Basic Horse Equipment and Use

Basic Horse Equipment and Use

The kind of horse equipment you need will depend on which equine activity you participate in. This blog concentrates on the basic horse equipment needed to safely enjoy and ride your horse.

Horse equipment is called saddlery or more commonly, tack, and consists of a saddle (fitted with a girth, stirrup leathers, and stirrup irons) and a bridle with an appropriate bit.

Leatherwork

The best material for tack is a good quality leather. Do not be fooled into buying cheaper, low quality leather as it will be hard and brittle and not last as long. Tack is an expensive investment but if looked after correctly it can last you a very long time.

It is vital that:

  • the tack fits the horse and rider (more about this in an upcoming blog)
  • it is the correct type for the job you and your horse will be doing
  • you take good care of it by regularly cleaning it (more about this in an upcoming blog)

Buying Used Tack

If you buy used tack make sure that the leather is good quality and in good condition. Also check that the stitching is still strong and not perished. If you are buying a used saddle it is imperative that the tree is not broken or twisted. To check for a broken tree hold the cantle of the saddle against your hip and try to pull the pommel towards you. If it is a fixed tree there shouldn't be any movement at all. If it is a spring tree you should feel a gentle flexing that springs back into place when you release the pressure. To check for a twisted tree look from the cantle towards the pommel to make sure they are in line with each other. Also check that the front arch under the pommel does not move or make a noise when you put pressure downwards onto it. If the leather on the seat is wrinkled or stretched in any way there is probably some internal damage to the saddle and you shouldn't buy it.

Synthetic Tack

Synthetic tack is becoming more and more popular and can be a cheaper alternative. It is also lighter than leather which makes it easier for children to handle. If you do decide to buy synthetic tack make sure it is a reputable make as some of the non-named brands are cheaply made and do not last very long. I personally do not like synthetic tack but I have friends who swear by it so it really is a personal decision.

Metalwork

The metalwork on your saddle and bridle (stirrup irons, buckles, bits, etc.) should be made of top quality steel. Stainless steel is the best as it resists staining and discoloration, doesn't chip or flake, and is very durable. Nickel (often found on cheap tack) can be dangerous as it is much softer and can bend or break.

Bridles

The Parts of a Bridle and Functions

  • Headpiece and Throatlash - these are made from one piece of leather. Together with the cheek pieces the headpiece supports the bit. The throatlash helps to keep the bridle in place by fastening loosely under the horses throat. When fitted correctly you should be able to fit four fingers, sideways, between the leather and the horse's neck.
  • Browband - this lies across the brow of the horse and prevents it from slipping back. It should be tight enough so as not to sag away from the head but not so tight that I causes the headpiece to rub the back of the ears.
  • Cheekpieces - these attach to the headpiece at the top and the bit at the bottom. They should be snug enough to hold the bit in place but not so tight that the bit pulls up into the horse's mouth.
  • Bit - the bit attaches to the cheekpieces and reins. It should protrude about ¼ inch or the width of your little finger at each side of the horse's mouth. When the bridle is on the horse the bit should make the horse look as if he is very slightly smiling. Sometimes bits are made of copper, sweet iron, or aurigan to give the bit a more palatable taste for the horse and encourage salivation. For a more robust feel some horses prefer a bit made of vulcanized rubber. Often times you will have to try a few different bits before you find one your horse really likes.
  • Reins - they attach to the bit and are used to help steer the horse. They are available in different types of material.
    • Plain leather - they look very smart but can be slippery when wet
    • Leather With Grips - these have good grip but only at certain intervals along them so can be restrictive for subtly altering the amount of contact
    • Laced or Plaited - less slippery than plain leather but more expensive and more difficult to clean
    • Rubber Over Leather - these give the best grip especially in rain or on a sweaty horse. They are also available in different colors for anyone wanting to be color coordinated which is very popular these days. Another option with these reins are Rainbow Reins with bands of different colors. These are great for teaching novice riders where to hold the reins.
    • Rubber Reins - these are usually used with a rubber (rather than leather) bridle. They are very easy to keep clean as you can wash them with soap and water but are slippery and not very pliable
    • Nylon Reins - not very popular with English riders anymore
  • Noseband - the cavesson noseband is the standard type and the only kind to which a standing martingale can be attached. You should be able to fit two fingers under it at the nose. It should be positioned with a 'two fingered' space under the projecting cheek bone.

