Horseback-Riding: Tack Check
There are lots of horse tack options out there, but safety and a good fit are nonnegotiable.
By Cynthia McFarland for AQHA Corporate Partner Farnam | April 29, 2016
With any hobby or pursuit, it’s essential to use the right equipment. Horseback riding is no different.
Individual preference plays a huge role in the kind of horse tack you choose. You may like the convenience of synthetic tack, or you may be a die-hard leather fan. Whatever you prefer, be sure to select tack and equipment that fit properly, and always maintain them for safety’s sake.
Consider the following basic tack guidelines to ensure that your equipment is best suited for your horse.
Some issues are nonnegotiable. Saddle fit, for example, is of crucial importance. A horse suffering from back pain will often drop his back, while raising his head and neck. If your horse shows these signs, this is a red flag that you may need a different saddle with a better fit for that particular horse.
The bars of the tree should make and maintain even contact along both sides of the horse’s back. There should be enough gullet space that the underside of the saddle (with rider mounted) at no time touches the horse’s withers or spine.
For a simple way to gauge general saddle fit, place a clean, folded sheet or pillowcase on the horse’s back. Then saddle up and ride the horse enough to cause him to sweat. When you take off the saddle, look at the pillowcase or sheet closely. It should be evenly damp. If there are any dry or barely damp spots, this may indicate there are pressure points. It may also mean the saddle is “bridging,” which is another sign of poor fit.
Saddle style may be personal preference, but safety should never be optional. Routine maintenance and observation can mean the difference between a pleasurable ride and one that ends in a wreck due to tack failure.
Before every ride, turn your saddle upside down and give it a quick visual inspection. Pay close attention to places where hardware connects with leather, looking for cracks or signs of wear. Inspect the billets and buckles on an English saddle, and look at both sides of the latigo on a Western saddle. If you find any cracks in a leather latigo, don’t take a chance. Replace it immediately. A nylon latigo will last longer than leather, but be careful you don’t overtighten it when cinching up the saddle.
In a perfect world, you’d clean your tack after every ride. Or better yet, have someone clean it for you! Since that’s not likely, at the very least you’ll want to wipe down all equipment to remove sweat and dirt before putting it away. Once or twice a month, give leather tack a good cleaning with quality leather cleaner and follow up with conditioner.
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You can choose from a wide variety of saddle pads and pad materials for trail riding. Many trail riders like a 1-inch-thick wool pad, as it conforms to the horse’s back, wicks away sweat and is long wearing.
Be sure your pad is large enough for your saddle. There should be a minimum of 1 inch of pad showing around all edges of the saddle.
Whichever pad you choose, the goal is to use a pad that provides cushioning and cooling for the horse’s back. A pad should not be used in an effort to try and make a so-so saddle fit better.
If the saddle is too narrow for the horse, adding thicker padding is like wearing an extra pair of socks in a too-tight shoe. If the saddle is too wide, adding another pad won’t make it fit better. It will just make the saddle more unstable on the horse. Don’t make the mistake of thinking “the thicker the better.” Too many pads will cause a barrel effect, which causes the saddle to shift, and this in turn can sore a horse’s back.
If you want to keep your good pad cleaner longer, opt for a thin, washable underliner (made of cotton, wool or fleece) beneath the saddle pad.
Whenever you tack up, always pull the front of your pad or blanket up to the top of the cantle. This creates a “tunnel” that allows air to enter and reach the horse’s back, making him cooler and more comfortable during the ride. This is also a good time to make sure no mane hairs are trapped under the pad and pulled tight, which can be uncomfortable for your horse.
Since a buildup of hair and dirt on the pad can irritate your horse’s back, clean your saddle pad regularly. Toss cotton blankets and pads in the wash, but wool requires hand washing with cold water, a mild soap and a hard-bristled brush. Air-dry blankets and pads in the sun after washing.
Girth or Cinch
Just like saddle pads, you can find girths or cinches in an assortment of materials. Natural fibers, such as mohair and mohair blends, fit well and offer comfort for the horse, but also absorb moisture.
