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Your horse’s gear


Approximately 3,300 words article


Part of being a responsible horse owner/rider is making sure that your horse’s gear fits correctly. A horse cannot work well if their gear does not fit properly. Gear that does not fit properly rubs and causes sore areas, leading to an uncomfortable horse. Even something as simple as a brow band that is too short, and therefore too tight, will cause a horse to be very uncomfortable, especially when sweating due to work.

By making sure your horse’s gear fits correctly you are also increasing your safety because a comfortable horse is a safer horse.

A horse that has badly fitting gear will resist sooner or later (understandably) which will erode your confidence and may set up undesirable behaviours in your horse.

The correct fitting of gear can be difficult until you are experienced enough to know what to look for. Some points to look for are given in the following sections, after some information that will help you to select good gear.

This article covers basic gear fitting but you could also ask for help. Saddle fitting is a specialist subject but an experienced horse person should be able to check the general fit of your horse’s gear, including your saddle, and indicate whether it needs further examination (by a professional saddle fitter).

If you are a member of a riding club there should be someone there who is experienced enough to check the fit of your horse’s gear.

If you are having lessons with your horse your coach/trainer/instructor should also be able to check your gear.

Alternatively find a reputable saddlery shop and ask if they have a trained saddle fitter. If they do they might come out (for a fee) and check the fit of your horse’s saddle (some stores have the facilities for you to take your horse to them). While they are checking your saddle for fit you could ask them to check the fit of other items such as your horse’s bridle.

In time you will become experienced enough to be able to carry out basic regular checks of your own horse’s gear however,as already mentioned, saddle fitting is more complex and unless you have been properly trained you should have your saddle checked by a professional saddle fitter from time to time,especially if you have made changes to your riding position (which you may be doing if you go on to read The Horse Rider’s Mechanic series of books). If a rider has been riding crooked for a while (with more weight on one side of their horse’s back than the other) the saddle will actually have compacted on one side or worse, become twisted. So, even when the rider tries to sit straighter, the saddle prevents them from doing so. Again this is a saddle fitting problem and needs expert attention.

This regular checking should be carried out for the sake of your horse, yourself and your gear.

How much should you spend on gear?

There is a huge variation in the price of gear. To the uninitiated this is confusing because cheaper gear may look just as good as more expensive gear. There are however some important differences that should be taken into consideration. The reason that some gear costs less to buy is because it costs less to make. Inferior materials may be used which results in an inferior product and in these situations, it is not unusual for leather parts to rip or snap, stitches to rot or come undone or metal parts to break under pressure. Another problem with cheap gear is that it may not fit as well resulting in a sore horse.

New or second hand?

It is possible to buy good gear second hand, especially a saddle.

If you are on a limited budget it is usually better to buy a good quality second hand saddle rather than spend a similar amount on a new saddle.

A good quality saddle lasts for many years (it is unlikely that you will outlive it in fact). So being second hand is not usually a problem as long as it has been well looked after and is not damaged. See the article Your saddle for more information about types of saddle.

Synthetic or leather?

When buying gear you have the choice between synthetic or leather. Synthetic gear has gone from strength to strength since it was first developed. It has many advantages over leather in that it is stronger, it does not require the same level of care and it can be used in wet weather without spoiling. It usually costs less than leather gear of similar quality because the material is less expensive to produce than leather.

An example of a good type of synthetic saddle.


The stirrup leathers (straps) along with the reins and the girth are all items that take a lot of strain and are vitally important pieces of equipment. You should never economise on these items. Fortunately it is now possible to buy all of these items in synthetic materials making them much cheaper and just as safe if not safer than their leather counterparts.

If you cannot afford good quality leather gear then synthetic items are better than cheap (poor quality) leather items.

Basic saddle fitting

The issues involved with fitting are similar whatever the type of saddle. A poorly fitting saddle will cause many problems for a horse including resistance when being ridden (understandably). Never compromise a horse’s back by using a poorly fitting saddle. The saddle should first and foremost fit the horse because, beside the issue of horse welfare, an uncomfortable horse is potentially an unsafe horse. The next consideration is that it should be comfortable for the rider however a saddle should never be used on a horse simply because it is comfortable for the rider if it does not fit the horse.

When ever possible get a professional to fit a saddle. A good saddlery shop should have a trained saddle fitter who will come out and fit a saddle to a horse, or you may be able to take your horse to the store. If buying a saddle from another source (friend, classified advert etc.) aim to ‘try before you buy’. This can be difficult, you may need to set up some kind of guarantee (such as you pay for the saddle on the proviso that you can bring the saddle back for a full refund if it does not fit).

