Tag Archives: harness

Cleaning Harness – Museum edition

Q) We have a lot of good harness in our museum collection, but no member of the staff really knows anything about how to care for it properly. Can you help?

A) We recently asked Gerry Glazier, who has cleaned the harness here at the CAA office as well as for several museums, what he uses. He recommends Bienenwachs Lederfit-Oel, a beeswax oil from Germany that many tack stores carry, but added that “any quality leather conditioner” can be used. We’d also like to share tips and hints that Russ Fagan shared with the CAA. Mr. Fagan was a harness maker of long experience.

Harness and saddlery keep in military stores for long periods were given a heavy dressing of “dubbin” before being packed away. This dubbin was made from pure tallow and neatsfoot oil in the proportions of three to one, by weight. A small amount of beeswax was also added sometimes. Leather treated like this was difficult to polish before all the dubbin had been removed from the surface. Dubbin should not be applied to patent leather, but it could be used on the inside surfaces of straps on harness stored away.

Some Hints For The Care and Maintenance of Harness by Russ Fagan
A good carriage and well-trained horse can offer good sport and a lot of pleasure, but even the best whip cannot prevent an accident if the harness is weak and unsafe.

General Care

State Harness
David Saunders did a fantastic job of cleaning the State Harness owned by Gloria Austin prior to the 2017 CAA Conference. Each piece of harness was taken apart and cleaned individually.
A lot of old harness is used these days, and it should be cared for and inspected regularly to prevent accidents.

A good way to keep harness soft and strong is to wash it with Ivory or Castile soap and warm, but not hot, water, scrubbing well to remove sweat and dirt. Afterwards, be sure to hang it straight, or lay it out, to dry away from sun or heat. After it is dry, apply a good lubricating dressing, preferably one made from animal oils and fats. Let this penetrate thoroughly, then rub in black paste saddle soap or yellow soap for russet harness or reins. This should be done two or three times a year, but the harness should be cleaned after every use, using a damp sponge and glycerine saddle soap, to remove sweat or mud. More frequent applications may be necessary if the harness is used often, and especially for those parts that are most exposed to sweat.

Metal hardware should also be cleaned after every use. Brass tarnishes very quickly when exposed to sweat and the dust from horses’ coats. If it is rubbed thoroughly with a clean cloth immediately after it is taken off the horse, it will be easier to polish later. (Editor’s note: Some people spray a little Endust on the cloth first, or even directly on the brass, which seems to help with this task.)

Modern patent leather is cleaned with water and dried with a soft cloth.

When a high polish is wanted on the harness for shows or special occasions, a good paste shoe polish should be used. Any accumulated polish should be scrubbed off after the show season and the leather fed. If this is not done the surface of the leather will dry and flake because of the build-up of wax.

Examination of Worn Parts
The harness should be checked each time it is used, and weak places noted for repair or replacement.

The bridle, because it is light and subject to the heat and sweat of the horse’s head, is often the first to show wear. Inspect the crown billets, and the bit billets, for wear and tears. The cheeks, at the top buckle, and just below the winker, are trouble spots.

On pair harness, the pole-straps (pole-pieces) are often left on the pole and, not consequently, do not get cleaned with the harness. As they control the vehicle, it is important that they be strong and safe. The leather center of a neck-yoke can be dangerous if allowed to become hard and dry. This weak condition is often hidden by a coat of paint.

The bit billets at the end of the reins wear through use and may also get chewed. These should be watched, as also should the body of pair reins where the coupling reins (inside cheeks) buckle in; this part takes a lot of strain and needs extra care.

The breastplate (or choke-strap or false martingale) gets a lot of heat and sweat where it passes between the horse’s legs, and, with harness that has the breeching attached to the center of the girth, the breastplate has to play a part in holding back the carriage. It needs to be kept in sound, supple condition with extra feeding.

Carriage and Harness Care
Carriage and Harness Care, part of the CAA Guide to Carriage Turnout and Appointments, is available for purchase through the CAA. Topics include dust, heat and humidity, care of wicker, and the cleaning of carriages.
On single harness, the backband (or shaft bearer) should get special attention and, if it is of the sliding type, be sure to get to the center portion. Shaft tugs, whether round, French or Tilbury, get a lot of wear in use and need care.

All styles of single harness have some sort of safety strap to hold down the shafts. This may be a straight bellyband, or there can be wrap straps, but they must be strong and pliable. If the safety strap breaks, the horse has no way of controlling the vehicle and it can run up under him, or, in the case of a two-wheeler, it can upset backwards. Breeching straps (or hold-back straps) are sometimes fitted with snap hooks and may be left on the shafts without getting the attention they need. Since they are as important to a single horse as the pole straps are to a pair, they should get special care.

