During the early part of the 19th century it became fashionable, if not essential, to place on the leather horses harness trinkets of beaten brass.
These early brasses can be distinguished by a hammered finish, sometimes difficult to detect from the front but very noticeable from the back. Beware, all hammered brasses may not be as old as they seem.
Horse brasses were produced universally over the British Isles but with a north-south divide in one major respect. England and Wales had brass, Scotland and some northern parts of England had white metal - nickel. We see surprisingly little of the white metal variety here in the south.
The variety of horse brasses is vast. The general size of each type did not vary markedly but the patterns and the shapes did. Even the designs and shapes for specific trades and guilds.
So, why decorate a horse? A bit like a Christmas tree. Surely the horse was beautiful enough, I don't think the brass was to beautify. I believe they were there to ward off evil spirits and influences. An insurance if you like. Even today many team men are very superstitious.
Emblems such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the crescent and the cross are all depicted in the brasses. These emblems displayed by journeymen on their horses were there for two good reasons, as we say, to decorate and to insure. These teams would compete and, obviously, you would do as much as you could to upset your competitors by putting on a much better show. What a sight - a ploughing match taking place with all the teams regaled in their finery.
Today, horse brasses are still made and cast in Walsall by Stanley Bros. as they have done for over 100 years.
Prior to the loss of heavy horses from the farm in the early 20th century it was necessary to have at least 3 horses per 200 acres with the necessary back-up ploughman. Each horse was expected to plough some 60 acres per year. Great competitions were had to see who could plough the most accurate furrow.
The subsequent interest and value in horse brasses has had its peaks and troughs. At the moment, values of old genuine brasses are probably at a 20-year low. A fine, 5 brass martingale on leather backing is today worth about £60. A single brass on an old leather backing as little as £10.
Beware of the 20th century fakes and copies, the sort of things seen in pubs and restaurants nailed to the wooden beams over the fire. Old antique brasses are very thin, some are cast and some pressed out. The cast ones have 2 small stumps at the back from which the brass was cut from the mould or casting. Most horse brasses that we see have never seen a horse. On the real item wear and tear is clearly visible, particularly on the islet through which the strap goes. Here you will see a thinning effect of the brass, usually in the centre where the leather strap has rubbed continuously with the movement of the horse.
Horse brasses and fittings have specialist names such as :
Martingale - chest ornament
Swinger or Fly-terret
Rosettes - either side of the bridle
Face brasses - centre of the head
Blinker brass - with the initials of the owner added
Noseband - sometimes names added
Brass ring and bridle
Saddle flyer - similar to terret
Even buckles have their own names such as Buxton or Chatham etc.
Incidentally, noise from the bells on the head dress in the early part of the 20th century caused one lady to complain so that the clappers within the bells were removed. Normally, today, clappers are intact and the bells ring.
Commemorative brasses have been produced since the 19th century for Jubilees, Coronations and specialist national and local events.
To find out much, much more about horse brasses you can become a member of the National Horse Brass Society from the Secretary at 12 Cedern Avenue, Elborough Village, Nr Hunton, Western-super-Mare, BS24 APA.
and receive from them annually a new horse brass.
With grateful thanks to Mike Flood
Mike Hicks © November 2000