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The Old Days In Using Horse Harness
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The Old Days In Using Horse Harness

In the old days, 1900's, when my great great uncle was growing up, the use of horses for transportation was the norm. His father taught him the proper care of horses, as well as, the care of the harness and bits, in use and how to clean them and in the storing of harness.

During the evening hours, he would tell me stories and facts concerning harnessing of horses for pulling a wagon or a plow, and how proper attention to detail is required for the well-being of the horses and the driver.

He said the bridle must be adjusted and fitted to the horses head, as in the cheek-pieces should be adjusted so the bit will not be so low in the horses mouth where it permits him to easily  get his tongue over it, nor should it be so high that it raises the corners of its mouth or pinches the horses cheeks. The brow band should not pinch the skin at the base of the ears, and the blinkers or blinds must be placed so they do not move or be put to close to the front.

Only moderate use of side reins sometimes referred to as bearing reins should be used to keep horses from getting their heads down to eat grass whenever the wagon is stopped and to prevent their bridles from being caught on the pole shaft. For fashion some drivers used to tighten these reins forcing the horses heads higher than necessary placing undue stress on the horses necks and limiting their view, a form of animal abuse, that caused serious injury and death to horses.

The collars were made of leather and different collars were used depending on the equipment to be used, such as you would use a different collar if horses were hooked to a wagon, compared to a light buggy or a plow. Some types used were the half sweeney and narrow topped heavy mule collars, cheap open throat plow or heavy breast collars.

When the horse is in proper position the collar is placed over the head and slid down to have even contact with the horses shoulders on both sides, leaving enough space at the windpipe to easily insert the flat of your hand. Hame straps should then be adjusted and buckled tight as possible. Sweat pads or wabash pads were used to prevent galled sores from the harness rubbing the horses neck. He said that with their work horses, they mostly used strong jointed snaffle bits.

There were different types of harness used on the farm. They had sets of chain harness for field work and single buggy harness, team harness and heavy duty truck harness which included "Boston Backers," which were used to help back a heavy load or for going down steep hills or grades.

Parts of a work harness included: crown piece, brow-band, winker stay, concord blind, throat-latch, cheek-piece, nose-band, bit, flat-side rein, "Dandy" ball-tp hames, concord bolt, breast strap, martingales, forked back strap, belly-band, hip straps, breeching, traces, heel chains, lines, leather collar and the lazy strap.

His father taught him about keeping the harness in good condition. Harness kept better if hung on a wall. Preventing dampness was important to prevent mold growing on the harness. Harness should be kept away from the horse manure due to the ammonia from manure that could damage it.

Several times during the year he and his father would take apart the harness and clean and oil them, and do repairs. In cleaning the harness he said to use as little water as possible, but if need to use warm water with a handful of sal-soda (crystallized sodium carbonate), and soak the harness for 15 to 20 minutes, then scrub with castile soap and a brush, rinse, and wipe with a rag or chamois. It should be hung on a wooden horse to dry in a warm place. 

As soon as it is dry they would apply neats-foot oil diluted one half with good standerd harness oil. He told me that several applications of oil were usually needed. Also he told me why it is necessary use two oils, as the neats-foot oil used alone can cause the leather to become stretchy and then not fit properly. The leather will sometimes be red after washing so they would give it a coat of edge blacking before oiling. A product called "lamp-black," was often used to make the leather black again. Also a low grade vaseline was often used by smearing it over the harrness if it were to be stored for a long time, as it kept the leather from drying out and cracking. After the vaseline soaked in they applied a coat of castile soap on the straps.

He said if someone wanted a really brilliant black finsh then they would use standard harness coatings which were a lot like shoe polish. The paste would be evenly applied to the harness and then polished with a blacking brush and flannel rag.

When they cleaned the metal mountings a liquid or paste metal polish was used. The steel bits were cleaned by washing with soap and water, then smearing them with soap and applying sliver-sand. He would then rub the sand in and around the bit with his fingers, then rinse the bit off and dry it with a rag. Then burnish it with a steel burnisher. By cleaning carefully and drying well and then wiping with an oiled rag the forged steel bits were kept from rusting. 

My great-uncle was a wealth of information about what life on a farm was like in the early 1900's. So far different then modern farming today, however, the Amish, do keep the traditions of the past that most of us have long forgotten and might only remember from stories told to us by older relatives who were raised during that time in history.


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  1. naturegirl
    There is a lot of interesting information here. Some say, though, that it is better not to use bits nowadays as there are great ways to lead a horse without them. Voted! Check out my new post, Unnecessary Pain, and vote if you like it!
  2. Chestnut Mare
    Chestnut Mare
    Voted. This is a fascinating blog. It 's very interesting to get the historical background from someone who lived in those times; "straight from the horse's mouth", as it were! (Pun intended!) I am particularly struck by this as I mention the bearing rein in my latest blog as well, A Famous Horse's Tale. Please check it out and vote if you like it.:-)
  3. sweedly
    I will read both of your blogs. I learned a great deal while living on my great uncles farm. Have lots more to share in future blogs. Thank you for voting. By the way for those that do not know what a martingale is, it is the strap that passed from the nose-band to the girth between the horses fore legs, to keep the horse from rearing or throwing its head backward. Where they came up with some of these names I do not know, maybe it is the mans last name, that invented it.

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