Unless your horse is going to be strictly a lawn ornament, you'll definitely need a saddle and bridle to ride her. Whether you want an English or a Western saddle depends on what you're going to do with the horse. To ride recreationally, you can choose whatever saddle suits you.
SaddlesThere are all-purpose English saddles that serve well for cross-country riding. For riding steep, rugged trails, a general purpose Western saddle might give you greater support and comfort. People who compete regularly at horse shows often invest in schooling tack for everyday use and reserve their fancier show equipment for competitions.
A tack shop can provide you with almost everything you need to get started. Some tack shops specialize in a certain riding discipline; for instance, if you're going to ride western, seek out a western tack store. At a good shop, the personnel are familiar with all the equipment they carry and can help you make sensible choices.
A saddle can cost you from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the quality, brand, and other variables. The price will vary based on whether it's custom- or factory-made, leather or synthetic. Some shops sell used tack on consignment. A reputable shop will clean the tack and be honest about any required repairs.
A good quality used saddle that has been well cared for will retain its value because they are made to wear well. If you're just starting out, buying a used saddle for everyday schooling is a good way to go, and the saddle will be better broken in.
Buy the best quality saddle you can afford. Higher-quality saddles are built to comfortably fit horses without any unusual traits, such as extra high or low withers or an extremely wide, narrow, short, or long back. They are also built to address such things as the best placement of straps and buckles for the horse's and the rider's comfort.
English or “flat” saddles basically come in three types: dressage, hunter/ jumper (also called forward seat), or all-purpose. With English gear, the stirrup irons and leathers are often sold separately; with Western saddles, they are usually included as part of the saddle.
Dressage: The design of this saddle is intended to keep the rider's legs fairly straight underneath him for the more upright position, deeper seat, and longer leg applied in dressage riding.
Hunter/jumper (forward seat): As the name implies, the forward seat saddle is the one you should choose if you are interested in jumping activities (fox hunting, cross-country riding, stadium jumping). The saddles are designed for a more forward seat and a more bent leg, and they have varying degrees of knee rolls for the bent knee to rest on.
All-purpose: Intended for the general rider who rides for recreation, all-purpose English saddles often come with a slant toward hunter/ jumper position or dressage position.
English saddles come in 16-inch to 17.5-inch seats. Other specifics include the amount of padding in the seat, length and width of flaps, depth of seat, amount of twist (the angle of the slanted part of the saddletree), and height of the pommel. English saddles are designed to distribute the rider's weight evenly along the back of the horse's spine.
FIGURE 16.1: English Saddle
Here are some fine points to consider when shopping for a saddle:
Fit the saddle to you, not you to the saddle.
Try out the saddle either on a horse or on a saddle stand that is sturdy enough for you to take your feet off the floor and put them in the stirrups.
Allow a little extra room in new saddles. Features such as knee rolls will roll back toward the rider when the saddle gets broken in.
At the longest length of stirrup you would use, you should still have at least one or two inches of flap below the top of your boots.
Flaps should be as short as possible but never so short that they catch on the top of a knee-high boot.
Western or “stock” saddles are notoriously heavier and more accessorized than English-style saddles. The types of activities traditionally associated with the Western saddle include the heavy work of ranch life. Saddles used for doctoring cattle or long days on the trail need a horn for roping, strings for holding things such as rain gear and a bedroll, a rear cinch to keep the back of the saddle in place when the cow comes to the end of the rope that is dallied onto the horn, a pocket for a knife, and a breast collar to keep the saddle better in place over rough terrain.
FIGURE 16.2: Western Saddle
Western saddles are either working saddles or show saddles. Working saddles are more ruggedly built for heavy use, while show saddles are laden with silver or other decorations. Most people reserve their show saddle for the show itself and practice in it only enough to be comfortable at the show, keeping a less ornate saddle for everyday use.
Western-style endurance saddles are a hybrid of English and Western, but they look mostly like a regular Western saddle without the horn. They draw on the features of cavalry saddles and are well suited for long hours of riding. Mounted police units often use them.
How do you measure the horse for a saddle?
The best way is to try it on the horse. If that's not possible, one time-honored way to estimate the width of the horse's back is to bend a wire coat hanger over the withers and take it with you to the tack shop.
All saddles, English or Western, are made around a basic structure called a saddletree, which can be made of wood or fiberglass and other synthetic (and often lighter-weight) materials. Saddletrees come in wide or narrow versions, making it possible to fit a variety of horses. The rider's major concern when it comes to the saddletree is the twist, which is the degree of slant in the sloped area in the front of the saddletree. The steeper the slant, the narrower the saddle will feel to the rider.
To decide whether you have saddle-fitting problems, in either English or Western, here are some things to look for:
After a workout, look at the underside of the saddle pad. Is it unevenly dirty? Are there odd hair patterns, swirling or flattened areas that indicate uneven and misplaced pressure?
When you groom your horse, does she drop her back away from your hand, as if her back were sore?
Are there any sore spots, white hairs, or bumps where the saddle comes in contact with the horse's back?
Does the horse exhibit agitated behavior when you tack up?
Does the horse move in a constrained manner under saddle, rather than freely forward in a smooth, fluid motion?
These aren't all necessarily indications of poor saddle fit, but they definitely could be. You can use pads, inserts, and risers (collectively called shims) to adjust saddles that don't fit the horse quite right. Of course, it is always better to have the saddle fit well.
