Winter Chores: Oiling Harness

Oiling harness with skunk oil was one of many winter chores

| January 1999

  • Harnessed horses
    Harnessed horses

  • Harnessed horses

One of the winter chores, and there were always plenty of them to keep everyone busy during the cold and disagreeable "shut in" days, was repairing and oiling the harness.

For those folks who have never wrestled a set of leather double breeching harness off the hook, carried it to the stall, and then swung it over the back of a 16-hands tall mule, it could be hard to appreciate the beauty and complexity couched in that simple act of "harnessing horses."

A set of harness is about 50 percent leather and 50 percent iron. The tugs are two or more inches wide, three-quarters of an inch thick, and four feet long, with another 15 inches of heavy trace chain attached to one end and the other with a steel hook that attaches the tug to the hame. This is a wood-and-steel contraption that goes around the horse collar and is held together with what else but a hame string or strap. No, no, not around an Edsel grille – this is the real thing: a "genuine" horse collar made of leather, with straw or excelsior stuffing.

The lines were 12 or 15 feet long, of inch-wide leather strips. The bridles and neck yoke straps, the belly bands, and all the rest, will add up to a good 60 or 70 pounds. The leather tended to dry out and become dirty with the sweat and dust, so that it was necessary every fall to "oil the harness." This was a job that not only entailed repairing any "patched" or make-shift "field riggin's", but also rubbing skunk oil into the leather to keep it flexible.

Skunk oil? That was the very best leather treatment. It was the rendered fat from a skunk. It was not as smelly as you might think, because fellers like "Lefty" Conover or Charley Waggner knew how to dispatch a skunk before it had time to turn on its sprayer. They would then skin it out, sell the hide to Toab Petty, and cook the fat down in an old lard kettle to make "skunk oil." Skunk oil was really in demand for treating work shoes to make them waterproof and pliable, as well as to oil harness.

Neets Foot Oil was, and still is, the store-bought version, and it was known to be pretty good – a little smelly, maybe, but you didn't notice that much. It sure softened up that leather, but it cost money, hard money, and coin of the realm was in short supply on Muddy Creek.


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