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close this folder 5. Yokes and harnesses
View the document Yokes and harnesses for cattle
View the document Yokes and harnesses for horses, donkeys and mules
View the document How to harness a horse, donkey or mule
View the document Steering systems
View the document Breeching harness

5. Yokes and harnesses

Yokes and harnesses are kinds of gear worn by draft animals when they work. Most of the gear is designed for pulling; it fits around or over the animal's front, providing a broad, comfortable surface to push against. The "push" is turned into pull through use of rope, chain or leather lines which connect the yoke or harness to the load.

Yokes are normally used with oxen because these animals drive forward with their heads and necks low, and have both strength and protection there. The yoke is a bar or frame of wood which locks two animals together, one at either end of a bar carried on the withers or strapped to the horns. In some instances, equine teams are fitted with padding that allows them to pull from this type of yoke. Other types of yoke are for single animals, and still others are for special use with harnessed wagon teams.

Harnesses are networks of adjustable leather straps and pads used primarily for horses, donkeys, and mules. These animals have broad chests and strong shoulders, and so their harnesses are made to fit against these areas. The use of harness can increase the power of oxen, but the expense of leather and difficulty of ensuring fit have limited acceptance of this practice.

Major types of yoke and pulling harness are discussed in this section. Steering, braking, and backing-up gear is discussed also, because it is used along with pulling gear. A full set of harness consists of a collar or breastband harness, a bridle and lines (reins), and a breeching harness. A yoke is not normally considered a harness; when it is used along with other gear, the set is identified as a "yoke with lines," or a "yoke with lines and breaching".


Yokes and harnesses for cattle

Bow Yoke

The bow yoke is an inexpensive and efficient device for harnessing the power of cattle. When the team pulls, the wooden crosspiece or stock presses back against the muscle and cartilage which forms the front of the animals' withers. This area, very pronounced on some breeds, is called the boss or hump. It provides a natural seat for a yoke.

The yoke is held in place by bows, U-shaped pieces of wood or metal which fit into the stock from underneath. Broad wooden bows provide more surface area than most peg thong or round-iron varieties, and give the animal extra surface to push against with its shoulder. However, there is great advantage in a bow that locks and unlocks under the neck; these bows are easy to remove if a team has fallen and can't or won't get up. To make a yoke:

1) Cut a piece of green (live) wood one meter long. The piece should be thick enough so that once the bark has been peeled off, the pole is 12 cm thick. This pole is called a yoke stock. It should be a variety of wood that will be strong and light and provide a smooth surface for the team to push against.

2) Mark the center of the pole with a piece of charcoal. On either side of this mark make a set of marks. The first mark in the set is 30 cm from the center; the second is 50 cm.

3) Have a carpenter drill a hole though each mark, or have a blacksmith make the holes by burning through the wood with a hot metal point (an awl). The holes must be big enough to let the bows slide in and out freely. They must also be big enough to allow for some shrinkage of the wood. Remember that green wood shrinks as it dries.

Wooden Bow Yoke with Carved Stock, Solid Bows, Draw Ring and Pole Ring.

Plowing Yoke

Weeding Yoke

Source: Dineur, Bruno, Georges Moriers and Pierre Canard. 1976. Guide pratique de la culture atelée au Bénin. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome.

4) Make the bows of round iron 12 mm thick. Have the blacksmith cut four pieces of round iron one meter long and shape them so they fit into the yoke stock as shown in the illustration. The bows lock together so that cotter pins can be passed through to keep the bow from slipping down out of the stock holes. For an explanation of the procedure for putting the yoke on a team, see page 62.

Head Yoke

Most head yokes lock behind the horns and are tied to the forehead and horns with straps. The stock is carved out to accommodate the backs of the horns, and so once the yoke is on, the team becomes an extremely tight unit. They are especially useful for cart work because they keep the shaft (tongue of the cart) from driving the stock forward or back during respective backing and braking situations.

Single animal yokes fit either behind or in front of the horns. Lengths of rope, chain or leather (called traces) connect the ends of the yoke to the load.

Head Yoke

Source: Hopfen, H.J. 1969. Farm Implements for Arid and Tropical Regions. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Sling Yokes and Sling Harnesses

This equipment is for single animals performing light work such as weeding or peanut ridging. Many variations are possible, but all are seated over the hump or withers and connected to the load with traces. Use of a surcingle or neck strap gives stability to the traces and prevents the sling from rocking on the animals' neck.

