Preface to articles on harness
Our map was lousy and had more than once led us adrift, yet we had no option but to follow it. We came to a fork in the track and followed it to the right, up a seemingly gentle incline. Soon, we discovered we were in very heavy, rocky going, and though it looked like we would soon “bag the peak”, it just kept going up. The little horse was struggling to pull us up the rutted track and we had to give him frequent breathers, alternately getting out to walk alongside to lighten his load.
But finally, we arrived at the top of the butte. Standing on the edge of the windswept escarpment, we could view to the west, the magnificent spine of the Cascade Mountains, from Mt. Hood, near the Columbia River Gorge, clear to Mt. Bachelor, hundreds of miles south. Behind us lay the buttes of the Crooked River National Grasslands, and the Ochoco range. All I could think of was what a place to watch the sun go down, behind Mt. Jefferson, and “sleep…in the desert tonight, with a million stars all around…”
We broke our reverie to continue our trek, following the map down the other side of the butte, only to find ourselves on a razorback, with the ground disappearing sharply on either side, the road ahead obliterated. There must have been a 600-ft drop on either side. The little horse was unfazed, though he could see 180 degrees in his modified winkers. It was up to me to turn him deftly in this tight radius and guide him back up the ridge to safety…
There is a whole world outside the confines of the “boards” that those who seek it are privileged to experience from the seat of a vehicle behind an extraordinary horse (or two). It’s a world where you make your own rules, travel at your own pace, equip yourself as required, and spend your training time developing a rapport with your horse and making an efficient traveling partner out of him.
There is a tremendous amount of thought, effort, and consideration of equipment that go into successful non-competitive driving. My specialty is equipment and I have a lot to share on the subject, but that is only one tiny facet of successful non-competitive driving. Conditioning the driving horse for long drives is a fascinating science in itself. Use of electrolytes, successful shoeing, the use (or not) of protective legwear, are all-important considerations. What do you pack in your “spares” kit? The list is virtually endless!
So, since I am an equipment specialist, I am going to start with my favorite subject, harness. I’ll start at the front, and eventually get to the back. For now, there’s a lot to talk about just regarding bridles.
Why do I think bridles deserve a lot of attention, just for recreational driving? Well, the driving bridle is not just a bunch of straps to hang a bit from. Firstly, a poorly fitted bridle can be a complete misery for the horse who must wear it for hours on end! Secondly, there are several features on the driving bridle that vary in design, and it’s important to understand the function of the variations, so you can select which ones are best for your application.
Considering the horse
The horse that is regularly pressed into service for long drives, day after day, mile after mile, will show the effects of poorly selected, poorly fitted equipment that a horse which is taken out and driven for an hour or less a week may never experience. I will return time and again to this theme, to increase its impact. What may appear to cause minor trouble in light duty will produce very negative consequences for the distance horse. That is why, for the avid recreational driver minute attention to all details of harness fit is critical. A few broken hairs today will be a raw, bleeding, painful sore tomorrow.
Elements of the driving bridle
We’ll start at the ears and work our way down to the nose.
The piece that goes behind the ears is the crown. The strap comprising the crown is split at each end, creating a cheek billet and a throatlatch billet.
(Billet: That part of a strap that fits into a buckle. The end of a billet is referred to as a point.)
Most bridle crowns are cut straight across (Fig. 1). Some are curved for relief around the ears (Fig. 2). These are extremely beneficial when paired with a browband of the correct length. More on that later.
Figure 1 – A straight crown set up
Figure 2 – A shaped crown with an overlay.
A driving bridle crown has a buckle in the center to receive the winker brace billet (provided the bridle has winkers). It will usually have an overlay that will have slots to receive an overcheck rein, or rings to accommodate a sidecheck rein. If the bridle has no checkrein, the overlay will simply be stitched down, or dispensed with. Checkreins are optional. I will discuss them last.
(Overlay: One piece of material (leather) sewn on top of another.)
The browband is of course, the strap that that goes across the forehead and loops around the crown at each end. If it is too short, it will pull the crown up under the ears, and probably also the upper ends of the bridle cheeks, which may then rub on bony areas around the eyes. Too long a browband won’t create as many problems, but once again, something that is flopping around on the head, or allowing the winkers to drop so the horse can see over them is not a good thing.
