Our Harness Purchasing Mistakes
Harness Fit
Horse Harness

Our Harness Purchasing Mistakes

We have a friend who states, “Use what you have until you get what you want.”  Her thought process is that it is better to use what you have to start participating in driving events (recreational or competitive) than to not participate at all.  The equipment that we got helped get us into the experiences we had, but since you can learn from us, you may not have to go through the purchasing mistakes we made to get what you ultimately want or need, thus saving you time and money.

Way back in the 1980’s, we didn’t have the knowledge of the resources available today.  The American Driving Society was about ten years old (and we didn’t find out about that organization until the year 2000).  There was no internet, but there might have been a few books that were not readily available.  If you wanted to start in a certain discipline, you asked around locally and hoped that there was someone who knew something to help you get started.  This was our situation.  My mom had a friend who knew a friend who knew some Amish guy who could make leather harnesses.  Synthetic harness wasn’t available, yet.  We traveled to the local Amish community, which was about an hour away, with our measurements in hand for the horse which ultimately would not drive anyway.  (Ironically, the second horse we tried to drive didn’t drive, either, but knowing what I know now, I don’t think that we did a great job at early training to make it happen.)  So that Amish harness hung in the tack room for years.  It was a good harness for its time, nothing fancy, but practical.  However, when we finally did get a horse that would drive, that harness did not fit that horse well.  You can read more about that situation here

The next horse that we wanted to drive was a mini.  Again, in the early 1990’s, resources were still few and far between.  We somehow learned of a mini horse club in our area.  Through the club, we were able to learn of a used harness to get started.  It was functional, but really old.  My mom gave $50 for it.  The biggest problem with that harness is that it lacked structure in the saddle to keep pressure off the spine.  Actually, all of our first mini harnesses were the same type of treeless saddles, which worked fine until they didn’t.  I talked about that issue in the article that is referenced above.  If you haven’t already, I encourage you to stop here and read that before going on.  (I’m just lazy and don’t want to retype all the information here when it is already there.) 

At the time that we wanted to start driving, we only knew of 4-H, Open, and Breed shows.  Lucky you, since you are reading this, you can be exposed to other opportunities beyond the above that we didn’t know about.  The next mini harness we got new was through one of the members of our mini club, and it didn’t have any breeching.  The club was basically breed show and recreational drivers, and exhibitors didn’t (and still don’t in some cases) use breeching on their horses in the show ring.  Again, the article above extensively explains why breeching is a good thing.  When we learned about carriage shows (and about why you use breeching), we had to purchase the breeching, the hip strap, and holdbacks.  Technically, breeching isn’t required for carriage pleasure shows, however, again, when you understand its purpose, the best drivers will encourage you to get it for your single horse.  So again, we ended up with another expense. 

At some point, my mom bought an American Shetland pony.  He was the Hackney type, not the coal pit pony type.  We wanted to start driving him, and I found a “reasonable” new Tracker harness in a catalog.  It was $150 at the time which is about $350 in 2023 dollars.  So, we ordered the harness.  Unfortunately, when we got it, we quickly realized that it wasn’t going to fit our pony at all!  The breeching was too small, the saddle/girth was too big, the turnback was too long, and I didn’t know what style of pony that harness would actually fit!  We couldn’t even long line in it because we couldn’t get the girth tight enough!  We tried punching holes, but it didn’t work.  It was a giant waste of money.  That harness hung in the tack room for years before the pony and the harness went to an Amish guy to have the harness adjusted to fit to get the pony started.  By the time the cost of the adjustments were made, we could have purchased a new harness from a reputable manufacturer that actually fit the pony!  (That crappy Tracker harness is still available for $180-250 from big tack stores that don’t specialize in or know how to properly fit a driving harness.)

The next harness we purchased was for our Pinto Arabian in 2001.  I had started him driving in 1999 or so in that older Amish harness I referenced above, but eventually learned that while it was serviceable, it wasn’t the quality appropriate for the level of competition we wanted to do.  The pieces were single strap leather that weren’t lined or padded.  The hardware was primarily Conway buckles which are inexpensive to use to build harnesses, but also difficult to adjust.  And the harness was just “tired”.  It's the one in the photo at the top of the page. 

