If you’re new to the driving world, here are some insights from Montana clinician and trainer Doug “Doc” Hammill, D.V.M., on buying harness gear.
Hammill, featured in this month’s “Starting in Harness” horsemanship article, has spent nearly a decade teaching driving clinics at his remote Montana homestead. He’s also produced a series of videos on driving and working with harness horses for all types of ranch and farm work.
Leather is the traditional material for harnesses. Some quality synthetic materials are also available these days. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
“Leather (harness) is pretty heavy, so that can be a concern for some people,” Hammill says. “It’s a lot of weight to have to lift up onto a horse, especially if you’re using larger or draft horses. Keep in mind that metal spots and decorations on a harness will add a lot of weight.”
The advantage to leather is that is conforms to the shape of the horse and has a memory for that shape – aspects that aren’t always true of synthetic materials.
“Some of the new synthetics are closer to leather in this area, but I’ve seen some that are very stiff, with rough edges that can wear a hole in a horse’s skin. So if you buy a synthetic, it needs to be of good quality,” Hammill says. “One of the nice things about the synthetics is that they’re easy to maintain and clean. You can just turn a hose on the horse and the harness all at once to keep it clean.”
One of Hammill’s biggest concerns with current-day horse gear is that much of it is manufactured in foreign countries, by companies that aren’t always knowledgeable about their products.
“I see hames that are in no way built to take the stress of a pull, and spring snaps that can be very dangerous,” he says. “One thing I would caution people about is that a lot of lines hook onto the bit with spring snaps or other snaps. Most snaps aren’t safe for driving horses. Instead, I urge people to use lines that go through the bit ring and buckle on solidly.”
“I’m a bar-bit man myself,” Hammill says. “I’m sure that the main reason I use them is because Tom (Triplett, his stepfather) and Addie (Funk, and veteran horseman and mentor) both had a preference for bar bits.”
Although some bar bits are completely straight, Hammill prefers a bit that’s slightly curved – to go over the horse’s tongue.
“But snaffle bits are probably the most commonly used driving bits,” he admits. “I just feel like the bar bit sends a clearer message to the horse’s mouth.”
Hammill also warns that severe leverage bits are not for beginners. “Those bits have their place – mostly with large hitches – but should be used only by experienced horsemen.”
The most important aspect of a collar is how it fits the horse. There are two basic kinds of collars in use today: a conventional collar that buckles on top and an adjustable collar with buckles on each side.
“The conventional collar is basically a one-size collar,” Hammill says. “The adjustable collar is really a better option for most people today because it provides several different size options in one collar. This helps if you have a horse that gets fat during the year, or a horse that’s still growing.”
Fitting collars, according to Hammill, is an art. “Tom’s dad was probably the best I’ve ever known at it. People from all over the Flathead Valley (Montana) had him help fit their collars,” Hammill says. “It’s the type of thing that some people fool with endlessly to get it just right. And the worst part is that it can change from day to day as shoulders tone up or weight is gained or lost.”