Sunday, August 2, 2009

Choose Your Tack Carefully

Imagine this scenario -- The young first time horse owner goes into a local tack store to purchase a bridle for his newly acquired equine, and is immediately inundated with overly friendly vulture-like salespeople trying to sell him unnecessary yet expensive equipment that he has no idea how to use.

Not unlike going car shopping (which I absolutely HATE!), making a trip to the tack shop can be at the very least an unpleasant and frustrating experience, to say the least, for one who has little or no knowledge about what they actually need.

The first thing to remember is that most of the employees who are trying to sell you something aren’t trainers, and they more than likely have not used the equipment they market. Many of them don’t even own horses. It’s just a job to them, and therefore you shouldn’t put too much stock in what they tell you. Now, that’s not to say that some of them aren’t knowledgeable horsepeople, and that none of them have any experience, but their main objective is to make money by selling goods.

As I have said before, taking someone with you who has lots of experience and, more importantly, knows how much you know and what you wish to do with your horse is of utmost importance. Whether it’s a friend from the boarding stable, your trainer or the person you bought the horse from, you really should have someone accompany you who’s on YOUR side the first time you go shopping for things to fill up your tack room. For those of you who have years of horse experience, I suggest offering your services as often as possible to help your fellow horsemen.

Perhaps the most important (and expensive) equipment purchase you’ll make is a saddle, and the single most important factor in buying a saddle is making sure it fits your horse properly without pinching or somehow impeding his movement. Today many saddle shops either employ or can recommend someone with experience in saddle fitting, which is one of the most valuable services available. Poorly fitted saddles are the leading cause of back and leg injuries in horses, as pressure points can compress and compound into major soundness issues. A saddle which does not properly fit your horse’s back WILL make him sore, and you sure don’t want him to experience that kind of pain. You also want to make sure you own a suitably thick saddle pad (or two) that fits both your horse and your saddle, and a proper sized non-chaffing cinch or girth.

Most people only buy one bridle and one bit at a time (unlike us “tack junkies” who want one of everything!), so choosing the right one for you can be an exhausting ordeal. First make a list that includes the following: What is going to be the easiest to care for? Keeping in mind that bridles (and any tack you use on your horse) need to be kept clean and in good condition, choose one that will be simple to keep up. What is going to last the longest and stay in good shape? Some folks like colored nylon because it’s durable, it can be thrown in the washing machine and doesn’t break as easily as leather -- not to mention if you choose “hot pink” you’ll immediately know if someone’s using your stuff! -- but remember when it starts to get old or if you go too long without washing the sweat and dirt off, the nylon can chafe your horse’s face, and the buckles aren’t usually as sturdy as those found on leather headstalls. I prefer soft leather with snaps instead of buckles where the bit connects. That makes it easy for me to change bits if I desire, and all I need to do to keep it clean is wipe it off with a rag soaked in Lexol® or a similar product.

As far as reins go, I also prefer snaps on them, so if I do happen to purchase a pair which don’t come with snaps, I make sure I can put some on them, and buy the snaps separately. The most important thing to remember about reins is they need to be long enough for your horse’s neck. Some folks like a round “roping” type rein (kind of like those found on English bridles) so if they happen to drop one rein -- or both! -- the horse won’t step on it and break it. However, it needs to be of an adequate length so the horse doesn’t feel like you’re constantly pulling on his mouth even when your hands are halfway up his neck.

My personal preference is a pair of regular split (or straight) reins that are not connected. First, they’re always long enough and I can cross them over my horse’s neck so I don’t drop either of them. I do not, however, want them too thick or heavy, because some of the feel of your horse’s mouth is lost that way, and you always want to know exactly how much pressure you’re putting on his mouth. For Western-style curb bits a popular choice in Arabian circles is a pair of closed reins with a romal attached. Again, you want to be sure they’re long enough. You also want to make sure you didn’t choose them for the romal itself, as some people use the long end and large leather flap to hit or punish their horse with. It can come in handy under certain circumstances to correct the horse in a pinch, but in this day and age they’re usually more for the show ring than every day hacking about.

Regarding bits, I recommend reading my previous published articles on that subject. There will be more upcoming, so keep your eyes open! I'll be covering virtually every conceivable bit you may be thinking of using or buying, and again, you should follow the advice of a trusted professional as far as what you use in your horse’s mouth.

