By Claudia Smith
Horsemen have always had a liking for “a bit of fancy” on their horses’ harness. Essential on farms, in towns, and for transportation on the open roads horses were “more sacred than the kids” and proud horsemen decorated them with shining brass that flashed in the sun.
Some evidence of early harness decorations is found in the mid-1800s paintings of Cornelius Kreighoff. His Quebec country scenes feature sturdy Canadian horses trotting out smartly with red bridle tassels flying brightly against the winter white. In other paintings of the time, red tassels or plumes swing on neck straps under horses’ chins or light blue ribbons flutter from bridles and back pads in winter sleigh scenes. In the early settlement days, habitant farmers raised and farmed with French Canadian horses. They “made their own harness, often decorating it gaily and took great pride in their workmanship.”
Special harness ornaments were given as tokens of respect or affection. The people of Montreal gave HRH Princess Louise and her husband, who was Governor General from 1878-1883, a gift of “bridles with [top] plumes and a number of throat plumes and small bells.” Also included was “an elaborate set of six large brass sleigh bells.” This gift would have made a very fancy set of harness dressing but most bells were very utilitarian, their purpose being safety as sleighs whispered along on snowy roads.
Horse-proud teamsters were tempted by displays of decorative harness trimmings in harness makers’ shops. In the decades on either side of the turn of the 19th century, back pads, bridle straps and blinkers could be ordered with round brass studs, sometimes called “spots,” or with decorative brass hearts, stars, diamonds or shield-shaped studs. Brass buckle coverings were plain or embossed with hearts or circles. Browbands inset with decorative chains or small linked medallions were a novelty, as were “goldeen” mounted harnesses inset with strips of gold-coloured metal. Some harness makers had trademark trimmings such as solid nickel buckles on all their harness.
Metal amulets, called “brasses,” were strapped on draught horse harnesses. These protective talismans were thought to ensure horse health and safety and came in a variety of motifs inspired by folklore. For instance, the crescent shape was symbolic of the moon goddess in ancient times and was thought to give protection against “the evil eye.” Many symbols continued to be used to decorate harnesses long after their origins were forgotten.
The use of ornamental horse brasses on harness became commonplace in Britain in the 1880s. There was an infinite number of images varying from geometric designs, the four playing card signs, farm and forest animals, harnessed and unharnessed horse poses and the common horseshoe enclosing a horse-head design. Many brasses have a central figure surrounded by a circle of punched holes. Some of the designs were family crests or had been cast to commemorate of an important event like a coronation.
Selections of favoured family amulets were first brought to Canada by immigrants. Others specifically made for colonial use were imported while later, brasses were manufactured in Canada. In an article in a December 1961 issue of The Family Herald, a man spoke of a treasured brass that had come from his boyhood home in England and a woman shared a memory of Romany horses decorated with glinting brasses at a fair in Gloucester. Delivery wagon horse harnesses often sported burnished brasses, such as cask-shaped brasses for brewery wagons.
Many teamsters chose brasses with specific symbols for good luck like intertwined crescents or horseshoes. A sheaf of wheat represented a productive farm and a good harvest, while a beehive design might be chosen to signify a family value of cooperative work bringing in abundance.
A study of historical farm family photographs would indicate that brasses were not an everyday rural fashion. On special occasions like a ploughing match or even a neighbourhood sawing or threshing bee, some horse-proud farmers had brasses shining on their teams’ harness.
On country fair days, teamsters polished their “dress harness pieces,” hitched up their farm teams or their lighter general-purpose animals and trotted into the show ring. Horsemen proud of “their turnouts” entered the “Best Dressed Team” classes with harness brasses and hames knobs gleaming while red pom-poms decorated bridles and colourful rein spreaders looped against sleek hides. Brasses are still seen glinting in the sun in modern day heavy-horse classes at fairs and ploughing matches although modern brasses are often made of chrome that is easier to clean.
The most common everyday decorations on farm horse harnesses were “bridle buttons” or “rosettes.” These were attached, one on each side of the bridle, at the juncture of the brow band and the cheek strap. Through centuries, the buttons were thought to attract “the evil eye” to the adornment, thus sparing the horses from harm.
Rosettes came in many styles. Most heavy-horse bridle decorations were sturdy, plain brass squares or round discs, while others were cone-shaped like a beehive or were discs with colourful red and blue porcelain centres. The bridles of town carriage horses and the light-horses that farm families drove to mill or market were decorated with fancier bridle buttons. They were about four centimetres, or one and three-quarter inches in diameter, with a bar shank on the back to fit over the end of the browband.
The styles of light-horse rosettes were ornate flute-edged or embossed brass discs as well as flat-topped or domed-glass bridle buttons with colourful pictures under the glass. Horse heads, running horses, dogs, flowers, wild animals, black calligraphy initials or the head of a reigning monarch are samples of the glassed-in motifs. Occasionally a teamster fashioned homemade leather bridle decorations for his team.
Those wanting to collect items with a nostalgic or romantic sense of our rural past must have sharp eyes. Old harness decorations are getting harder and harder to find but a lucky collector can still find an occasional set of rosettes on an old bridle at an auction sale or tarnished brass harness pieces – buckles, buckle covers, medallions and collar hames knobs – in an antique shop. They are all artifacts to be prized from the days when horses were king and decorated with pride.
Claudia Smith has been collecting rural history and horse artifacts for more than 50 years. She took these photographs of her collection and at Bill Dobson’s Montague Farm Museum. She is the author of eight books on the rural history of eastern Ontario. For more information please visit claudiasmith.ca