Before You Saddle Up Give Your Horse The Tack Test

Your shoes pinch your toes and your sun visor keeps sliding down over your nose. Your shirt pulls across your shoulders and your belt buckle digs into your belly. All ready to go jogging?

Not likely. You can’t move comfortably in clothing that doesn’t fit.

It’s just as important to your horse for his tack to fit properly. Ill-fitting saddles or bridles not only hurt your horse, they can cause permanent damage to his back, head and mouth. And once a horse knows that his tack hurts, he’ll fight you whenever you try to put it on him.

A horse whose bit or headstall hurts him will throw his nose to the sky every time he sees the bridle. When you ride him, he’ll toss his head and fight the reins. If his saddle hurts, he may sink his back when you put it on him. He might puff out his belly to keep you from properly tightening the girth or he may buck when you mount him. And of course, when a horse is in pain, he doesn’t pay attention to what his rider wants him to do. Even if he suffers in silence, his mind isn?t on his work. If you take the time to make sure his saddle and bridle fit right, you’ll both have a better ride.

Don?t Saddle Him With A Problem

Although horses come in all shapes and sizes, saddles don’t. As long as you’re using a pony saddle for a pony and a full-sized saddle for a horse, you probably have one that is the right size. A good saddle pad will help correct small difference between the bottom of the saddle and the top of the horse.

To put the saddle pad on, start well forward on the withers. As you pull the saddle pad back into place, keep your hand under the part that covers the withers. The pad should make a little tent over the withers. Never forget that this is very sensitive are and nothing but a friendly hand should ever touch your horse there.

Make sure your horse’s hair lies flat and that there’s nothing hidden under the saddle pad that might irritate him. Once the pad is in place, the next step is to add the saddle. If it’s an English saddle, run the stirrups to the top of their leathers. If it’s a Western saddle, loop the stirrup on the far side from you over the horn. This will prevent unexpected flapping and slappings at your horse’s side when you lift the saddle over him.

Gently lower the saddle onto your horse’s back with the pommel or horn well up on the withers. Ease the saddle back. Finding the exact place for the saddle to rest takes a few moments, but it’s important. Too far back, and the saddle puts weight on his loins. This area of his back has no support from the ribs and is not designed to carry the weight. Most horses have a natural dip in their backs right behind the withers, and this is where the saddle should settle. (The law of gravity will tend to pull it there, anyway. Putting the saddle in this position will put your center of balance right over horse’s, which is where it should be.)

Testing, 1-2-3-4

To make sure the saddle is in the right place, try these tests.

1. Notice where the padded areas on the underside of the saddle (the bars) begin. On an English saddle the bars will be roughly like a ?T? split down the middle. On a Western saddle, they?re more rectangular. If you draw an imaginary line down from the highest point of the withers, it should just touch the very front of the bars of the saddle.

2. Tighten the girth and pull each of your horse’s forelegs forward to get the wrinkles out of the thin skin behind the elbow. Get up in the saddle and put your hand under the pommel or horn. There should be room for three or four of your fingers between the pommel and your horse’s withers.

3. As your horse takes a few steps forward, slide your hand between his shoulder and the saddle at the place where his shoulder moves under the saddle. It?ll be a snug fit, but your hand shouldn?t get pinched. If your hand hurts when your horse’s shoulder moves, he’s hurting, too.

4. Reach behind you and stick a couple of fingers right under the middle of the back of the saddle. The little tunnel down the center of the saddle is called the gullet and it should rest over your horse’s spine, but there should be almost no pressure on your fingers even when you lean back a little.

Don?t Bridle His Spirit

The saddle is designed to make both you and your horse more comfortable. It gives you a more secure seat than you?d have if you rode bareback. For his benefit, it distributes your weight over a large area on his back, making him more comfortable. The bridle, on the other hand, is for your convenience, to help you control your horse.

Most bridles work by giving you control over your horse’s mouth, which is as sensitive as yours is ? maybe even more so. Remember burning you mouth on hot food or trying to pull out a loose baby tooth? A bit that doesn’t fit right can inflict the same kind of pain on your horse’s mouth.

Bits are intended to fit into the gap between your horse’s front teeth and his back teeth. (This area is called the bars of the horse’s mouth.) You can easily find the bars by cradling your horse’s chin in your hand and putting your thumb and middle finger in at the very corners of his mouth. Most horses automatically open their mouths to take the bit as soon as you press on this area. Ease the bit into this gap. When you finish adjusting the bridle there should be one wrinkle — not two, not none — at each corner of your horse’s mouth. A bit that’s big enough to slide around will bother him as much as one that’s too short.

When you fasten the nosepiece, you should have room to stick two fingers under it without squeezing them. You should also be able to get your fist between your horse’s throatlatch and his jaw. He needs plenty of room here to breathe and move his head.

A hackamore is a bridle without a bit. It works by putting pressure on the horse’s nose. When it’s in the right place, it rests on the bony part of the nose, not on the softer area near the muzzle. Too far down, and the nosepiece of a hackamore can interfere with the horse’s breathing. If a lot of pressure is applied, it can damage the flexibile tissue of his nose.

Too Shy

If your horse is head shy and sticks his nose in the air when you try to bridle him, it means he thinks bridles are painful. Try these steps to make him feel better about accepting the bridle.

1. Starting at his withers, gently scratch the base of his mane with your fingertips. Work up to just behind his ears. (You might want to try this a few times with the bridle nowhere in sight, to get him used to it.) Horses like having the area around their ears scratched — just like dogs — as long as you’re gentle. While you’re petting the base of his ears, feel for any sores or places where the hair has been rubbed off. (If you find a bald spot, bump or sore, point it out to an adult or your veterinarian.) Keep doing this massage when you bridle your horse, and you’ll probably find he lowers his head easily for you. Remember to be careful when you slip his ears through the headstall. Don?t crumple or twist them.

2. Check the corners of his mouth before you put the bit in. If there are raw or cracked spots, his bit has been hurting him and it’s no wonder he hates it.

3. The D-ring or shank should fit right at the corners of your horse’s mouth. They shouldn?t stick out more than and eighth of an inch — hardly at all.

4. If everything on your bridle seems to fit, but your horse still fights you when you bridle him, have your veterinarian look at the insides of the horse’s mouth for signs of injury.

Perhaps the most important thing you should think about when you put on a saddle and bridle is that they are your way of communicating with your horse. However, if they hurt him, he won?t pay attention to your signals. When you go to the trouble of making sure his tack is comfortable for him, your signals will come through loud and clear with no interference.

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