From the chariot races held at the Circus Maximus during the period of ancient Rome … to the draft horse pulling competitions held today at the local county fair … horses have been harness1 laboring to entertain and benefit mankind for over 6,000 years. Used for transportation, industry, commerce and warfare … horses have been outfitted for the specific job they were to perform. A key to the efficiency of man’s utilization of the horse was the creation of the harness.

Through time the harness has evolved, but the mechanics of the basic harness that we use today has not changed for generations. Contemporary drivers should appreciate how the harness has been modified over time for a particular job and appreciate the diversity of the various types utilized today.

The first harness was a modification of the yoke type harness used with oxen that were put into draft long before the horse was used to pull a wagon. This ‘neck and girth’ harness was light weight. Straps were place around the horses’ neck and girth that met at the top, by the withers, where the yoke would come to rest connecting the two horses. The pole of the chariot would rest in the crotch of the yoke and be strapped securely so the horses could pull, stop and pivot the carriage.

Some time later the Chinese invented the breast collar type harness for pulling their heavier two-wheeled carriages with a single horse. The shafts often curved high above the horse’s withers with the point of draft attachment at the horse’s sides. Around 100 BC, the Chinese went on to invent the ridged full or neck collar that we are familiar with today. It took many generations for these innovations to find their way into western cultures. The ridge collar finally arrived in Europe around 700 AD.

This ridged full collar that was specifically designed for the contours and work of the horse, is considered by some historians to be more revolutionary than the invention of the automobile. It allowed one man and a horse to do the work of 50 men laboring in the fields to produce food. This left 49 men to invent new ways of doing things and to barter for food produced by the man with the horse and plow. It allowed the dark ages to evolve into the Renaissance and move to the Age of Enlightenment and then onto modern times. Through the efficiency gained by man utilizing the horse and the resulting increased productivity, a surplus of food begins to occur. This “surplus” contributes to the development of the social system called Feudalism (where the horse becomes pivotal in warfare and agriculture). Feudalism can be considered as the start of capitalism … production … surplus … wealth created through that surplus. This increased productivity obtained by man utilizing the horse in early civilization to obtain “value or wealth” from the land, contributes to the value that is placed today upon land ownership for sites for farms, factories and homes.

types-of-harness-revThe breast collar and full collar harness are the types we utilize today and their modifications can be appreciated based on the job at hand. The breast collar which rest just above the point of the horse’s shoulder is more commonly used with light-weight carriages … less formal carriages equipped with a movable single tree. Whereas the full collar, is generally used with heavier more formal carriages that have a fixed splinter bar and roller bolts. The breast collar has its advantages in that it is easier to fit to the horse, in comparison to the full collar which needs to fit each horse individually. In addition, just as we have a coat for enjoying cool summer evenings and a different coat for the windy snowy days of winter … in years past a horse was sold with two full collars, one for winter and one for summer.

The style of carriage, the type of driving and the breed of horse all influence the driving horse’s ‘clothes.’ Just as we wear formal evening attire to a gala ball and an athlete wears specialized shoes to play their favorite sport … the horse has to be ‘suited’ or harnessed correctly for the job to be done. In Part II we will review the various types of driving seen in America today.