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Decorative horse brasses.


Horse brasses are the traditional decoration on draft horse harnesses, hanging from the top of the headstall, on the horse's forehead. These shiny brass pieces depicting various objects or symbols are also prized by antique collectors. From a collector's standpoint, these brasses have advantages over larger antiques. Horse brasses are relatively inexpensive, small (a collection can fit into any home decor) and may fit better with modem home furnishings than rusty spurs, branding irons or old barbed wire.

Horse brasses were a standard part of draft horse harnesses in England and America. Teams adorned with decorative brasses can be seen in old paintings and photos. For instance, a print in the British Museum of an old painting of a funeral carriage in the time of Charles the Second, shows the horses wearing decorative brasses.

These harness decorations originated a very long time ago when people believed in evil spirits. To protect themselves and their animals from "bad" spirits, superstitious tribesmen wore amulets and also put them on each of their animals, usually hung on a thong around the neck. The protective amulets were made from bronze or iron; these two metals were supposed to contain protective spirits. If the charms were kept brightly polished and shiny, they supposedly would blind the "evil eye" of bad spirits and keep them away. They were often hung so they would make jingling sounds as the animal moved, which was also supposed to scare away evil spirits.

Early tribes decorated their horses and camels with protective charms that jingled against the harness. Many horses in ancient Egyptian and Roman sculptures wear these amulets. One Assyrian sculpture shows a king on a lion hunt and the horses pulling his chariot have circular decorations on their bridle browbands.

Eventually the practice of using protective amulets on pets and food animals ceased, but several ancient cultures continued to use decorative charms on their horses. These became the horse brasses used on leather harness. The practice of adorning European horses began after the Crusades, when returning Crusaders brought back decorations they obtained from captured enemy horses. The Saracens and Turks decorated their bridles with brass charms (usually in the form of crescents and stars) to protect the horses from disease and misfortune. This type of decoration became popular with knights of Europe and the British Isles.

Horse brasses came into common use in England, especially on Fair days and other special occasions--whenever the draft teams were decked out in their best harnesses. Early designs included the sun or a disc shape, moon or crescent, a star, or heart. Later, other designs were created, based on family symbols, heraldry, or commercial symbols used by trades and businesses. For instance, a brewer might have brasses depicting barrels; a fishmonger might use a dolphin design. Some families used a design from their coat-of-arms. Counties and towns had their own brasses (Nottingham's castle, London's grasshopper, or the boar of Lincoln). Three small horseshoes inside a larger horseshoe (all open end downward) was the ancient design of the Worshipful Company of Farriers.


Some brasses were geometric designs or shaped like acorns, birds, anchors, bells, etc. Commemorative horse brasses were made for important royal events, or used at the funeral of a king or queen. Special brasses were created for coronations or other special occasions, and were popular toward the end of queen Victoria's reign in the late 1800s. These often showed the queen's profile, or a crown. Some were created for the coronations of Kings Edward VII, George V and George VI.

The earliest English harness decorations were not brass. Brass casting originated in the 1600s, but was not used for small objects like harness brass until the late 1700s. By Victorian times horse brasses were cast in molds, and this process is still used. By the 19th century many horse brasses were mass-produced in factories, mechanically stamped from sheets of brass.

The earliest horse brasses were handmade by the village brassmaker or blacksmith, hammered and filed into shape. With the use of casting, however, designs became much more elaborate. The mold could be made from old or newly created horse brass, to create the pattern. Then the molten metal was poured into the mold. The final product was "shot blasted" to remove roughness, making a smooth finish that could be highly polished.

The last of the large manufacturers of horse brasses stopped making them in 1810, though a few small businesses still made stamped and cast brasses. By the 1960s it was easier to find old harness brasses than new ones. A book written for collectors (All About Horse Brasses, by H.S. Richards) was published in 1943 and went through many subsequent editions, with several hundred photo illustrations. Richards was an ardent collector of horse brasses and made an extensive study of their history, even searching the Bible for references to them.

With renewed interest in draft horses in recent decades, a few companies began making harnesses again and harness accessories such as horse brasses. Horse brasses can be purchased new, if you know where to look for them, but old ones are getting harder to find.

A close examination of old horse brasses can give a clue as to whether they are quite ancient (made by hand, with firing marks around their edges) or made in a modern mold. A genuine horse brass, used on a horse's harness, will be smooth on the back, from dangling and rubbing against the leather harness. To the horseman or collector, these bright pieces look good on the living room wall, or quicken the heart as they jingle on the harness of big horses at the county fair. They are a bit of history that will always be a part of the draft horse tradition.
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Title Annotation:The horse barn
Author:Thomas, Heather Smith
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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