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The Swiss collar for developing countries

Main types of traction harnesses

W. Micuta

Waclaw Micuta is Director of the Bellerive Foundation in Geneva and his address is: Renewable Energy Development Institute (REDI), 5 rue du Vidollet, CH-1202 Geneva, Switzerland.

A number of developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, are today faced with a food crisis. Agricultural production is unable to keep pace with the spiralling population growth. The only means of remedying this situation so as to avoid more and more famines between now and the end of the century is to increase agricultural productivity. This in turn will call for a parallel increase in the supply of energy to rural populations. If we are not able to expand the output of locally grown food per head of population, we must regrettably expect further famine and starvation.

The vast majority of farmers in developing countries work relatively small plots of land. Apart from the force of their own muscles, they usually have at their disposal only one other economical and accessible energy source - draught animal power. A recent FAO estimate suggests that, within the next 15 to 20 years, it will be necessary to double the present supply of energy for agricultural traction. Such a staggering increase will clearly call for renewed efforts to improve the efficiency of draught animal energy - a problem to which little or no attention has been paid in the majority of developing countries. Even in those areas where draught animals are in common use, inefficient harnesses invariably inflict on the unfortunate creatures a life of torture during which only part of their power potential is ever exploited. Usually, they work under cruel yokes. Their working lives are considerably reduced as a consequence and they produce little meat, milk or manure, while their work output is suboptimal.

A large number of related problems need to be tackled without delay if the situation is to be improved. For example, it is essential to deal with (and improve) such matters as routine animal husbandry, the provision of feed supplies and veterinary services. Much work wild also have to be undertaken to increase the efficiency of animal-drawn agricultural implements and vehicles. The present article, however, refers to one problem only, namely the efficient harnessing of draught animals.


A harness is a device fitted to an animal that permits its power to be conveyed, thus generating a work output. To meet traction requirements, the characteristics of a good harness are: a correct angle of pull, surface pressure, working position and weight.

1. The angle of pull with a yoke - L'angle de traction avec un joug - Angulo de tiro con un yugo

2. A collar for bovines developed in Switzerland during the Second World War - Un collier pour bovine mis au point en Suisse pendant la seconde guerre mondiale - Collera pare bovinos puesta a punto en Suiza durante la segunda guerra mundial

3. Cow harnessed with a Swiss collar in Switzerland - Vache suisse harnachée avec le collier suisse - Vaca con una collera suiza en Suiza

The angle of pull

Loads are pulled by means of traces that connect the load to the animal. The angle between the trace and the horizontal line at the point of attachment to the load (see Figure 1) is called the angle of pull. This angle should be as narrow as possible so as to use the power of the animal to a maximum. Ideally, there should be no angle at all. However, angles occur, for example, when animals are attached to relatively high carts and when the traces are parallel to the ground. As the angle increases, the pulling force is split at the point of attachment to the animal. Part of the force (R) is wasted for the pulling process and, instead, exerts pressure and added discomfort on the animal. By way of example, if a bullock is harnessed to a yoke and the angle of pull is 30°, the downward pressure on the animal could amount to as much as 50 kg-f. This calculation does not take into account the weight of the yoke itself, which may amount to about 10 kg per animal.

Surface pressure

The efficiency of a harness is greatly influenced by the way it fits the body of the animal. With a traditional yoke or log fitted across the neck, the pulling surface in contact with the animal's body is only about 200 cm². If the animal develops 100 kg-f, each square centimetre of the pulling surface will be subjected to pressure in the region of 500 g-f. Shocks and bumps during work will increase this pressure even further. The consequence is considerable discomfort resulting in diseases of the skin and open wounds. It is hardly surprising that animals harnessed in this way are incapable of fully developing their potential draught capacity.

With a well-designed and properly padded collar for bullocks, the pulling surface on each shoulder may easily be increased to 600 cm² - giving a total of 1 200 cm² over the two shoulders. The pressure on each square centimetre of the animal's back may thus be reduced by a factor of six. This, together with the provision of padding, allows the animal to work more efficiently and without suffering.

Working position

An efficient harness must be designed so that the animal can use its body in a natural way. Placing a yoke on the head or neck obliges the animal to alter its normal stance and also forces it to curve its spine in order to hold the yoke in place. Often adult animals are incapable of doing this and cannot be worked. Apart from considerations of posture, attaching animals by the neck or head is cruel in that it exposes them to considerable, unnecessary suffering when loads are pulled over rough ground. The continual shocks that occur during such work are transmitted directly to very vulnerable parts of the body.

