Horse collar making
The making of collars for horses, traditionally with a leather or serge outer and rye straw filling.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|4 (See ‘Other information’ for more details)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Historically there were three separate trades: saddlery, collar making and harness making. There are two types of collars: heavy horse collars and driving collars. However, today the demand dictates that collar making is done as a complete service with harness making. There are more harness makers today than there are collar makers. The collar is the most important part of the harness and must be the correct size and shape for the horse, and the skill lies in making a collar to fit an individual horse.
In the late-nineteenth century there were approximately 3.3 million working horses, and collar making and the other horse-related trades were thriving. However, by 1900 the number of horses had fallen to 1 million, and by 1914 it had fallen to 20-25,000. As the number of horses fell, the market crashed and the horse-related trades fell into rapid decline. Today, the market for driving collars is much bigger than that for heavy horse collars, and England and mainland Europe provide the main market for handmade collars.
Many collars today are using synthetic materials rather than the traditional rye straw, and it is those traditional skills that are endangered.
Leather cutting, thread making, stitching, stuffing straw, moulding straw with a mallet, and lacing.
Whilst the skills are pretty much the same for both heavy horse and driving collars, makers tend to specialise in one or the other. Because of the size, the heavy collar is harder to make and takes longer.
Collars differ depending on use, e.g light horse-trade, privet driving, country turnout, coaching, all straw coaching spares. Some of the heavy horse collars had regional differences Scottish collars had peaks and brass on them; some working collars would be very plain.
- Hame making: Both John Macdonald and Kate Hetherington make hames. Primarily they make steel close plated brass hames – the alternative being ali-bronze, which is susceptible to breaking due to the casting process and impossible to shape to fit a collar.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: Collar making is specific to horses. In the late-nineteenth century there were approximately 3.3 million working horses, by 1900 this had fallen to 1 million, and by 1914 it had fallen to 20,000-25,000. As the number of horses fell, the market crashed and the horse-related trades fell into rapid decline. Nevertheless, there is a market and the makers are all kept busy, but it is a very small and limited market and is not likely to grow.
Market issues: In order to make a living you need to produce in high volume, which is very difficult to do with collars, especially when you have to subsidise yourself while developing your skills. It is very difficult to make a living until you are proficient, and you need to be prepared to earn very little money while developing your skills.
Market issues: While the work and market is there, it takes a long time to build up a customer base and it is essential to have an excellent quality product and to offer excellent customer service.
Market issues: Online shopping has made people impatient and they are not prepared to wait long enough for the hand production.
Foreign competition: The UK imports a lot of collars from North America, where the manufacturing process has been automated, using stuffing machines and ‘short straw’ (chaff), which has particularly hit the heavy horse collar market. While the quality is inferior to that of a handmade collar, they are substantially cheaper – keeping horses is expensive and people want to save money where possible.
Foreign competition: Most people buy heavy horse collars from abroad, where you can buy a complete set of harness for £1,200 and get it straightaway, rather than paying £5,000-6,000 for a handmade set of harness and waiting six months
Foreign competition: Cheap imports of inferior quality and fit are being passed off as genuine English collars.
Making versus finishing: Some harness makers import collars from the Amish in the USA, and then finish them off in the UK and pass them off as their own – it can be hard for customers to distinguish this.
Ageing workforce: Of the four professional collar makers, two are nearing retirement age.
Recruitment issues: Those interested in attending training courses tend to be people who have taken early retirement or are middle-aged and looking for something to do, rather than those desperately needing to learn a skill. It is challenging to encourage young people as the money isn’t great and the market is not seen to be growing.
Recruitment issues: The main issue is that there is no one taking up the craft. It just needs one super keen younger person to take it up and it would keep the craft ticking over for another few decades.
Training issues: There are no training facilities for collar makers. The Saddlery Training Centre ran courses in collar making for many years but the demand has virtually disappeared, although the last training consultant (John McDonald) will still run a course for anyone seriously interested in learning the skills.
Training issues: While lots of people have been trained in collar making over the years and know how to do it (the skills can be learned in a week), no one has taken it up as a profession. People tend to learn how to make one, and then don’t make another one and forget how to do it. They also tend not to put in the time to develop their skills and customer base.
Loss of skills: The skills necessary to make a heavy horse collar are most at risk of disappearing – there is less demand than for standard collars and they are much slower to make (you can make roughly four standard collars at £400 in the time it takes make one heavy horse collar which can be sold for an absolute maximum of £1,000).
Lack of awareness: Need passionate customers who recognise quality and want the best – have to educate people.
Craftspeople currently known
John McDonald, Dulverton, Somerset (over 60) – makes full range of collars and hames, but specialises in driving collars
Kate Hetherington, Dulverton, Somerset (early 40s) – makes full range of collars and hames, but specialises in driving collars
Terry Davies, Shropshire (over 60) – makes heavy horse collars, approximately 20-30 per year
Ian Huskisson (J C Huskisson & Son Harness Co), Walsall, West Midlands.
Mark Porter (over 60) is the last straw horse collar maker in Australia, making a full range of collars and harnesses for horses, donkeys and camels.
Minimum number of craftspeople: 5-6, across an age range of 20-60 to ensure that there are new people coming into the craft and replacing those who are due to retire. There are currently 4 makers – the market could support one or two more, but not too many.
Total number of craftspeople: There are a further 6-10 saddlers/harness makers capable of recovering and restoring collars.
Training: John McDonald runs some one week courses each year for practicing harness makers to make a collar. It’s practising the techniques afterwards that is key and very difficult.