mel fishback riley

Xtra Dog offers the world famous Zima range of working harnesses including the world's first and much copied Zima X-back harness designed by Mel Fishback-Riley in the 1950s. Pam Beckstrom recounts her story ...

Most mushers, ski-joring or bike-joring enthusiasts use an X-back harness. What they don’t know is where these harnesses originated. In fact, mushers new to the sport just know they have been around for a long time.

It was over fifty years ago that Mel Fishback Riley, former Californian and at her death, a true Montanan, started designing and making the ZIMA X-back harness for “racing, training with skis or bike, lead dog training or pleasure use.” Riley, ZIMA Catalog (1962). She started out making five types of X-backs and laboriously hand stitched freight and weight-pulling harnesses. The styles for the standard webbing harnesses are much the same as those ZIMA is making today.

In the beginning, Fishback did not have access to fleece padding so she used airline blanket seconds and mattress pad scraps on all her harnesses. She insisted on acrylic woven blankets because she said they were more durable. The Iditarod Special was a completely hand-sewn harness with heavy attention to detail. Her freight and weight-pull harnesses required custom measurements and were made to order. Sometimes it would take many fittings to obtain what she liked to see - a great fit. For a period, she offered a Siwash freight harness and that was the only harness she made that wasn’t her standard X-back design. The Siwash was an Alaskan design after mushers went from collared harnesses. It looked similar to an X-back but without the true x-back.

In 1983, ZIMA changed hands and became exclusively sewn by Adanac Sleds and Equipment, of Kalispell (and now Olney), Montana. Owner Jack Beckstrom had already taken over manufacturing Fishback sleds in 1976, when Mel’s husband, Lee Fishback, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Beckstrom added several of his own sled designs, and making harnesses was the next step to expanding the business that carries a complete line of sled dog products.

Today, Jack and Pam Beckstrom, owners of Adanac Sleds and Equipment, continue to make the original standard-design ZIMA X-back harnesses as well as custom harnesses, closed-cell foam harnesses, lighter weight speed racing harnesses, both regular and extra fleece padded harnesses and a multi-sport harness. They also continue to make custom sleds and any equipment needed for dog mushing, scootering, and ski-joring in their mail order/web business and have expanded the catalogue from four pages when Fishback’s owned ZIMA, to forty pages of products that their company produces! To Beckstroms, it’s all about exercising musher and dogs, good health, and the right equipment to be safe.

ZIMA harnesses are the most widely-copied and widely-used harness in the world. It is the standard in the industry and the basis of almost every commercially produced harness today. ZIMA is a proud name in mushing history and the original x-back harness of the world.

There have been several small innovations to the X-back over the years but one thing remains the same: they are just darn good harnesses! Thank you, Mel, for giving the mushers of yesterday and today such a versatile harness.

Zima have also added the Multi-sport harness to the range; a pulling harness that sits halfway down the back of the dog and is ideal for Cani-X, ski-joring, bike-joring or scootering. This harness has the added advantage that it can be used to walk the dog as well.

Both ranges of harnessses are offered fleece-lined or in water-repelling foam. They are colour coded by size.


Watch this video to see how to measure your dog for an X-back harness - see below for measurement table


Measurement Table

Small                   Neck 18"    Length 25½"      Weight 35-40lbs
Small-medium   Neck 18 "   Length 27¼"      Weight 40-45lbs
Medium                Neck 19"    Length 26½"      Weight 43-48lbs
Medium extra-long Neck 19" Length 27"       Weight 45-50lbs
Medium large      Neck 19"    Length 28"         Weight 48-54lbs
Large                    Neck 21"    Length 28"          Weight 50-55lbs
Large-extra long Neck 21"    Length 29 ½"    Weight 55-60lbs
Extra large           Neck 23"     Length 31 ½"    Weight 60-75lbs
Extra extra large Neck 27"    Length 32 ½"    Weight 75-90lbs
Extra extra extra large Neck 31" Length 34½" Weight 90-120lbs