Try to avoid anything that is TOO cheap. Cheap bits are usually cheaply made, and can break easily or become damaged by a horse’s teeth. I have actually had mouthpieces break in the horse’s mouth and fall out as I was loping around the arena! I’ve also had bits get so chewed up, I had to throw them away in fear of tearing a horse’s mouth open. About thirty to fifty dollars ($30-$50) is average to pay for a decent bit. Really good bits can be much higher priced, and generally you get what you pay for. As a rule, the higher the price tag, the nicer quality bit you’ll get for your money. There are several well known bit manufacturers who have excellent reputations, some are more expensive than others, who put out nice, long lasting products.

Some horses tend to go nicely in a bosal, sidepull or some other form of bitless bridle, but those devices are generally more for training sessions (or shows, in the case of a bosal) rather than trail enjoyment. I heartily suggest before looking into such a contraption you do your homework and decide what, exactly, you really want to do with your horse. A bosal is what we often refer to as a hackamore, and it’s a wrapped rawhide loop that fits over the horse’s nose, with contact made by using a rope tied to a knot at the end of the loop (called a mecate) as reins. Bosals work by rotating the rawhide over the horse’s nose and applying pressure to the bridge of his nose in order to get him to slow down, turn or drop his head. Many junior Western horses -- those age five and under -- are shown in bosals rather than snaffle bits, especially if the rider or trainer does not want anything in the horse’s mouth at a tender age. On the other hand, a sidepull and similar bitless bridles work off the sides of the horse’s face rather than the top. I am personally not enamored of these contraptions because they don’t offer what I look for in training equipment, which is to assist in teaching the horse to carry himself rather than make me carry him. For a relaxing trail ride it might be acceptable, but when you are working toward a show ring goal, they just don’t serve the purpose.

Unless I’m schooling show horses, I tend not to worry about using draw reins, German martingales or other training aids, although every horse I ride, even on the trail, wears a simple running martingale and a cavesson. Draw reins can be helpful in teaching horses who tend to be strong on your hands, who have short attention spans and have trouble concentrating or who are not very far along in their training to learn and accept a proper frame, however, you want to avoid riding ONLY in draw reins. I always use a direct rein to the bit in conjunction with the draw, and only use the draw to remind the horse where his face needs to be [Remember, too, that it’s your LEGS AND SEAT which dictate the degree of collection you will get from your horse, not how much pressure you put on his mouth!]. The German martingale is similar in function yet vastly different in purpose. Ordinarily used as headsetting devices, they force the horse into the correct frame, as long as you want your horse traveling long and low, as many Western and Hunter horses go today, instead of allowing the horse to teach himself how to properly collect and carry himself. Hence why my training “gimmick” of choice is a good pair of draw reins.

Why I use a running martingale is simple: Since it’s an expected part of the wardrobe, the horse knows it should be there and he most often won’t attempt to circumvent it and lift his head (once taught how to carry himself) and evade it, even in the show ring where you’re not allowed the slightest advantage and where they are not legal. While working and getting a good ride out of your horse, you will never come into contact with the martingale, but it’s there in case you need it. Likewise for the cavesson, although they are a part of the required tack for English bridles, it prevents (as a “friendly reminder”) the horse from opening his mouth widely and thus evading the bit or worse, yet doesn’t prevent normal action of the mouth and jaw. With horses who tend to chew excessively or gap their mouths, cavessons (and in some cases dropped or flash nosebands) can be extremely helpful in teaching the horse not to disobey to that extent, even though they are not tightened down too much in an effort to force (there’s that word again!) the horse into submission. I don’t use tie-downs and I only have one standing martingale in my tack room...which has only been used on one horse, a tremendously large and difficult jumper who needed an extra little “reminder” about who was in charge. The problem with tie-downs is that they actually create more problems than they solve. The concept is to prevent the horse from having much ability to lift his head, and therefore run the risk of the poll area of his hard head hitting you in the face, while allowing him to gallop with his nose elevated and outward. They are commonly used in gaming or rope horses as something for the horse to lean into, but as someone primarily concerned with the show ring and trail riding, that's not a use I need out of my tack. Over the years I’ve found that in spending more time and effort training a horse to carry himself properly, you run less of a risk of becoming injured by a tossing head. That doesn’t entirely solve all the problems tie-downs are designed to handle, and they can have a purpose (as illustrated by the aforementioned jumper -- the idea is to prevent the horse from throwing his head back into you, while allowing him far more freedom of movement than a traditional running martingale, though I respectfully disagree about running martingales unnecessarily restricting movement), but I happen to generally prefer other means to achieve those objectives in training and competing.

