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FAQs for New Drivers: Buying & Caring for Harness

(FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions)

By Robyn Cuffey and Jaye-Allison Winkel

Q: What different styles of harness are readily available?
A: What follows is a brief overview of three common harness styles in North America:

Fine Harness
This harness is lightweight with the strapping quite narrow. Fine harness is intended for the show ring (flat, level surface) with a lightweight vehicle. There is often no breeching; thimbles are common. Overchecks and martingales are often included. This harness will be breastcollar style.

Carriage harness
This harness will be heavier in weight than the fine harness. Breeching is usually included and the breastcollar is wider than the fine harness, making the carriage harness more suitable for heavier carts and carriages. Many inexpensive carriage harnesses come with overchecks, which cannot be easily removed, while some come with sidechecks, which can be removed. Leather carriage harnesses can come in both breast and neck collar styles. Buckle-in traces can be included, (as opposed to sewn-in traces) which generally raises the price.

Race harness
This harness is designed specifically for use with a racing sulky. There will be no breeching included. Modern race harnesses have a "quick hitch" system that eliminates breast collars and traditional shaft holders. A "quick hitch" harness can only be used on the cart it is designed for, a "quick hitch" racing bike. Older harnesses can be found used and they may have thimbles and a lightweight breast collar. This could be used on a lightweight jog cart in a ring or fairly level road situation.

Note: Some inexpensive harnesses combine the features of both carriage and fine harness styles. Overall they will have narrow strapping but include breeching. These should still be used for lighter weight carts because of the narrow weight-bearing surface on the breastcollar and the breeching strap.

Q: What type of harness do I need and how much should I expect to spend?
A: It depends on what type of driving you plan to do and what type of vehicle you're driving. If you are driving a light jog or pipe cart and don't intend to show at all, a nylon harness like the one from Big D's ($125) would probably suit you fine. Steer clear of the cheap imported leather harnesses like those found in online auctions. These harnesses are made from very poor quality leather and we consider them unsafe for any use. We have not yet found a new leather harness that we thought was safe to use for less than $400.

If you have a heavier cart like a road cart or Meadowbrook, you'll need at least a mid-range leather or synthetic harness, like the Basic leather harness from Driving Essentials ($420) or a BioThane® from Camptown Harness ($410). Either of these harnesses can take you into the show ring.

If you want to compete extensively in pleasure shows or combined driving, you might consider a better quality leather harness or a synthetic harness from ZilcoTM ($700 to $1200). Synthetic harnesses are becoming well-accepted in driving shows and competitions, but if you wish to be competitive in Turnout classes where the correct equipment is very important, buy a very good quality leather harness of a style that suits your cart or carriage ($1500 plus).

Q: I don't have much money to spend on a harness. What should I watch out for when looking at inexpensive harnesses?
A: Differences in harness quality can be seen in the stitching. Fewer stitches per inch indicate lower quality, as does the use of metal staples. Leather should be consistent in width and thickness on individual parts of the harness. Other quality traits to look for are rounded or padded edges, leather that smells good and is fairly pliable when new, split neck straps and breeching straps that allow for more adjustments and shaped breast collars that allow room for the horse's windpipe.

When evaluating the least expensive harnesses available in the United States today, we found that it was very rare to get a good fit "out of the box", and some of the harnesses were just plain impossible to use as they arrived. Nylon harness often needed holes added (burned in). Overchecks were all too short. Some bridles had nosebands that were too small and throatlatches that were too big. One harness came with one-piece (continuous) reins that had ends that would not fit through the terrets. Traces were usually too short to be used with the average easy-entry jog cart, even though they were pictured together in the catalog! (On closer inspection, the photo in question shows the shafts are jutting out too far in front of the horse.) These traces would normally attach to hooks on the sides of the shafts instead of a singletree. If used in this manner, without a singletree, for hilly trail work or pulling a mid-weight cart such as a Meadowbrook, the traces may painfully rub the horse's shoulders. Reins were various widths, some far too wide for a woman's hand. Leather harnesses under $400 were highly questionable in quality and impossible to fit to any living horse we'd ever seen without major modifications.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of leather, nylon, BioThane® or ZilcoTM?
A: We'll look at each material:

Leather For the traditional-minded carriage driver, this is the harness material of choice. Leather harnesses priced under $200 are foreign-made, usually of leather tanned in India, which can be stiff, weak and stretch alarmingly, making harnesses in this price range unsafe for any use. The leather can be of varying widths and thickness, there can be extra splices in the reins. Most mid-priced American leather harnesses ($400-$1000) are Amish made. The "buggy style" (treeless) saddle is common for the lower price range harness, as are traces sewn to the breast collar and "split" reins where the rein on the horse end is black leather and the part at the driver end is the higher-quality russet. Higher-priced leather could have a rigid tree in a wider saddle, buckle-in traces, possibly patent leather trim, all russet reins and rounded blinders.

