“Right now I’m paying more for the hide on the cow than they’re getting for the whole cow.”
– BILL MADSEN, HARNESS MAKER
Harness making is a passion for 86-year-old Bill Madsen of Decker, Manitoba.
Even though this quiet, modest man lives and keeps to himself, his business is a hub of activity for many in the horse industry, partly due to his history of showing Clydesdale horses for 25 years. He even sold a gelding to the famed Budweiser hitch back in the 1960s.
The craftsmanship in the harness he makes is another source of pride. Unfortunately, harness making is becoming a dying art.
With only a handful of harness-makers left in the province, some of the regulars are concerned about where they will go for repairs in the future. “There used to be a harness maker in every town back in the day,” said Madsen. “Now there aren’t that many of us left around. If we were pipers, we wouldn’t hear each other.”
“My dad was the harness maker in Decker in the ’20s and ’30s; that is where I learned to sew harness. My dad got me stitchin’ breeching when I was 10 years old, and boy, was he particular. I’ve never seen anyone sew as straight as he did. He could sew just as good as the machines today, and it was a lot stronger, too.
“The reason it was better and stronger was because the stitches overlapped each other instead of interlocking like the machines do,” he held up his fingers in an“X” and then with his index fingers interlocked. “The machine stitching rubs back and forth and eventually wears through, whereas the other doesn’t.
“It’s a good thing they came out with these sewing machines as I couldn’t begin to hand stitch, it would take me forever. Nor can I stitch straight enough to suit me,” he said.
With the speed and efficiency that the introduction of tractors provided beginning in the 1940s, live horsepower became a hobby instead of a necessity. This resulted in a recession in the harness-making industry. A lot of the harness makers took up other occupations, including Madsen, who farmed for years until he retired in 1978, renting his land to his nephew. He needed something to do to help pass the time and started back at his craft. Little did he know it would be a full-time job.
“If anybody had told me the year I started it that I would be this busy, I would have told them they were crazy,” he laughed.
“A big part of my business is with the PMU (pregnant mare urine) ranchers in the area. During the expansion years of PMU, I was fixing 600 to 1,000 halters a year, as well as all the other usual harness repairs. I was busy year round,” said Madsen.
“I’ve sewn harness for people from the Lakehead (Thunder Bay) to British Columbia,” he notes.
Although his focus is in providing services to the draft horse community, he has also made and repaired harness for miniature horses, as well as light horses and ponies. He prefers to work with the draft horse harness as this is what he knows the best, but he will apply his self-taught craft to attempt anything that people want.
“I made a set of six-up harness for a miniature hitch in B. C. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did ’er. It was so small, it was hard to work with,” said Madsen. “I like the draft harness. It is bigger and easier to stitch.”
Madsen’s preference is still with the leather harness, although he is seeing the trend move toward nylon and biothane.
“Personally, I don’t like biothane harness. I know the guys like it because it is lighter and cheaper to buy, but it is hard to fix. Someone brought me a piece of biothane harness to have spots replaced on, and I spent more time and spots fixing one than I would have doing a whole set of leather,” he said in disgust.
“Occasionally I work with the nylon, but it is strong and hardly ever breaks,” said Madsen.
But it is leather that reflects his true craftsmanship and skill.
Madsen feels that one of his greatest accomplishments as a harness maker was to complete a set of John Deere harness two years ago for Richard Bilinsky of Rossburn. Bilinsky wanted his horses to carry the Deere trademark colours and had Madsen custom sew a set of harness complete with yellow and green trim and the John Deere logos he had specially ordered.
He uses his team of Belgian horses in their custom harness to proudly pull the various pieces of John Deere horse-drawn equipment he owns. Each year the Bilinsky family hosts a threshing bee, with the horses – wearing their custom harness – helping to bring the sheaves to the John Deere threshing machine.
Madsen thinks it would be very difficult for a young person starting out in the business. “When I started out it was strictly going to be a hobby, something to help pass the time. I fixed harness because I wanted to, I never really charged for my time, just my supplies and materials. If someone truly wanted it to be their business, they would have to charge a lot more than what I’m charging to make a livin’.”
When he started in the business, he was paying $100 for a side of leather. That price has since quadrupled.
“Right now I’m paying more for the hide on the cow than they’re getting for the whole cow,” he said shaking his head. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
In the 30 years that Madsen has been the resident harness maker in the area, he has accumulated over $160,000 in stock alone, not to mention his equipment.
The biggest change that he has noticed in the industry is the move from brass fittings and decorations to chrome.
He has also noticed that the size of the horses has gotten much larger.
“I like ’em small so I can get the harness on myself,” he chuckled. “I like to keep a pair of horses here to help keep me outta trouble. I like the real quiet ones that I can hitch up myself and go for a ride whenever I want. Trouble is, usually when I decide to go for a drive, someone will come by with some harness to fix, and I have to stop and go do business.”
With his eyesight deteriorating and the recent sale of his farmland, Madsen is talking of selling out.
“I don’t want to go,” he confessed. But my farm is sold, and I don’t want to live on land I don’t own.”
He’s hoping there’ll be someone ready to take up the harness-making reins.
Madsen has noticed an upswing in the number of people who are opting for live horsepower instead of tractors. He attributes this to the economy and the cost of operating the equipment, as well as the desire for some folks to return to simpler times.
“A few fellows I’ve talked to jokingly say they can’t afford the price of fuel to run their tractor for chores, so they are using their horses to help earn their keep. A horse will always start in cold weather,” he joked.