Writer and publisher Lynn Miller has a new book that sings the praises of working the land with horses.
Since 1976, Lynn Miller has been working to educate and celebrate horse-powered farming — and I mean horse — through his books and magazine, The Small Farmer’s Journal, a publication that is read in over 72 countries. Miller has continued to promote working the land in a responsible manner, using horses and harnesses in those tasks. To that end, he has created and published books within his educational “Work Horse Library,” keeping the skills and methods of the working horse in print and available. All the books carry his Davila Art & Books imprint, and his philosophy towards the endeavor is charming and unique.
“We value creative significance, beauty and regularity,” he states. “We haven’t been at publishing long, but we think we’ve found a way to be at it close to forever. We like being out here on the fringe, a little hard to find. We like it because the air on the fringe allows us to breath and think at the same time. We challenge you to extend the spiritual life of a tree by buying books from us and reading them more than once.”
His new book, “The Harness Book,” (2022, Davila Art & Books) is a deep dive into the world of working horse harnesses, their uses and craft. As he states, “The realm or world of working horses and mules once incorporated thousands of individual craftsmen, manufacturers and distributors serving literally millions of teamsters, firefighters and commercial carriage operators. Today, the true teamster community is scattered and diminished but with pockets of strong numbers. Sadly, within the last 25 years we have seen a marked decline in the number of horse-powered Amish farmsteads. Who can tell if this trend will continue? My sense is that the economic, social and climatic challenges ahead could mean a dramatic increase in the numbers of people who choose to depend on animal power, and the remaining active Amish horse and mule numbers could be most useful to such a trend.”
In the 14th century, the word “harness” was defined, in the non-military sense, as “fittings for a beast of burden.” In “The Harness Book,” author Miller takes us step-by step through — to the outsider — the myriad of variations and parts that make up a working harness. It can be daunting at first to understand exactly what everything does and how it is attached. That initial viewing of harness equipment can make one more confused than a homeless man on house arrest. Miller is honest about how he came to learn about the process of harnessing animals.
“In the late sixties when I first looked intently at harnessed mules and horses, longing to understand how the system worked — ignorant of what was most important — it was the harness that confused me more than the anatomy and movements of the animals, even more than the overall system,” he says. “I saw a tangled basket of straps, chains, ropes, all seeming to have a purpose. Yes, there were some diagrams in dusty libraries, and some old books did offer basic explanations of the structural design of some harness varieties. But those didn’t help me to understand in a truly useful way. It would be a few years before I would have my own first team and a pile of harness to figure out. The little bit of book learning and diagram scanning I did, failed to help me. I have told the story before of how my ignorance and arrogance got me into big trouble the first time I harnessed and tried to drive a team. Some of that tragedy came from the harness being put on wrong, making it impossible to function properly. That does not need to be the case with newcomers today. There is a lot of good information today — some of it in our books. But the subject of work harness is vast and various as evidenced by the many design variables as we show the illustrations in the book.”
The book’s 300-plus pages are brimming with examples of every aspect of harness design and options. Traditional and aged catalog illustrations are intermixed with contemporary color photographs that take the reader from the basic understanding of what a collar does and how to prevent sore shoulders on your teams to various sizes for different sized animals.
The book is profusely illustrated; there are even original drawings by the author himself. New highlights have been added to the aged catalog images to better explain correct positioning and placements of harnesses and connection parts. Chapters take the reader from the most basic — “What Makes it a Work Harness?” — through all the parts from hame straps, chain binders to trace carriers to lines, spreaders and center rings. There are chapters on harness care and repair and even one on how to identify if a used harness is safe to use. The term most important here is unrepresented. As Miller describes in the chapter, “How do you tell if a used harness, a discovered and perhaps ‘unrepresented’ harness, is safe? And what do I mean by unrepresented? If you are lucky enough to purchase a secondhand harness from the teamster who has been using it, that person’s ability and reputation are excellent advantages to your determination. That stuff is ‘represented.’ If instead, you happen upon a pile of harness in the corner of a shop or barn and there is no one around to answer your stated or silent questions, I hope you know what you are looking at and how to make quick checks on its condition. That’s unrepresented.” Miller’s comments are only partially tongue-in-cheek as the chapter goes on to illustrate what to look for with “on-the-scene” photos from those corners of various shops and barns.
Beyond the fine design, technical completeness and obvious passion the author shares for all-things-working-horse-harness, one cannot look through this volume without feeling the obvious affection and respect Lynn Miller has for the working animals themselves, their proper treatment and ultimate comfort when working with them in the course of their daily lives. It is an effort to create a cohesive coupling of purpose, capability and competency, or as writer Thomas McGuane wrote, “Those who love horses are impelled by an ever-receding vision, some enchanted transformation through which the horse and rider become a third, much greater thing.” There is a hopeful, experiential and episodic excitement Miller shares in “The Harness Book” — pages filled with harnesses — but really timeless possibilities, reminding me of lines from a poem by the farmer and agrarian writer, Wendell Berry, titled simply, “Horses.”
And so I came to a team,
A pair of mares — sorrels with
white tails and manes, beautiful! —
to keep my sloping fields.
Going behind them, the reins
right over their backs as they stepped
their long strides, revived
again on my tongue the cries
of dead men in the living
fields. Now every move
answers what is still.
This work of love rhymes
living and dead. A dance
is what this plodding is.
A song, whatever is said.