Old Ways

Horse Brasses, What Exactly are They?

Horse brasses were fastened to various parts of the horse’s harness, and a horse could wear up to three hundred at a time.

Originally horse brasses began as charms or amulets to ward off evil and to bring good luck, but they continued as festive decoration long after their original use had been forgotten.

Horse brasses are fastened to various parts of the harness, to face pieces, to martingales and to side pieces. (A martingale is part of the horse’s harness from the collar and between the front legs that is used to control head carriage).

A typical set of horse brasses on a horse is ten or twelve but many more can be worn – up to as many as three hundred brasses, though when they are more numerous the smallest are little more than studs.

Some horse brasses were used in folk rituals and festivals, particularly those related to agriculture and seasonal cycles.
Some horse brasses were used in folk rituals and festivals, particularly those related to agriculture and seasonal cycles.

In ancient Rome, horse harnesses often featured decorative elements known as phalerae—typically made of bronze and shaped into bosses, disks, or crescents, usually appearing in pairs on a harness. In medieval England, horse brasses emerged before the 12th century, serving both as talismans and status symbols.

This brass piece features a crescent shape, representing the Moon Goddess, which was traditionally seen as a potent safeguard against the evil eye and witches. Within the crescent, an eight-pointed star is embedded. It was commonly believed that a crescent moon oriented with its points upward offered protection against fire, while one pointing downward provided protection against water. The combination of the star and crescent also served as a symbol of the Byzantine Emperors.

However, thorough research by the National Horse Brass Society has established that these early adornments bear no relation to the horse brasses used by the working class in the mid-19th century, which emerged during a revival of the decorative arts after the Great Exhibition.

Read More: The Wheelwright a Crucial Person in the Village

Many myths persist about these ornaments, such as their supposed powers to ward off the “evil eye.” The most common form is a flat brass piece, approximately 3 × 3+1⁄2 inches, equipped with a hanger for attaching to a horse harness strap, known as a Martingale.

In England, as the era of the heavy horse waned, many of these harness items found new homes in country public houses, where they continue to serve as decorations.

Horse brasses were believed to protect the horse from evil and bring good luck, functioning almost as amulets.
Originally, they were believed to protect the horse from evil and bring good luck, functioning almost as amulets.

By the late 19th century, heavy horses were adorned with brasses of various types and sizes. This period also saw the popularity of working horse parades across the British Isles, where horses were showcased and sometimes awarded prizes or merits, occasionally sponsored by the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Read More: Post Boxes, Their History & How to Tell Their Age

Carters, or horse cart drivers, valued these brasses highly and used them to decorate their horses. Horse brass designs have included advertisements, royal commemorations, and, more recently, souvenirs commemorating places and events, with many still being produced and used today.

Horse Brass – Fly Terret

A fly terret, also known as a swinger, served as an alternative head ornament to head bells and plumes, and was used in conjunction with other horse brasses. It features one or more polished brass disks that swing within brass rings. Often, these disks were miniature replicas of the larger brasses found elsewhere on the horse.

Victorian Fly Terrets

Collecting horse brasses as more than just harness decorations began around 1880 when women started purchasing newly issued, pierced-design, die-struck brasses for use in pin-cushions.

Read More: The Iconic Village Blacksmith and Forge

Shortly thereafter, these brasses were also used as fingerplates on doors, a practice corroborated by the trade magazine “Saddler and Harness” and accounts from veteran saddler William Albery of Horsham in Sussex.

From 1890 onward, collecting various types of brasses, such as face-pieces, swingers, and hame-plates, became a popular hobby among the upper and middle classes.

Take your pick....
Take your pick….

Notably, many academics and professionals, including A.H. Tod, a Master at Charterhouse School, and Dr. Kirk of Pickering in Yorkshire, whose collection remains at the York Castle Museum in York, began forming significant collections.

The period also saw romantic Victorian writings emerge about the mythical and ancient origins of these decorations, suggesting they were talismanic symbols brought back by knights returning from the Crusades or by migrating Romani, though no evidence supports these theories.

Cast Brasses

Opinions vary on the origins of working-horse harness decoration in the British Isles, but most collectors agree that cast brasses were among the first decorations to appear.

Read more: Medieval Bridge in Exeter, a Very Rare Relic

Initially, these decorations were simple, cast studs likely made locally by smiths or other skilled artisans. By the late 19th century, however, production had transformed into a national fashion, primarily centered in the West Midlands.

Stamped Brasses

Stamped brasses for heavy horse harnesses emerged around 1880, possibly evolving from earlier manufacturing processes used for carriage harness trappings and military insignia.

The designs often have specific local or historical significance, making horse brasses part of regional folklore and tradition.
The designs often have specific local or historical significance, making horse brasses part of regional folklore and tradition.

Production peaked just before World War I and declined in quality after the 1920s, likely due to early animal welfare movements advocating for lighter alternatives to heavy cast brasses. Stamped brasses, thinner and pressed from rolled brass sheets about 1/16 inch thick, became widespread, although some are very rare today.

Read more: What Exactly is a Forest, it Doesn’t Mean Trees

Both cast and stamped brasses continue to be produced, mainly for the souvenir trade and enthusiasts within the heavy horse community who continue to breed and show various breeds.

The National Horse Brass Society of England has a global membership and offers publications, member services, and swap meets to enthusiasts around the world.

Horse brasses were first used in the UK, particularly popular in England from the 17th century onwards.

Common Motifs on Horse Brasses

There are more than 2,000 horse brass designs known today, but certain motifs and designs are particularly prevalent, including:

  • The crescent moon, which was regarded as a symbol of luck by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • Apollo’s lyre, a motif derived from Greek mythology.
  • Motifs of trees and barnyard animals, which were favored by farmers.
  • Family crests and heraldic designs, commonly used by the titled gentry.
  • Trade-related motifs, such as brewery barrels, which were popular among those involved in specific trades.
  • Designs featuring hearts, moons, stars, and similar elements, which have Romany origins.

In England, as the era of the heavy horse faded, many harness items found a new home in country public houses, where they continue to be popular as pub decorations today.