It’s the time of year we all look forward to – plenty of sunshine and good weather and the prospect of many pleasant riding days ahead! For those who look forward to riding their horses on the trails, it’s important to consider the tack you will be using for your horse, and to make sure it suits your horse’s needs, in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride.
Recently I was talking with a friend who mentioned that she had finally gotten a day off to go riding – only to have fallen off her horse! But, she said, there was a reason she fell – the saddle didn’t fit the horse. It reminded me how important saddle fit is, especially when riding up and down hills and on uneven ground. Horses come in many different sizes and body shapes – and so it is important that the saddle you use for riding trails is one that fits your horse well. (That beautiful saddle you might use in the show ring may not work well on a trail ride.) In addition to Western and English saddles, there are a whole host of saddle types to choose from for trail use – such as Plantation saddles, Australian saddles and the like. The type of saddle is not as important as the fit and comfort for both you and your horse.
If you are limited in your choice of trail saddle, it’s better to err on the side of a bit too large, as you can supplement that extra space with an extra pad; but a saddle that is too small or narrow will pinch and cause soreness and discomfort for your horse.
When you put the saddle on your horse, it should ‘fit’ into place easily – if you reach under the saddle tree you should feel your horse’s shoulder blade. There should be enough clearance for you to insert two fingers between the top of the horse’s withers and contact with the gullet. You should not be able to rock the saddle from side to side or back and forth – a well fitting saddle will sit securely enough on the horse’s back so that you will need to lift it up and off rather than sliding or rolling it off. Don’t wait till the trail ride to check your saddle fit – try it out beforehand and ride long enough to let your horse work up a good sweat. Once you remove the saddle and pad or blanket, check your horse’s skin underneath – it should be evenly wet with sweat, indicating that the saddle sits evenly and fits well. Dry spots indicate pressure – and small dry spots will cause a sore to develop. Large dry spots are actually not as concerning as small, as the pressure will be more evenly distributed; you will need to use additional padding in these areas to compensate.
A well-fitting saddle should not require heavy padding; the use of wool or some wool content in the pad is ideal, as the wicking and heat distribution properties of wool are beneficial on a long ride. The pad can be 100 percent wool felt or simply have a wool blend backing against the horse; with a well-fitting saddle, a woolen Navajo blanket will do. Your pad should be long enough to provide some protection for your horse from your saddlebags or other items secured to the saddle – generally about 2-3” of pad behind the saddle should suffice.
Your trail saddle should have good rigging for riding trails. Double rigging includes both the cinch and flank strap, and is especially useful when riding steep trails. The position of the rigging largely depends upon the purpose of the saddle. Rigging that sits directly under the midpoint of the saddle is termed “centerfire” rigging, and each position toward the horn is given a different fraction: 5/8, 3/4, or 7/8. Note that Full and often 7/8 rigging requires a back cinch to keep the saddle from tipping forward in steep or hilly riding conditions. Single rigging does not involve the use of a flank strap. Instead, the rigging hugs the saddle toward a center point. We prefer the ¾ position, as this puts the cinch back away from the front legs and loose skin behind the elbow and will ensure a more balanced ride.
Two items that are often used when riding trails are the breast collar and the crupper strap. The breast collar (or breast plate) is helpful in hilly country, especially on rounder horses with large shoulders and a flat ribcage, to help keep the saddle from sliding too far back. It is also a safety feature, as if the girth breaks or loosens too much, the breast collar will prevent the saddle from sliding off or under the horse’s belly. The breast collar should be adjusted so that the chest straps lie above the point of the shoulder and do not restrict the horse’s motion in any way. In general, your fist should fit between breastplate and the horse’s chest, and there should be a hand’s width between the wither strap and the withers. See that the buckle does not rub the sensitive skin in the area. The crupper strap will keep the saddle from sliding too far forward when riding down hill on a horse with low withers. The crupper strap may be single or double forked, and usually attaches via a snap or buckle to a crupper ring located behind the saddle at the center of the cantle. If your saddle is not equipped with a crupper ring, one can be added. If your horse has never been ridden with a crupper strap, you should try it out ahead of your trail ride so he can become accustomed to it. The crupper should never be tight fitting.
Other articles of tack that are useful on the trail are pommel or cantle bag. The Pommel Bag attaches across the horn of a western saddle, or attaches to the front of an English saddle near the front or pommel, thus the name. The Cantle Bag is a small bag that fastens to the back of the saddle. These bags are very handy for holding anything from your lunch, to a water bottle, cell phone, hoof pick, car keys, etc. You’ll need saddle strings on your saddle to secure these and other tie-on items.
Don’t forget to bring your horse’s halter and lead rope; you might also wish to carry along a set of hobbles if you plan on stopping long enough for your horse to graze. Grazing hobbles are padded and safer than nylon but your horse can soon learn to travel pretty well while wearing them! We use hobbles that we made ourselves out of a nice, soft cotton lead and braided back the ends. You fold the rope in half across your horse’s lower front leg opposite you, and then twist the rope tightly until it fits the space between the front legs; then finish it off with a double quick-release knot. Simple, lightweight and does the job!
Before setting out on a trail ride, check to be sure your horse’s feet are in good shape – whether he is barefoot or shod. Contact your farrier ahead of time if your horse is getting long in the toe or has a loose shoe – you won’t want to have to deal with a lost shoe or have your horse tripping while on the trail. Ask whether you should consider using boots for your horse on the trail; hoof boots are an option if your horse is barefoot. There are a number of different styles on the market – some can be expensive, but depending upon your situation, may prove to be cost effective in the long run.
A safe and successful trail ride will depend on your preparation – and the best time to start is now. Happy Trails!