Horses in Harness: The Road to the World Equestrian Games

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[blog post co-authored by Kris Alpi, Director, William Rand Kenan, Jr. Library of Veterinary Medicine]

In honor of the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, taking place this September in Tryon, NC, a new display of materials showcases a selection of NCSU Libraries’ rare books and historical materials related to driving and carriage horses. These items from the Special Collections Research Center will be on display at the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Library of Veterinary Medicine through August 2018.

The history of horses in harness is long and includes equine partners in farming, mining, transportation, and recreation. Ponies and horses of all sizes and breeds are driven, as well as other equids like mules and donkeys. The diversity of modern driving vehicles include the lightest weight two-wheeled sulkies used for racing to the elaborate ceremonial carriages pulled by multi-horse driving teams.

Combined driving, a three-phase carriage driving discipline, is one of the eight sports featured at the World Equestrian Games. Designed to test a driver's ability & the horse(s)' obedience, speed and athleticism with a carriage in tow, the phases Driven Dressage, Marathon & Cones are modeled after the mounted equestrian discipline of three-day eventing or, the human equivalent of a triathlon. Combined driving can be done with a single horse, a pair of horses side-by-side or a four-in-hand team. Learn more from the Libraries’ resources on carriage driving in the general collection.

The horse, its treatment in health and disease with a complete guide to breeding, training and management, by J. Wortley Axe (1906)

The Hackney Horse, exemplified by the stallion in this picture, was the ultimate driving horse of the 1800s in both America and Britain.  This horse’s tail is docked, a surgical procedure once used to shorten the tail to avoid it being tangled in the harness (Axe, 1906).

The horse, together with a general history of the horse, by William Youatt, (1843)

William Youatt (1843)

Racing horses in harness remains a popular sport, with the American Standardbred as the breed known for its trotting or pacing speed on the racetracks. Combined driving horses represent a much broader diversity of breeds, as both agility and speed are required, particularly for the cones phase.  This historical image shows a tandem hitch with two horses in a line. The wheel horse is more important in the stability and control of the vehicle than the lead horse (Youatt, 1843).

Murray, everything you need for a horse is contained in this catalogue, by Wilber H. Murray Manufacturing Co. (1905)

“Everything you need for a horse” is a common theme in harness company catalogs. While the buggy and the harness have top billing as the essentials, the driving whip is shown prominently and the horse is wearing an additional bearing (side check) rein near the top of the bridle (Murray Manufacturing Co., 1905).

Wilber H. Murray Manufacturing Co. (1905)

The harness shown here has a bridle with a “Boston over check.”  The overcheck was designed for speed horses to keep their noses out to get more air while racing.  Look at what type of check reins appear in the other images. This does not show the optional martingale which would connect the noseband of the bridle to the girth, aka bellyband (Murray Manufacturing Co., 1905).

Pony and light horse specialties, by Walborn & Riker (1896)

The “Little Princess Phaeton” fits ponies as small as 3 feet tall at the withers (where the neck and back meet) and can carry an adult passenger.  Driving is a good way to keep children’s ponies exercised or give them a new job when they are outgrown (Walborn & Riker, 1896).


 manufacturers of fashionable carriages, by Boston Buckboard and Carriage Co. (1873)

Boston Buckboard and Carriage Co. (1873)

The Phaeton has not changed much in design since this catalog offering from 1873. Drawn by one or two horses, a phaeton typically featured a minimal, very lightly sprung body atop four extravagantly large wheels with open seating, making it fast and potentially dangerous. Today’s phaetons are optimal for dressage and cone driving; they are light and roll easily, making it easier for drivers to show off their horses’ gaits in dressage, and the short coupling helps when driving cones on angles (Boston Buckboard and Carriage Co., 1873).

Illustrated catalogue and price list of new and improved iron stable fixtures, by J.W. Fiske Iron Works, 1870s

This display features all the pieces of a leather harness with a collar that goes around the horse’s neck and the traces that connect the harness to the vehicle.  Harnesses used with lighter weight vehicles often forego collars for breastplates, a wide strap around the horse’s chest. Note the square blinkers on either side of the bridle to shield the horse’s eyes, which have a range of vision of about 350° from distractions alongside or behind (Fiske Iron Works, 1870s).

Big teams for big farms, simply constructed home made hitches which save both time and labor, by Horse Association of Amerca, 1921

Horse Association of America, 1921

Driving multiple large, strong draft horses requires coordination and a sturdy harness, as shown in the intricate diagram above.  The related excerpt on “Plowing” explains how keeping all the horses abreast may be easier for inexperienced drivers. Even a three-horse hitch with a pair behind a single horse (a “Unicorn” hitch) is reportedly very difficult to drive (Horse Association of America, 1921).

Illustrated catalogue and price list of horse boots, by S. Hunt's Sons (1891)

This catalog implies that purchasing the best equipment can help your horse into the winner's circle where racehorses may be draped in floral garlands or horseshoe-shaped flower arrangements.  Note the whips incorporated into the decorative image (S. Hunt’s Sons, 1891).

S. Hunt's Sons (1891)

The focus on racing speed is accentuated by this stylized extremely light breastplate harness and tiny sulky.  The extension in the trot shows why you might want protective boots for your driving horse like those shown around the margins (S. Hunt’s Sons, 1891).

La Porte Carriage Co. (1895)

La Porte Carriage Co. (1895)

While “Trap” was used in England to denote a small pleasure carriage, American carriage builders often used the term for a type of phaeton with two seats, where one was reversible and rear occupants could be “trapped” by the front passenger. The above image shows how the seat reverses (La Porte Carriage Co., 1895).

La Porte Carriage Co. (1895)

Many of the carriage companies for which the Libraries holds catalogs were located in Midwestern cities where production demand and facilities changed as transportation moved towards “horseless-carriages” (aka motor cars).  This page from the LaPorte Carriage Co. catalog showcases the factory in 1895 which could produce up to 7,500 vehicles per year and recommended rubberized tires (La Porte Carriage Co., 1895).

Walborn & Riker (1896)

Ordering the perfect harness for your discipline and equine partner requires several measurements and decisions though there is some flexibility in harness girths and breechings should your horse become rounder in the offseason. Teams driven in pairs of two horses abreast (side by side) should be matched similarly in size and conformation, since they must have a similar enough step to keep up with one another, therefore their harnesses tend also to match and be similarly sized. (Walborn & Riker, 1896).

These materials and more are available to interested researchers through the NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center.  The SCRC supports the research and teaching strengths of the NC State community, with rare, unique, original materials in collecting areas including Veterinary Medicine and Zoological Health. Explore the collections on the SCRC website, and contact us to plan a visit to view materials in the SCRC reading room in D.H. Hill Library.

The D.H. Hill Library general collection and the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Library of Veterinary Medicine also hold hundreds of books and videos on all aspects of equestrian sports, horse care and equine medicine.  Search the catalog for your topic of interest and visit the Libraries!  

Materials on display include illustrations from The horse, its treatment in health and disease with a complete guide to breeding, training and management, by J. Wortley Axe (1906) (full text available via HathiTrust) and The horse: together with a general history of the horse, by William Youatt (1843) (full text available via HathiTrust), as well as selections from catalogs and manuals by J.W. Fiske Iron Works (1870)Boston Buckboard Carriage Co. (1873)S. Hunt’s Sons (1891)LaPorte Carriage Co. (1895)Walborn & Riker (1896)Wilbur H. Murray Manufacturing Co. (1905), and the Horse Association of America (1921).