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Words new to me: дуга in horse harness terminology

November 1, 2013

Дуга ‘arc, arch’ is a reasonably common word that’s used broadly. For example, in Nekrasov спину гнет дугой ‘bends his back in an arc’ is shorthand for overly deferential behavior. But there’s also дуга ‘shaft bow.’ A shaft bow, Wikipedia says, is “an element of horse harness that is attached to the front of the shafts of a horse-drawn vehicle and joins them by arching high above the neck of the horse. Use of the shaft bow is widespread in the area east of the Baltic Sea (RussiaFinland and the eastern Baltic countries). A shaft bow is also used in traditional harness in Sicily. It is seldom seen in other parts of the world.”

A shaft bow in use

A shaft bow in use

The shaft bow was attached to rigid wooden shafts called оглобли ‘shafts, thills,’ the other end of which attached to a sleigh or the axle of a carriage. In England, if I understand the situation correctly, traces (straps or chains that could bend) were used instead of thills.


These are very much as in England except the Drosky, which is peculiar to Russia; this is a low fourwheeled carriage, carrying one passenger, but two may be accomodated – not comfortably. The driver sits in front. The harness is peculiar in having a half circular hoop suspended above the collar, to which the shafts are attached and this keeps them from pressing the horse’s shoulders, for the same reason a trace is fastened from the axle of the front wheel. The bearing rein is also attached to the hoop and the vehicle is drawn by the shafts instead of traces as with us. I am told this mode is needful in sledge driving, but in summer private droskys use harness like ours, but the public carriages do not go to the expense of two sets of harness.

The above is from a pdf of “Sir George Glyn’s journal of a visit to Russia in 1866.”

Here’s a Russian example (shown to me by Vika Thorstensson) from Pisemskii’s “The Wood Demon” (Леший, 1853):

Маленький, худощавый, со всклокоченными волосами горбун притащил с ведро величины дегтярницу и силился на жерди поднять задок моей брички. […]

– Что, дядя, видно, это не кузовья таскать? А на спине, кажись, и подкладка есть… Не замай, пусти, – сказал он [Матвей, кучер лет 25-и] и молодцевато поднял задок брички, подставил дугу под жердь, одним взмахом руки сдернул колесо и начал мазать.

Iurii Fedosiuk explains that sometimes one or more pairs of horses were placed on either side of a single thill called a дышло, but that it was also possible for the stronger horse of a pair to be between two оглобли, with the weaker horse outside the оглобли on one side. In the latter arrangement the central horse is the коренник and the side horse (outrigger?) пристяжная, and the pair harnessed in such a manner is called a пара на отлете or пара с отлетом. With a troika there is one коренник and two пристяжные. Dal’ gives negative sayings about using one thill, including a “sectarian” one about the chariot of the Antichrist using only one.

I haven’t added much to it yet (Fedosiuk and Wikipedia are much more extensive), but for anyone who finds flash card format useful, here’s a set on horse/carriage/sleigh terminology. You can see modern pictures of a shaft bow and the shafts/thills, along with modern uses of дуга and оглобли, at this Russian forum about horses. There’s an excellent labeled diagram with Russian harness terms and detailed instructions here.

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