by Ron Kaiser
The season brings the question: “Why do horses wear sleigh bells?” Do people just like to hear them ring, or do they serve a practical purpose?
In earlier times, winter brought different modes of travel. Wagon boxes were moved from running gears to bob-sleds, and the buggy and surrey were replaced by a cutter, a single seat conveyance, or a larger sleigh.
Sleigh bells were quite fashionable in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s because of the pleasant sounds they made in the crisp winter air as the horses trotted through the snow. The bells were usually made of brass or bronze rather than silver because they produced a livelier jingle, and no two sets of bells sounded alike. The better the bells sounded, the higher their price.
Sleigh bells were also used for safety purposes. On narrow, snow-filled, and wooded roads only one track was used except for an occasional wide spot for travelers to pass each other. Drivers would stop there and listen for oncoming travelers as the sleigh bells would echo and could be heard for a half mile. The bells would not only alert other drivers, but the horses as well. Because folks were so bundled up in the cold, the horses would actually hear the bells first and they would avoid running into other teams.
Often you could tell which neighbor was coming by recognizing the sound of his bells. The size and quality of materials used made the sound of each set of sleigh bells distinct. When roads were little more than a path through the woods, the bells also helped scare off bears or mountain lions from attacking the team.
If your sleigh got stuck and you had to be pulled out by a nearby farmer with his team, it was customary to give him your team’s bells. Thus, if you arrived at your destination after a perilous journey with you bells intact, you proudly proclaimed, “We got here with our bells on!”
When visiting the Waterloo Farm Museum, take notice of the sleigh bells hanging in the woodshed, and ask your docent to demonstrate the varied tones.