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Jingle bells and gifts for the driver in your life

By Patricia Demers / Horsetrader columnist - November 20th, 2015 - About Driving, Special Section

Winter evokes thoughts of those Currier and Ives prints of sleighs, dashing through the snow with jingle bells through cold and snowy days or moonlit nights. Bells on bobtails ring isn’t just a quaint phrase. Bells in driving were historically important. In medieval times small bells were used to scare away the evil spirits from contact with your plow horse, lest he become ill and the family perish because he couldn’t work the fields. Bells come in all tones, shapes and sizes from small and “tinkly”, to medium and throaty, to large, loud and low sounding. The sound of bells, especially the medium-sized ones, travels quite a ways over a snowy field. They let you know that another sleigh or vehicle might be around the blind bend in the road or forest. Bells may be strung on leather straps with just a few bells, or a long strand of numerous bells. They were functional as well as fashionable. Saddle chimes, another type, are on a decorative framework that attaches to the harness saddle. This type of bell was typically used on freighting teams. Bells may also be attached to the shafts of your carriage. PatriciaDemers_170px

If you plan on using bells on your carriage or sleigh, please be sure to desensitize your horse to them gradually. Use just a few bells at a time on the harness in a controlled area before you hook to a carriage. Try to get your horse to accept and enjoy them, to be not frightened of the sound and feel. There are few things more special than driving with bells!

Harness brasses were also used to keep away the evil spirits. They originated as religious talismans. If one was good, more were better! Throughout the years, they developed into ornaments and horse show prizes. A driver proudly displayed all his harness brasses on his horse’s harness.

Jingle Bells is a song filled with historical driving significance of the 1800s. Let’s look at the lyrics… A bob tail nag was a horse whose tail had been docked (cut short). This was so the driving lines couldn’t get caught under the tail. You will still see draft horses with docked tails. Anyone who drives long enough will encounter having a line caught under a tail sometime. Another line is get a bobtailed nag, 2:40 at his speed’. Just as we like fast cars today, trotting horses were the sports models of yesteryear. 2:40 was how fast a good horse could trot a mile. The horse was lean and lank.. this horse was in poor condition, as health care was minimal — as was a working life expectancy. Be very thankful for our wonderful modern veterinary medicine that allows our horses to live healthy, long, and useful lives. Misfortune seemed his lot, He got into a drifted bank, and then we got upsot. Sleighs don’t have a front axle for directional control. Typically, they are on single, longitudinal runners. They are simply dragged around turns in the snow and ice. A drifted bank is a pile of snow that can hide the road or fallen objects. Upsot means tipped-over. Sleighs are unstable in turns, and overturning is a very common problem with this mode of transportation! Last, ..hitch him to an open sleigh, and CRACK, you’ll take the lead. A good driver knew how to use his whip. The cracking sound a whip makes is the popper (that little frazzly thingy on the end of the lash). The frazzled part actually accelerates the speed of the lash and breaks the sound barrier making a CRACKING sound, when the whip is snapped. A whipper-snapper is a show off! Sleighs being used in very cold weather required heavy coats, hats, fur-lined gloves and blankets. It was an opportunity to snuggle up.

Sleighs need special road conditions, as they can’t just travel on any type of snow. Ideal road conditions are hard-packed snow that is slightly icy so the runners glide and don’t stick. Horses need special shoes with studs for traction and gripping the ice (similar to grass studs). Snow accumulates in the frog and wads up. There were (and still are) special winter snow pads that have a slight bulb/ balloon in the pad that pops the snow out of the foot for better traction. If you have the opportunity to play with your horse in the snow, and you don’t have pads, you can try using heavy solid cooking grease on the frog, and the snow won’t accumulate as much.

Holiday gifting for the driver: A membership to a local driving club. A nice set of jingle bells. Gloves are a necessity for better grip and handling of the lines. Brown is required for carriage pleasure driving. String gloves are appropriate for summer and rainy weather. Lap robes/ aprons are another necessity and always appreciated in pairs- one for the driver and one for the passenger. Hats are part of an eye appealing turnout for both gentlemen and ladies. Jewelry of the equine theme- ear rings and lapel pins. Whips, one can never have too many whips. When choosing a whip, the lash should reach the equine’s shoulder from the driver’s seat, without the driver leaning forward. A good whip should be balanced in the hand and comfortable to be carried for long periods of time- not too heavy to hold or weighted too much in the lash end. For the horse, a lovely set of new rosettes for the bridle. The antique ones are very collectable. Nothing sets you apart like a pretty rosette! For the multiples driver, a set of rein terrets with rollers, and roger rings, or a new set of lines are always appreciated! Talk to your harness supplier for these items. Happy Holidays, and drive safely!


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