If bell straps of any sort are attached to the horse and its harness, it’s imperative that it does not interfere with the horse’s movement or breathing, nor can it compromise the fit of the harness or hinder movement of the vehicle.
No sleigh ride or rally is complete without the sound of sleigh bells. While once totally functional in nature, today’s sleigh bells add décor, charm and character to horse-drawn events. While mass manufacturing of bells today limits their range of sound, they can still be found in a variety of styles.
Most sleigh bells attach to the horse’s harness, or to the vehicle pole or shafts. Thos
e that attach to the harness are most commonly neck, body or harness drop straps. Sets of bells that attach to shafts or poles with bolts or leather straps are also common options.
Modern sets of shaft bells will all be nicely matched, but that’s not the case with many sets of antique shaft bells. If you’re lucky enough to find a set of shaft bells that are not matched, take a minute to wonder about the event that caused that sleigh to one day be involved in a mishap where the driver could not “be there with bells on.” If you needed help to get your horse or sleigh out of trouble, you would “pay” the helper by giving him one of the bells from your shaft. The weary traveler need not worry, as payback would come another day when he would help someone else and receive another bell to complete the strap.
Bells come in two types: open-faced or rattle-type. Open-faced styles are bell-shaped. They have a clapper that’s secured inside at the top of the bell. Rattle-type bells, also known as jingle or rumbler bells, are often round with loose jinglets inside. Rattle-type bells are also called crotal bells, from the Latin word crotalum, which means, “rattle.”
To determine what neck strap size of bells to use for your draft, start by measuring the collar where the hames set. The bells should buckle tightly and set alongside the hames. Ensure they are attached for a secure fit. Body strap bells are best used for single horses. The straps should go over and around the shafts and, once again, should not interfere with the movement of the horse or vehicle. Most commercial straps of bells are 60 to 78 inches in length and are designed for light horses. If you’re seeking body bells for your draft, look for a strap that’s at least 85 to 90 inches in length.
A variety of hip drop, jack saddle, rump straps and other sleigh bell configurations are readily designed and often easier to attach to most harnesses. While not as decorative or as festive as large sets of bells, they bring the same degree of charm to events.
What makes sleigh bells’ characteristic ring? It’s all about pitch and timbre. As with any musical tone, we term pitch as high, medium or low. Timbre is the distinctive quality of the sound. Most modern bells are mass-produced, providing a consistent sound. While the ring of more modern bells is heartwarming, they often lack the variety of timbre in older bells.
The blending of pitch and timbre is due to a variety of factors. Older bells were often cast. The thickness of the casting, defects or cracks added character to each bell and its ring. The composition of metals for a particular brass alloy as well as foreign materials would also give a bell a unique sound. The shape, cut and size of the bell, in addition to the shape, size and composition of the clapper and jinglet inside a bell are also factored into its distinctive sound.
Historically, the ring of the bell was functional serving as a locational device for wandering herds, and in some cultures it was once thought to ward off evil spirits and prey animals. The sound of bells was also a warning to other wagons and teamsters that horses were approaching. When a bell was heard in the distance on a narrow road, a good teamster would find a passing place and pull over. This allowed horse-drawn vehicles to pass without mishap. For logging companies, each company’s bells had its own unique ring so the yardmen at the lumber yards knew which company to credit the logs to as the draft teams arrived for unloading.
As with most items, the price of a nice set of sleigh bells will be dictated by its quality. If you can find a set of casted bells, they will still have a unique ring and can often be remade onto a new strap of leather or biothane. Modern bells will be made of brass, chrome-plated brass or heavy-gauge metal. If properly made, chrome on plated brass should never chip or peel and the bells should never rust. Those made from non-stainless metal may sound attractive, but will rust within a few years if not kept clean and dry. Stainless steel bells in modern design are available, but lack the robust and bright jingly sound often desired for professional sleigh rides.