Rural Heritage Tack Room

Jingle Bells
by Valvert Lucius Fox

Bells jingled in the winter quiet as the cutter swished over the thick snow. The cutter was old but well maintained and the horse was a high stepper—hard to say whether by inclination or agitation. The bells, or just the bells' own rhythm, were enough to keep a horse high with adrenaline or pride. The horse picked up his feet and put them down with great animation, causing the bells to send out their joyful music.

The driver was a crusty old New Englander from outside Boston (pronounced "Bastan" up thata way) who didn't care if anyone else heard the sound or not. He drew his own pleasure from the horse, cutter, bells, and cold air in his face. A good horse, the feel of leather lines in his hands, red mackinaw fighting off the chill.....he was at one with himself and the world.

At his side was his 12-year-old grandson Charles, who was filled with joy at being invited on the moonlit sleigh ride with the hard old man who awed him. Gramp professed that kids were to be seen and not heard. He was not one to waste words. When he did speak it was in short, clipped sentences delivered in heavy New England vernacular. His answers to Charles' questions were always succinct.

The bells sounded good to young Charles. He could almost taste their sweetness in the quiet cold. He was moved to make a comment on the "sleigh bells" and was more than taken aback at Gramp's quick retort.

"Ain' sleigh bells. They're jingle bells."

It was not an offered thought but a declaration that left no room for dispute. For that's exactly what they are—jingle bells. Charles learned it at an early age. Me, I didn't come upon this choice bit of intelligence until recently when my good friend Charles shared this story with me. I always thought "jingle bells" was merely the name of a song. It is not.

The term refers to round cast bells, each with a jinglet inside, as opposed to an open bell with the clapper inside or with several clappers hanging on the outside. Both kinds of bell have been used on horses, although in my experience the jingle bells are more prevalent. I know that open bells exist, but have never seen them in use with sleighs here in the mid-Atlantic area. Jingle bells are the usual bells you will find on harnesses and sleighs, and may be used in various ways to adorn horses.

A neck strap is sometimes referred to as either "neck bells" or "collar bells," the latter even though the bells don't attach to the collar. Instead they go around the neck in front of a neck collar or up the neck above a breast collar.

I have a string of neck bells that belonged to my grandfather, after whom I am named. The leather is 60" long and has 14 bells ranging in size from #5 to #14. Two #14s are at the top, with the bells reducing in size downward on both sides.

When ordering a neck strap, measure your horse's neck about 3" up from the neck collar—a Haflinger will certainly need a smaller string of neck bells than a Belgian. If you aren't sure what size you need, ask the folks who deal in jingle bells. They have a lot of expertise and are usually willing to share it with you.

A body strap, as the name implies, goes around the body or barrel of the horse just behind the saddle of the harness. It is better for your horse and your bells if you run these over the shafts. If you don't, the bells will fall between the shafts and the horse, gouging the horse when he makes turns and scrunching the bells against the shafts.

I have a string of body bells, too, that I got some years ago from the late Nutter D. Marvel. The strap measures 92" long and has 26 bells graduating in size from #1s on the bottom of each side to #16s at the top.

Rump straps attach to the back strap or turnback, half way between the saddle and the hip straps. I don't have one of these; it's on my want list. The one I have seen has two bells on each side: a #13 and a #10.

Saddle chimes are open bells, like half of a sphere, with a clapper. When it comes to saddle chimes I always think of Russia, where sleigh horses wear saddle chimes on their saddles or back pads. Sometimes the clapper is on the outside of the bell, but more often it is on the inside. Thinking back to the days of my youth, I recall saddle chimes being used by junk dealers in the cities as they made rounds with their brightly painted wagons, each pulled by a cob-sized pony.

Hip drops attach just like brasses and may have two or three bells on them, or may have a brass-and-bell combination.

Shaft chimes are usually half-sphere open bells with a clapper inside, mounted on steel straps that are screwed to the bottom of a tongue or under the shafts on both sides. To give a fuller, more musical sound they generally consist of four bells of graduated sizes.

If you want a whole crowd of bells on your horse, you may also attach them to face pieces, on martingales, and on the bridle rosettes—but you may have to have these pieces individually crafted.

The rich musical sound of jingle bells is due to the various sizes that emit various sounds.
Smaller bells make a higher-pitched tinkling sound, larger bells emit a deeper rumble.
Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Diameter 1 1/8" 1 1/4" 1 3/8" 1 1/2" 1 5/8" 1 3/4" 1 7/8" 2" 2 1/8" 2 1/4" 2 3/8" 2 1/2" 2 5/8" 2 3/4" 2 7/8"

Courtesy of Victoria Leather

Before you load down your horse with bells and set to, here's a thought: If your horse has never had a load of bells on him, he might not cotton to the idea right at first. If you load him with all manner of bells and hook him to your best cutter, you might arrive at where you're headed a lot quicker than you like or you just might not end up where you wanted to go.

It's a good idea, though, to bomb proof your horse by putting a passel of bells on him. Some friends and I were talking about bomb-proof horses the other day. One said she had a bomb proof horse she could do anything with, except one time...

To which another responded, "All horses are bomb proof, except when they ain't...."

That remark reminded me of some pretty good carriage horses that got boogered by bells one day at a big invitational drive. About 35 carriages were in attendance. The last carriage belonged to a new guy on his first drive. First drive for his horse, too. It was the last for them both, as they didn't get invited back.

Now this chap had a nice set of bells, belly band as I recall. He was right proud of those bells and thought it would be a good idea if he put the bells on his horse to get him used to them. So there he was with his horse all decked out, making music.

All the rest of those horses, mind you, were old hands at this carriage drive business. They were supposed to be bomb proof. Maybe they were. If so, they were some kind of music critics showing their displeasure with the melodic menace at their rear. In the words of Elvis, they were all shook up. Some did the jitterbug, some the Tennessee waltz. All were wall eyed and unnerved, and paid more attention to the racket going on behind them than to where they were going or the folks who were attempting to drive them.

So you might not want to wait until your bomb-proof horse blows up on bells. Beat him to the punch—bell-proof him to better bomb-proof him. Get yourself a string of bells and get him used to them, so that both of you can enjoy the sound of music.

My suggestion is to harness your horse, load him up with the bells, and work him in the round pen to let him get used to the sound. If you don't have a round pen longe him or hook him to a stoneboat before putting him to that beautiful cutter. Your caballo won't take long to start liking the sound and rhythm of the bells.

You won't take long to get to liking them, either. The jingling of bells will lift your worries away. Before you know it, you will be filled with happiness and joy at the musical sound of jingle bells.


Val Fox works Belgians on his farm near Lincoln City, Delaware. This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Rural Heritage.

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26 October 2011 last revision