Buying a harness for your horse is like buying yourself a new pair of boots. Chances are you spent time looking at styles made by different manufacturers and carefully considered the investment. You’re pleased with your purchase except that they pinch your toe, rub your ankle or squeeze your calf. And when you wear them that is ALL you can think about. If the harness doesn’t fit correctly, your horse – like your ankle or calf – will notice.
Compare Leather to Synthetic Harnesses
Traditionally, leather had been the material of choice for harness. “Leather has fallen out of favor because it is heavy and expensive,” Brad Stock, owner at Frontier Equestrian in Jasper, Missouri, said. The majority of harnesses purchased today are made from synthetic and or web material. “It’s stronger, there is almost no maintenance and all you need is a hose to wash it, and it can hang dry,” he added.
For example, at Frontier Equestrian, a leather work harness is approximately $1,600 plus $250 for the collar. A synthetic harness is around $1,000 plus $250 for a collar. Quality is as important with synthetics as it is with leather. “(Lower quality) synthetic and web harness can stretch with use,” cautioned Erika Thiel, 4-H Extension Associate at University of Idaho.
Finding a properly fitted harness begins with a clear idea of what you plan on using the harness for. A harness used for carriage work needs to be strong and in good repair, but working with farm equipment and especially logging demands a strong harness, likely one that has added reinforcement.
Work Determines Harness Style
The type of work will likely determine the style of harness you use. The breast collar style harness is designed for light loads like carriage work, showing and or harness racing. Collar and hames style harness is designed for working horses pulling heavy loads such as farm equipment, logs and competition weights.
When using a collar style harness, proper collar fit is crucial. “The collar takes the majority of the pressure when a horse is pulling weight,” Stock said. A poorly fitted collar creates soreness in the horse’s neck and shoulders resulting in discomfort and lameness.
To measure a horse for a collar use a string or straight stick parallel along the horse’s shoulder blade from the point of its wither to the point of its shoulder. Then measure the width of the bottom of the horse’s neck, where a collar would fall and the width of the horse’s neck in front of its withers. If you’ll be using a pad, add one inch to the measurements.
When a collar is placed on the horse’s neck there should only be enough space between the collar and the horse for you to slide a flat hand, or three fingers, between the collar and the horse. If you plan on using a pad underneath the collar, you may need a collar one or two inches larger than the measurements.
An alternative to measuring a horse for fit is trying different size collars. Ask a friend or local farm owner with draft horses if you can use their collar for fitting purposes. If you live close enough to a harness maker or harness store, ask if they allow customers to haul in and “try on” equipment.
Ask the store manager if they have a return policy. Learn the terms of the policy so that if you get the collar home and it doesn’t fit your horse you aren’t stuck with a piece of equipment you can’t use. If the store allows exchanges or trial periods, handle the collar with extreme care and only try on for fit, don’t work your horse in it, get it dirty and return in used condition.
Getting Best Fit For Hames and Collar
Fitting the hames is as important as fitting the collar. Confirm with the store you are purchasing from how they measure hames. Choose hames that are one to two inches longer than your horse’s collar size. If you are using hames with a buggy harness rather than a work harness, then the hames should only be 1 inch longer than the collar.
Measuring and fitting a collar and hames is the most important aspect of harness fit. The remainder of the harness is made with buckles and several holes for adjustment as necessary. “Harness is made to set standards and is adjustable,” Stock explained, “most draft horses are similar in size. If a horse is larger in the loin the harness can be made to fit the him. If the horse has a full draft body, but a horse size head then a smaller bridle can be purchased.”
While harness is extremely adjustable, you want to make sure the harness you use has enough room to adjust. Even though the harness straps are adjustable, it’s important to know how tight or loose each strap should be. Starting at the front end of the horse, the bridle has several areas that need adjusting. If your bridle has blinders, the horse’s eye should fit in the center of the blinder. It should be snug enough to prevent the horse from seeing beside or behind itself, but should not touch the eye or eyelashes.
The throatlatch, similar to a riding horse’s bridle, should be tight enough to prevent the bridle from slipping off the horse’s head, but not so tight it restricts the horse’s breathing. If you can fit two to three fingers between the horse’s throat and the buckled strap, it’s adjusted properly. A bridle with a noseband should be buckled tightly to prevent the horse from pulling its tongue over the bit.
Moving towards the back of the horse, the breeching straps also require adjustment. The breeching works like a brake. It should be low enough over the hips that the horse can sit its haunches back in it, but not low enough to hit the hocks. When the breeching straps are too long the load a horse is pulling can hit the horse or ride up on its legs and haunches.
If you’re unsure how to properly fit your harness, ask the shop or harness maker you purchased the harness from for help.