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Horse collar

File:Noe horse collar.jpg
Two horse collars, with hames
File:Percheron 3 stehend rechts.jpg
Modern draft horse wearing a horse collar. (Horse is not yet fully harnessed)

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 or a breastcollar. The collar is also an improvement on the yoke as it reduces pressure on the windpipe. From the time of invention of the horse collar, horses became extremely valuable for agricultural success and for pulling heavy vehicles. When the horse was harnessed with the 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. 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.



A horse collar is oval rather than 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. It is constructed so 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 the animal to use its full force to pull a load.

Predecessors to the horse collar

Earliest designs

Long before the horse collar harness, there was the less efficient throat-girth 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.[1] 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).[2] 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, in a manner similar to a yoke. These straps pressed against the horse's sterno-cephalicus muscle and trachea which restricted its breathing and reducing the pulling power of the horse.[3] Thus, the harder a horse pulled, the more strongly it choked off its own breathing. Because of these physical constraints, oxen were used in preference to horses for heavy work, as they do not have this problem due to anatomical differences and could be yoked to their loads.

Breastcollar harness

The throat-girth design was not improved until the Chinese breast-strap or "breastcollar" harness developed during the Warring States (481 BC–221 BC) era in China.[4] The Chinese breast harness became known throughout Central Asia by the 7th century, introduced to Europe by the 8th century.[5]

Its first depiction in artwork was on lacquer-ware boxes from the ancient State of Chu.[6] 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.[3] 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.[7] 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.[8] After Central Asia, the first breast-strap harness was found in Europe by the 8th century (in depicted artwork),[9] and became more widespread by the following 9th century (for example, depicted in a tapestry of the Oseberg ship burial).[10]

The problem with a breastcollar harness was that the actual shafts of the cart, chariot, or other vehicle are attached to a surcingle around the barrel of the horse. The breastplate primarily kept the surcingle from slipping back, not as the primary pushing object. This results in the horse literally pulling the load, a less efficient use of the animal.[11]

Development of the collar

Horses in highly decorative harness with horse collars.

After the breastcollar harness, the next and final evolutionary stage was the collar harness. 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. The fully developed collar harness was developed in Southern and Northern Dynasties China during the 5th century AD.[4] 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.[12] These paintings display an amply-padded horse collar with no sign of a yoke.[13] 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.[14] 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.[14] The same basic 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).[15] 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.[16][17] 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.[17] However, the adapted horse collar for camels would not have been common until the 6th century.[17] 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.[18] According to evidence provided by 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.[19] This latter painting accurately depicts the horse collar, with a well-padded collar coming low on the chest and rising behind the cross-bar.[20]

File:Earliest european harness.png
Early depiction of a horse collar, c. A.D. 800

The horse collar eventually spread to Europe circa 920 AD, and became universal by the 12th century.[21] The Scandinavians were among the first to utilize a horse collar that did not constraint the breathing passages of the horses.[22] Prior to this development, oxen still remained the primary choice of animal for farm labor, as all the previous harnesses and collars could only be worn by them without physical penalty. Additionally, the yoke used to harness oxen were made exclusive to each individual animal. However it was sometimes difficult to cultivate the land; based upon soil condition, it may had taken up to sixteen oxen to effectively use a single heavy plow.[23] This made it difficult for farmers who lacked the capital to sustain such large numbers.

When the horse was harnessed with a 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.[23][24] The centuries long association that the Europeans had with the use of horses allowed an easier transition from oxen-based harnesses to the horse collar.[25]

Following the introduction of the horse collar to Europe and it use being clearly evident by 1000 AD,[26] the use of horses for ploughing became widespread. 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.

Impact of the Horse Collar

The creation of the horse collar removed the previous physical restrictions the old harness had on the animal, and allowed the horse to be able to exert its full strength in plowing. Originally, the structure of the old harness forced the horse to literally pull its workload [11], the horse collar’s development instead allowed the horse to push its workload, increasing the efficiency of its labor output.

Combined with the horseshoe, the heavy plow, and other developments in the agricultural system, the efficiency of the European peasant farmer in producing food increased, allowing further societal development in Europe [27]. The surplus in food allowed labor specialization as farmers could change their occupation and focus on other skills, such as the purchase and selling of goods, resulting in the emergence of a merchant class within European society. The horse collar was one of the factors in the ending of the feudal system and transition from the Middle Ages.[28].

Weight pulling studies

The French cavalry officer Lefebvre des Noëttes experimented with the ancient throat-and-girth harness in comparison the later trace breast-harness and the finally the matured form of the medieval collar harness. In his experiment of 1910, he found that two horses (aided by effective traction) using the throat-and-girth harness were limited to pulling about 1100 lbs. (½ ton).[24] However, a single horse with a more efficient collar harness could draw a weight of about 1½ tons.[24]

See also


  1. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 304.
  2. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 305–308.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 305.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 28.
  5. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 311–315.
  6. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 310.
  7. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 308–312.
  8. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 311.
  9. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 315.
  10. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 316.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Riddle, 162.
  12. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 324–325.
  13. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 325.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 322.
  15. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 323.
  16. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, Plate CCXXI
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 326.
  18. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 319–320.
  19. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 320.
  20. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 321.
  21. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 317.
  22. Chamberlain, p. 109.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Riddle, p. 159.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 312.
  25. Braudel, p. 345.
  26. Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 327.
  27. Wigelsworth, p. 10.
  28. Bolich, p. 55.


  • Bolich, Susan, The History of Farming Machinery, Oxford University Press, 2005
  • Braudel, Ferand, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: The structure of everyday life, University of California Press, 1992
  • Chamberlain, J. Edward, Horse: how the horse has shaped civilizations, Blue Bridge, Virginia, 2006
  • Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.,1986 ISBN 0521070600
  • Riddle, John M.,A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
  • Wigelsworth, Jeffrey R., Science and technology in medieval European life, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006


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