines are sold as having the "look, feel and grip of leather." One primary advantage to drivers who show or work in wet weather, is that lines made from beta materials do not freeze stiff or get slippery when wet.

Other reasons why synthetic harnesses are popular:

  • They're lightweight, easy to handle, and easy to adjust.
  • Laboratory testing has determined the "breaking" point for different types of synthetics.
  • They're easy to clean with a sponge, mild soaps and water.
  • They're highly flexible, even in cold weather
  • They're cheaper than leather and easier to pack and store.

In spite of all the advantages of synthetic materials, a well-cared for high-quality leather harness will outlast them all, and leather is still the favorite for top show harnesses. For daily use, working and conditioning horses, or if you have different sized horses, a more logical choice is probably a combination nylon or a biotype material harness.

While requiring more care and often more expensive leather harness is still a favorite for the show ring.

Other factors to consider involve hardware. A leather harness with stainless steel hardware will be considerably more expensive, but will look nice much longer than chrome-plated metals. Straps with hardware that is stitched-in place will be harder to replace than those set up with conways. Conways also tend to make a harness more easily adjustable if it's needed for use on horses of various sizes.

Brass and silver hardware look great in the show ring, but can be labor intensive to maintain. The chemicals used to keep brass and silver looking nice must be used with caution. These chemicals can damage leather and weaken stitching. Though the strength of the leather or synthetic material may be maintained, breakage will occur due to weakened stitching.

A final tip when choosing your harness: a harness is only as strong as the materials it's made from. Precise laboratory testing of leather and synthetics does not include the variety of stitching material or quality of hardware. Careful inspection is required when purchasing a harness. Be cautious of stitching that is crooked, frayed or otherwise insecure. Cheaper hardware will have snap closings that do not line up and often have coatings that are pitted or peeling.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100- acre working farm specializes in drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.