China-Wooden Sling (Unpadded)

Source: Hopfen, Op. Cit.

Muzzle Used During Weeding

West Africa-Sling Made of Padded Steel Bar (Round Iron)

Source: Dineur, Op. cit.

Switzerland-Flexible Sling

Source: Hopfen, Op. Cit.

Breastband Harness for Bull


Breastband Harness

This type of harness is a broad band of leather which circles the animal's chest and sides, and which is supported by a surcingle and backband. The trace is attached where the breastband and backband meet.

The breastband must be high enough on the chest so it does not interfere with movement of the shoulder. Correct position is shown above.

The harness shown was tested on domestic water buffalo in Thailand and shown to be more efficient than commonly-used wooden slings.

Collar Harness

Properly fitted, the collar harness provides excellent draft for cattle and buffalo. These animals have relatively narrow chests and the collar must be shaped so it does not interfere with movement of the shoulder. The collars have been used with success in Germany, the United States, and more recently Thailand.

Collar Harness

Source Hopfen, Op. Cit.

In traction tests performed with domestic buffalo in Thailand, breastband and collar harnesses were shown to be about equal in performance, both types showing a 25 percent increase in draft efficiency over wooden slings. The increase was explained by 1) the greater surface area against which the animal pushes and 2) the increased comfort and related longer working capacity of the animal.


Yokes and harnesses for horses, donkeys and mules

Breastband Harness (Dutch Collar)

This is the simplest type of equine harness. The breastband is a broad band of leather which circles the animal's chest and connects to traces which in turn connect to a swingtree and the load. The band is held in place by straps. The forward strap, the neck strap, adjusts so that the breastband can be raised or lowered for correct position on the chest. The backstrap holds up the ends of the breastband where the traces attach.

This type of harness is not as efficient as the collar harness because the animal's push is concentrated on a comparatively small band of leather. However, it is quite adequate for light or medium tillage, or cart work. It is inexpensive and easy to make and fit.

Breastband Harness, or Dutch Collar, Showing Correct Position of Straps

Bow Yoke

Equine animals are sometimes yoked like cattle, but they must first be fitted with pads and collars that protect their withers and give them a point to push from.

Generally speaking, yokes do not permit efficient use of equine power.

Yoke Adapted for Equine Use

Source: Hopfen, Op. Cit.

Wooden-Sling Type Yoke Used with Collar. The sling is similar to a set of hames.

Source: Hopfen, Op. Cit.

Collar Harness

Horses, donkeys and mules have no natural padding to absorb the pressure of a yoke. For this reason, a pad is provided before the yoke is applied. The pad is called a collar. The "yoke" is made of pieces of wood or metal called hames. The hames, which are joined at the top with a strap, are placed over the withers and seated into grooves in the collar. When the animal pulls, the collar presses against the chest and shoulders and transmits the power to the load through the traces (straps or chains connecting the hame to the swingtree behind).

The point where the trace meets the hame is called the point of draft. The attachment is made by trying or hooking the end of the trace to a ring on the hame called the hame-draft.

The dark area in the drawing shows the correct position of the collar. The white circle is the point of draft. The dotted lines show the correct line of draft for (1) a cart with two shafts, and (2) an implement or swingtree.

Point of Draft

Source: Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 4. Cambridge University Press, New York.


Collar with Hames and Trace

Besides collar, hames, and traces, collar harness has a surcingle which fits around the animal's girth and helps carry the traces and lines. The strap may be used to hold up the shafts of a cart, and in this case it is furnished with a pad to protect the back. The strap with the pad attached is called a lack saddle.

The last part of the collar harness is the bridle. It is similar to a halter, but instead of controlling the muzzle or nose, it controls the mouth. It is a system of straps designed to hold a metal bar or bit in the animal's mouth. A line is attached to either end of the bit, allowing the driver to turn the head. An even pull on both lines brings the head down and toward the chest, stopping the animal. The lines usually pass through supporting rings on the hames; the rings are called ferrets.

Collar Harness Consisting of Collar and Hames, Jack Saddle, Traces, and Bridle with Lines


How to harness a horse, donkey or mule

Step 1-Cross-tie the animal. Refer to page 64.

Step 2-Place and secure collar. Stand on the left, next to the animal's head and open the buckle at the top of the collar. Slide the collar up and under the neck and buckle so it fits snugly and back against the shoulders. If you can't slide your hand (flat) between the collar and the neck, loosen it one notch.

