Rural Heritage Tack Room

Treat Your Harness with TLC

by Mari Lintin

Keeping your draft horse or driving horse harness in tiptop shape gives your equines more enjoyment, makes the harness last longer, and helps you avoid a potentially disastrous situation due to a harness giving out at the worst possible moment. Since proper maintenance involves taking the harness apart and putting it back together, as a bonus you’ll become fully familiar with your harness and how it works.

Even if you have a set of harness adjusted for each horse and you never change the settings, periodically let out each strap and look for wear points. Straps that are always in the same hole—the quarter straps and back straps, for example—accumulate dirt underneath, which causes excessive wear.

Whether you use synthetic or leather, frequent cleaning is essential. If you use the harness daily, thoroughly clean it at least once a week. You'll need to take the harness apart, all apart.

A lot of people don’t like to take a bridle apart because they’re afraid they won’t remember how to put it back together. Well here’s a trick: take apart one side of the bridle at a time, clean it, then use the other half as a pattern to put it back together. Or keep an illustration handy. In a pinch, call your friendly harness shop. While you have the bridle apart, soak the bit to rid it of saliva so it won’t get crusty. This is a good time to inspect the bit for traces of blood, indicating the bit is too narrow or has rough spots requiring smoothing down.

At our harness shop we see a lot of heel chains we literally have to hacksaw off, because the bolts were never taken out of the sleeves. You can make your heel chains last a lot longer, and make them easier to remove, just by taking the bolts out and washing them once in a while. Take the hames off now and then, too, and give them a stiff wire brushing, then spray on some black enamel like Rustoleum to keep them covered.

Rotting starts in a leather harness underneath the britchen, between the buckles, and in all those little areas with folds and creases. These are also the highest stress points that tend to give out first, so keep an eye on them. The key to maintaining leather is to not let it mildew. If you throw the harness into the tack room all hot and sweaty and wet, it’s going to mildew fast. Even clean harness will mildew, if the air is damp. In your tack room you can keep something like Damprid to pull moisture out of the air. Damprid can pull out a couple of cups of water a week that would otherwise form mildew on your leather. A good idea is to keep harness in carpet-lined cases to seal out mildew.

Any leather parts that come into contact with the horse must be kept clean at all times. Otherwise the harness will chafe. To clean the harness, wash it with a stiff brush and hot soapy water. Murphy’s oil soap works wonderfully. It’s a nice mild cleansing soap that gets out all the dirt. I don’t care for saddle soap. It gets too sudsy, so you never know when your harness is clean. With Murphy’s oil soap, you can see when the dirt stops coming out.

After the leather is clean, treat it with either glycerine or Lexol leather conditioner. I like to use a mixture of the two. Adding a little Lexol to glycerine cuts the soapsuds, gets rid of residual acid sweat (which eats away at harness), leaves the harness nice and shiny, and keeps off dust. Pour approximately one tablespoon of Lexol onto a damp sponge, rub the sponge on the glycerine bar for a moment, then wipe the harness with the sponge.

When your harness is clean, put it out to dry. Leather is a porous hide. If you dry it close to a heat source, like a fire or a heater, you’ll literally bake the hide. A lot of people make the mistake of drying leather shoes close to the fire. Don’t do it with your harness.

You may, if you wish, apply Neatsfoot oil to well-maintained harness. I hesitate to recommend using oil, because I see too many folks dunk their harness in the oil. Since oil makes leather look dark, they assume the harness is clean. It is not. Oil is fine for reconditioning pores in the leather, but it won’t magically remove dirt.

The time to put oil to leather is when it’s damp dry—not completely dry or totally wet, but in between. You can put your harness in the sun to heat it up and loosen the pores just a little, so it’ll absorb the oil better, but don’t leave it in the sun for long or it will fry like a piece of bacon.

Excess drying causes leather to fracture. Since leather dries evenly all the way through, when you see tiny grainy splits, chances are real good the harness is dry clear through. The same is true of rotting. If you see rot on the outside, the harness is rotted throughout the entire piece.