Advantages: Leather is the most traditional choice for harness. Leather shapes itself to the horse as it breaks in. Quality tanned leather combined with good fit and rounded edges makes a harness that is very kind to the horse's skin. Properly cared-for quality leather harness will likely last a lifetime. The breaking point of leather is thought to be lower then the synthetic materials so in a serious accident the horse could get free of the vehicle and possibly avoid injury. Some leather harnesses have very thick leather so this could be debatable. In any harness, the stitching or hardware may let go first.

Disadvantages: Leather requires the most maintenance of all harness materials. All harnesses should be wiped off after every use, but leather also needs to be conditioned occasionally to preserve the leather and keep it pliable. Brass hardware should be periodically polished to prevent tarnish from building up and damaging the leather, and if used for showing, both the leather and the hardware must be cleaned and polished, which can be very time-consuming. Leather harness weighs more than nylon or most synthetics, so this may be a concern for drivers with physical limitations.

These harnesses are usually used for pulling light vehicles such as jog carts. Some come with rigid saddles so that they may be used with a heavier cart. Harness pads can be added to help protect the horse under the saddle, breastcollar and breeching. To add holes, a small soldering iron or heated nail can be used to burn through the nylon.

Advantages: Nylon is very strong yet lightweight. It is economical and fairly easy to clean.

Disadvantages: Because of nylon's strength, there can be concern that the horse may be tangled in it and injured. What usually breaks is the hardware. One tack supply company prints a disclosure in their catalog stating that the hardware is designed to break for the safety of the animal. We have, however, seen hardware on nylon harnesses break during "normal" use. Nylon is not impervious to aging, and buckle holes can fray over time. The strapping is narrower then most leather so it may rub the animal if the weight pulled or carried is excessive.

Synthetic materials are rapidly gaining in popularity for harnessmaking. First made popular at the harness racetrack, it is basically nylon webbing with a plastic coating. The plastic makes it easy to clean and the nylon gives it superior strength. Zilco® and "Beta" series Biothane® offer a more leather-like synthetic, that looks more traditional and has a nice feel to the hand and next to the horse. These two popular materials are very different, though, and you really need to see and handle them both to determine which you'll like best.

Advantages: Synthetics combine the strength of nylon with easy-to-care-for surfaces. Synthetics are easy to clean with soap and water and require no time-consuming conditioning. Some synthetic materials look just like leather, at least from a distance. The craftsmanship found on today's synthetic harnesses can be excellent, as good as or better than that found on mid-priced leather harnesses. Some synthetic harnesses are very light in weight compared to leather.

Disadvantages: Breaking strength concerns similar to nylon. Holes can fray and the finish can discolor over time.

Q: I've heard that I shouldn't buy a nylon or synthetic harness because it won't break in the event of an accident. Do I want my harness to break or not?
A: It is our opinion that, in most instances, you are safer if your harness does not break. If your harness stays intact in an emergency, you at least have the chance to regain control over the situation. At least one major retailer states in their current catalog that their nylon harness is built with hardware that is designed to break in the event of an accident, to prevent injury to horse or human. We find this logic hard to accept. If the hardware will break in an "emergency" situation, what's to prevent it from breaking under stress during "normal" use? Will the hardware "know" that a steep hill or sudden turn is not an "emergency"?

Q: What about metal fittings? Should they be brass, chrome or stainless steel?
A: If you think you'll want to compete in pleasure driving shows, you'll want the hardware on your harness to match that which is on your vehicle.

Brass is beautiful and traditional. Chrome and stainless steel offer low-maintenance. Stainless steel is strongest, and preferable in high-stress parts such as breeching.

Chrome plating can peel over time. Brass is high maintenance, requiring periodic polishing to stay tarnish-free. If not polished often, brass hardware can become pitted. Stainless steel adds to the cost of the harness.

Q: Should I buy new or used harness?
A: Buying a used harness can save you some money while allowing you to get a higher quality harness. A well cared-for leather harness can have a very long life and buying it used can be a great deal for the beginner. Watch for cracked leather, rotted stitching, bent buckle tongues or cracked hardware. Look closely where the buckles are stitched on for loose stitching. A heavy, wide saddle that is very flexible is probably broken. In synthetic or nylon harness, look for frayed out holes, rusty buckles, and loose stitching.

Buyer should beware at auctions! Mismatched and missing pieces are commonly discovered upon closer inspection at home.

Q: How do I measure my horse for a good harness fit?
A: Most harnesses priced under $1000 are generically sized, horse, cob, pony or mini. A few pieces like the girth or bridle can sometimes be exchanged for a better fit, as it is the rare animal that is fitted perfectly by an "off the shelf" harness. Harnesses ordered from various national discount tack outlets are usually "as-is" out of the box; you might want to ask if exchanges are possible before you buy. The less expensive the harness, the higher the odds are that some parts won't fit your horse or pony.

