History of the Harness

horse in harness

Horse and Harness

In this modern day and age few remember when the only way to get your family from point A to point B was via the horse and carriage. Between the 1800’s and to the early 1930’s the carriage was slowly phased out due to the advancement in the automobile. It had become a pleasure sport and only in a few areas around the globe was it used for its intended purpose, hauling things. To truly understand the horse and harness is to also understand its history.


History of the Harness

Evolution of the horse and its complete relation with humans, we will save for another article, but keep in mind horses were ridden long before the idea to have them pull heavy loads happened. It is widely believed the horse was first harnessed in Kazakhstan, from there the technology quickly spread to what is now Europe. Early harness was completely different than what we see today. They were poorly designed and often placed the weight of the load across the horses wind pipe in a neck/girth system. The first change was a strap harness, with a “chest” strap pulling the load. This and new advances in chariot-making made horse drawn warfare and travel easier. However the horse harnesses were still not able to pull very heavy loads or loads being dragged on the ground. The answer to this dilemma was discovered in China in the 5th century. The horse collar was developed, this allowed for horses to pull heavier loads. The collar rested on the horses shoulders and chest and and prevented the horse from choking. These two “updated” harnesses are not far from what we all are used to seeing today.


Types of Harness

There are two groups in the modern harness world, the breast collar style harness and the collar and hames harness. The breast collar harness has a padded leather strap across the chest and is used for light work and pulling light carts. The only down side to the breast collar style harness is that if pulling an item that is on the ground the breast collar can ride up the horse's chest to neck and could restrict breathing. Nowadays this style of harness is most often seen in the show ring and at the races. The collar and hames style is designed handle much larger loads as well as loads that are dragged on the ground. It is most often seen on a draft style horses and third world countries where the horse and harness is still vital to life and farming. There is also on the market a newer style harness that is the best of both the collar and regular breast collar harness.


Breast Collar Style Harness

The breast collar harness had a few different groups as well. The racing harness is a typical example of the “light” breast collar style harness. Horses are attached to a very light two wheeled cart and are often fitted with over checks, martingales and can work with or with out blinkers. The show harness is also the same design with minor differences. Show harness can also be called fine harness. Most harnesses used are black and very highly polished and used to pull two or four wheeled carts.

The carriage or van harness is the dressed down version of the show harness, it is a little stronger and is a pleasure/work set up. Used for buggies or carts. You may also find collar and hames style harnesses used for carriage or van as well.


Collar and Hames Style Harness

Next is the heavy duty harnesses, the collar and hames style. This are most notable; seen on the famous draft horses that pull the beer wagons. The style is also used for draft horse shows and for farming work. The collar and hames allow the horse to easily pull larger loads at a faster rate than the traditional team of oxen could. Horses with the collar and hames set up pulled barges or canal boats full of raw goods as well as tilling hard soil for us to grow essential crops. Originally, the engine of the industrial revolution was the horse and harness set up; they helped make the world as we know it today. Many are still in use today, for show and in some areas for work; the classic collar and hames harness is the only answer for pulling heavy loads with horses.


Today the harness and its tradition live on through the stories of the past and the actions of the present. As a sport, classic harness racing, show driving, combined driving and pleasure driving are keeping on with the traditions and building the future of horse harnesses and driving. Not too much has changed since humans first harnessed a horse. We still want a way to get from point A to point B, sometimes with our families, however it has morphed from an essential means of transportation to a fun pastime.