Most browbands are basically the same, except for varying degrees of ornamentation. The browband is a strap with a loop at each end through which the crown billets pass. The primary functional difference will be on the underside, which may be plain, or have a slim, flat loop through which various other bridle components pass and are thus kept centered. Browbands can be anything from a slim piece of leather with the loops sewn at the end, to extraordinarily ornamental, with patent leather and chain. The degree of ornamentation is of no value to the comfort of the horse. Padding can make a difference, as well as careful rubbing down of stitches and finishing of edges, to provide no areas that will chafe. Ample length to allow the crown to seat correctly behind the ears is the primary concern of the recreational driver.
I have found that a browband should be approximately an inch longer than “normal” when paired with a shaped crown. The fully curved crown is designed to “drop” the billets so they are a bit lower than a straight-cut crown. For this reason, the browband must be long enough to allow the billets to settle into the right place and allow the well designed curved crown to do its job of providing ear relief.
A straight crown with cutouts for the ears does not need the extra length.
Fit Problems with Browbands
Driving bridle browband fit is more complicated than riding bridle browband fit because there is more “stuff” to deal with on a driving bridle. In most cases, everything that passes from the crown across the horse’s face goes under the browband. For that reason, the browband will probably need to be longer on your driving bridle than on your riding bridle. For instance, the winker brace generally fits under the browband. An ornamental teardrop will also fit under the browband. If the bridle has an overcheck rein, the facepiece will pass under the browband.
Of all the headaches created by the browband, none is more frustrating than the place it occupies between the ears and the rear edge of the winkers. For the average sized horse, this is not so much a problem, but the smaller the horse, the less space between the winkers and the ears. The result is the browband getting pushed up into the front of the ears, and the crown being pulled up into the back of the ears. This is a sticky problem, for which there is some help, but it may be tricky to find the equipment that solves the problem. I’ll spend some time shortly, discussing possible remedies.
The main part of the driving bridle comes as a three part unit – two bridle cheeks, joined by a winker brace.
Each cheek has a crown buckle just behind the winker at one end, and a bit billet and buckle at the other end.
The crown buckle is used only to raise and lower the winkers in relation to the horse’s eyes. The bit buckle is used only to raise and lower the bit in the horse’s mouth.
The winker brace is there to keep the winkers from flopping about, and can be used to move them closer to, or away from, the horse’s eyes, by adjusting it at the winker brace buckle on the crown. In addition, many winker braces have a wire hidden inside which makes positioning the winkers much easier.
The function of the bit billet is pretty self explanatory; it’s there to hang the bit.
A Word about Winkers
There are many words that are used to describe the piece that limits the horse’s vision. They are Winkers, Blinkers and Blinds. All these words mean the same thing.
Winkers are optional equipment on a driving bridle. There’s no law that says you have to have winkers on a driving bridle, but they have their place. I’ll spend more time on this subject later.
Fit Problems with Bridle Cheeks
There are two primary concerns with fitting the bridle cheek. One is obvious; the winker must be able to be centered over the horse’s eye, and the bit billet needs to be adequately adjustable to hang the bit in the correct position in the horse’s mouth. The second problem is more obstinate and is especially pronounced in fitting driving bridles to small horses and ponies and affects the fit of the browband.
Small horse have very little room to position a browband between the winkers and the ears. This small space is partially gobbled up by the crown buckle. As much as an inch of that small space is taken up by the buckle, especially if the winkers are square.
The answer may lie in the shape of the winker that is selected. Square winkers will invariably have the crown buckle positioned behind the winker, taking up precious space. Round winkers may inset the buckle, positioning it more flush with the back of the winker. This will give as much as an inch of precious space for the browband. Winker shape is generally though of a “turnout” matter, or a matter of taste, but I have discovered that the more you can inset the buckle under the winker, the more generous the space for the browband.
Digressing momentarily, in recreational driving, the style of checkrein is optional, as is its use. My personal opinion is that the overcheck rein is entirely unsuitable, as it limits the horse’s ability to flex at the poll, or lower his head comfortably when a stretch is in order. The sidecheck rein may be more forgiving, allowing more flexibility, but once again, if it can safely be dispensed with entirely, so much the better. Give your horse every advantage to do this difficult job. He deserves the free use of his head to carry it in the most effective position in uneven going, and the ability to lower his head when he needs a stretch. Checkreins are usually used with a separate bit. The overcheck rein will buckle directly into the overcheck bit. A second bit with a sidecheck rein will require its own “hanger” strap. Less is more with recreational driving; no extra bit in the mouth is a good thing. Try to do without a checkrein.
