By Gloria Austin
Equine Heritage Institute, Inc.
Florida Carriage Museum
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Part I: The Harness
From the Circus Maximus' chariot racing in Roman Times to the draft horse pulls of today county fairs, horses have been laboring to entertain and benefit mankind for over 6,000 years. Used for transportation, industry, commerce and warfare, these animals have been outfitted for the job they are to perform. The harness has evolved over time but the mechanics of the basic harness that we use today has not changed for generation. Contemporary driver should appreciate how the harness has been modified for a particular job and understand and appreciate the diversity of types of driving 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 place around the horses' neck and girth that met at the top, by the withers, where the yoke would 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 decidedly heavier two-wheeled carriages with a single horse. The shafts often curved height above the horse's withers with the point of draft attachment at the horse's sides. In about 100 BCE, the Chinese also went on invent the ridged full or neck collar that we know today. It took many generations for these innovations to be seated in the western cultures. The ridge collar finally arrived in Europe in about 700 AD.
This ridged full collar that was specifically designed for the contours and work of the horse, is thought 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. This surplus of food produced through a system called Feudalism (where the horse is pivotal in warfare and agriculture) is also the start of capitalism and our ties to land as sites for farms, factories and homes.
The breast collar and full collar harness are the ones we use today and their modification 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 less formal carriages equipped with a movable single tree. Whereas the full collar is generally used with heavier more formal carriages with a fixed splinter bar and roller bolts. The breast collar has it advantages if that it is easier to fit to the horse. A full collar needs to fit each horse individually. Years ago a horse was sold with two full collars – one for winter and one for summer.
The carriage, type of driving, and type of horse all influence the driving horse's 'clothes.' Just as we wear formal evening attire to a gala ball, and shorts to play tennis, the horse has to be 'suited' to the job. We generally dress for the occasion. In Part II we will review the various type of driving seen in America today.