I won’t delve into harnesses and bitting rigs too much here, except to say that sometimes tack often used for driving horses can come in handy for a variety of under saddle purposes. The sidecheck, for instance. It’s duty is to prevent the horse from diving his head down and keeps him elevated at a certain point while in the bridle. Sidechecks work by attaching to the center of the front of the saddle or to the center of the surcingle, running up the neck and then splitting off into two parts, one for each side of the bridle. With a sidecheck bridle, there will be rings attached at the temple on each side of the headstall, which you feed the sidecheck cheeks through before snapping them to the bit. If the horse lowers his head, the check will tighten and keep him from dropping any further. An overcheck is a similar device, though instead of splitting into two separate “reins” and connecting to the bit you’re using on the horse from the side, it attaches to a strap which comes down the middle of the horse’s face and attaches either to the regular snaffle or to a separate bradoon. The action is basically the same, however, and both can also be of great help in preventing horses from evading the bit and/or getting behind the bit while under saddle. Another application which I’ve found to be handy with sidechecks /overchecks is to prevent horses from crow hopping or outright bucking. If the horse can’t drop his head below his withers, he’s going to have a darn difficult time trying to buck.

For horses that need even more assistance and a little bit bigger reminder to achieve a desired headset (and once again, remember where true collection comes from ~ collection is NOT a headset), there are more severe options such as a gag bridle or war bridle. The gag utilizes a special bit which has rings that are usually flat and have holes in the tops and bottoms of the rings on each side, to allow the specially made reins to run up through the holes and over the horse’s poll, then back into the rider’s hands from the bottom of the bit. The effect is to help the horse raise his head while maintaining a vertical profile. War bridles, while more frequently today used similarly to a twitch to subdue an unruly horse, work by running a rope, rather than a leather rein, over the horse’s poll and then through the horse’s mouth, sometimes across the gums as you would use a lip chain, and back to the rider’s hands. Pressure via the reins on the gums or across the sensitive corners of a horse’s mouth creates the desired reaction and the horse raises his neck and head, flexing at the poll, then drops his nose.

My final words of wisdom this month are about mechanical hackamores. I try to stay as far away from them as possible! The main function of one of these dreadful appliances is to invoke pain, and thus fear, in the horse. They pinch his cheeks when the reins are pulled on and are usually used in conjunction with a too tight curb chain (or worse -- baling wire!!!). Did you ever wonder why inevitably every horse you’ve ever seen ridden in one constantly throws it’s head? There’s your answer in a nutshell!

Remember, you AND your horse have to live with whatever you buy, so be wise and think of what’s best for him or her. You’ll save money in the long run by not having to go out and replace cheap, broken or worn out tack every time you turn around. Your horse will also thank you for it!



  1. Do you have a particular brand of saddleseat saddle you like? I am 6 feet tall and I'm going to have to purchase a 23 inch saddle. Right now I'm borrowing a college kid's 22 inch saddle.
    How about types of bits? I'm using a Dr. Bristol half spoon. (a recommendation from my instructor) This bit has only one right way to put it on. About one a week I use a full bridle on Handsome.

  2. My favorite flat saddle is a custom made Victor Supreme, about 35 years old and looks like the day I bought it. :) Not sure if Victor (now of Victor's Custom Tack in Scottsdale, AZ) still makes English saddles, but his stuff has always been of the highest quality.

    Schneiders sells the Sterling Millenium 3000 which is a really nice saddle, and I love the Arabian Saddle Company flat saddles. Their Scottsdale saddle has a deep seat and is one of the easiest cutbacks you'll ever ride in. :)

    For bits it all depends on the individual horse ~ I school my English horses in half cheeks, then before a show we move into the full bridle for about one to two weeks, depending on how seasoned or green the horse is. Mouthpieces will vary depending on what the horse needs. If your instructor feels he needs the Dr Bristol, there is likely a reason. Does he tend to be a little bit heavy on the forehand in a plain smooth snaffle, or does he fuss with the bit? That may explain her recommendation.

    What type of bradoon and curb do you use in your double bridle?

  3. On the full bridle, I use what my instructor handed me. It is one of the many things I'm trying to learn the differences about.
    Handsome leans on the bit BIG TIME. I suspect it is because he is blind in one eye he uses the bit to help balance him. When we are going over uneven ground (like the center of a ring that hasn't been raked recently) if my reins are loose, he will stumble.

  4. That leaning explains using the Dr Bristol. Because of the flat center piece, which places more pressure on the tongue as opposed to more pressure on the bars, I'm guessing her hope is that he will try to stay off your hands in that bit.

    Double bridles are definitely a challenge for someone new to Saddleseat riding! :)


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