Hints on Horse & Harness

By Vicki Schmidt

Photos by Vicki Schmidt.
Something as simple as two teammates sharing a “hello” is enough to tangle lines, bits and other equipment.

There’s an old saying that the cheapest part about owning a horse is buying it. Once you start to shop for harness, collars and implements, and add to those the annual cost of owning your draft, you might well agree. It helps to realize that all these items, and sometimes the horse included, often last a lifetime or more if well-maintained.

As with choosing your draft, asking yourself a few basic questions about harness will help guide your decision. Will you use your harness everyday? Will it be used for work or show? Or for field, woods or road work most of the time? Leather is heavier than biothane or nylon, but it’s harder to keep clean and you’ll find leather is rarely desired except for show or parade-type activities these days. Nylon harness can be found in stylish colors, but is often termed “disposable” as it rarely lasts more than few years. Nylon is subject to degradation from sunshine, dirt and moisture, and will often develop sharp edges and become worn after a few years unless impeccably maintained. But, nylon does have the advantage of being available at entry level prices for those owners on a budget. If you’d rather spend time with your horse instead of cleaning leather, than biothane or bioplastic-type harness is probably your best choice. These modern materials have revolutionized harness for the working horse. Its strength and ease of care, as well as its adjustability, make it a growing favorite with today’s teamsters.

Whatever your choice of harness, one important fact is making sure it fits your horse properly and comfortably. As with us trying to work in clothes or boots that don’t fit well, our horse’s ability to work efficiently is hampered by a harness that isn’t comfortable or that doesn’t fit well. Some horses will complain and fuss or fidget. They will be termed untrained, uncooperative or without ethic, when in reality they are only asking for us to fit their harness properly. Others will accept the ill-fitting gear without complaint, but will end up with open wounds from friction burns or deep flesh cuts and sores from improperly adjusted straps and buckles.

Buying a harness is sometimes like buying a car. Not all harness comes with the same options and doing a little homework will help ensure you purchase what you want and need. One option your new harness might be missing is the crupper, which has a strap with a loop that runs under the tail and works to keep the harness equally on the horse side to side. Logging and plowing harness will need a crupper, but will rarely include a breeching. Breeching works as the breaking and backing system for your harness. Physics does not allow a log or plow to be “backed,” and theoretically, when the horse(s) stops, so does the log or plow. Asking a horse to back with a plow ends up in the wreck of a lifetime, and asking a horse dragging a log to back usually ends up in a good tangle of tugs, chains and log. Loggers also tend to like harness without breeching for the sheer desire to have less harness to catch on trees or branches. Purchasing a breeching-less harness will cost considerably less than a complete harness, but you’ll be limited on what you can do with it. Without a breeching a horse can not be hooked into a cart, forecart, wagon or any piece of equipment where backing needs to be an option. You will also not be able to hook into a sleigh or sled as the breeching is needed to prevent glide-type equipment from sliding into the horse when slowing and stopping.

If the goal for your draft and harness is all-around service, then a complete harness with all the options will be your best bet. “Two-drop breeching” is the most common for all-around harness. This refers to the straps that come down around the hips and connect to the breeching. Three-drop breeching, especially with stainless-steel spots, will add more to the price of your harness and is mostly reserved for more showy type harness and use with cart, wagon or professional pulling horses. Spotted harness is rarely used or advised for work or logging as the spots are easily damaged by stress from the woods and equipment. In addition, complete all-around harness will include a set of shaft loops and holdbacks for hooking your draft into a single cart.

Other options your harness may or may not include are bridle checks. These are designed as side or over checks and work to keep the horse from lowering its head out of working range. Lots of horses are always looking for a snack while working, or will want to rub or fidget with their bridles. Over or side checks work to keep the horse from catching its bridle on equipment or the other horses bridle. When used and adjusted properly they also function to help teach the horse to understand contact with the bit. Once a draft is well-trained, settled and accepting of their harness and jobs, checks can often be removed. And, as with breeching, checks are one more things for trees, branches and equipment to snag and tangle on.

If your working draft is anxious or resistive, check their teeth and your bitting and driving style before assuming your horse's attitude is the problem.

Blinders (or blinkers) are also options on some styles of bridles. Many horses learn to work well without blinders, but many experienced teamsters feel these are safety devices and serve to provide protection for the horse’s eyes, especially while logging.

Two other items where fit and style are important are with bits and collars. If your horse does not arrive at your farm experienced and with a harness that fits, deciding these two factors will be paramount for ensuring optimal performance from your draft. Bits come in two types, leverage or snaffle, and within these two types are a variety of styles. If your draft seems restless in his mouth it may be his teeth or bit are bothering him, your hands are too harsh on the lines or any combination of the three. A lack of training or ethics might also be the issue, but it’s the wise teamster that looks to himself or his horse’s gear as the problem before looking to the horse.

Ensuring collar fit will also take some attention, especially when starting a young horse or muscling-up your draft for work. Improperly fit collars will chafe the skin from rocking side to side if they are too large or too wide, or will pinch the crest or windpipe if too small or narrow. Modern “no sore” pads that do not allow heat and moisture to build up next to the skin will often alleviate friction type sores, but no pad will accommodate an improperly fit collar on a working horse. If your draft does get collar sores, one proven remedy, in addition to modifying the collar for proper fit and use is daily applications of zinc oxide, and time off until the horse heals. If your draft has most of a season off, begin with routine and progressive workouts in properly fitting gear at the start of the current season. This will ensure the skin and muscles will properly harden and accommodate hours of work later in the year.

In addition to time spent learning about your draft and its care, an equal amount of time needs to be dedicated to learning about harness and equipment. A wealth of basic knowledge can also be found online, as well as in volumes of book, magazines and writings. One of the best ways to learn about drafts and harness is to spend time with those who successfully work their horses. As with many things, there is no substitute for hands-on experience and conversations with knowledgeable horse folks.

Horse Progress Days

Information provided by Dale K. Stoltzfus

The 2009 Horse Progress Days will be held July 3-4 in Oden, Ind. This will be the 16th consecutive event in as many years. Guests to the event come from many places throughout North America and around the world. The 2008 event included guests from 15 different countries, two from as far away as Kenya and Australia. The 2009 event expects guests from many countries in Western Europe as well as the African countries of Uganda and Mali.

Also an important part of the event are the many vendors selling all things draft horse related and many valuable seminars providing education about working with the horses and equipment.

To receive a program guide with more information about the event and interesting articles about horse farming, send $5 to 1006 Log Cabin Road, Leola, PA 17540. You can also visit the Web site at

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, in Hebron, Maine. The all-breed draft facility features The Shoeing Shop and the farrier services of Frank Walker.