Parts Of A Bridle

Parts of a Bridle

Saddles

There are many different makes and models of saddles available. The main types are:

  • Jumping Saddle (Close Contact) - has a flat seat with the panels cut forwards. It is designed for riding with shorter stirrup leathers and can have large knee-rolls which help to keep the rider's legs in the correct place.
  • Dressage Saddle - has a deep seat and straight cut flaps. It usually has extra long billets and uses a shorter dressage girth. This design allows the rider to sit deep with the correct leg position.
  • General Purpose - designed for general riding and is a cut between a dressage and jumping saddle. Due to the fact that tack is so expensive most pleasure riders use a general purpose saddle

Saddle Sizes

It is important that the saddle fits both the horse and the rider. (More about this in a later blog).

Saddles are measured from the pommel to the cantle. Standard sizes are 15" - 18". If the saddle has a cut back head it is measured from the stud at the side of the pommel to the cantle. The size of the saddle is determined, generally by the size of the rider but should never be too long on a horse's back as it would put too much pressure on his kidneys.

They are available in three widths - narrow, medium, and wide. Some pony saddle are also available in extra wide. The width is determined by the shape of the horse's back and withers.

Anatomy Of A Saddle

Tree

The tree is the foundation of the saddle and is usually made of laminated wood but plastic and fiberglass are also used. A spring-tree saddle has a strip of flexible steel in the tree on both sides of the waist which gives the saddle a less ridged feel for both horse and rider but they are more expensive to buy. Quality saddles are usually stamped with the name or logo of the manufacturer on the panel along with the size. Sometimes it is a on a metal plate. On older saddles this was stamped onto the stirrup-bar.

Seat

The seat is the top of the saddle, between the pommel and cantle, where the rider sits. It is formed by strips of webbing stretched across the tree. It is then padded and covered with leather or a synthetic material. The deeper the seat the more secure the rider will be.

Girth Straps Or Billets

These are attached to the webbing strips that form the seat. The first strap is attached to one piece of webbing and the second and third straps are attached to another. For safety reasons you should always attached your girth to the first strap and either the second or third, never the second and third.

Stirrup-Bars

These are attached to the tree. They should be open ended to allow the stirrup-leathers to slide off should the rider fall from the horse and get their foot stuck in the stirrup. On most saddles the stirrup-bars have a hinge that can be turned up to prevent the stirrups from falling off a horse that is being lead or lunged. NEVER ride with the bar turned up. Bars that are not open ended or are in the shape of a sideways D (usually on a pony pad) should never be used without safety stirrups.

Panel

This is the underside of the saddle that lies against the horse's sides. Some panels have knee rolls at the front and some even have thigh rolls behind the rider's leg, all designed help keep the rider's leg in the optimal position. It usually comes down almost to the bottom of the saddle-flap. A half-panel reaches half way down the saddle flap and has a large sweat flap to stop the girth buckle from pinching the horse's skin. These are not very common any more.

Flap

The flap is the outer part, that covers the panel, where the rider's leg lies. The size and shape is determined by the style and use of the saddle as it helps position the rider's leg correctly.

Gullet

The gullet is actually the space between the bars of the saddle but is generally known as the space under the saddle and rests above the horse's spine. There should be enough clearance so that no part of the saddle is ever in contact with the horse's spine. The width of some saddles can be altered with inter-changeable gullets.

Waist Or Twist

This is between the seat and the pommel. The size of the waist can greatly effect the comfort of the saddle for the rider.