I had heard of Smucker Harness and knew that they were good harnesses.  I found a used one in a classified ad in a statewide magazine.  We went up north two hours away to look at the harness, which was a full collar harness, and bought it.  I inquired about the breeching straps, but the gentleman said that they stayed with the vehicle.  (I know now that breeching straps are part of the harness and don’t technically go with the vehicle.)  So, I knew I would have to buy breeching straps ($59.50 at the time).  We paid $650 for that lightly used harness.  When we got home, we tried the harness on our horse.  The harness fit fine, but the collar did not sit back on our horse’s shoulders and actually, he seemed loaded down by the weight of the collar and hames.  So that wasn’t going to work.  Now I needed to order the breast collar ($149) and neck strap ($39.95) as well.  If you have read the article I referenced above, you have already realized that we also eventually had to buy the Better Fit saddle ($395 at the time) for the same horse for that Smucker harness.  So now I had $1293.45 in that harness ended up being a mix of Pleasure and Deluxe parts, plus the fuel to drive two hours away to get it, plus the shipping twice for the extra parts!  A brand-new Smucker Deluxe harness with a Better Fit saddle was $1225 at the time!  I could have had a better harness for less money and less headaches if I wasn’t trying to save literally about $50.  A brand-new Smucker Pleasure harness was $695 at the time! 

The last harness “mistake” I made wasn’t really a mistake, but more of a case of getting ahead of myself.  I had the opportunity to buy a lightly used Cob Pair harness with additional single parts. It was a high-end harness being sold for a fraction of what they are new.  We had what we thought was an up-and-coming DHH-cross Cob pair.  The harness fit them fine, but while they both drove, driving them either single or as a pair wasn’t a great fit for us or them.  Neither horse is driving anymore!  They are both well-loved in what they are doing now, but not in our barn nor in the driving arena. 

However, after we sold the pair, I decided to use that harness as a single on our smaller Welsh Cob mare for a pleasure show because it has stainless fittings, and I was showing in the marathon vehicle in a Utility division.  Since I was using closed-end shafts, I had to purchase wrap tugs to hold the shafts.  The breast collar was also quite narrow for the vehicle of that weight.  It worked, and it “fit”, but it didn’t fit.  I couldn’t get the bridle to fit right because the blinkers were too big.  I couldn’t get the breeching tight enough because the breeching was too big, and the holdbacks were too long.  That high-end harness name didn’t help me in the Turnout class because the harness didn’t fit the pony! 

We sold that pair harness and got a single Smucker Super Deluxe that is custom fit to our current ponies. We also have an IVC Elite harness for our pair, as well as a couple of IVC Extra Endura harnesses that we can convert to single and pair that we use for everyday work.  If we need an extra part, we can get a larger girth, or a shorter hip strap, etc. for any new horse that we might get.  Our three ponies are all about the same size, so it’s pretty easy to swap harnesses on them.  It was much harder to use the same harness on a couple of minis.  We couldn’t use the same harness on our 32” mini as the 36” mini, because in minis, quarter inches matter, not just inches.  I always suggest getting each horse their own bridle, though.  Switching bridles back and forth between horses, and adjusting them to fit or having to change bits is a pain and too time-consuming. 

Ultimately, the purchases we made helped move us along the road to better equipment, but we had to learn the hard way.  Looking back, we spent way more than we should have trying to get the right stuff.  We have learned that the “good deal” isn’t always a good deal when it isn’t going to work for what you expect it to do.  I know people who have lots of “good deal” equipment, but not one piece that actually is perfect for the job they want it to do.  You can also “use what you have until you get what you want,” but remember, what you have may not always be the best for you or your horse! 

In my opinion, horses should be comfortable no matter what their job is, be it recreation or competition.  Many people say that they don’t need anything “fancy” for their first harness.  They equate “fancy” with “expensive”.  I don’t find that to be the case because the lower-end harnesses usually lack comfort features.  It’s not like western show saddles that have a bunch of silver and leather tooling that isn’t needed on the trail.  Good show harnesses can have a little more patent leather and maybe some extra stitching, but it’s the structure and the shape of the harness that creates the comfort.  Those shapes are never found on cheap harnesses, and actually many times, cheap harnesses are overly “decorated” to be more visually “desirable”!  I have wrote about that here.  The most economical way to purchase driving equipment is to buy the best you can afford the first time and take care of it!

Do some research to really think about what it is that you want to do with your driving horse.  Nowadays, it is much easier to research driving than it was when we started.  Our sincere hope is that since we already have made these mistakes, we can help you not do the same.  We’d be happy to work with you to find the perfect equipment. 

1 comment

Jan 06, 2024

This is a great article! Finding a great used harness is difficult and won’t be cheap. Fixing a harness with new parts is expensive. The same can be said with carts. Thank you for a well written article.

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