A poorly fitting saddle can make your horse uncomfortable, cause pain, pressure points or lameness. It can also be uncomfortable for the rider and unbalance them or cause them pain.
Weight gain or loss, the amount or type of work he does, the age of your horse and the time of year can all have an impact on your horse’s size and shape and therefore the way his saddle fits.
Checking the saddle for comfort
It is important to get your horse’s saddle checked at least twice a year by a qualified saddle fitter. But in between visits from the saddle fitter, there are signs to look for as you tack up to check how the saddle is sitting on your horse’s back.
- The saddle should not sit too low across, or too high off, your horse’s withers. Ideally, you should be able to fit two to three fingers in between the gullet and the top of the withers and one finger in between the side of the withers and the front of the saddle.
- When looked at from the side, the saddle should sit level on your horse’s back
- Viewed from the back, the saddle should be sitting level (not to one side)
Checking the bridle for comfort
It is good practice to check the fit of the bridle each time you put it on, especially if the horse is not yours, as the bridle may have been taken apart for cleaning and not put back together correctly.
Points to check the fit of a bridle include:
- The bit should be level in your horse’s mouth while sitting high enough to create a wrinkle in the corner of his lips
- The noseband should be level across his nose with room for at least two fingers width between the noseband and the bony part of his jaw
- The browband should not pinch his ears and should be wide enough to fit two fingers between its centre and his forehead
Types of noseband
A noseband controls how wide the horse can open his mouth and prevents him from crossing his jaw. Nosebands should be fastened with room for at least two fingers between the noseband and your horse’s jaw, so he has room to move his jaw comfortably; they should not be used to hold the horse’s mouth shut. If the noseband is fastened tightly around your horse’s nose it will push the fleshy part of the gums against his teeth which would be painful for him.
A cavesson noseband is a single wide strap that fastens around the middle of your horse’s nose. It has little action and is used mainly for aesthetic reasons. It should be fitted approximately two fingers width below the projecting cheek bone, sit under the cheekpieces and fasten under the jaw.
A drop noseband sits across the bony part of your horse’s nose and puts pressure on the top of the nose and chin groove when his mouth is opened. The lower straps of the drop noseband sit in front of the bit and fasten under the chin groove. It should be fitted high enough so that it does not interfere with your horse’s breathing.
A flash noseband is made up of a cavesson noseband with an extra thinner strap attached to the bottom of it. The cavesson is fitted slightly higher than normal and the flash strap fastens in front of the bit. As it has two straps, it spreads the pressure around the nose and the chin groove.
With a grackle noseband the top straps sit under the cheekpieces fastening under the cheek bones and the lower strap sits in front of the bit and fastens in the chin groove. The cross-over point should sit on the centre of the nose and there should be 1-2 fingers clearance between the horse’s head and the straps. If the grackle has rings these should not interfere with the projecting cheekbones.
A running martingale is attached to the reins to stop your horse from lifting his head up past the point of control when being ridden. It consists of two straps: one sits around the horse’s neck; the other threads between your horse’s front legs and attaches to the girth at one end and splits into two straps which have metal rings at the end for the reins to pass through.
When using a running martingale, the reins must have rein stops on them to stop the metal rings sliding too far up and becoming tangled in the bit rings.
To check the fit of a running martingale you should be able to fit four fingers in between the neck strap and the top of the neck. The short straps with the rings on the end should reach from the centre of the chest to just under the throat.
A breastplate is used to prevent the saddle sliding back when your horse is working. You are most likely to see it in cross country competitions where the horses are galloping and jumping and it is possible for the saddle to move.
Similar to a martingale, it has a strap that threads through the horse’s front legs and attaches to the girth. It is attached to the saddle by short straps which thread through the D rings and some designs have extra straps which attach to the girth straps on either side.
To check the fit of a breastplate you should be able to fit four fingers between the top of the neck and the neck strap and a fist between the centre of the breastplate and the chest.
Before buying any extra bits of tack for your horse speak to your coach to ensure they are necessary.
The bit in your horse’s mouth forms part of your communication with your horse, along with your weight/seat, leg and rein aids. All bits work by placing pressure on one or more areas of your horse’s mouth and head.
Everything you do down the reins is felt by the horse through the bit, which is why it is important to have a soft elastic contact. Even the mildest of bits can potentially be uncomfortable to your horse if the hands at the end of the reins are rough.
It is important to remember that all horses are different and a bit that suits one horse may not suit another. Whatever bit you use must be fitted correctly to make sure your horse is comfortable.
Always start with the mildest bit and seek guidance from your coach about what is the right bit for you and your horse.
This pressure from a bit can be placed in several areas depending on the design of the bit. Inside the mouth pressure is placed on the tongue and the bars (gap between the front and back teeth - made of sensitive cartilage which means the horse can feel the movement of the bit) and the roof of the mouth.
Pressure can also be applied to the corners of the lips, chin groove, side of the face, nose and the poll.
The mouthpiece sits inside the horse’s mouth across the tongue. The shape of the mouthpiece influences where the pressure is applied. A straight mouthpiece will place most pressure across the tongue. A curved or jointed mouthpiece will place less pressure across the tongue and more on the bars of the mouth.
A thicker mouthpiece is considered to be milder than a thin mouthpiece, as the pressure is spread over a wider area.