Pommel

The very front of the saddle. It is higher than the seat and helps provide stability for the rider. It needs to be high enough so that it does not rub against the horse's withers. The pommel of a jumping saddle is lower than that of a dressage saddle allowing the rider to ride in two-point (forward) position.

Cantle

The back of the saddle that is higher than the seat. It, along with the pommel, gives the rider security in the saddle.

Skirt

A small piece of leather that covers the stirrup bar to help prevent rubbing on the inside of the rider's leg.

Stuffing

The stuffing in a saddle is normally wool, synthetic, foam, or felt. The saddle should be stuffed evenly and never feel lumpy. As saddles get older they sometimes need re-stuffing. This can also be called re-flocking.

D Rings

Metal rings attached to the saddle and used to attach various items. The ones on the front are mainly used to connect a breastplate. They are also useful for attaching a strap for novice riders who are learning to balance and riding on the lunge. The ones on the sides near the seat can be used for saddle bags. Not all saddles have the rear D rings.

Parts Of A SaddleParts of a Saddle, Horse EquipmentIMAGE OF A SADDLE

Girths

This is what holds the saddle in place so it is vital that it fits comfortably and correctly. The size is measured from end to end including the buckles. They can be made from many different materials.

  • Leather - if correctly looked after these look very smart and are comfortable for the horse but are expensive to buy.
  • Three-Fold - is a single piece of soft leather, cut straight and folded to form three layers with two buckles at each end. Between the folds there should be a piece of flannel or other material, which should be soaked occasionally in neatsfoot oil to keep the leather soft. The folded edge should be towards the front of the horse.
  • Balding - one piece of leather with two buckles on each end. The center part is divided into three strips. They are crossed over and stitched in the middle. This reduces the width of the girth behind the elbow of the horse where it could cause girth galls. Because the leather is in strips make sure they do not pinch the horse's skin between them.
  • Atherstone - made of one piece of leather with two buckles on each end, it is shaped similar to the Balding but it has a leather strip stitched down the center on the outside to hold the shape. This style also helps prevent girth galls.
  • Fleece - this is a synthetic material with a fleece lining designed to wick away moisture from the horse's skin. These are popular with hunt seat riders.
  • Dressage - these girths also come in various different materials and are usually much shorter than regular girths as the billets on a dressage saddle are longer.

Stirrup Irons

These should be made of stainless steel and be the correct size for the person riding the horse. They should allow ½" at each side of the rider's boot. Rubber treads help to stop the foot from slipping. It is very dangerous for a person to ride with stirrups that are too big, allowing their foot to slip all the way through. Children and small adults who, if they got their foot caught in the stirrup and fell off, might not be heavy enough to pull the stirrup leather off the stirrup bar should use safety stirrups.

  • Peacock or Safety Stirrups - these stirrups have a thick roll of rubber along the outside of the iron. This rubber will easily snap off if someone falls from the horse making it far less likely that they will get their foot caught in the stirrup. The disadvantages are that it does not hang level as it is heavier on one side. The rubber perishes over time and needs to be replaced. They have also been know to bend under extreme pressure.
  • Bent Leg - these have a curve or bend on one side. The bend should be to the outside and bend towards the front. They hang straighter than the Peacock style  but you may find that your foot slips out of them until you get used to how they feel.

It is essential to use a safety stirrup with a saddle that does not have an open ended stirrup bar.

Stirrup Leathers

The stirrup leather passes through the stirrup bar and the gap in the top of the stirrup iron. The have a buckle to adjust the length. All leather stretches over time so make sure the holes are still level on each one. It is a good idea to regularly swap over the left and right leathers as the left one will stretch more because of the rider mounting from that side. Stirrup leathers should be shortened periodically at the buckle end so that they don't always wear in the same place. They can be made of different types of leather and other materials.

