History of Horse Harnesses

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History of Horse Harnesses
History of Horse Harnesses (Image: Leslie Watts: sxc.hu)

The horse harness has had an impact on the relationship between man and horse that is unlike any other invention. The harness allows the power and endurance of horses to be controlled and used by humans. While humans and horses have been partners throughout the history of man, the horse harness has not always been part of that story. The history of horse harnesses is a long and interesting one that has its roots in ancient Asia.

First Known Horse Harnesses

In 1993 the Carnegie Museum of Natural History discovered the oldest known horse harness in Botai, Kazakhstan in an archeological dig. The archaeologists dated the harnesses found at the site to approximately 3500 B.C.. This verified the earlier belief that horse harness use developed in Asia. Historical ruins and archeological digs indicate that the use of harnesses spread to Europe at around 800 B.C.. The archaeologists were not able to prove what the horses in Botai were used for, but they were able to prove that they were domesticated and harnessed at some point in the civilization's history.

Harnesses for Chariots in War

One of the earliest known reasons for harnessing domesticated horses was to use the animals in war to pull chariots. Horses could not pull the first chariots, because the strap harnesses of the time could not bear the weight of the heavy vehicles without strangling the horse. In 2000 B.C., chariot-making technology evolved to create a lighter chariot that could be pulled using a horse wearing a strap harness. Once the design allowed horses to pull chariots, they became prominent in ancient wars, where civilizations like the Hittites and Egyptians sent soldiers on chariot conquests around the developed world.

Collared Harnesses

Strap harnesses, because of the strangulation risk, could not be used to pull heavy carts, thus limiting the use of horses as a beast of burden in the ancient world. In the 5th century, the Chinese developed the collar harness. This technological innovation distributed the weight of the cart or chariot evenly across the chest of the horse, thus limiting the strangulation risk. This new harness type quickly spread, and it was widely used throughout Europe by the 8th century. Since horses had more speed and endurance then oxen, the horse quickly became the preferred animal to harness to a cart or plow. This invention changed the farming and transportation industries.

Modern Harnesses

Over time, people have continued to perfect harness technology, but the use of the collar harness has not changed much since the 5th century. Today, horse harnesses are lightweight and balanced, allowing the animals to pull large loads over long distances. Harnessed horses are still used in many less developed countries for farming and transportation reasons. Other modern uses of the harness include horse shows and harness racing, where showy, lightweight harnesses are preferred over the more rugged farming ones.

Harness Racing

One common use of the harness in modern society is in harness racing. This sport dates back to ancient times, but disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The first modern tracks for harness racing since then showed up in the early 19th century, and harness racing quickly become a popular sport at American county fairs. The invention of the automobile made harness racing less popular in the early 1900s, but the sport was reborn in 1940 when Roosevelt Raceway in New York introduced a lighted track and betting facility.

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