Rural Heritage Tack Room

D-Ring Harness
by Valvert Lucius Fox

Some folks call it the Yankee D-ring harness. Others call it the New England D-ring harness. Me? I call it the best harness I ever used.

By way of comparison, I have used the standard team harness, also called the western harness. I have used the Yankee brichen harness, which has a lot to be said for it even though it looks strange to the uninitiated eye. I have used the sidebacker harness, which in principle works much like the D-ring harness. They all get the job done, but they don't incorporate all of the advantages found in the D-ring harness.

The D-ring harness maintains the proper line of draft in all manner of terrain and situations. Maintaining the proper angle of the trace in relation to the shoulder and hames alleviates a lot of sore shoulders. The ideal angle is 90 degrees. In this configuration the collar pulls straight on the shoulders—neither being pulled up or down, nor rocking from one position to another. Such extraneous movement will sore up shoulders when you are engaged in heavy work.

This draft thing enters into the equation in situations where you might be working or logging in broken or hilly country. When the horses start up a hill, while the load is still going down the reverse hill, the draft on a standard team harness will be high. In a steep gully the traces could reach as high as the horses' hips, which would tend to pull the collar up; could even choke the horses for the time they are in that position.

The same situation occurs if you are called on to cap the tongue (hook a second team to the tongue cap in front of another team) to help move a heavy wagon or load that a single team cannot handle. The tongue will normally be around 31" above the ground, which puts your doubletree that high and raises your draft.

Pulling a work sled places the draft low. Lots of other situations occur where the draft could change, but you get the idea.

How does the D-ring harness overcome this problem? Pretty simple. Study this issue's centerfold and you will see that the front trace comes from the hames to the D-ring. The back pad and belly band also connect to the D-ring. This configuration maintains the angle of the front trace or draft, regardless of whether the rear trace is high, low, or level. No other harness has the great strength of the D-ring in maintaining the draft under a heavy pull.

The D-ring harness is easy to put on the horse. The only part of the harness that goes under the horse is the belly band. Everything else goes over the top. Put it on the horse's back, fasten the hames and the belly band, and you're done. No pole strap or quarter straps to fasten underneath or to get coated with crud as your horse sweats.

The D-ring harness is much easier and quicker to adjust than other harness. Anyone who has struggled to adjust the usual breast strap's three layers of stiff leather or nylon can appreciate this feature. A breast strap has to be adjusted to maintain the 31" height of the tongue cap called for on most implements. Not much adjustment is required to cause a change in the height of a tongue. A tongue that is an inch or two shorter or an inch or two longer will affect the height enough to require a change. A lot of folk don't fool with it. The result is neck sores. I have seen the failure to make this adjustment result in big open wounds under the cap of the collar.

With the D-ring harness it is simple to adjust the neck straps and front sidebacker straps to bring the tongue to the 31" height. The four buckles adjust quite easily; it takes only time. No cussin' involved. And your team will appreciate the little rest they get while you're doing it.

The D-ring harness has segregated parts, making them more easily replaced when worn or broken. Look again at the centerfold. You can see that all the parts tie into the D-ring. Because of this configuration, each part is short or small. When time comes to replace something, you have a smaller repair to make. You would not have to replace an entire trace, but only the portion that needed replacement. Repairs are easier and less expensive.

The weight of a heavy tongued implement like a mower is not carried only by the horse's neck. This point really sets the D-ring harness apart from all the rest, as it eases the tongue weight load from the horse's neck. Only because of the D-ring can it do this. Properly adjusted, the front sidebacker straps are held under tension by the back trace. The front sidebacker straps are thus pulled tight between the neck yoke and the evener, transferring a goodly amount of tongue weight to the back pad through the D-ring.

Yes, some of the weight is still carried on the neck through the neck straps, fastened as they are to the hames. The rest of the weight is placed on the horse's back, which is much stronger than the neck. When your horses are held snugly in place by the traces and the front sidebacker straps, the D-ring can transfer this weight to the back pad. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me.