All parts of the harness need to be looked after, and the above are those that need repair most frequently.

From the Summer 1997, Vol. 35, No. 1 edition of The Carriage Journal.

When is Russet Harness Appropriate?

Q. There seem to be different opinions about when russet harness is appropriate.

A. There was never any precise rule about this; it is really a matter of taste. In general it depends on the kind of carriage being used and whether it is intended to drive in the city or in the country. Russet harness was used in the country for informal occasions partly because it looked better in dusty conditions and was thought to be easier to clean.

Garland in “The Private Stable” advises buying black harness which is appropriate for all occasions, whereas russet has only a limited use. He lists the carriages to which russet harness might be used as including Runabouts; Lady’s Phaetons; Buckboards; Station Wagons; two-wheeled vehicles of a simple character. The latter would include Governess Carts, Road Carts (Meadowbrook, etc.); Village Carts, Tandem Carts of the ‘Going to Cover’ or Whitechapel sorts. A George IV Lady’s Phaeton with a groom in livery would not be an appropriate vehicle for russet harness.

The American Driving Society rules lay down that if black harness is used with a natural wood vehicle, then the leather trim on the shafts, etc. should also be of black leather. This is intended only as a guide for the show ring.

Russet harness of the best quality was higher priced than black, and this could still be the case, especially if pig-skin facings were wanted on winkers and saddles.

Originally printed in The Carriage Journal, Vol 18, No. 2.

9 Things to do at the end of Carriage Driving Show Season

Q) The show season ends and we usually just throw everything off the truck after the last show and don’t look at it again until we get ready for the show season the next spring. We stick the buggy in a corner of the garage where it gets sort of grimy. I know we should be doing it differently but no one has ever told us what we should be doing. Can you give us some suggestions about winter storage?

A) You need not feel alone in your being somewhat distressed at the apparent lack of direction about winter storage. Other than the advice about running a stable found in such books as Garland’s The Private Stable, there really isn’t a lot of material in print about it.

One of the reasons for this is that there are wide differences in the types of storage space provided.  Just taking into consideration the climatic differences across this country accounts for some difference in the advice tendered. For instance, the dry climates of New Mexico and Arizona would require a different humidification program than the dehumidifiers required by Maine or New Jersey where the seacoast is near. Extreme dryness can be as damaging as extreme dampness. One has to take into account the location of the carriage house.

Generally speaking, a good plan of year-end maintenance would be:

  1. Remove the wheels, and clean all the axle ends and the nuts. Inspect for excessive wear and look for any scarring of the metal shank. Replace the worn leather grease holder, if any. Grease and replace wheels, but remember that most English-type carriages were made for heavy gear oil and not grease, so it is always a good idea to check the type of axle before applying lubrication. A general rule of thumb is that the mail and collinge axles should be lubricated with gear oil. Study the axle; if there is a reservoir somewhere within the hub, it should be oiled.
  2. Set the carriage up on blocks. Do not let it just stand there until April or May.  The wheels will tend to lose their trueness and rubber will develop flat spots. If, of course, you move the carriage around regularly, you need not block it up.
  3. Vacuum all the cushions and rugs, checking behind the seat cushions for accumulated dirt or debris. Spray the trim (upholstery) with a moth repellent. If you regularly check your vehicles, do not cover. Mice love covered places and bagged cushions. The more openly the vehicles can be kept, the safer.
  4. Make sure that any light source is filtered. Sunlight will cause paint to fade and cause the upholstery to deteriorate: it needs to be screened.
  5. Wash the carriage off with lukewarm water and a clean sponge. Use water sparingly and do not drench.  Wood and water do not mix. Use a separate sponge for wheels where grit and bits of sand particles cling. Be careful not to drag these over the painted panels and scratch them. Dry the carriage off with a clean chamois. Dust the carriage periodically during the winter months.
  6. Develop a plan to check each carriage regularly and thoroughly.
  7. Get major repairs done early. Remember, your fellow competitors will be looking to get their carriages done in time for the same spring show season.
  8. Make a resolution to keep your carriage “road ready” and do not let it become a storage place for headstalls, rubber boots, and brushes that have no home of their own.
  9. CLEAN THE HARNESS. Probably the number one fault among carriage people is failure to clean the harness. Do not just hang it up until you have to clean it for a show. Above all, do not hang it where the dampness invites mildew.

Doubtless there are some other things one ought to do, and there are probably some better ways to manage all this. Whatever you choose to do, do it regularly.


Originally printed in The Carriage Journal, Spring 1993, Vol. 30, No. 4

This video (not in English) is a good visual reference on how to lubricate a collinge axle.

Dave Quist’s Carriage Talk is a good carriage maintenance book. Click on the image to be directed to the CAA Bookstore.