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Harnessing the Single Horse Safely and Comfortably
Part 2 - The Communication System

by Bill Morong

The driving communication system comprises the reins, bridle, and bit of the harness, complemented by whip and voice aids. The driving experience differs from modern transportation in that the driver only indirectly controls the acceleration and direction of the vehicle, the horse being entrusted as the agent of the driver's will. It is amazing how well our compliant partners do this task. Our duty is to provide clear indications through an effective, comfortable communication system.

The focal point of the communication system is the bit (7), the varieties and use of which could fill a whole book. Suffice it to say that the bit must fit the mouth, being wide enough not to pinch the lips, but not so wide as to give indistinct directions. It should be accepted by the horse by his moving up to it, to give gentle but distinct contact. It should replicate at the mouth the touch of the hand.

The bit is connected to the hand by reins (11) . For carriage driving, reins should be brown or russet throughout. The reins must be securely fastened to the bit by buckled billets. Billets are subject to wear. Always examine them when harnessing up. Average single-horse reins are fourteen feet long -- cow hides average seven feet -- so joints in reins are inevitable. Joints should be very smooth to avoid catching in the terrets (23,34). Joints should not be much thicker than the reins themselves, nor should they be much stiffer, or wear by flexing will occur where the thick and thin portions meet. Stitching must never cross reins except at a very gradual angle. Always examine joints of reins.

The hand parts of reins must be of such width as to comfortably fit across the inside of the space between joints of the partly flexed fingers. This is a personal measurement. Improper width will cause discomfort, which will degrade the hand in a manner noticeable by the horse. Handparts should flex around the fingers, but be firm enough to be pushed through the fingers when shortening reins. Various grip-enhancing features may be built into hand parts. Wrapping, plaiting, and lacing are common. Both plaiting and lacing hold grit, are difficult to clean, and are not usually considered appropriate for lady whips, who generally most need grip enhancement. Wrapped handparts are not popular in this country, but give excellent grip, are appropriate, and do not retain dirt. Anyone suffering from impaired ability to grip should consider wrapped handparts. A small buckle may connect the ends of the handparts of reins. For safety, this buckle must have a weak tongue, and the hand parts will preferably be narrowed at this buckle to cause weakness, lest one be dragged by the reins.

The bit is supported in the mouth by the bridle. Let's consider the driving bridle in order of the adjustment of its parts. The crown (8) passes behind the horse's ears and over its poll. Both ears and poll are very sensitive, so a comfortable crown is necessary. Discomfort may cause the horse to shake his head or to back without being asked, or both. The crown should be long enough to allow the brow to pass below the cartilage at the base of the ear, while remaining above the bony prominence below and forward of the base of the ear. This placement must be closely controlled and varies greatly even among closely related horses. If the crown fits poorly, replace it. The crown must have nicely rounded edges and may be padded. The crown is usually fitted with a buckle front and center to hold winker stays and a face drop. The crown may be built with a layer and rings for bearing rein attachments. Bearing reins are forbidden in some driving events, but may be useful with some gluttonous ponies in tall grass.

The brow (1) is attached to the crown at the rosettes (9). Rosettes may bear a monogram or badge if consistent with the rest of the harness. The brow prevents the crown from slipping off the horse's poll. The brow must be long enough to allow the crown to clear the cartilage at the rear base of the ears. If it is not, replace it. The brow must be nicely rounded, especially near the rosettes, or sores may occur. The brow may bear a decorative chain or front. The front should rest in a channel and be attached only at its ends so that a piece of thin cardboard can be slipped under the front during cleaning. Usually the brow has a loop on its inside center to retain the face drop (2).

Bridle cheeks (5) connect the billets of the crown to their respective bit rings. The cheeks may bear winkers (4) to restrict the horse's wide peripheral vision. Winkers are often patent leather on black harness and pigskin on russet harness and may bear a monogram or badge. Winkers should be cupped to avoid touching eyelashes and must not have anything sharp inside that might injure the horse's eye. Upper cheek buckles into which crown billets buckle center the winkers over the eye, and must be correctly adjusted before any attempt is made to control bit height. The ideal position for upper cheek buckles is in the second or third hole down from the rosettes. If nothing close to this is possible, together wih centering the winker on the eye, the winker is not the right size. A rule is that one hole shorter than the hole used be available, in case of billet breakage. This rule applies to all adjustable billets in the harness. Winkers may be square, dee shaped, hatchet shaped, or round, in accordance with some now seldom-observed proprieties, or more usually according to your taste.

Adjust the noseband (6) height at two fingers below the bony prominence of the cheek. If the noseband is supported by straps from the upper cheek buckle, adjust it after the upper cheek buckle is adjusted. Separately supported nosebands may be needed to avoid interference with bit action, but may not hold the winkers securely against the face.

Now buckle the (10) throatlatch to allow your fingers to pass inside it with the head carriage normal as if under way. The throatlatch may be round or flat with round corners. Ideally, the buckles will be level with the upper cheek buckles. Horses' necks vary seasonally, so more than one throatlatch may be needed for best fit. After adjusting the throatlatch recheck winker position.

Lower cheek buckles control bit height. Adjust them to produce the desired "smile" (two wrinkles are average). Recheck winker height and readjust, if necessary, then recheck bit height.

Now adjust the noseband. It should not be loose, but the degree to which it should be tightened is a matter of some conjecture. In any case, check that the buckle isn't gouging into the jaw bone. Some nosebands have a two-buckle closures to allow centering under the jaw. The noseband stabilizes the bridle, so check previous adjustments. If there is no room for the noseband above the bit when the noseband is two fingers below the bone, the problem is not the bridle, a bit with a shorter shank is needed. Alternatively, the noseband may be hung separately in this instance. Most nosebands allow some free movement relative to the cheek. Otherwise bit action may be restricted. Some nosebands are attached with separate pierced loops of leather -- watch for chafing around these.

Now adjust the winker stays (3) by unbuckling the winker stay billet, spreading the winkers, and rebuckling the billet to narrow the winkers as desired. If the winkers cannot be adequately spread or narrowed, the winker stays may need modification or replacement. If the correct adjustment is obtained, but the winkers subsequently narrow on their own, stiffened winker stays may be needed.

A face drop (2) may be suspended from the winker stay buckle. The billet of the face drop should pass through the brow loop and under the winker stay billet. The drop may bear a monogram or badge.

Bearing reins are sometimes used to control head carriage and to discourage grazing. They connect the waterhook to both rings of a separate bridoon bit, passing through gag runners on bearing rein drops suspended from the crown. The bearing reins should not be attached to the driving bit. Bearing reins become more severe as the gag runners are raised. Bearing reins should allow the neck to be lowered enough to allow the whole spine to be straight when the horse is in draught. Overcheck reins are not usual in carriage driving.

Return to Part 1- Introduction

Part 3, The Vehicle Support and Steering System

Part 4, The Draught System

Part 5, The Braking System

Bill Morong is a harness builder in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. Bill describes how "Morong's Harness" came to be:

"I got the pony bug about 1981, and most of the harness I saw didn't please me, so I began making my own.  Others liked what they saw, and after a while my electrical engineering career took a back seat, and the harnessmaking got to be first.  I used to drive a lot, but now I'm so busy making harness I don't get to drive anymore, but still am a domestic servant to two beloved Hackney ponies and an Arab horse."

William Morong, Harness Maker
215 Gray Hill Road
Dover-Foxcroft, ME 04426
Custom harness by private agreement

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