Weight of the harness

Naturally, harnesses should be as light as possible. This being said, the horse collars perfected over the centuries in, for example, Europe and North America, were relatively heavy. Those designed for heavy work weighed about 20 kg. However, given the benefit of modern materials, it is now possible to reduce this figure considerably (Jussiaux, 1976).

Main types of traction harnesses

Many different harnesses have been manufactured by livestock farmers throughout the ages.

It was, of course, also possible to harness horses by means of a breast band. Yet this method was only suitable for light work, otherwise the band tended to wound the animal and press against the blood vessels and windpipe. For this reason, horse collars came to be generally accepted and were improved on, diversified and perfected over the centuries. Horse collars meet all the criteria of a good harness as described previously.

Yokes are primarily designed to facilitate the control of the animal. They are also inexpensive and relatively easy to manufacture. Unfortunately, the efficient utilization of draught power and the comfort of the animal are hardly ever taken into account.


The significant advantages of using a collar harness rather than a yoke are universally recognized. In 1920, while testing harnesses in Grand-Joran, France, Ringelmann established that one ox equipped with a collar could accomplish the same amount of work as two oxen attached to a yoke (Larousse Agricole, 1921). Similarly, in the 1950s Mr Jean Gamier demonstrated in South Asia that a collar harness increased the pulling force of buffaloes by 50 percent.

It is generally accepted that the best harness ever applied to animals is the horse collar. While it first appeared in Europe in the eleventh century, it is not clear whether it was invented on that continent or was brought from the East by Mongolian tribes.

In most areas, the collar harness was employed exclusively with horses, which assumed an increasingly important role as saddle and draught animals.

It is curious to note that the collar harness, despite its acknowledged qualities, has been reserved almost exclusively for horses throughout the centuries. It was not, for example, adapted to bovines or other draught animals such as donkeys and camels. Even in Europe, bovines have traditionally been subjected to cruel and inefficient yokes.

A notable exception to this rule is Switzerland, where farmers did adapt the horse collar to bovines.

These bovine collars are usually referred to as "Bern" collars (Figures 2 and 3). The design was greatly influenced by that of the horse collar and notably provided padding around the animal's body. This enabled farmers not only to increase the draught efficiency of the animals but also to harness horses and bovines together in the same team - an important advantage for farmers who could only afford one horse.

Contrary to popular belief, and perpetuated by the use of yokes, bovines do not pull best from the head or neck. Rather, their pulling force, like that of horses and indeed of human beings, comes from the shoulders (see Figure 4).

The design of the Swiss collar harness for oxen was greatly simplified during the Second World War, when large numbers of draught horses were requisitioned by the army. As tractors were rare and fuel severely rationed, farmers were left with bovines (mainly cows) as their principal energy source for agricultural work and transportation. Faced with this situation, the Swiss authorities invited the Fédération suisse d'élevage de la race tachetée rouge (FSERTR) to conduct research aimed at improving and simplifying the traditional bovine collar and to instruct farmers in the correct use of bovines for agricultural work.

The federation's study was published (FSERTR, 1940) and widely distributed among farmers and harness-makers. The new collar design that resulted from the research represented a significant departure from the horse collar (see Figure 2). Only the shoulders of the animal are protected by two pads, while a third pad, fixed between the two hames, serves to keep the collar in the correct position on the body.

It is generally acknowledged that the three-pad collar developed in Switzerland for bovines is an extremely good one. However, it has usually been considered too costly and too difficult to produce in developing countries. For example, Barnwell and Ayre (1982) state that the three-pad collar provides the advantages of a full collar harness, but it is relatively complex and expensive to produce.

The author [Micuta] consequently began research on means of adapting the Swiss collar to the conditions prevailing in the developing world. The aim of his investigations was to preserve the functional value of the Swiss collar while simplifying the design, thereby reducing production cost, so as to render it accessible to the world's poorest communities.

The basic components of the collar are the hames and the pads - both of which may be readily produced from available local materials.

The hames are formed from two pieces of wood that are shaped to fit the contours of the animal. They should be made from hard, yet resilient wood such as that used for the local manufacture of handles for agricultural tools, for example axes and hoes.

It is essential that the hames fit the animal well in order to ensure maximum comfort. For bovines, which rarely trot, the hames are placed wider apart at the bottom. For animals that do occasionally trot, such as donkeys, the hames may be closed slightly more around the breast so as to provide increased stability.

The shoulders of draught animals must be well protected against the pressure of the hames - hence the importance of the pads. Traditionally, pads have been manufactured from leather but there is no reason why they should not be made from any available cloth. For example, the jute bags (particularly flour sacks) available in all developing countries offer a good solution.

