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Harnessing Cassandra

Short text written to accompany a photo in Draft Horse Connection magazine.

Photo © Dana Whittle

Catherine’s father had the heavy harness on his forearm, its leather giving off a soft glow from the oils he had massaged it with beside the wood stove last night, hanging it indoors to fully absorb this nourishment until the next day’s chores. Out in the barn, he hung it on a large hook on the wall.

Catherine knew everything about harnessing Cassandra, the family’s draft mare, but she wasn’t tall enough to do the job. Her father had the collar on his other arm, now turning it upside down and offering it to the great dappled mare, who dipped her head through its “O.” He righted it again and slid it into place at the base of her muscular neck, which sprung like a massive, graceful tree trunk from her large shoulders. He took care to lift the mane out from beneath it, for this could irritate and cause sores if the work was hard or hot enough.

Next, he set the hames into their respective channels on each side of the collar, attaching them underneath the mare’s neck and gently looping the traces across her back. Catherine held the lead line, putting her cheek against Cassandra’s soft muzzle while her father neatly swung the “sellette,” as he called it, over the horse’s broad back and the “fessier,” or brichen, over what seemed a mountain of rump. He made sure not to catch the traces underneath all this and alternately talked and hummed to Cassandra, who waited patiently with her small charge. The girth and breast strap were attached, the brichen arranged under the thick tail, with the hold-back straps looped back through the keepers to avoid catching on anything.

Now, he unbuckled Cassandra’s halter, or “licou,” as it is called here in Québec, dropping it to the ground, and cupping her head in the crook of his arm, slipped on the bridle with its large blinders and small brass spots. He checked that the bit was correctly positioned, attached the throatlatch and neatly organized her forelock under the browband so that it would not get into her eyes. Taking up the lines, which were folded precisely and slipped through the hames rings on each side, then looped over the brass hames balls, he carefully ran each through the terrets and hames rings and buckled them to the bit.

This was Catherine’s favorite moment, for after Cassandra was completely harnessed, it was she who would take the buttery lines in her tiny hands and stepping behind the mare, drive her forward with a special kissing sound and a quiet word, out the sliding barn door to where the wagon awaited them.