Fitting Carriage Driving Harness

Fitting your horse’s driving harness correctly is one of the most important things in carriage driving as ill-fitting harnesses can not only hurt your horse but it can cause a serious accident.

In This Article:

1. How to fit a horse's driving bridle

2. How to fit a horse's driving breastplate

3. How to fit a horse's driving saddle

4. Fitting a horse's backstrap and crupper

5. How to fit the breeching of a driving harness

6. How to fit the traces of a driving harness

7. How to fit the reins of a driving harness


How To Fit a Horse’s Driving Bridle

A correctly fitting driving bridle is critical in carriage driving and there are a few important things to note which differ from a ridden bridle. Most notably a driving bridle has blinkers which are designed to prevent the horse from panicking and curb his natural flight response when attached to a carriage. The blinker must be fitted at a height which places the middle of the eye level with the middle of the blinker. The blinker stays should be adjusted so that the blinkers are open enough that they do not touch the eyelashes or irritate the eye.

Next, the cheek pieces should be adjusted so that the blinker cannot gape away from the side of the face when a contact is taken on the reins. If this were to happen it would allow the horse to catch a glimpse of the carriage following it and it may panic. Even a horse that has accepted the carriage behind it in an open bridle should become accustomed to wearing blinkers. This is because if a horse is spooked, it’s over riding natural instinct to run away from what is following it can kick in. This means that even though it may not have been the carriage which spooked the horse, the site of it continuing to “chase” may cause the horse to continue running even when the frightening object has long gone.

The headpiece of the driving bridle is notably wider and generally more padded than on a ridden bridle. The reason for this is that a driving bridle is considerably heavier and therefore a wider headpiece is required to distribute the weight over a larger area. This extra width can cause some problems with ponies with small heads where there is not much room. If your pony has small ears then it may be possible for the pony to shake the bridle off, especially given its extra weight. As an extra precaution in these cases, it is useful to take a portion of the mane and a portion of the forelock and plait this over the headpiece, thus making it nearly impossible for the pony to shake it off. A gullet strap can also be used to further prevent the bridle from coming off

The throatlash on a driving bridle is fitted much more tightly than a ridden bridle, again to prevent the heavier bridle from being shaken off. You must still be able to comfortably place at least two fingers inside the throatlash and it must never be so tight as to restrict the horse’s breathing or ability to flex at the poll.

The noseband serves a much more important purpose in driving and it is very important that this is fitted correctly. It is responsible for helping to keep the cheek pieces against the face and prevent gaping at the blinkers which may allow the horse to see the carriage behind it. On a Zilco driving bridle, there are noseband hangers inside the cheek pieces and the noseband should pass through these. On more traditional styles of bridle, the noseband may pass through the cheek pieces. However, it is fitted it is vital that it integrates with the cheek pieces and that it is fitted tightly enough to hold the cheek pieces together.

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How To Fit a Horse’s Driving Breastplate

The breastplate on your horse’s driving harness is responsible for pulling the carriage. It should be broad and well padded to distribute the weight as much as possible. If there is not enough padding this can be improved with the use of Harness Pads. The height of the breastplate is adjusted using the wither strap and this should be set at a height which does not rub on the point of shoulder yet it leaves room at the windpipe. A good quality driving breastplate should also have two straps on the wither strap so that if one were to fail for any reason then the other would keep the breastplate up long enough for someone to get to the horse’s head and to take the horse out of the vehicle.

If the breastplate is too low it may rub on the point of the shoulder which can make the horse very sore very quickly. If it is set too high it may restrict the breathing by impeding on the windpipe. If the wither strap were to fail then the breastplate would slip down below the chest making it nearly impossible for the horse to hold the carriage.

Too low, rubbing on point of shoulder

Too high restricting airway

Modern Zilco Harness often has a false martingale which is attached to the middle of the breastplate and passes between the horse’s front legs to clip onto the girth. This helps to keep the breastplate in the correct place but is not essential. A retainer strap may also be used which is attached to the centre of the wither strap of the breastplate and clips to a dee on the front of the driving saddle. Again this is to help keep the breastplate in position and prevent the wither strap from sliding forwards, it is also not essential.

The breastplate also contains rings for the reins to pass through.

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How To Fit a Horse’s Driving Saddle

The driving saddle acts almost as an anchor for the other parts of the harness and supports the tugs which in turn support the shafts on a single turnout. A driving saddle does not carry much weight and therefore is considerably narrower than a riding saddle but it still may be advantageous to use a saddle pad in some cases. The saddle is secured with a girth which does not need to be as tight as a ridden girth but still should prevent the saddle from being displaced. Care should be taken to ensure that there is no pressure on the wither at any time. The backband of the saddle supports the tugs and these can be adjusted up or down to ensure the shafts are in the correct position. This is more important when using a two-wheeled vehicle as the tug height should be such that the carriage floor is horizontal. A bellyband is used to keep the tugs from rising and passes under the belly of the horse, usually through a large keeper on the centre of the girth. This does not need to be tight but should not be slack enough to allow lift in the tugs. If the bellyband is not done up then when the horse moves off a two-wheeled vehicle could tip back dangerously as the shafts rise within the tugs. When the horse is moving a slack bellyband would allow the shafts of any vehicle to bounce around uncomfortably. The terrets on the saddle are also required to pass the reins through.