Field adoption of the simplified Swiss collar

The simplified collar was given to some Swiss farmers who continue to use bovines for daily agricultural work. They have been using the collar every day for the last three years and it has given them entire satisfaction. The collars have not as yet shown any signs of deterioration, although the rest of the tackle usually undergoes minor repairs about once a year.

The new equipment has the same functional qualities as the traditional Swiss or Bern collar but is lighter, easier to produce and much less expensive.

Figures 5 and 6 show two cows - one harnessed with the Bern collar and the other with the new model described in this article. Under working conditions, both collars give similar performance and comfort.

At the beginning of 1982, the first harness-maker was trained at the rural stove-making centre established by the Bellerive Foundation in Ruthigiti village (Karat location) near Nairobi, Kenya. The new harness was made locally and fitted to a donkey and cart that were used to deliver completed cooking stoves to outlying households. It was immediately accepted and liked by the local population.

The new harness was subsequently adopted by Rev. Daniel Schellenberg on behalf of the Baptist Mission of Kenya. The author and another Bellerive consultant, Emil Haas, trained disabled persons at the Salvation Army Centre, Thika, in the skills needed for the production of buckles, rings, chains and other items of tackle. The centre was soon able to commence small-scale production and, with assistance from the Baptist Mission, by the end of 1982 the new collar was being used on donkeys in several villages in the Thika region (Figure 7).

In February 1983, a harness-making unit was created within the Agricultural Engineering Department of the University of Nairobi. This step was made possible thanks to the kind cooperation and support of the departmental chairman, Gichuki Muchiri. To set the new unit in motion, basic harness-making tools and equipment were provided and a local harness-maker, Nemehia Kariski, who had been trained the previous year in Ruthigiti, was introduced. The author also demonstrated the techniques needed to fit the collars on different draught animals, notably zebu bullocks (Figure 8) and donkeys. Responsibility for the unit was vested in Mr Dibbits, an assistant professor sponsored by Dutch Technical Assistance.

The Bellerive Foundation's recent experience in Kenya confirms the significant advantages of using a collar harness. Rev. Schellenberg expressed the view that "with the new harness we can help our people to sell one bull but still plough and weed more effectively, which will double their yield" (The Friend, 1983).

Dibbits found that two donkeys harnessed with the Swiss collar could plough on light soil as well as two oxen working under a yoke.

Quite apart from providing increased pull, it should not be overlooked that the new harness also eliminates the suffering caused by the inefficient harnessing techniques prevalent in developing countries. The useful working lives of draught animals are thus prolonged and they produce more and better meat, milk and manure.

4. The angle of pull with a collar - L 'angle de traction avec un collier - Angulo de tiro con una collera

5. The author working in Switzerland with two cows: with a traditional bovine collar (right) and the simplified Swiss collar (left) - L'auteur travaillant en Suisse avec deux vaches: une porte le collier traditionnel (à droite), l'autre le collier simplifié (à gauche) - El autor trabajando en Suiza con dos vacas: una de ellas tiene la collera bovina tradicional (derecha), mientras que la otra tiene la collera suiza simplificada (izquierda)

6. A closer view of the traditional bovine collar (right) and the simplified Swiss collar (left) - Le collier traditionnel (à droite) et le collier simplifié (à gauche) vus de près - Las colleras tradicional (derecha) y simplificada (izquierda) vistas de cerca

7. Donkey working with the simplified Swiss collar in Kenya - Ane travaillant avec le collier suisse simplifié au Kenya - Asno trabajando con la collera suiza simplificada en Kenya

8. Two zebu bulls working with the simplified Swiss collar in Kenya - Deux taureaux zébus travaillant avec le collier suisse simplifié au Kenya - Pareja de toros cebúes trabajando con la collera suiza simplificada en Kenya

9. The hames - Les attelles - Horcates

10. The pads - Les coussinets - Albardillas

Local manufacture of the simplified Swiss collar

The manufacture of the new harness does not call for a high degree of skill, sophisticated tools or rare materials. It may be readily produced in any African or Asian village by local harness-makers who have undergone a few months' training.

Provided that production is well organized and local harness-makers are regularly supplied with the necessary components at a reasonable price, there is no reason why the new harness should not be manufactured at a cost within the means of the potential users.

On the basis of experience to date, the author feels that the principal technical difficulties involved in the design and development of a simple, collar-type harness for developing countries have now been resolved. Sufficient experience has been gained under field conditions to envisage promoting the Swiss collar in other developing countries. To achieve this, it is now necessary to concentrate attention on the vocational training of local harness-makers (the craft is virtually unknown in many developing countries) who will produce and repair the harnesses. Measures will also need to be taken to reduce the price of components such as metal parts that are not always readily available in developing-world villages.