Many owners of leather harness, when they see the leather start to fall apart, will rivet the harness together with pop rivets. Rust then spreads out from the rivet and eats up the harness. Rusting hastens rotting no matter what your harness is made of, so keep an eye on all metal contact points—heel chains, billet connectors, hames, etc. Or use stainless steel hardware.

Spotting wear is much easier in nylon than in leather, because nylon wears and frays from the outside in. Synthetic harness has a distinct advantage over leather in that you may wash it while it’s still on the horse. Be sure to get up under the backpad, behind the crown, and into all those other places where hair accumulates, causing rubbing and further hair loss on the horse. Contrary to widespread belief, accumulated hair, sweat, and dirt—not nylon—cause the chafing.

At our shop people will bring in a nylon harness and complain that it was real cheap and rubbed their horse raw. Chances are good the harness wasn’t faulty, only misadjusted. A britchen should never rub a horse raw. It shouldn’t have much contact with the horse at all. It should pull tight only when you’re braking and the weight of your load is resting on it. Otherwise it shouldn’t be snugged up against the horse. If it is, your quarter straps are too tight. If your quarter straps are too tight, you’re pulling your britchen in, and you’re pulling your horse’s legs up under him, throwing him off balance.

If your trace is wearing near your trace chains, you may have your lazy straps either up too high or down too low. The sole purpose of lazy straps is to hold the trace so the horse doesn’t step on it. Lazy straps aren’t meant to lift the trace up or hold it down. If the traces are wearing in this area, it’s a sure sign your lazy straps are too high or too low.

Nylon harness should be sewn at least in double layers; you don’t want single layers anywhere on your harness. All adjustment holes should have eyelets. All hardware should be of good quality, with no sharp edges. Use buckles rather than spring snaps. A lot of our customers, wisely, won’t use spring snaps at all. If your harness has snaps, a good time to change over to buckles, piece by piece, is when a snap breaks.

Parts made of Biothane belting can be cleaned with a little water. Then apply Armorall to keep off water spots. Biothane will last longer if Bio parts do not rub against other Bio parts. (Biothane is sometimes called "bioplastic" because it is made by the Bioplastics company.)

Every time you clean your harness, check it over. Take a good look at the stitching. Keep an especially close eye on the stitches near each piece of hardware. Repair loose stitches right away, before the situation gets worse. If your regular harnessmaker lives far off, take the harness to a local harness shop or maybe to a shoe shop. Nylon harness, like leather, should be taken apart once in a while. Undo all the buckles. While you have the harness apart, give each piece a stress test. Twist it and turn it and see if will break. Chances are, it’s going to break at the weakest part, which is at the hardware.

I know it’s hard to sit there with a broken harness in your hands and think, "I’ve just ripped up my harness." But consider this: would you rather have your harness break in your hands, or on your horse? If it breaks in your hands, it was going to break on the horse, anyway. So you haven’t done any damage. If your traces break from old age or accident or rotted stitches, replace them immediately. You may be able to mend other parts of the harness, but never compromise the integrity of your traces by stitching them back together and patching them up. The job they do is too important.

I worry about the condition of the collar before the traces, because a poor collar can severely damage a horse’s neck and shoulders and make him not want to pull. If the collar is lumpy and broken at the throat, it’s not comfortable for the horse. If he doesn’t like pushing into it, he’ll get balky.

Your collar is the number one part of your harness. Start out with a good collar and keep it in good shape, because it takes the majority of the work and is the foundation of your whole harness. Buying a good collar is money you should spend only once. Sure you can pick up collars at auction for $10 or $15, and that’s fine—if the leather is in good shape, and you use a thick pad underneath, and the stuffing isn’t coming out. Don’t expect to get the collar restuffed; few manufacturers will restuff a collar and do a good job.

A new collar comes with a tab at the fastener to hold it together. To open the collar, you have to cut the tab with a razor. Before cutting the tab, try slipping the collar over your horse’s head—flip the collar upside down and gently slip the widest part past the horse’s eyes. Some horses won’t tolerate having the collar put on this way, but if you can keep the collar together without cutting it, you will considerably extend its life. The thin part at the base of the collar is the weakest point. Avoid stressing that point, and your collar will last a lot longer. A collar pad wicks sweat away from the horse and also keeps sweat off the collar. It’s easier to scrub down a pad than a collar, and it’s cheaper to replace a $17 pad than a $140 collar.