Girths and Cinches
English riders call them girths, while Western riders refer to them as cinches. Regardless of the name, their purpose is to hold the saddle on. Girths are typically made of leather, with buckles on both ends that fasten onto billet straps on both sides of the saddle. Some girths have a section of elastic on one side of the buckles, which makes it easier to tighten. You can also buy leather girths covered with fleece or foam, or you can buy all-cloth girths, which don't have the strength or give of leather.
Western cinches come in many materials, including foam-like neoprene, web material with felt or fleece lining, or wool-blend or mohair string girths, which consist of multiple strings gathered at rings with hooks on either end. Rings with buckles that fit into a hole in the latigo strap tend to be more secure than the empty ring the latigo ties into.
A saddle pad goes between the saddle and the horse's back to protect the horse from chafing. As with everything else horsy, there are many types of saddle pads to choose from. For Western riders, heavy wool-felt pads in varying thicknesses can be used alone or covered with a thinner wool blanket. Traditional Navajo-weave blankets in many beautiful colors and patterns are a perennial favorite in Western style.
Hunter/jumper-type saddle pads follow the shape of the saddle with very little pad exposed. They are often made of fleece. Square-quilted cotton pads are used more with dressage saddles. They come in many colors and fabrics and can be customized, like Western pads, with monograms and barn logos in the corners. They have nylon billets and girth straps to fit them to the saddle and keep them in place.
For the comfort and health of your horse, it's important to keep saddle pads clean. Wash them after each use to remove the sweat and dirt. One technique to clean heavy Western saddle pads is to take the pad to the hand car wash and hose the hair and dirt off with the power sprayer. English saddle pads are less bulky and can be run through the washing machine.
The bridle's function is to keep the bit in the horse's mouth so that the rider can steer the horse with the reins. The bridle is comprised of a headstall, bit, chinstrap, noseband, and reins, although often the reins are sold separately.
FIGURE 16.3: Bridle
Western bridles come in split-ear, sliding-ear, or browband designs. Split-ear and sliding-ear bridles have a loop of leather that one ear goes through. A browband bridle simply fits over the head like a halter, with a band of leather across the horse's forehead. The headstall can range from plain harness leather to heavily tooled, silver-decorated, highly polished show bridles, and it will have a cheek strap that loops under the horse's jaw and buckles on the left side.
The most commonly seen English bridle is the snaffle bridle, fitted with a snaffle bit and a single pair of reins. More advanced riders sometimes use a double bridle, which consists of two bits — a bridoon (which is a light snaffle bit) and a curb bit — and two pairs of reins.
English bridles typically come with a noseband. The nosebands may be a regular cavesson, dropped, or flash noseband. Each type acts differently on the horse's mouth but all generally serve to keep the bit in the right place in the horse's mouth. Both the dropped and the flash nosebands fasten below the bit, serving to keep the horse's mouth shut, while the cavesson fastens above the bit.
The bit is a tool to let you and your horse communicate; therefore, choosing the right one is important. When you pick up the reins and the bit comes in contact with the corners of the horse's mouth, the horse should be taught to understand that this means something. Although what it means can vary with the type of horsemanship you learn and the education level of your horse, the most common message pressure from the bit communicates to a horse is to slow down or stop.
A snaffle is basically a jointed piece of metal that goes in the horse's mouth and is attached to the reins with either O-shaped rings that can slide loosely around the ends of the bit or D-shaped rings that stay stationary. Snaffle bits are the best educational bit for the horse at any age and for the everyday rider, especially for beginners. They are the mildest bit (although any bit can be harsh in heavy hands). The snaffle bit exerts pressure on the horse's mouth, primarily on the tongue, lips, and bars of the mouth.
The curb bit has long cheeks, called shanks, and a hump in the middle, called a port. It is a harsher device, exerting pressure on the bars of the mouth, chin, and poll. When used in conjunction with a snaffle bit in a double bridle, it enables the rider to gain greater collection. However, a great deal of sensitivity and experience is required on the rider's part to use this bit combination correctly, without harming the horse. The curb is not a bit for beginners.
The Truth About Bits
Although it would take a separate book to go into the other types of bits available and what they're designed to do, there is only one important truth you really need to know about any of them. Even the mildest snaffle bit can be abusive to the horse in the wrong hands.
The only bit you will probably ever need, English or Western, is a snaffle bit. If your horse is giving you problems and someone recommends that you get a harsher bit with more leverage (i.e., longer “shanks”), find someone else to get your riding advice from.
Some people think all their control comes from their hands on the reins. These are the uneducated riders who haul back on the reins to stop, causing the horse to throw his head up in the air to avoid the pain from the bit jabbing his mouth. Without realizing it, these riders are actually teaching their horse to get “above the bit” to avoid the harsh contact. When the horse starts to run away to escape the abuse, the rider thinks fitting him with a harsher bit will fix the problem.
Real control comes not just from the hands, reins or bit, but from the combination of all of the rider's aids applied correctly. No bit — or any fancy piece of equipment — can give you better control or make you a better rider. Only knowledge can accomplish that. Rather than resorting to bigger bits to increase the leverage you use to put pressure on your horse's mouth, your money is better spent learning good horsemanship.