The use of horse brass dates back to the pre-Roman period with a complete set of horse trappings with amulets, found in North Africa in 1932. Although the early forms were mostly made of bronze, some have been discovered made of silver, or gold inlaid and inset with semi-precious stones, those of brass belong to a much more recent period. Just when these brass ornaments began is a matter of conjecture, but it is recognised that they are more or less replicas of trappings that were used in pagan times, before the Christian era.
Pictured left: A Collection of Victorian and Later Horse Brasses – Late 19th and Early 20th Century – Comprising one large leather strap with a crowned ‘W’ brass above a column of four single brasses; one long strap with four brasses; four small straps with brass studs and single pendant brasses; eight brasses mounted on leather backings; thirty two loose brasses including an 1882 ploughing prize brass and an 1887 jubilee brass; three swing brass finials, two loose buttons and a leather purse. Sold for £625 at Christies, London , January 2009.
Brass was not made in England until the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, and brass casting which was introduced in the seventeenth century, was not utilised for small objects until a hundred years later. The early hammered pendants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are so rare, that they are highly prized. Horse brasses therefore came into general use about the time of the Napoleonic wars, and were prominently displayed on state occasions, and at festivals, fairs and other happenings of English life. In the coastal areas and Scotland, brasses were often made of nickel as the salt air affected the brass.
Pictured right: A Collection of Horse Brasses 19th/20th century – Including examples depicting animals, the coronation of George V and Elizabeth II, together with eleven books relating to collecting horse brasses. Sold for £120 at Christis, London, December 2006.
Silver was also used in the manufacture of the “brasses” and used mainly by the wealthy to display family crests or initials. Later horse brasses were cast in moulds or stamping from a sheet of brass. Casting was the earlier method and the studs or getts were used to remove the finished piece from the mould and then attach to the leather or file down. Often the cast brasses have the remains of these getts still showing. Many reproduction brasses also have the impressions of the old studs as an integral part of their manufacture.
Pictured left: A quantity of horse brass face-pieces and mounted leather martingales, late 19th or early 20th century comprising; various pierced designs some commemorating Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubliee and Edward VII’s coronation, other emblems including the geometic sun, crescent moon, the prancing horse, the Prince of Wales feathers, elephant and castle; a quantity of flyterret’s and saddle flyer’s; a selection of brass mounted leather martingale’s and other leather straps. Sold for £823 at Christies, London, July 2003.
Horse brasses were used for both decoration and for protection for the horses. Horses were very important and their owners believed that the early amulet designs of the brasses kept evil spirits from harming the horses who were unable to protect themselves. The earliest designs were symbols and shapes which had specific meanings to ward off the evil and to bring good luck. Tradition has it that the ancient Greeks and Romans considered the crescent moon as a sign of good luck. From this belief thousands of horse trappings have borne this device. The sun god whose countenance was revered and held in awe by the ancient Persians who often sacrificed a horse in its honour, was most popular as a symbol. Many of the oldest horse brasses depict the stars, after the manner and belief of the Three Wise Men, who relied on one for guidance. Others include mythological motifs including the sacred lotus and the lyre of Apollo.
Pictured right: A Group Of Twenty-Two English Horse Brasses, late 19th/early 20th century, of various shapes and sizes now mounted in a giltwood frame – frame: 18in. (45cm.) high, 63in. (160cm.) wide (22). Sold for $1,673 at Christies, New York, October 2003.
British horse brass designs included: bull’s head with horns, and the horse, either rampant or passant on the Saxon banner. Clubs, hearts, diamonds and spades in their turn have all been made use of on brasses. Only occasionally are seen brasses in the shape of crosses unless they are of modern make. Any old pendants bearing this Christian sign are presumed to have survived from the days of the Canterbury pilgrims. Later the brasses began to portray more obvious designs and represent current subjects and events, often grouped together on leather straps to tell a “story” about the owner or his trade.
Pictured left: A large collection of horse brasses – length of longest strap 20in. Sold for $183 at Bonhams, Los Angelese, Feb, 2010.
Farmers would have agricultural objects like a tree, an owl or barnyard fowl. Some brasses would illustrate, the marks if various trades, when churns, barrels and even a railway engine would be rep-resented. It should be realised, however, that there is a subtle difference between old brasses and those of today. Early types were worked by craftsmen who used solid plate and faithfully reproduced exact replicas of horse brasses which had been used from time immemorial, and rarely did they deviate from the traditional designs.
Pictured right: A quantity of 19th and 20th century brass horse brasses to include RSPCA merit brasses from 1927, 28, 29 & 33, a London Cart Horse Parade brass 1907 and assorted others. Sold for £192 at Bonhams, February 2008.
Horse brasses have often been employed to indicate the calling of the owner. On farms of titled gentry, this fact would be shown by brasses bearing the family crest or some heraldic device such as a bear, lion, unicorn or elephant; in hunting circles the stag, fox or hound would be appropriate.
The demand for horse brasses parallels the use of the horse and industrial development and reached its peak in the second half of the 19th Century and declined after the First World War. Horse brasses are still used today, and have also become popular as decorative items. Apart from the exceptionally rare brasses, fine examples can be still bought relatively cheaply and the diverse nature make them an ideal collectible.
A full set consists of ten to twelve brasses—one or two large ones known as the Face Piece, for the forehead; a number of smaller brasses for the martingale (the strap which passes from the girth between the forelegs and up over the chest) and on the top of the horse’s head where the ceremonial plume was worn. The combination of highly polished horse brasses, bells, plumes, martingales, straps and bands made for a beautifully decorated and protected (both physically and spiritually) horse.
The National Horse Brass Society
Books on Horse Brasses