Some collars, like the one shown on page 81, have the hames built in. These adjust at the bottom, and so they are put on from above.

Once an animal is used to being harnessed, it is easier and faster to slip the collar over the head without rebuckling. Almost all colars are slightly wider at the bottom and at the top, so hold the collar upside-down and push it over the head. Once it has cleared the brow and ears, turn and seat it.

Step 3-Place the hames, jack saddle and britching (breeching; see page 92 for description). These parts are linked together by interconnecting straps (side straps and traces), and so

and so they are treated as a single unit.


Usually, harness is stored on two pegs. The hames, which are joined at the top by the hame strap, hang on one peg. The jack saddle and britching hang on the other with the britching on the outer end of the peg. This arrangement is used so the harness can be picked up and put on the animal without getting tangled or out of order.

First, put your left arm through the britching and sling both parts (seat and hip strap) up onto your shoulder. Second, bring the Jack saddle onto your forearm and let it hang. Third, pick up the hames, one in each hand. The right hame must be in the right hand.

Holding the harness like this, stand just to the left of the collar and lift the hames high enough so you can get the right hame over the top of the collar. Let both hames down into the grooves in the collar. This is called "seating the hames". Do not buckle them yet.

Next, lay the rest of the harness over the animal 'e back. The jack saddle should be behind the withers, the britching further back. They are not positioned and secured until you go back and buckle the hames.

Buckle the hames at the base of the collar. Then pull the britching over the rear quarters. The britching seat is brought down over the tail as far as it will go, and then the tail is pulled up and over it, and allowed to drop.

Reach under the animal and grab the free end of the jack saddle. This is called the girth or belly band. Bring it toward you and up to the ring or buckle on the left side of the jack saddle. Fasten it, allowing enough room for your hand to slide between it and the animal.

Step 4-Place the bridle. The bridle is worn over the halter. The halter is not in the way, and you need it when you remove the bridle, or when you lead or tie the bridled animal.

Put the lines over the head and lay them on the withers or back.

Hold the top of the bridle (cavesson) in your right hand and the bit in your left. Stand to the side of the head and bring your arm over it so your wrist is between the ears and your fingertips on the forehead.

Work the bridle upwards so the noseband circles the muzzle and the bit comes into contact with the teeth. Work the bit into the mouth by massaging the gums with your fingers. If the bit is held as shown, your thumb and middle finger will be in position to do this.

Placing the Bridle

Once the bit has cleared the front teeth, pull up with your right hand until you are able to work the top of the cavesson over the right ear, and then the left.

Fasten the throat latch, bringing it under the jaw and up to its buckle.

Step 5-Fasten the traces to the singletree (except during harness-breaking because no load will be pulled). The trace (one on either side) hooks to the draft ring on the hame, and runs back to the load. As it passes back, it goes through a supporting sleeve on the jack saddle. When britching is used, the trace passes through an additional support which hangs down from the britching ring. The support is called a trace-holder or lazy strap, and it keeps slack in the trace from getting underfoot when the animal backs up or turns.

Note: Normally traces are left on the harness when it is taken off the animal. When unharnessing, unhook the trace from the load and fasten it to the britching ring.


Steering systems

Few animals are so well trained that they turn and stop when the driver gives a voice command. Turns, partial turns, stops and changes in speed are accomplished by a combination of voice commands and signals made through the lines. Lines are long ropes or leather straps that reach from the driver to the animal's head. The lines attach to the sides of a bridle, halter, or nosering, all gear designed to transfer pressure from the lines to the sides of the nose or mouth.

Lines have two functions: they help the driver regulate the degree of turning and the amount of speed, and they act as a safety control in cases where an animal spooks or refuses to obey. It is important to arrange lines so they perform both functions.

Some farmers avoid using lines by having an assistant lead the animal or team from the front. This is not a bad practice if extra labor is available, and if the animal is never to be used to pull a cart or wagon. It is dangerous to drive a vehicle using animals unaccustomed to lines, or using a steering/stopping system that provides little or no leverage.

Single Animal Systems

Halter and lines (for cattle, or easily controlled horses, donkeys or mules). The driver controls the speed and direction of the animal by pulling lines attached to side rings of the halter.

A right hand turn is made by pulling the right line out and to the side. The line of pull should be level and at the same height as the point of leverage (the side ring of the halter). The movement tightens the halter against the left side of the animal's head and begins to bring the nose around to the right. You must slacken the left line as you pull back to the right.