Remember that horses change shape as they lose or gain condition and as they develop muscle tone. A saddle that is fitted to a three year old horse will not necessarily fit that same horse after a year or two of work when the horse will have developed muscle that will cause the back to widen. An ‘English’ or ‘Australian stock saddle’ that is used regularly may need the panels repacking every twelve months to two years.

To fit a saddle to a horse stand the horse on a flat level surface. The saddle should initially be tried without a saddle cloth so that it can be checked thoroughly. If there is a need to keep the underneath of the saddle clean then place a thin towel between the saddle and the back but nothing thicker. The following checks should be carried out without a rider in place and then, as long as everything is correct, with a rider in place.

Before putting the saddle on the horse check that the gullet is no less than 8cm (3 inches) wide down its length (picture below). Saddles with a narrow gullet can put pressure on the spine.



Now place the saddle on the horse’s back. You could fasten the saddle on with the girth but not tightly at this stage. Check that the saddle clears the withers, if it does not there is no point in going any further. You should be able to put at least three fingers between the withers and the gullet (picture below).



The back of the saddle should not go any further back than the last rib of the horse. This can be felt with the fingers. A horse should never carry weight beyond this point because the back is not strong enough without the support of the ribs (picture below).



The saddle tree (inside the saddle) should be the same width as the horse. To check this, run a hand between the front panel of the saddle and the horse, from the withers down the shoulder (picture below).



The pressure should not increase or decrease as your hand runs downwards. If it does this indicates that the tree of the saddle is either too narrow or two wide. If the pressure stays the same then the tree width mirrors the horse’s shoulders.

The panels should mirror the shape of the horse’s back, putting even pressure along the muscles on either side of the spine. To check this, run a hand under the panels from front to back (picture below).



If the panels are the wrong shape for the horse there will either be more pressure in the middle (than the front and back) which will cause the saddle to rock, or less pressure in the middle, which will cause the saddle to ‘bridge’ (only touch at the front and back but not in the middle), putting too much pressure on these areas.

The horizontal line (of the seat) through the centre of the saddle should be parallel to the ground, not sloping up or down (picture below).



If the saddle has passed the above tests you now need to run through the following checks with a rider in place.

Check that the saddle still clears the withers.



Check that the tree is still the same shape as the horse.



Check that the saddle still has even pressure along the panels.



Finally, check that the saddle fits the individual rider. Deeper seats are tighter than flatter seats. Men are usually more comfortable in flatter saddles and women in deeper saddles. The best way to tell if it fits and is comfortable is to ride in it. The saddle should not feel as if it tips the rider forwards or backwards. The horse should go happily in it without resistance and the rider should feel comfortable while riding at all paces. As already mentioned, this article just covers the basics about saddle fitting. See the article Your saddle for more information about the different types of saddle.

The bridle

The purpose of a bridle is to control the head of the horse when being ridden. A bridle usually includes a bit however sometimes not in the case of a ‘bitless’ bridle (see the article To bit or not to bit). Bridles can be made from synthetic material or leather. There are some differences between Australian, ‘English’ and ‘Western’ styles.



Irrespective of the style, a bridle must be strong enough to withstand wear and tear. It must not cause discomfort to the horse and it should be easy to put on and take off (see the article Bridling for information about putting on and taking off a bridle, including how to avoid creating a ‘difficult to bridle’ horse and what to do with a horse that is already ‘difficult to bridle’).

Nosebands

A bridle may or may not have a noseband fitted. Nose bands are often fitted wrongly and they are also often used inappropriately. Originally a noseband (on an ‘English’ bridle) was mainly used for cosmetic reasons (to make a horse’s head ‘look better’). It was also used for attaching a ‘standing martingale’ ( a strap that goes from the noseband to the girth).

Over time nosebands have ‘developed’ and there are now many types available. The problem is that in the wrong hands they can inflict pain and tend to create far more problems than they solve.

Ironically, as with so many gadgets etc. to do with horses, an inexperienced rider can do a lot of damage using complicated items of gear and an experienced rider should not need them.

This article will just cover the fitting of a basic noseband. The simple cavesson noseband should be adjusted so that it sits around the horse's face halfway between the projecting cheek bone and the top of the nostrils. It is fitted under the cheek pieces not over them. There should be room to fit two fingers between the noseband and the horse’s head. Be especially careful with a young horse (up to five) as they may have molars erupting (which will mean that they are possibly sore in that area).


If you are interested in finding out more about the The Noseband Taper Gauge shown above have a look at this website www.equidaewelfare.com.

It is incorrect to fit a noseband tightly so that a horse cannot open their mouth and ‘evade the bit’. If a horse is ‘evading the bit’ it is could be one or a combination of many reasons such as:

It is understandable that pain will cause resistance therefore all of these issues should be addressed and rectified before any other measures are taken.

