Horse collar

Horse collar

A horse collar is a part of a horse harness device used to distribute load around a horse's neck and shoulders when pulling a wagon or plow. The collar often supports a pair of curved metal or wood pieces, called "hames," to which the traces of the harness are attached. The collar allows a horse to use its full strength when pulling, essentially allowing the horse to push forward with its hindquarters into the collar rather than to pull with its shoulders as it would be required to do if wearing a yoke. The collar is also an improvement on the breastcollar for the purpose of heavy work, as it reduces pressure on the windpipe.

A horse collar is not circular and it is by design not very flexible. It is a padded appliance that conforms well to the shape of the horse's body and has somewhat the shape of a keyhole (see the photograph). It is so constructed that at all points of contact with the body of the horse it avoids the air passage. By protecting the airway of the horse it became possible for them to use their full force to pull their loads. From the time of invention of this kind of horse collar, horses became extremely valuable for agricultural success and for pulling heavy vehicles.


The link-work trace harness (or breast-harness) for horses was invented by the 4th century BC in Warring States China, while the fully developed collar harness was found in Southern and Northern Dynasties China during the 5th century AD.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 28.] The Chinese breast harness became known throughout Central Asia by the 7th century, introduced to Europe by the 8th century.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 311-315.] However, the developed horse collar eventually spread to Europe around the 920s AD, and became universal by the 12th century.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 317.] The horse collar was important in the development of Europe, as the replacement of the oxen with horses for ploughing boosted the economy, reduced reliance on subsistence farming, and allowed the development of early industry, education, and the arts in the rise of market-based towns.

Predecessors to the horse collar

Long before the efficient horse harness, there was the less efficient throat-girth, or breastcollar harness. This could be found in many ancient civilizations, brought to the attention in the European intellectual sphere of the early 20th century French cavalry officer Lefebvre des Noëttes.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 304.] This type of collar was known in ancient Chaldea (3rd millennium BC), both Sumeria and Assyria (1400 BC-800 BC), New Kingdom Egypt (1570 BC-1070 BC), Shang Dynasty China (1600 BC-1050 BC), Minoan Crete (2700 BC-1450 BC), Classical Greece (550 BC-323 BC), and ancient Rome (510 BC-476 AD).Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 305-308.] With this ancient harness, ploughs and carts were pulled using harnesses that had flat straps across the neck and chest of the animal, with the load attached at the top of the collar, above the neck. These straps pressed against the horse's sterno-cephalicus muscle and trachea which restricted its breathing and reducing the pulling power of the horse. The harder the horse pulled, the more strongly it choked off its own breathing.

Oxen were used in preference to horses, as they do not have this problem due to anatomical differences and could be yoked to their loads. However, when the horse was to be properly harnessed with the later developed horse collar, the horse could provide a work effort of 50% more foot-pounds per second because of greater speed than the ox, as well as having generally greater endurance and ability to work more hours in a day.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 312.]

This design was not improved until the Chinese breast-strap harness during the Warring States (481 BC-221 BC) era of China. Its first depiction in artwork was on lacquer-ware boxes from the ancient State of Chu.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 310.] This type of harness put pressure upon the sternum, where the line of traction is directly linked with the skeletal system of the horse, allowing for nearly full exertion.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 305.] It was in universal use by the time of the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), depicted in artwork of hundreds of different carvings, stone reliefs, and stamped bricks showing it featured on horses pulling chariots.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 308-312.] This type of breast-strap harness became known in Central Asia and elsewhere with the Avars, Magyars, Bohemians, Poles, and Russians during the 7th to 10th centuries.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 311.] After Central Asia, the first breast-strap harness was found in Europe by the 8th century (in depicted artwork),Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 315.] and became more widespread by the following 9th century (for example, depicted in a tapestry of the Oseberg ship burial).Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 316.]

Development of the collar

After the breast-harness, the next and final evolutionary stage was the collar harness. The first questionable depiction of it in art appears on painted moulded-bricks in the Three Kingdoms (220-265 AD) era tomb of Bao Sanniang at Zhaohua, Sichuan province, China.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 324-325.] These paintings display an amply-padded horse collar with no sign of a yoke.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 325.] However, the earliest legitimate depiction of it in art is on a Dunhuang cave mural (cave 257) from the Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty, the painting dated to 477-499 AD.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 322.] In this painting the arching cross bar is clear, but the artist failed to clearly show the cushioned collar behind it, which would have rendered the whole design useless.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 322.] The same tacit design is seen in other painted Chinese frescoes, one from 520-524 AD (with shafts projecting beyond the horses chest for sternal traction), and another circa 600 AD (Sui Dynasty).Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 323.] This Sui Dynasty depiction (in cave 302) is of particular interest, since its depiction of the horse collar is not only more accurate (the same seen even in north and northwest China today), but it is used for a camel, not a horse.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, Plate CCXXI] Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 326.] The Chinese had used camels often from the 2nd century BC onwards during the Han Dynasty, as there was even a Camel Corps serving the military on the frontier of the Tarim Basin. However, the adapted horse collar for camels would not have been common until the 6th century.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 326.] In cave 156, there is a panorama painting of the Tang Dynasty Chinese general and provincial governor Zhang Yichao riding triumphantly after the recapture and conquest of the Dunhuang region from the Tibetan Empire in 834 AD.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 319-320.] According to evidence provided by a Dr. Chang Shuhong, the date of the painting is precisely 851 AD, yet Needham points out that there is universal consensus amongst historians that it was painted anytime between roughly 840 to 860 AD.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 320.] This latter painting accurately depicts the horse collar, with a well-padded collar coming low on the chest and rising behind the cross-bar.Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 321.]

Following the introduction of the horse collar to Europe by the 920s (and by 1000 AD at the latest),Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 327.] the use of horses for ploughing became widespread in Europe by the 12th century. Horses work roughly 50 percent faster than oxen. Using horses (and a slightly improved plow), peasant farmers could produce a surplus. A surplus gave them goods to trade at crossroads markets on weekends. Markets soon turned into towns. Towns meant some folks could give up farming and just make goods for sale. A proliferation of such goods meant some people could live purely by buying and selling. Hence the horse collar played a pivotal role in ending the feudal system and launching the rise of Europe.

Weight pulling studies

The French cavalry officer Lefebvre des Noëttes experimented with the ancient throat-and-girth harness in comparison the ancient trace breast-harness and the finally the matured form of the medieval collar harness found since the medieval period. In his experiment of 1910, he found that two horses (aided by effective traction) employed with the throat-and-girth harness were limited to pulling about 1100 lbs. (½ ton).Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 312.] However, a single horse with a more efficient collar harness could draw a weight of about 1½ tons.

ee also

*Collar (animal)
*Horse harness
*Draft horse



*Needham, Joseph (1986). "Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering". Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.

External links

* [ Photo of horse with breast strap harness - Creative Commons Attribution license]

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