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Fitting a Horse’s Backstrap and Crupper

The backstrap runs along the horse’s back and attaches to the driving saddle at one end and to a crupper at the other end. The crupper passes under the horse’s tail and enables the backstrap to act as a support to the saddle preventing it from being pushed forward. This is important as the shafts contain tug stops which come in various styles but fundamentally they prevent the shafts from running forward through the tugs. This is a secondary braking system for the carriage and whilst the breeching should be adjusted such that they do not come into play, they will still activate on occasion. This may push the saddle forward and so the crupper prevents this from happening. The second role of the back strap is to act as an anchor for the hip straps which pass through it and support the breeching seat. It should be possible to put a hand’s width between the horse’s back and the backstrap.

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How To Fit the Breeching of a Driving Harness

The breeching is the brakes of the carriage. A wide comfortable strap passes around the horse’s bottom supported by one or two hip straps which pass over the horse’s back and are held in the correct position by the back strap. The breeching seat is then connected to the carriage via breeching straps. Thus when the carriage runs forward either downhill or when stopping, it tightens the breeching seat around the horse’s bottom and it can brace against this to hold the carriage back. When fitted correctly it should be impossible for the carriage to run into the horse from behind. Correct adjustment of the breeching straps should ensure that the carriage can’t come forward far enough for the tugs to come off the front of the driving saddle. if this were to happen it means that the braking is being done by the tug stops not the breeching and this is a far less effective form of braking and very uncomfortable for the horse. When the horse is stood in draft, ie. the traces are taught, it should be possible to place a hands width between the horse and the breeching seat as it should not interfere with the free movement of the horse’s hind legs when in work.

Breeching seat too low putting the weight on the weak part of the leg

Too high, danger of slipping under the tail

The height of the breeching seat is also critical and this is adjusted via the hip straps. If the breeching is too low then the weight is being placed against the weaker part of the horse’s leg and there is a real danger of his legs being literally swept out from under him. If it is adjusted too high then there is a very high possibility that the breeching seat could come over the point of the buttock and then slide up and under the tail. This would be so painful for the horse that even the steadiest of horses would almost certainly run on to get away from the discomfort. Braking in this instance would be impossible for the horse and could cause bucking and kicking as well.

It is normal to have trace carriers on the breeching seat as well which serve to hold the traces up when out of draft, ie. whenever the horse is not actually pulling, going downhill or stopping. This helps to prevent a horse from getting a leg over the trace which can cause an accident. A very useful addition to your breeching is the use of parrot clips, sold as standard with most of the Zilco harnesses. These are a super quick release system which allows rapid attachment and release of the breeching straps without fuss. The parrot clips are put onto the breeching straps which are then attached to the carriage. The clip portion can then be used to attach the straps to the ring on the breeching seat. These should always be used on the breeching ring and not clipped onto the shafts this is because the breeching straps must pass right around the shaft and through the dee and not just onto the dee on the shaft as it puts too much pressure on a welded joint.

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How To Fit the Traces of a Driving Harness

The traces connect to the breastplate either by a buckle or quick release system. The other end attaches to the vehicle passing only through the trace carriers on the breeching. There must be a clear and unhindered path from breastplate to carriage. At the carriage end, you may have a variety of fixtures depending on your vehicle. If you are using a breastplate, as apposed to a full collar, you must have a swingle tree. This is a bar that is able to pivot from a single central point allowing movement in line with the horse’s shoulders. A horse must never be driven in a breastplate without a swingle tree in place as his shoulders will be rubbed raw or bruised very quickly.

The trace length should be adjusted such that when in draft the tugs remain in the centre of the driving saddle and do not fall behind or are not pulled in front. The aim is to have the tugs as close to the centre of the driving saddle at all times between adjustment of the breeching and the traces.

Connection of the traces to your carriage depends entirely on the fittings on your carriage. If you have traditional pig tails then you can use the slot in the trace end to attach or you can make a quick release fitting by using a Snap Shackle for Curl Hooks providing you have a ring on the end of the trace to attach the shackle. If you have posts then you will need a Snap Shackle for Roller Bolts. Finally and probably most commonly you may have a closed loop which requires the use of Snap Shackles and it requires that you have a Dee at the end of your trace.

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How To Fit the Reins of a Driving Harness

The reins should pass from the horse’s bit, through the rings on the neck strap of the breastplate, through the terrets on the saddle and to the driver’s hands in the carriage. They should be long enough for the driver to sit comfortably without the need to lean forward and preferably with enough extra for the driver to sit on the end to keep it from falling through the floor of the carriage. A rein retainer can be used to help prevent an accident in the event a rein is dropped

If you have found this article useful you may like some of the other articles in the  Driving Information  section

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1 comment

  • David Taylor

    Hi – nice blogs (all three). Although the conventional advice regarding the potential risk of having the breastplate too high is that it compresses and restricts the airway I am not sure that is true. The trachea has cartilage rings and is relatively robust and I suspect that in truth it is compression of the jugular which would restrict venous return and have an effect on blood circulation and blood pressure in the brain and a resulting faint. Same outcome so rather an academic point. Hopefully see you sometime this year driving somewhere. Should be at Ashfields national just up the road from us next week. Keep well

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