Harness and Tack

D–Ring Harness: Different not Difficult
(adjusting the d-ring harness)

by Valvert Lucius Fox

"After reading the article on the D–Ring harness and studying the centerfold in the Summer 1999 issue of RURAL HERITAGE, we have decided to get a set for our team," says Fred Hoefnagel of Oregon. "I was wondering if you have additional information on the D–Ring harness, including information on fitting and adjusting it."

Adjusting the D–Ring harness is really pretty simple, but then it is different. It has to be, because the D–Ring is a different style of harness. The idea is to surround the horse with the harness so he is comfortable, yet contained within the parameters of the geometric design of the constraint wherein the horse brings to bear his strength for the accomplishment of work. Sound impressive?

The point is that, properly fitted in the D–Ring harness, the horse is held snug fore, aft, and on both sides, more so than with other harnesses. We therefore have to adjust the D–Ring harness all the way around the horse, which is a different concept than with adjusting the more common western style harness. The adjustment is pretty easy, though, what with all the buckles available for the purpose.

Only one strap of the D–Ring harness goes under the horse. 'Most everything important goes around the horse. He is surrounded in harness, which places all the straps that need to be adjusted right there, handy.

I find it necessary to fine tune the adjustments every time I put my horses to a different implement or wagon, because the respective poles vary in length. Even if it's only a few inches, the variance in length makes a difference in the fit of the harness. Usually when you shorten or lengthen the heel chains you change the height of the tongue or pole, which results in a need to shorten or lengthen the neck straps holding the jockey or splinter yokes.

Most implements call for a height of 31" for the tongue cap. In securing this 31" height, taking up or letting out the neck strap is easy because it has a buckle. No double thickness of material is there to make adjustment difficult, like you have with the breast strap on a western harness. I carry a small tape measure in my pocket so I can check the pole height each time I hook to a different implement.

Another remedy made easy by the ready adjustment of the neck strap is of the yoke when one horse is a bit taller than the other. This adjustment is more important than many folks imagine. Envision the last time you were on the low end of a load going upstairs. Who was carrying all the weight? The low man on the load, of course. Where the neck yoke is concerned, the smaller horse is on the low end. Being smaller, he doesn't need to carry an extra load. Such a situation can cause sore necks. Keep the neck yoke level by making the necessary arrangement with the neck straps.

That adjustment is directly tied to the length of the heel chains, so let's consider them for a moment. I like the heel chains on my team to be fairly snug. Not tight, but snug—about one chainlink from tight. With snug heel chains the team can ease back at a standstill and take pressure off their necks. The neck straps will pull the entire collar forward a little and relieve pressure while allowing a bit of air to reach the shoulders—a great help for hard working horses on really hot days.

Another reason I like the heel chains a bit snug is that when I call on the horses to move, they can lean forward into the collar as they begin to take up the weight of the load. If the heel chains have much slack the team can begin moving before they hit the weight of the load. When that happens they indeed do hit the weight of the load with their shoulders. Shoulders can be bruised. Sore necks can develop.

Although not a big concern here in the flat lands of Delaware, loose heel chains allow a load to run up on the horses when they're going downhill or stopping, and that tends to spook young horses. It may also pose a problem for mature teams in handling or stopping a load, because the load gets a running start before the horses are in a position to stop it or hold it back. Only a link or two of extra slack is needed to allow momentum to build up, adding to the felt weight of the load.

In extreme cases the slack in heel chains may be sufficient to allow the neck yoke ring to slide off the pole cap. Then the pole falls to the ground. At that point you might quickly inquire of anyone within hailing distance if they ever witnessed a bad wreck, because they sure enough could right here.

The adjustments of heel chains and neck straps might affect adjustment of the front sidebacker strap, but not usually. As much as possible, you want to keep this strap horizontal to the ground. Once in a while, if you're hooking to something with a tongue that's way too long, you will have to let this strap out. But not often. Just remember to keep it horizontal.

This leads us back to the D–Ring itself. Adjust it for height according to the draft coming off the collar. The draft should be 90 degrees from the collar, and the angle of the collar is dictated by the angle of the horse's shoulder. Adjust the height of the D–Ring by shortening or lengthening the backpad billets so the front trace is roughly 90 degrees from the collar.

The angle of the rear trace or tug varies according to the load you are hooked to, as well as how you are hooked to it. The angle also varies up and down if you are in hill country, especially where you encounter steep draws. But the proper draft will be maintained because the front trace or tug is connected to the D–Ring.

Strive, again, to keep the rear sidebacker straps horizontal to the ground. This horizontal adjustment is made by raising or lowering the spider straps, which also determine where your brichen hangs. I once heard Virginia horse logger Jason Rutledge say brichens are best maintained halfway between dock and hock. Works for me. Couldn't put it any better.

On my off horse Max I generally adjust the rear-most spider strap one hole low, allowing the brichen to hang a bit lower than the level of the rear sidebacker strap. I have a good reason for doing this: Max needs to be checked up. Otherwise he will get his head down too far. Sometimes it looks like he needs a roller skate on his nose to keep his chin from dragging on the ground. When he does hang his head he changes the draft of his collar and promotes an uneven—almost rocking action—of the collar. That's a sore-shoulder-and-neck problem in the making. Check his head up and the collar lays on his shoulders as it should. Checking the head up gives better response to the bit as well—for all horses.

But getting back to Max's brichen—as he pushes his head forward and down against the check, over time the brichen pulls up under his tail, where it is of no value at all. How does he do that? The check rein is coupled to the short check, which is connected to the rump ring, which is connected to the spider, which is connected to the brichen. (I was gonna make a song out of this, but someone beat me to it with the head bone and neck bone.) When Max's head goes forward and down against the pressure of the check rein it pulls up the rump ring and hip straps and brichen.

The moral is that you have to make things work for you in all these harness adjustments. But you still need to make adjustments according to the principles set forth here, or you cause your horse to work against the harness and not with it.

The only thing left to examine on our harness is the back straps, which attach to the rump ring and go up through the pad bridge on the back pad, then to the ring on the hames. The purpose of these straps is to keep the top of the collar from rolling forward to put pressure on the point of the horse's shoulder. The straps cannot be real tight, but should not be unduly loose. Perhaps one hole from tight on both sides. Tighten too much and you will pull the rump ring farther forward than it needs to be.

Well, that's all there is to adjusting the D–Ring harness. It's easy, because all the buckles are right at hand. The adjustments take less time to do than to read about. Keep in mind the principles behind these adjustments and you will be able to work out the fine tuning on your own horses. Just remember, the D–Ring harness is different, but not difficult.

D–Ring Harness illustration available for printing.

rh horse logo

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

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