The History and Present Use of Horse Brasses
If you have ever watched a parade of horses, you’ve likely seen horse brasses on the leather straps that attach the horses to the carriage they are pulling.
Brasses are most commonly seen in use on draft and cart horses.
A Brief History of Horse Brasses
Unless you know a thing or two about horse tack, chances are you haven’t given much thought to them serving any purpose beyond making the horse look pretty.
Decking horses out with brasses is a practice that’s been around since before the Romans, although the metal used then was not actually brass but rather bronze. It is thought that horse brasses in pre-Roman times were amulets used to ward off evil spirits. While this may have been true, horse brasses on leather straps were more widely used as status symbols for the wealthy.
The development and use of brass in horse tack did not occur until the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st (1559-1603) in England. Even with the introduction of brass, a brass-like alloy of copper and zinc known as “latten” was commonly used until at least 1830.
The English town of Walsall, already established as a prominent place for the manufacture of horse tack from 1830 on, became a sort of landmark for the production of—and growing interest in—horse brasses.
From large producers down to solitary craftspeople, the manufacture of horse brasses grew from that point until some 2000 designs had come into existence.
These days, horse brasses can be found decorating the saddlery of working horses regardless of the social class of the horse’s owner or handler. Brasses have also been made as commemorative pieces for horse clubs, corporations or event coordinators and are often used as decorations in pubs and restaurants.
As jewellery, horse brasses have even crossed the species barrier to become a popular motif for necklaces and earrings.
To this day, all additional uses aside, brasses are still used in horse finery.
Common Motifs on Horse Brasses
Although there are over 2,000 horse brass designs in existence, there are some designs and motifs that are commonly found, such as:
- The crescent moon was considered to be lucky by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
- Apollo’s lyre is a motif that comes from Greek mythology.
- Trees and barnyard animal motifs were popular with farmers.
- Family crests and heraldic motifs were used by the titled gentry.
- Trade-related motifs, such as brewery barrels, were used by people associated with those trades.
- Hearts, moons, stars and so on have Romany origins.
Manufacturing Methods for Horse Brasses
There were two traditional ways of manufacturing horse brasses: casting and stamping.
The casting method is the oldest way of manufacturing these horse decorations. The patterns were first created in lead, which was then pressed into tightly packed sand-filled boxes, with up to 10 to a box. Small channels were made in the sand, connecting each pattern indentation so that molten metal could pass from one indentation to the next. After the metal cooled, the patterns would be separated from each other and then sanded and polished smooth. This finishing process used to be done by hand, but it is now done with machinery.
The stamping method came along around 1880. It involved using a fly press to stamp a pattern onto sheets of metal, one punch at a time. In later years, machines were developed that could stamp out an entire design at one time.
After WWI, the demand for heavy horse harness furnishings died down considerably, and the stamping method of production suffered as a result. It was through the work of small-time manufacturers specializing in casting that horse brasses lived on and eventually enjoyed a renewed interest.
Horse Brass Use Today
Where horse brasses used to be status symbols for the wealthy and then tack furnishings for draft and carriage horses, they are now largely used in parades or other events where a horse’s finery is expected to be displayed. For example, a carriage driver that has been hired for a wedding may deck their horses out in brasses to fit the elegance of the occasion.
In addition to their traditional use on horses, brasses are also used in several other ways, including:
- As decorations in homes, pubs, country clubs, restaurants and many other social spots.
- As jewellery.
- As commemorative art for important events, such as royal coronations.
- As advertising.
- As souvenirs for places and social events.
While horse brasses are not among the most financially valuable collector’s items, they do enjoy immense popularity. In this way, they have a kind of value that money simply cannot buy. Theirs is the value of history, culture and charm.
Are Horse Brasses Lucky?
Things that are considered to bring good luck are generally items that are steeped in history and superstition, such as the horseshoe, the lucky rabbit’s foot, or the 4-leaf clover.
- In the case of the horseshoe, hanging a horseshoe—open end up—over a doorway is said to accumulate luck for the household.
- As for the rabbit’s foot, the animal itself was considered to be sacred by many early civilizations, so it was thought that having a rabbit’s foot as a talisman would bring one good fortune.
- Finding a 4-leaf clover was such a rarity that the Irish felt the extra leaf brought good luck to those who found one or had it on their person.
The horse brass is, likewise, steeped in history and superstition. If you consider that horse brasses used to be thought of as amulets to protect a horse (and thus its handler) by warding off evil spirits, then they sit alongside the best of the best as a good luck charm.
At Tally Ho Tours, we treat our draft horses as if they are the luckiest of good luck charms: with love and respect.
Stop by our tour location in downtown Victoria, BC, to meet some of our horses and drivers face to face, or book one of our carriage tours to make memories that will last a lifetime.