A left turn is made by doing the reverse. A stop is made by pulling both lines at once, drawing the muzzle into the chest. A hard snap of the lines will usually stop an animal that won't respond to even pressure. If the halter is made of rope, pad the noseband with cloth so it doesn't rub the nose and cause burns or sores.

It is a good practice to support the lines by running them through rings on the hames, surcingle, or backpad. This takes the weight of the lines off the nose and encourages the animal to carry its head normally. It also keeps the lines from slackening and getting underfoot during turns or rest periods.

Bridle and lines (for horses, donkeys and mules). This is the same system as halter/ lines but instead of attaching to the siderings of the halter, the lines attach to the bit rings of the bridle.

Some bridles are bitless and work by exerting pressures on the nose like a halter.

Noserings (cattle only). Both lines attach to the ring and then split back to the sides and to the driver. Use a surcingle with siderings to support the lines as they pass back.

Team Systems

Team lines with coupling. A long line called a team line is fastened to the outside of each animal's headgear (bridle, halter, or nosering). The insides of the headgear are then linked together with a short piece of rope or chain. This is called a coupling.

Team Lines With Coupling

When the driver pulls the left team line, the left animal turns to the outside (left). As it turns, the coupling tightens and pulls the righthand animal to the left. A right turn is accomplished by the opposite process.

This system works well with animals in a yoke, or welltrained animals in harness. It is not recommended for cart or wagon work because the driver has no leverage for stopping.

Team lines without coupling. When a team is working in a weeding yoke, the distance between the animals is so great that the driver may want to attach team lines to the insides of the headgear. This gives him/her shorter, lighter lines to work with.

To make a right turn, the driver pulls the left line. This pulls the left animal's head to the inside (right). As it turns, it puts sideward pressure on its bow and the whole yoke is pushed to the right. This signals the righthand animal to turn right.

Team Lines with Cross-Check

Team lines with cross-check. A complete steering system lets the driver turn both animals-not just one. Each outside line (see above) is equipped with a second, shorter line that branches off and crosses over to the headgear of the other animal. When the driver pulls the left line, for example, he/she is pulling the end of a Y-shaped line that connects to the left side of each animal's headgear.

A set of Y-shaped lines is called team lines. Each line is made up of a long outside line called a team line and a short cross-over line called a cross-over check line or stub-line.

Cross-checks are supported as they cross over. If the team is in a yoke, the yoke stock can serve as a support. If the team is in collar harness, the lines go through rings on or attached to the inside hames of the opposite animal.

It is important that the crosschecks are the same length and connect to the team lines equal distances back from the headgear. They must also connect at the right distance,

Adjustment of the cross-checks is made by trial and error. Pull back on both lines evenly. If the team backs up straight, the lines are adjusted correctly. If the animals crowd together as they back up, the checks are connected to the team lines too far back. If the animals split apart, the checks are connected too far forward.


Breeching harness

Breeching (britching) harness is a kind of harness that enables a team to exert backward pressure on the shaft of a wagon or cart, causing it to brake or back up. It can be used with all types of yoke and harness.

Breeching harness looks like a breastband collar worn around the rear quarters. Its main part, called the breeching seat, is a wide band of leather that circles an animal's buttocks. It is held in place by a band which passes over the top of the rump. The band is called a hip strap. The breeching is connected to the yoke or harness by a pair of straps (or ropes) called sidesteps, hold-back straps, or pole straps.

Sidestraps are adjusted so they are slightly slack when a vehicle is being pulled forward on flat terrain. When the load begins to move downhill, the shaft (of wagon or cart) drives forward against the yoke or harness, the sidesteps tighten, and the breeching seat closes against the buttocks. The animal brakes by resisting the pressure of the breeching seat.


Used for backing up, the breeching works like a breastband collar in reverse. The sidesteps tighten and pull against the yoke or harness the same way traces tighten and pull against a singletree. The yoke or harness pulls back on the front of the wagon shaft and the vehicle backs up.

How Breeching Works as a Brake

The illustration on page 95 shows the breeching in dark lines. The breeching is not in use, so the pole strap is clipped or tied to the hame. When the animal is hitched to a wagon, the strap is connected to a jockey yoke, which works like a singletree.

Correctly positioned, the breeching seat crosses the base of the buttocks. The height is adjusted by the hip strap.

Full Collar Harness with Breeching Parts Highlighted

Back straps are needed when breeching is used. These connect the hip strap to the collar and help stabilize the entire harness.