It is essential to encourage a new attitude towards the treatment of draught animals. European farmers treat their animals as friends - almost members of the family. They are well groomed and taken care of and are never overworked. Humans and animals must form a team and, as is the case with the Swiss collar, the animals' head and neck must be free in case they need to defend themselves against cruel treatment. The Swiss collar should, consequently, only be introduced among people who are willing to understand, respect and cherish their animals.


The following guidelines should be followed for the manufacture of the simplified Swiss collar.

The basic components of the collar are the hames and the pads - both of which may be readily produced from locally available materials.

Hames. The hames are formed from two pieces of wood, shaped to fit the contours of the animal (see Figure 9). They should be made from hard, yet resilient wood, for example, the wood used locally for the manufacture of handles for agricultural tools such as axes or hoes. It is important to ensure that the grain of the wood runs along the curve, as this strengthens the hames. If the grain does not follow the curve, or runs in the opposite direction, the hames may break - especially at the points where the traces are attached or where the curve is most accentuated.

In the past, harness-makers sought pieces of wood with natural curves in order to construct the hames. Later they learnt to bend straight sections, using heat or steam (the same technique is, of course, used by wheelwrights).

11. Filling a pad - Remplissage du coussinet - Rellenando una albardilla

12. Filling the "sausage" - Remplissage de la «saucisse» - Rellenando el cojinete

13. Attaching the pads to the hames - Fixation des coussinets sur les attelles - Unión de las albardillas a los horcates

14. Attaching the "sausage" to the hame - Fixation de la «saucisse» sur l'attelle - Unión del cojinete al horcate

If good-quality wood is used, the thickness of the hames need not exceed 3 cm for bovines and 2 cm for donkeys. If the wood is less satisfactory, the thickness will probably have to be increased to compensate. While good-quality wood is always desirable, the author has found during field work that satisfactory harnesses may still be made even if the wood is not ideal in all respects.

In order that the hames fit properly, the contours of the animal in its normal standing posture should be carefully measured. This task may be facilitated by using thin copper wire that can be bent along the animal's body to reproduce the exact shape. An even better solution, when available, is to use the rubber strip employed by engineers for measuring the curves.

Measurement is started at the top of the neck, just in front of the point of the shoulder. The contours recorded with the copper wire or rubber strip are transposed on to a sheet of paper and the wood is then cut accordingly. It should be noted that the width of the hames must be larger in the middle section where the traces are attached. Like a bow, the thickness tails off at the top and bottom and the extremities are curved outwards to provide strong anchors for the leather straps (at the top) and the chain (at the bottom) that hold the two hames together (Figure 9).

Pads. Traditionally, pads have been manufactured from leather, but there is no reason why they should not be made from any available cloth. For example, the jute bags (particularly flour sacks) available in all developing countries offer a good solution.

The chosen material is folded and cut as shown in Figure 10 and then sewn together by hand or by machine. A line of stitching is made 6 cm from the lower (wider) edge of the pad to create a smaller sausage-shaped compartment that will serve to attach the pad to the hame. The material is then turned inside out and filled with any suitable stuffing material that is available locally (Figures 11 and 12). The chosen material must be "springy" so that the pad will not flatten during work. One of the best stuffings is animal hair, which is resilient to pressure and also to sweat. There are, however, a number of vegetal matters that could serve as well. Local mattress-makers may be a useful source of information on suitable stuffing materials, which include sand sedge as well as fibres from palms, agave, coconuts or sisal. The lower, sausage-shaped compartment should be filled before the main body. Once the stuffing process has been completed, the edges of the pad may be stitched. The upper compartment is then folded over (see Figure 10) and sewn down.

Attaching the pad to the hame calls for some skill on the part of the harness-maker. Leather thongs are passed between the sausage compartment and the main body of the pad, threaded through holes in the hame and fixed (Figures 13 and 14).

The traces are attached to the hames by means of two holes drilled through the hame at a point that is level with the animal's shoulders.


Barnwell, I. & Ayre, M. 1982. The harnessing of draught animals. Intermediate Technology Pub.

FAO. 1982. Proc. Expert Consultation on the Rational Use of Animal Energy in Africa and Asia. Rome, FAO.

FSERTR. 1940. Guide de l'attelage du bétail bovin. Berne, Suisse, Fédération suisse d'élevage de la Race Tachetée Rouge.

Jussiaux, M. 1976. Le cheval. Paris, Hachette.

Larousse Agricole. 1921. Joug. Paris, Larousse.

The Friend. 1983. 14 October 1983.

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