What Are Horse Brasses?

Written by paige cerulli
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What Are Horse Brasses?
Horse brasses are medallion-like ornaments which decorate many horse harnesses. (Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Horse brasses are small, medallion-like ornaments which are used to decorate the harnesses of cart-pulling horses. Traditionally made of pure brass, horse brasses come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from the relatively simple to the ornate. Horse brasses have been used for hundreds of years and are still popular on the harnesses of today.

Origin of Horse Brasses

Horse brasses are said to have originated in the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic Wars. The brasses may have been brought to England by gypsies, but it is also possible that the idea is much older, originating during the Crusades. The creation of horse brasses is founded in the belief in the "evil eye," an evil which was grounded in darkness. The brasses were believed to ward off that evil, so early horse brasses were made in the shapes of suns and stars to protect horse against the evil of darkness.

Methods of Production

The first horse brasses were handmade. An artist cut and hammered a shape out of a larger piece of brass. Because of the work-intensive process, brasses produced by this method tended to be of a simple design. More detailed horse brasses were made through a process called casting, which began around 1825. To cast a brass, an artist first designed a three-dimensional pattern and carved it out of a piece of wood. The pattern was pressed into a mould made of sand, and then liquid brass was poured into the moulded shape and allowed to harden, producing the horse brass. Less popular was the stamp method of making brasses. A metal die was used to literally stamp individual horse brasses out of a larger sheet of brass. This method began in 1880 but it was cost-effective only for major manufacturers because of the expense of the metal die.

Modern Horse Brasses

Today's horse brasses are typically cast because it is a low-cost method of production. Modern horse brasses may be very detailed in design and come in a wide variety of shapes, ranging from simple circles and crescents to 6- and 7-point stars. Designs may also incorporate animals such as horses or lions, and custom-made brasses may feature a company's logo or an owner's initials.

Collecting Horse Brasses

Collecting horse brasses became a popular hobby in the 1900s. This spurred the creation of a number of publications dedicated to the history and collection of horse brasses, such as the three volume piece, Collecting Horse Brasses, written by H. S. Richards.

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