Instructors and parents should note that a horse that requires special gear (such as a complicated noseband) to prevent the mouth from opening or gadgets (such as a martingale) to prevent the head from going too high is not a beginner’s horse.

Browbands

The browband (the piece that runs around the front of the head, under the forelock) can be a source of discomfort if not fitted properly.

If it is too tight it can pull the headpiece (the part that runs over the back of the head, behind the ears) too close to the ears and cause discomfort.

A horse that is uncomfortable due to an ill fitting brow band might shake their head although sometimes a horse will show no outward signs even though it is too tight.

Some ‘Western’ bridles omit this piece of equipment (a browband), but instead have a slot in the head piece that fits over one of the horse’s ears to keep the bridle in place.

When you put the bridle on make sure that the loops at either end of the browband are not tilting upwards and ‘nipping’ the base of one or both of the ears. There should be a space below the base of the ears (picture below).



Make sure that the browband is also long enough; it should not pull the headpeice of the bridle forward and you should be able to run two fingers underneath it from one side to the other.

Bits

Poorly fitting and inappropriate bits cause many problems for horses. There are many different types, some of which are very severe. Even a mild bit can cause pain and discomfort in the wrong hands and a severe bit can be dangerous as a horse can react adversely if it is used inappropriately (picture below).

Two stainless steel jointed snaffle bits. One has smaller rings and a thinner mouth piece. The other has larger rings and a thicker mouth piece.


The most common bit is the snaffle bit and even this has many variations ranging from mild to severe. They can have no joint in the mouthpiece or have a jointed mouthpiece. Generally speaking an unjointed snaffle bit is the least severe, followed by the most commonly used bit which is a jointed snaffle. A curb bit ( a type of bit that has ‘shanks’ and works on leverage, can be more severe, especially if it has a chain attached, and a jointed curb is more severe still.

However it is much more complicated than that. For example a bit with a thick ‘kind’ mouthpeice combined with a heavy handed rider will still hurt.

Better training of rider and horse is usually the solution to a problem such as not stopping or turning properly, rather than a more severe bit. A rider should never use a different type of bit if they do not understand how it works. In time an article on bits in more detail will be added to the articles section of this website.

The bit should have no sharp edges and should fit well. Bits can be made from various materials. Avoid using cheap metal plated bits as the metal will flake off over time, and as they wear they develop sharp edges and can even snap.

If a bit is jointed make sure that it does not nip when the joint closes. Bits that have curved bars (such as those in the picture below) are thought to be more comfortable on the tongue that those with straight. Very thick bits are not necessarily more comfortable than thin bits because they do not allow the horse to close the mouth properly, especially if a noseband is fitted that prevents the mouth from opening (not recommended).

A ‘sweet iron’ bit that shows the correct curve when fastened to a bridle. If it was fastened the other way it would nip the tongue of the horse when used.


When in the mouth the bit should not pinch the side of the mouth nor should it be so wide that it slides from side to side when the reins are used.

An area of contention among many horse people is how high the bit should sit in the mouth. The picture below shows a good positioning of the bit.



There is no hard and fast rule and some horses prefer one way or the other. However, the bit should never be very low and loose in the mouth (nor should it be very high and tight). Sometimes when a bit too low the horse will actually hold it up in a more comfortable position giving the impression that it is tight enough. Have the horse open their mouth (by placing a finger in from the side where the bit sits and waggling it a little) and if the bit drops down it is probably too slack. If the bit is too tight it will pull the corners of the mouth up. In this case the cheek pieces will also feel tight against the cheeks. They should be able to be lifted (with ease) about 2 cm away from the sides of the face.

Reins

The reins should be comfortable in the riders hands. Reins are available in many different materials to suit individual preferences such as plain or plaited leather, rubber covered leather, cotton web or rope and nylon webbing (picture below).



The reins should not so long that the buckle end (where the two reins are joined together) can catch around the foot of the rider when mounted. In order for the rider to be comfortable the buckle should sit about half way between the rider’s hands and feet when the reins are held with a reasonable contact. If the reins need to be tied up in a knot at the end they are too long and should be replaced or altered.

Open ended or split reins (‘western reins’) should be long enough so that they do not slip off the neck if dropped across the neck (picture below).



Instructors should note that beginner riders are usually safer with joined reins.

‘English’ reins are attached to the bit via ‘billets’ (picture below left) or buckles (picture below right). Billets should face inwards and buckles should face outwards on a bridle.



This article supports the information in the books Horse Rider's Mechanic Workbook 1: Your Position and Horse Rider's Mechanic Workbook 2: Your Balance. Start reading these books now (for free) by clicking the titles above.

We hope this article has been useful to you. If you think it could be added to or improved please let us know (contact us).


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