Whether you ride English or western, make sure the D-ring on the girth is centered on the horse’s belly between the front legs. With a western saddle, you want to be sure the latigo ring doesn’t press into the horse’s side. For long rides especially, there should be padding or sheepskin under the ring to avoid soring the horse.
If you ride with a back girth, you shouldn’t be able to see a noticeable gap of daylight between the girth and the horse’s belly. A loose back cinch is asking for an accident to happen. On the trail, a branch can get caught, and a horse can even get a back foot hung up.
Clean your girth or cinch regularly and follow label directions according to the specific material. Be sure it’s dry before using it on your horse the next time.
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Many trail riders like a combination halter-bridle, which makes it easy to remove the bit without taking off the halter-bridle. If you don’t use a halter-bridle combo, there are different ways to bring a halter and lead along on your ride.
You can bring your halter along in a saddlebag or leave it on under the headstall. If you choose to have the horse wear the halter, make sure it’s a comfortable fit for the horse. You don’t want it so tight that it rubs on his cheekbones or too low so that it pinches the bit. Rope halters are popular, but can be quite loose, so if you use one under your bridle, make sure it’s a good fit and properly adjusted.
You’ll need to bring along a stout lead rope so you can safely tie your horse along the trail. If you tie the lead rope around the horse’s neck — which is easy to do using a cavalry knot or bowline knot — don’t snap the end to the halter while riding. Instead, attach the snap to a D-ring on your saddle or to your breast collar.
Many trail reins come with alligator clips that attach to the bit, making it easy to unsnap one to lead or temporarily tie the horse. Just make sure you never tie your horse with the rein still attached to the bit. Always hook to the halter ring before you tie; if a horse pulls back while tied by the bit, he may severely injure his tongue.
You might want to rethink using reins with snaps that attach the reins to the bit. The constant movement sends vibrations to the bit in the horse’s mouth, which can stimulate and annoy a sensitive or nervous horse. If you find your horse “mouthing” the bit or acting nervous, try replacing the snaps with a leather attachment.
Some trail riders prefer a hackamore or bosal, but for those who use a bit, it’s best to opt for the least severe bit needed to have control of your horse. Any bit can be abusive, depending on the rider. Even a snaffle can be severe in the wrong hands.
If your horse is comfortable with the bit you’re using, his mouth will be relaxed, as will his head and neck carriage. His eyes will be soft, and his neck muscles won’t be tense. Is your horse’s mouth always moving, is his neck tense or does he frequently toss his head? Any or all of these can be signs the bit is not right for the horse, is not fitted properly or you are being too heavy-handed.
Make sure the bit you are using fits and is adjusted properly in the horse’s mouth so it isn’t too high or too low.
If you’re using a shanked bit, which requires a curb strap or chain, check the adjustment, as this directly relates to how well your bit functions. It shouldn’t be too loose or too tight. Keep in mind that the tighter your curb strap or chain is, the sooner the bit engages, as the strap causes leverage from the bit. You can actually make the same bit more or less severe, depending on how tightly or loosely you adjust your curb strap or chain.
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If you’re riding in hilly or mountainous terrain, a breast collar can help keep your saddle from sliding back on rugged trails. If you rarely ride on hills, you probably won’t want to bother with one
Look for a well-made leather breast collar and be sure it is properly adjusted to fit the horse. It should fit snugly, but not tight and never loose. It should rest above the point of the shoulder, in the area where the horse’s shoulders tie into the neck. If the breast collar sits too low over the point of the shoulder, it will restrict movement and be painful for the horse. The metal center ring in front should rest right at the base of the horse’s neck. If it is lower than this, the breast collar is sitting too low.
There should be a strap attaching the breast collar to the D-ring on the cinch so it can’t ride up on the shoulders when the horse is moving. Don’t make this strap too tight or too loose. You should be able to slide your fist between the strap and the horse’s lower chest in front of the girth.
People often overtighten a breast collar, making it snug when the horse is standing still. When the horse is moving, the breast collar rubs against his shoulders and can sore him.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to have good tack, but don’t cut corners. Think of it the same way you’d think of the tires on your vehicle: a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to safety and comfort. When you make the investment, remember that the right equipment, properly used and maintained, can last for years, providing you and your horse with many horseback-riding memories.