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Winter maintenance for harnesses and carriages

by Patricia Demers / Horsetrader columnist - December 17th, 2015 - About Driving

About DrivingIn many parts of the country outside California, the weather isn’t conducive to driving or riding, except by a hardy few. Winter was traditionally the time of staying indoors and doing repairs on vehicles and harness in preparation for the spring activities like planting, hunting, and visiting.

Inspection of harness: Take the whole harness apart. If you don’t know how your harness goes together or where all the parts go, look at it while it’s on your equine. Observe where all the straps attach to each other. When you take it apart, put each part- i.e. the bridle, breast collar, back strap etc., all in their own piles. (Hint- the first time I ever took my harness apart, it only took me fi ve hours to clean it and put it all back together. I was so proud of myself, as I only had a few left over pieces that I had no idea where they went! Now, I could assemble a harness blindfolded!).

Actually, learning all the pieces and parts of a harness is extremely important. You need to know how it all integrates and functions. By reassembling it, you’ll have to refit the harness to your equine, if you hadn’t done that already. Don’t assume that it goes back together in the old, worn holes—especially if it’s a used, second-hand harness. You are looking for worn and cracked leather. Remember, harness is only as strong as the weakest part! Inspect the bit hanger strap. This often gets slobbered on and dries out quicker than other parts of the bridle. The last thing you ever want to happen is have your bit fall out of your equine’s mouth- whether riding or driving! Check the cheek pieces, crown piece, and winker (blinker, blinder) stay where it attaches into the winker. It’s only lightly stitched into the winker, so it can pull out. It usually has a piece of wire between 2 sewn pieces of leather. Don’t let it poke your horse in the eye! Check for worn holes in straps and buckles with bent tongues. Replace as needed. Clean your bits too.

On the breast collar check the D-rings that the neckstrap buckles into for wear or strain. If these break, your breast collar won’t be supported correctly, or may fall off , causing a wreck. On neck collars, make sure the collar is clean and free from built up sweat and dirt, and the leather isn’t cracked on the face where it touches the horse’s skin. This can cause sores, galls, and training issues if your equine can’t push into the collar because of discomfort. Also take the hames apart and check your hames straps for wear and cracking at the bends where it supports the hames. It’s very inconvenient to have your hames fall off  or apart while driving. (I’ve experienced this!) This may cause a wreck also. Check the welds, nuts and bolts on the hame anchors (where the traces attach). Make all repairs to harness as needed.

There is A LOT of leather to take care with harnesses. The steps to a proper cleaning are: disassemble. Use warm water and saddle soap to clean all the leather- everywhere! This may take some elbow grease and a soft  scrubber pad to remove built up grime. Being CAREFUL not to scratch the leather! Rinse, and avoid getting the leather too wet. Dye the parts that have lost color. Polish the metal if needed or necessary. Wipe metal polish off  of leather. Condition the leather. This may be neatsfoot oil or other oil based conditioners. Warm oil soaks in much bett er than cold. Don’t saturate the leather. A few light coats is better than soaking wet oil. I use an old cut up sock to apply oil. A zip-lock baggie with a little oil is great for small straps. Place them inside, seal and squish for a few moments. Wipe off  the excess oil. Avoid getting oil on the patent leather, as this dulls it. Then put a top coat of glycerin on all the straps. Reassemble and fi t to equine. If you have synthetic harness, disassemble, scrub with dish soap, rinse, polish metal work, and reassemble. Repair as needed.

Inspection of your vehicle: Get out the wrench set and screwdrivers. Start at one end and side of the vehicle, working your way around and UNDER, inspect EVERY nut and bolt. Tighten and replace as needed. (You should be doing this inspection every month!). Check your springs, and shaft  attachment brackets. If your shaft  ends caps ratt le and make noise, remove, put some clear silicone inside, and replace. Check your single/double tree bolts, and limiting straps.

Checking your wheels: If you have bike wheels, remove wheels, check the bearings, replace if needed, and place the wheels back on. Tighten the hub nut until the wheel has resistance, then back off  until wheel just rotates freely. Check your tires and tubes. If you have wooden wheels, you can take your carriage in for servicing, or do them yourself, if you know how. Tighten any bolts that are holding the metal tire rim to the felloes. If your wheels are wobbly, or you can see light between the tire and the felloe, they need to go to the carriage shop for repair. This can be pricey, but it’s necessary and it usually only has to be done once in many years of service. DON’T put them in water to soak to tighten, as you’ll only ruin them! No wheels, no carriage. Check and grease your fi ft h wheel or turning plate on a four-wheel vehicle.

Proper maintenance of both harness and vehicle are paramount to being a safe driver. It does take time, but it’s worth the trouble to be safer than sorry!


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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