The D-ring harness dampens tongue slap. The tension between the front sidebacker straps and the back trace also helps dampen and control tongue slap. Tongue slap can come from any kind of tongued implement, whether it be a forecart, a logging arch, a cultivator, or a wagon. The rougher the ground you are working on the worse the slap. The roller bearings in some fifth wheel wagon assemblies move so easily they contribute to tongue slap.

Rather than have tongue slap jerk your horse around by the neck all day, as does the configuration of the standard harness, the D-ring harness transfers this shock to the horse's shoulders, which are a lot stronger and able to take it. Having this constant pushing and shoving placed on the shoulders rather than on the neck increases your horse's usable strength and endurance.

The sidebacker configuration of the D-ring harness facilitates the backing of heavy loads. The ability to back heavy loads should be self evident as you look at the centerfold. The sidebacker straps run straight from the brichen to the jockey yoke, giving a direct pull. A sharp mathematician might figure out how much power is lost through the standard harness, where the pull goes from the brichen to the quarter straps to the pole strap to the breast strap. As for me, I don't have to be hit aside the head with a chunk of stovewood. I can see that more power is delivered along a straight line from the brichen to the jockey yoke.

So what do you do if you want to hook a horse with a D-ring harness beside a horse wearing a standard harness? Nothing to it. Just hook him up alongside the other horse. As long as you have the jockey (or splinter) yoke attached to your D-ring harness so you can hook to the neck yoke, you're set to go. Any small differences between the breast strap on the one horse and the jockey yoke on the other may be overcome by adjusting the front sidebacker straps and/or neck straps on the D-ring harness or the heel chains on either harness. When the D-ring harness is properly adjusted the brichen (sometimes call the britchmans in my part of the country) is free of pressure. You should be able to at least slide your hand between you horse and the brichen. If your horse strings his step out behind, you may want the brichen a bit looser.

The only bad point to this harness becomes apparent if you are foolish enough to leave home without your jockey yokes. I did that once. Embarrassing situation, to say the least. Let me tell you all about it now, while you can't see my red face.

I was engaged to transport a wedding party in my hitch wagon. While I was harnessing, my cousin Lucius Webb stopped by for a visit. He offered to give me a hand and I gladly assented. Lucius had never before seen a D-ring harness. Didn't know anything about jockey yokes, and didn't put them on. I didn't check.

In a hurry, I loaded the horses without giving them a good looking over because I am so used to my righthand man Aaron Zimmerman having everything as it should be. Mistake. Always do the pre-flight check yourself. That's what I learned that day.

When I arrived at the church and went to hook up the neck yoke, to my great consternation I had no jockey yokes to hook to. Now this is not a neat situation, but it's better than showing up without a neck yoke. Anyway, I lengthened the front sidebacker straps, which allowed me to hook both jack snaps of each harness into the respective neck yoke rings. It worked, and nobody at the wedding knew anything was amiss. I would not want to use this arrangement over a long period of time, however, for the straps being drawn together in front of the horse would chafe the points of the shoulders.

The moral of this story is, of course, to always remember to fasten those jockey yokes right into the harness each time you harness up. Every time. In that respect jockey yokes have something in common with American Express cards: don't leave home without them.

Well, there you have it. The Yankee D-ring harness is loaded with advantages. Haven't found one bad point in it, if you discount my own oversight of not hooking in those jockey yokes that one time. And, I assure you, it will never happen again.

If I needed another suit of team harness today I would go right back to the same trough for another drink—I'd order another suit of New England D-ring harness from the fine folks at Stitch 'n Hitch.

Study the design. Ponder on the advantages. Likely you'll want to order up a suit for your own team. If you do, I know you will be as happy with it as I am. And remember: it's not just for Yankees.


Val Fox works Belgians on his farm near Lincoln City, Delaware. This article appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Rural Heritage.

In D-Ring: Different but Not Difficult Val offers details on how to adjust the D-ring harness.

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16 April 2012 last revision