Various discount catalogs list the sizes as follows:
Horse- 15h+, 14.2- 15.2, 64"-78" surcingle, 66"-76" surcingle
Cob- 14-15h, Arab, 13-14h, 54"-64" surcingle, 56"-66" surcingle
Pony- 12-13h, 46"-56" surcingle
Medium Pony- 48"-58"
Small Pony- 40"-48" surcingle
Miniature Horse- 38" and under, 39"-46" surcingle

Mail order harness sources have a variety of ways to determine the size of their harnesses. Companies selling mid- to upper-priced synthetic and leather harnesses will ask for specific measurements of your animal and try to fit the harness accordingly. Both Zilco and Camptown Harness will put together a harness to fit your horse exactly, although it may take some time to get the fit just right by exchanging pieces of harness.

Here is a sample measurement chart, courtesy of Advanced Equine Products, distributors of ZilcoTMharness:

Q: How should I care for my harness?
A: Cleaning your harness regularly is important, not only for the comfort of your horse, but for your safety, as the cleaning process gives you an opportunity to dismantle the harness and examine each piece for wear and damage.

Daily care for Leather and Synthetic Harness
Wiping your harness down after each drive will keep dirt and sweat from accumulating, making your horse more comfortable and making the job of thorough cleaning much easier when the time comes. Soon after your harness comes off your horse, wipe it down with a damp sponge or rag, paying particular attention to the "horse side" of the harness. Don't forget to wipe the inside of the bridle, as many horses sweat around the ears under the driving bridle, it being heavier than a riding bridle in most cases. Rinse the bit off in clean water. Hang your harness on a saddle or harness rack, with each part hanging as straight as possible, to keep it from bending in an awkward position. A sheet draped over the harness while it is stored will keep it from getting very dusty.

Thorough Cleaning - Synthetic Harness
Synthetic harnesses do not require the time-consuming cleaning that leather harnesses do, and that is a large part of the appeal of synthetics, but it's still a good idea to take your synthetic harness apart and give it a thorough cleaning periodically. Even synthetics wear over time, and it's important to check all hardware and buckle holes for damage and worn spots. Wash your synthetic harness with water mixed with some mild soap, rinse thoroughly, and hang to dry out of direct sunlight.

Thorough Cleaning - Leather Harness
Cared for properly, a good leather harness will often last a lifetime. Cleaning a leather harness is generally a three-part process: cleaning the leather, conditioning the leather, and polishing the brass hardware. Nickel or stainless hardware does not require polishing, but should be kept clean.

Step 1: Dismantle the harness entirely.
Take the time to check each buckle for soundness, particularly the tongue, which can become bent under stress. Check the buckle holes for signs of stretching. Check all leather pieces for cracking and loose stitching.

Step 2: Clean the leather parts.
David Freedman of Freedman Harness, one of the most respected harness makers in the world, recommends cleaning harness with a solution of three parts lukewarm water to one part baking soda or Mr. Clean. Use a damp sponge to wipe down every part of the harness; taking the time to be sure all dirt has been removed. A harness hook hung from the ceiling will make cleaning pieces easier, as you can hook one end to it and hold the other in your hand, enabling you to work well with your free hand and also see when the piece you are working on it thoroughly clean. Be particularly careful to clean any oxidation from brass hardware off the leather, as it can lead to cracking. Patent leather can be cleaned with a little mild soap and water.

Step 3: Condition the leather.
Leather will dry out over time, and restoring the fats and oils that were "stuffed" into the leather during the tanning process will keep it supple and beautiful. Leather that becomes too dry will be stiff and likely to crack, needing repair. Look for a semi-solid conditioner that contains animal fats, as this is closer to the compounds used to tan the leather in the first place. Stay away from neatsfoot oil and dressings based primarily on neatsfoot oil, as it could lead to damage to the stitching in your harness.

Your harness may not need to be conditioned after every cleaning; experience will help you determine how often to treat it. Apply the conditioner of your choice while the harness is still slightly damp, as the pores of the leather are open at this point and the conditioner can be absorbed fully. Patent leather can be polished with a bit of furniture polish, such as Pledge.

Step 4: Clean the hardware
If your harness has brass hardware, you will need to not only clean it but polish it, as well. Polish your brass well with each cleaning, and this will keep the tarnish from building up and becoming very difficult to remove. Brass polish comes in several different forms; experiment to find which you like best. Brass polish is not great for leather, so be sure to wipe the leather clean if polish gets on it. A bit of car wax (wiped, dried and polished) on your hardware after it's completely polished will keep the tarnish from returning as quickly.

Step 5: Polish the leather
To keep a beautiful show ring shine on your harness, David Freedman recommends a light coat of black or neutral show polish as a finishing touch, buffed to a beautiful shine.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of

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