2009-05-30 / Columnists

Variety of Horse Collars Are Designed For Different Purposes

by Candice C. Dunnigan

Two draft horses named Ty and John were hitched to a post on Main Street the other day. Seeing the pair placidly standing there reminded me that perhaps the most characteristic thing about a draft horse on Mackinac Island is that he is seen in harness. Draft horses are awaiting freight on the dock and the taxi horses, their passengers. For many, this is the first time they've ever seen real live horses in harness. People see these animals in front of a carriage, with all their straps and collars. Actually it's the humble horse collar that is perhaps the most remarkable thing about horses in transportation, and very few individuals know anything about how important the horse collar is in the equine world.

It turns out the horse collar is really the invention that did the trick for making the weight-bearing world of a horse tons (pardon the pun) easier to manage and pull. Prior to their creation, horses as well as oxen were strapped with a throat-girth type of harness. These animals pulled using creations that had flat straps across their necks and chest with the load attached at the top of their necks, similar to a yoke. The straps would pull against a horse's neck and trachea, which restricted its breathing, and consequently its pulling power. The yoke pressed against a horse's windpipe. Oxen, which are built differently than horses, could work well in a yoke, but not horses, for they are built so much differently. A horse collar, instead of a yoke, provides more than 50% of foot poundage per second than oxen because of their greater speed, and their endurance in being able to work longer each day.

Draft horses Ty and John on Main Street. Draft horses Ty and John on Main Street. The first harness controls for horses were breast-strap affairs in which the shafts of the chariot, or cart, were attached to a surcingle (girth) around the belly of a horse. This allowed a horse to drag something behind it -- to pull it along, but not really push it forward. The horse collar allowed the horse to push the load, making the difference with ever so much more efficiency.

The horse collar was first developed in China, of all places, in the 5th century AD. It made its way via trade routes into Europe during the 8th century. At that time horses, especially the coldblooded stout drafts, were replacing oxen. The horse collar actually played a pivotal role in the economic success of agriculture, for it improved the ability to farm.

A horse collar is not a circular piece of equipment, and if one looks closely and critically at the horses in draft on Mackinac Island, one can see the various types in use here. Collars are padded affairs in somewhat the shape of a keyhole. They also have names such as the "Kay Collar" and "Sweeny" (Quarter Sweeny, Half Sweeny, and Full Sweeny). The aforementioned refers to the size of the opening for the horse's head. A collar, such as a Full Sweeny, is narrow at the top and very wide at the bottom area, near the horse's front shoulders. An item such as a Full Face collar, has the least amount of shape to it. Some collars just fit over the animal's head, while most have a leather and brass buckle that can be adjusted at the top of the collar. The Kay collars are used more for driving horses. If you see the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours hackney teams in harness, they will be wearing Kay collars. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horses, taxis, and Mackinac Island Service Company teams will be sporting Sweenys.

The horse collar supports a pair of curved metal or wooden pieces called hames, with which the traces of harness are attached. Some hames are high and showy; these can be found on the teams for Grand Hotel omnibuses. Leather or metal rigging, loops, and buckles attach the hames to the collar itself.

Horse collars are still made these days. Many Amish people still produce them in traditional patterns. The collars are made of good leather and are padded inside, usually with straw or horsehair, and sometimes wool. The better padded the collar, the longer its durability and better comfort for the animal. Some collars, such as the Irish collar, are also padded with cloth, such as a felt or flannel. A horse collar will be padded more heavily if it will carry metal hames. The collar fits a horse neither too snugly nor loosely. If it's ill-fitting, it can chafe. Being able to fit a human hand (four fingers and palm) flat under the collar resting in the slope of the neck to shoulders of the horse should approximately indicate the proper size.

Back in 1910, a French cavalry officer, Lefebvre des Noettes, did experimental comparisons with draft horses. He used the ancient-style throat and girth harness attachments, the trace and breast harness of medieval times, and the early padded collar harness with hames. In his findings, he reported that a team aided by traction using the throat and girth were limited to pull 1,100 pounds, about half a ton. One single horse in a collar and hames pulled weight well more than 1.5 tons.

Mackinac Island Carriage Tours estimates it has several hundred horse collars in all shapes and sizes. Many of these collars have been around for years and are still serviceable. The company regularly has to replace them, and uses many draft horse supply distributors in southern Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.

The next time you look at a horse in harness, remember that it is the collar that has made all the difference in the world.

Candice D. Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and Mackinac Horsemen's Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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