Keep the collar pad clean at all times. Your horse will appreciate it. If you’re logging or doing intense farm work, throw pads over the rails once a week and hose them off. Soak them with soapy water, give them a good stiff brush cleaning, and hose them off again until the water runs clear. Then leave them in the sun to dry.

Fake fur pads can be washed in your washing machine. First scrape off all the loose hair. If you’re worried about the metal clips damaging your washer, tie the pads in a pillow case. Run them through the wash cycle, put them in the dryer at a normal short cycle. Toss in a couple of tennis balls to keep the pads fluffy.

All harness will eventually wear out. If you’re in the habit of always buckling and unbuckling from the same side of the horse, parts will wear out quicker. To keep them wearing evenly, occasionally turn straps around where you can. Switch your top and bottom hame straps, so you’re not always cranking down on one while the other just rests over the collar rim. Or use a hame fastener, which pullers like because it takes less time to adjust and offers more leverage, and you don’t have to worry about wearing out your bottom strap.

Your hame straps hold together the front end of your harness; if they go, there goes your whole harness. Replace a hame strap as often as is necessary. If you occasionally switch them, both straps will last longer, but you’ll have to replace both at once.

The belly band, because it’s located where the horse drips sweat onto it all day, is among the first pieces to go. Other parts that get a lot of sweat are the quarter straps and the combination strap, connecting your pole strap to your breast strap.

If you use a sidebacker harness, those sidebacker straps coming out your jack straps have to be kept tight to take the weight off the collar and shift it to the backpad. You’re always cranking down on those straps and they get a lot of wear. The rest of the harness—the spider, the back strap, the billet, and so forth—don’t get much stress and should last a long time, if you keep them clean, soft, and supple and keep the hardware in good shape.

Reconditioning a harness is cheaper than replacing the harness. Nylon is easy to recondition, because, except for a tug, pieces can be layered over and restitched. If your harness is leather, get an opinion from someone who’s used to working with hides. If you trust your harnessmaker, you can leave the reconditioning up to his or her discretion. Just say, "Replace what needs replacing, check the stitches, do whatever you think will make this harness safest." When you need a part replaced and you’re close to a harnessmaker, it’s a good idea to take in your whole harness for inspection. If you have to mail it in, be honest: "The rest of the harness looks just like this, what do you think?"

Replacing harness piece by piece is a quick fix that in the long run will cost you more than buying a whole new harness. If you’re changing over from leather to synthetic, you can certainly do it part by part and pay as you go, until eventually you have a new harness. Like any installment plan, it’s more expensive. But it works. To make sure the harness remains safe, replace the most work intensive pieces first.

As you replace pieces, try to go with stainless steel hardware, which you will buy only once. Stay away from solid brass, unless you’re willing to polish it every time the harness comes off the animal. If you let sweat eat away at the brass, it will literally take off coats of brass and eventually you won’t be able to bring it back to its original luster. Hose some of the sweat acid off your brass and you’ll have an easier time taking off that little bit of green. Chrome-coated brass is a good alternative that won’t tarnish. Remember: anything that rusts or tarnishes eats away at the layers of your harness.

A sturdy, well cared for harness should last from seven to 15 years, depending on how you use it. You’ll naturally get longer life out of a little buggy harness you use on weekends, than out of a logging harness you use every day. Longevity pretty much boils down to the integrity of the stitches that hold the harness together. Provided you keep leather from drying and cracking, the difference in longevity between leather and synthetic is about the same. So for the same amount of wear and tear, synthetic requires less maintenance.

Make it a habit to do your maintenance when the harness is fresh off the horse. As soon as you’re done putting the horse away, attend to your harness. Going over a team harness takes about half an hour for nylon, a little longer for leather. Over the long run, you’ll save time and money, because you’ll replace your harness less often.


Mari Lintin is a harnessmaker in Tennessee. This article appeared in The Evener 1997 issue of Rural Heritage.

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26 October 2011 last revision