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    Harness selection and fit are a matter of ‘form following function’

    By PATRICIA DEMERS - Horsetrader columnist - September 18th, 2014 - Feature Article

    Fifth in a series

    Once you have decided on teaching your horse to pull a cart, carriage or wagon, what do you use to pull it with? A harness of course!

    Now the question is WHAT KIND of harness to purchase? Do you get a light harness or a heavy harness; a breast collar to a neck collar? You even have a choice of materials and colors! First, you must decide on the type of driving you are going to do, and what type of vehicle your equine is going to be attached to.

    Think about form-to-function: the heavier the vehicle, the sturdier the harness. The line of draught (the point/angle of pull from the collar to the single tree where the traces attach), will also determine if you use a breast collar to a neck collar. Lateral draft uses a breast collar, and an angular draft (one that goes downward at an angle following the angle of the horses’ shoulder), will use a neck collar. A wagon will use a neck collar, and a pipe cart or similar light vehicle will use a breast collar. The weight and balance of a vehicle will also have a determining factor on the width of the saddle that the harness needs to be. Harness saddles can be 2” wide – a size used on a mini to a very light cart – or as wide as 3”, 4”, 5” on average. The vehicle determines the size of saddle.

    The average saddle is in the 3-5” range. The wider, the better, as it distributes the weight for the equine’s comfort. Just as riding saddles come in different “trees” to fit various shapes of backs, so do harness saddles. If you have a very wide-backed, 55-gallon drum type, be sure to let the harness supplier know. Just as in riding saddles, you want some room in the gullet over the horse’s spine. You should be able to put two fingers under the gullet when the carriage is attached and loaded. A too narrow saddle will just twist and cause pressure points.

    Materials vary from inexpensive, poor quality leather or nylon web, to biothane and beta, which are nylon webbing coated in a plastic polymer that may look like shiny, patent leather, or even mimic the leather look. Leather comes in a variety of grades from very inexpensive, low strength, to high quality premium leather. You get what you pay for when it comes to harness quality. Most harnesses available come in black or brown. You often will have to also choose between stainless steel (“white” metal), or brass. The choice is up to the individual, depending upon how much you want to spend and how much maintenance you want to do.

    Personally, I think you cannot beat a good, high quality leather harness for value, strength and longevity. My recommendation is to not buy the “bargain” harnesses found on the internet, as you’ll only end up having to replace them with a better quality very quickly. A good idea is to also purchase a pad to put under your saddle. These come in a variety of colors and are inexpensive. They not only keep your harness saddle cleaner, they also help to absorb sweat and dissipate heat. This is ESPECIALLY important if you use synthetic materials, which do not absorb sweat and create heat. This will sore up and gall your horse’s back very quickly.

    You must also pick the appropriate size to the equine. One harness does NOT fit all! Sizes come in: mini (9-11 hands), small pony (11-12), pony (12-13), large pony/cob (13-14.2), horse (14.2-16), large horse (16-17), and draft horse size. These harnesses also vary depending upon the weight of the equine, such as Gypsy Cobs might only be 14 hands, but wear a large horse size due to circumference of girth and hindquarters.

    The best advice I can give you is to read books, search the internet, talk to knowledgeable people, and to the harness makers themselves to determine the correct harness size and type. Be kind to yourself and your equine, and seek professional help if you are not sure about your horse driving needs. This can save a lot of money, time, and is safer in the long run!

    Patricia Demers is a trainer based in Lancaster, Calif., who specializes in carriage driving. You can submit questions or reach Trish at driving@horsetrader.com.

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