Farming Magazine - June, 2013


Working Horses: Collar Conversations

By Vicki Schmidt

A properly fitted collar with a vinyl pad stays in place and "with" the horse. A collar that does not move about as the horse maneuvers during work prevents bruising and chafing, which helps prevent sore shoulders and collar sores.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

One of the best investments a draft horse owner can make is the purchase of a quality collar. Visit any harness shop or website and the variety of collars seems endless. As an owner, trainer and instructor, people often ask me: How do I determine if a collar is of high quality? Is a used collar a wise investment? How do I know what's right for my draft, and how do I choose among the different options?

All quality draft horse collars are made of leather. Realize that even though we say that horses pull, they actually don't pull at all; draft horses push into the collar. The push action works with the harness and tugs to transfer the push energy into pull.

A good collar not only fits properly, but should also be smooth to the touch as you run your hands along any part of the collar that touches the horse. The collar should not feel bumpy, wavy or uneven. Bumps and unevenness along a collar are caused by inattention during the stuffing process. Both are signs of a lower-quality collar.

Stitching and lacing are also indicators of quality. One is not always a better choice over the other, but always ensure the stitching and/or lacing are of even spacing, with clean, crisp workmanship.

Collars also come in styles that are termed "split" or "full-grain." Split leather is derived from very thick leather that is essentially peeled into two thinner pieces. Split-grain will be glossed and smooth on one side, but rough on the other. Full-grain is leather that has not been split, so it is smooth and glossed on both sides. Split leather collars are generally a little cheaper than full-grain, but if made well are of equal quality.

A used collar may or may not be a good investment. Modern craftsmanship and stuffing create a collar that is much lighter than collars made decades ago. Lighter collars with a good fit are gentle on a horse's neck. Options such as vinyl pads also allow for a more comfortable fit. If a collar has been well-kept and the leather is not cracked and the stitching is still intact, then a used collar will often be a good buy, but only if it's of the correct size for your draft.

Many shops will take a well-maintained and gently used collar in trade. This is handy if you do find a good used one that doesn't fit your draft, or if your draft outgrows one. Collars that are older and heavier, or ones with cracked leather or torn stitching, are best used in more decorative ways, such as to create a clock frame or mirrored wall ornament.

If a collar is a bit too large, but one your draft will soon grow into, consider a top neck pad. This small pad clips to the top of the collar and takes up to about .5 inch of room. A full vinyl collar pad is often the choice for the everyday driver. This type of pad stays dry and is easy to keep clean. Vinyl pads do not absorb moisture or sweat and can be used continuously without having to dry or air out overnight. Vinyl pads also reduce friction and dissipate heat, which prevents collar sores, so you'll often see vinyl pads termed "no sore" or "healing pads."

After every work or schooling session, the shoulders and neck of your draft should be rubbed dry and clean with a soft towel. The collar and/or pad should also be wiped clean of sweat and dirt. If you use tick cloth or fake fur pads, or have tick facing on your collars, brush them as clean as possible with a clean brush and set them where there is ample warm airflow that allows them to dry in an efficient fashion.

If your draft's collar or pads have absorbent tick facing, make sure they are properly brushed clean and dried before reusing. Damp and/or dirty collars and pads create friction and lead to soreness in the neck and shoulders.

One thing to fully understand is that using a damp pad or collar on the bare shoulders of your horse will invite friction and cause continued soreness. Remember, a horse pushes into a collar to create the power to pull the load. If a horse's shoulders are sore, not only is asking them to work bordering on abuse, but it will also create a horse that quickly sours and resents work.

If you choose not to use a pad and a shoulder starts to get sore, apply a thin coat of zinc oxide to the shoulder twice a day until it heals. This will dissipate the heat and provide healing support for the thin skin that covers the shoulder. You can also apply zinc oxide to the shoulders as a preventive the first few times your draft is worked a little harder than it's used to. Proper collar fit and the use of a vinyl pad will prevent collar sores.

Want to know more about collars and proper care and fitting? On the Rural Heritage website, there is an informative page dealing with collars, hames and sore shoulders. They have a great deal to offer and I highly recommend their readings, especially for new or novice drivers. Visit them online at

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. The farm features drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.