  • Ordinary Leather - if this is top quality leather it looks the smartest but can break under extreme pressure. They are usually used for showing.
  • Rawhide - these are virtually unbreakable and usually used by cross country riders. They can look thick and clumsy.
  • Buffalo Hide - these are also virtually unbreakable but are reddish in color and don't always match the color of the saddle. They are more prone to stretching than other leathers.
  • Synthetic - made from a synthetic material they are easy to clean. The thin material kind are flexible but crack and flake easily. The thick rubber kind aren't very pliable making it difficult to adjust the length.

Martingales

There are four different types of martingales. They are all used to help control the horse.

  • Running - this is attached to the girth and passes between the forelegs and through the neck strap. It then splits into two and each piece has a ring on the end. The reins pass through the rings. When fitted correctly the ring should reach up into the horse's throat or back to the withers. It should only come into play if the horse lifts his head too high. It should not be used to keep the horse's head down. The buckle on the neck strap should be on the left side and allow four fingers clearance between the strap and the withers. The straps with the rings on should not be twisted when passing the reins through.
  • Standing - this is attached to the girth and passes between the forelegs and through the neck strap. It is then attached to the back of a cavesson noseband (or the cavesson part of a flash noseband). It should be long enough to reach up to the horses throat or back to the withers. The buckle on the neck strap should be on the left side and allow four fingers clearance. It is used to stop the horse from raising his head above the level of control. A standing martingale is more restrictive than a running martingale.
  • Irish - this is two rings connected with a strap approximately 4" long. It is used under the horse's neck with the reins passed through it. It is used to keep the reins in place and close to the horse's neck and to help prevent them from coming over the horse's neck should the rider fall off. It is often used in horse racing.
  • Bib - this is a combination of a running and Irish martingale. A bib fills the space where the running martingale divides into two. It is fitted the same way as a running martingale and has the same effect but also keeps the reins closer together.

Breastplate

There are various different types of breastplate but they are all designed to prevent the saddle from slipping backwards. They attached to the D rings on the front of the saddle and between the forelegs and onto the girth. They should be tight enough to be effective but not so tight that they interfere with the horse's movement.

Crupper

This is used to stop a saddle or roller from slipping forwards. It is a loop that fits around the horse's dock and a strap which fastens onto the D ring on the back of the cantle. The part that fits around the dock can be made of soft folded leather but the more expensive ones are hollowed leather filled with crushed linseed which, when warmed by the horse's body heat, releases oil through the leather which reduces the chance of rubbing. They are most often used on small ponies with flat withers.

Saddle Pads

These come in all shapes and sizes and are used, under a saddle, to provide extra padding and to keep the underside of the saddle clean. They are fitted with webbing on each side and at the bottom. One saddle billet should pass through the webbing at the top and the girth should pass through the webbing at the bottom. This helps prevent the pad from slipping backwards. When tacking up pull the pad up into the gullet of the saddle so that it doesn't put pressure on the horse's spine. Also make sure that it lies flat under the saddle. If it is wrinkled in any way it will be uncomfortable and could cause pressure points on the horse's back. Pads can be fitted or rectangular in shape. Fitted pads should be the correct size for the saddle and be slightly bigger, about 2" all the way around. Generally, fitted pads are used for hunt seat riding whereas rectangular pads are used for dressage, jumpers, and cross country.

Types of Saddle Pads

  • Cotton Covered Foam - these are very popular and available in many different colors. They are easy to look after and can be machine washed. They are only semi-absorbent and shouldn't be used if they are damp. They should be washed regularly.
  • Sheepskin - these are the best as it is a natural fiber and absorbs sweat easily however they are expensive to buy.
  • Synthetic Sheepskin - these vary in price and quality. The types that absorb sweat are suitable but the others should be avoided.
  • Felt - although not used very often anymore they are absorbent and good at minimizing pressure or concussion. They are expensive and difficult to keep clean.

No matter what kind of riding you do or what kind of tack you own it is very important to look after it and keep it clean and in good repair.

Previous Blog: Grooming A Horse
Next Blog: Tacking-up, Removing, and Maintaining Tack (Coming soon)

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