Having decided whether to use a checkrein, another important consideration in selecting a bridle crown is the shape. The straight crown (similar to a riding bridle crown) has been mentioned. Some harness makers offer a shaped crown, or a scalloped crown, either of which will fit in a curve around the base of the ears, which can provide some pressure relief in that area.
Bridle cheeks come in different styles, which are primarily a matter of appearance, and “turnout” requirements, which will not materially affect the function of the bridle. For instance, some bridles come with “box loop” cheeks. A long leather “tunnel” goes the length of the cheek, between the buckles. The points (ends of the crown and bit billets) tuck inside the tunnel. (If the billets are too long to lie flat inside the box loops, TRIM THEM!) Frequently they are embossed with an attractive pattern, and are usually quite hard. Do not attempt to soften the loops, they are supposed to be that way. Unless the bridle is extremely expensive, the cheeks were assembled with staples. Lots of drivers prefer individual keepers on their bridles over the box loop design, but this is largely a matter of taste, and not function. If your bridle has box loop cheeks, just look on the underside to assure that the staples are well buried, so that there is nothing to rub the horse
Of critical importance, is the condition of the bit billets, the straps from which the bit hangs. In fact, EVERY SINGLE PIECE of recreational driving harness must be in first class condition. Any failure, miles away from home is an emergency. The bit billets are subject to sweat, saliva and dirt, three great killers of leather. Inspect them frequently; keep them clean and conditioned. This is not as big an issue with modern synthetics, but is still of vital importance.
Winkers (blinkers or blinds) are another optional piece of equipment. It is up to the driver to determine if his horse is safer with or without them. The shape of the winkers is irrelevant to function, as long as they are large enough to do the job, and sufficiently cupped to prevent rubbing of the eye. When adjusted correctly, they will be centered over the eye. The buckle above the winker, which the crown buckles into, is the only buckle to be used to raise or lower the winners. The buckle at the bit end of the cheek is the only buckle to be used to raise or lower the bit.
A compromise between winkers and “open” cheeks is a special type of winker, which allows 180-degree vision; the horse can see to the front and sides but not behind. I love these for long distance driving. We get out on the steep rocky tracks, and I like the idea that my horse can see the footing to his side. These winkers go by different names, Kant See Back or sideview being two of them.
Whatever you do, make sure the winker brace is long enough! Too-short winker braces are a misery to the horse, who must suffer the winkers rubbing the areas around his eyes. Not acceptable! Winker braces can be changed without buying a whole new bridle. A brace with wire in it, to make the winkers stand out where you want them is very useful.
Nosebands have many more functions than to simply keep the horse’s mouth shut. They stabilize the bridle cheeks, preventing them from gaping away from the horse’s face when the bit is engaged. More importantly, they affect the action of the bit itself.
A simple noseband, just a strap and buckle, encircles the nose and is held in place by being passed through the bit billets. This is a fairly benign setup; it keeps the bridle cheeks in place, may be used to close the horse’s mouth, but really does little else. It has a tendency to slide down toward the bit and loosen up.
A variation of this noseband has little keepers on the sides through which the bit billets pass. This noseband will actually transfer part of the bit action to the bridge of the nose, so consider whether this action is right for you and your horse. This noseband may also slide down out of position and loosen up during use.
An important style of noseband to consider is an “independent” noseband. It has the usual strap and buckle encircling the nose, but has two individual “hanger” straps. These straps pass through keepers on the inside of the bridle cheeks, then buckle into the crown buckles and tuck into the upper keepers on the cheeks. The crown is then buckled over the top of the hanger straps. This type of noseband helps hold the bridle cheeks against the horse’s face when the bit is engaged, stays in place, and offers a considerable amount of bit feel.
Of course you want a throatlatch of adequate length; not too short or long. Your horse needs to be able to breathe freely so it should be adjusted with sufficient looseness, but not so much that it hangs uselessly and allows the bridle to come off easily if the horse decides to rub.
Halters are a necessity for recreational driving, and it’s a good idea to have one in place while driving. I find that the hand tied rope halters fit generously over a driving bridle and are lightweight. Again, less is more. Some drivers will put a halter on under the bridle, but that is too bulky for my preference.
Another excellent choice in halters is one that has a buckle on the bridge of the nose. This halter can be conveniently undone at the nose to put on/take off the bridle, then buckled back into place when ready to go.
Lots of details to consider, just in the bridle! But now you have choices, to make sure your horse will experience optimal comfort around his head for those long, sweaty hours between the shafts.
Next subject will be the use of breast collars and neck collars for recreational driving.