Autumn has always been my favorite season, especially after I got my first horse. It’s a magical time of year, when nights are chilly and days are sunny — with cool crisp air and intensely blue October skies — not to mention the riot of color on our Catskill Mountains landscape of upstate New York. The days are shorter but we tend to fill every hour we can with outdoor activities as long as there is daylight; it’s a favorite time to go riding on trails.
It is also common during Autumn for horses to be bought and sold — especially in the instance of those belonging to youngsters heading off to college — and it’s a time of bonding and getting to know your horse. If trail riding is high on the list of to-dos with your horse, this is an excellent time to get out and enjoy your new mount.
A good grooming job is important before you head out on a ride. Be diligent with brushing to remove any bits of dried mud, debris or chaff especially where the girth or cinch lies, under the saddle pad, and across the chest and tail if you are using a breast collar or crupper strap. Brush or comb the mane and forelock, and under the chin and throat latch for the bridle. And lastly, check your horse’s feet for stones or debris that will be uncomfortable on a ride.
With the very wet summer that’s just passed, pastures held more water than usual in the low/flat areas, and as a result many horses’ feet were softened and made to feel tender when walking on rocky ground. For those with barefoot horses that seem a bit sensitive to rocks and harder surfaces, some will utilize hoof boots to make the ride more comfortable. If you don’t already have hoof boots there are a number of brands and styles available — each one is specifically tailored to provide a good fit for your horse — but remember that different companies will have their own sizes and measurement options. Many of the boots sold today use hook and loop type closures, which makes putting on and taking off much easier. If you do ride with hoof boots, use your hoof pick and then brush the hoof clean of pebbles, dirt or debris that could become irritating under the boot.
Each time you tack up, check to make sure your equipment is in good repair. Shake out your saddle pad and remove any dirt, hay, burrs, chaff or other debris you may find. Be sure there are no wrinkles or folds where the saddle will be seated, looking for loose stitching, cracked leather, fractured rings or buckles; also sharp edges on bits or any other damage that could make your saddle or bridle come apart while riding. If in doubt, substitute another saddle or bridle, or make the necessary repair before taking a chance in going out on a long ride.
When you place the saddle on your horse, it should ‘fit’ into place easily — if you reach under the saddle tree you will 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. The saddle should not be able to be rocked 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.
I’ve had a mare that was ‘girthy’ when I first brought her to our place. She had a short-lived history of being a brood mare but after a difficult birth (she did produce a live foal, thankfully) she was retired from her duties as a brood mare but came to us with the resulting “girthiness” – where she’d snap her head around and go for me with her teeth as soon as I would attempt to girth her up. As a result, I’ve gotten in the habit of girthing slowly, in stages: first loosely after seating the saddle, then snugged up a bit after checking both sides for twisted leathers or anything out of the ordinary, then again after bridling, and finally a check before mounting up.
A piece of equipment I have been very appreciative of is the breast collar. Our Morgan mare is very round and mutton-withered, and it is challenging to keep the saddle from slipping back and even around — and so the breast collar works very well. It is designed to prevent the saddle from slipping back on a horse, and will stabilize the saddle allowing you to not have to tighten the cinch as much. It is basically a strap that attaches from cinch ring (or Dee ring or slot on the saddle) across the front of the horse’s chest to the corresponding ring or slot on the other side. In the center of the chest is a ring that has a center strap that extends down between the horse’s front legs and attaches to a Dee ring on the front cinch. When you attach the breast collar be sure that the center of the breast plate (with the ring for the center strap) is located exactly in the center of the horse’s chest, and the side straps are evenly balanced on either side. The breast collar should be above the point of your horse’s shoulder so it does not constrict movement, and you should be able to slide your hand under the collar and between the center strap and the horse’s chest between her front legs.
Another useful item for trail riding is the crupper strap. The crupper strap will keep the saddle from sliding too far forward when riding down hill on a horse with low withers. This piece of tack 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. Years ago I had a Thoroughbred gelding that was very thin and had low withers, and on our hilly property, really needed a crupper strap. I was able to find a saddle maker nearby who added a crupper ring to my Australian saddle, which I used successfully each time I rode the gelding. Note — 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 saddle bags, which can be very handy for holding your lunch, a water bottle, cell phone, hoof pick, car keys, etc. They can be independently worn behind the saddle, or individually in form of a pommel bag that attaches across the front of your saddle, or a cantle bag that fastens to the back of the saddle. Rather than needing special saddle bags, I have a nice saddle pad that has two pockets, one on either side of the back of the saddle, which come in handy, along with the saddle strings on my saddle to secure tie-on items.
After the saddle and breast collar/crupper straps are fitted, it’s time to put on the bridle.
Again, especially with a new horse, take care to make the bridling process an easy one for your horse. When we were purchasing a horse years ago we were told she was difficult to bridle and especially to un-bridle, and would react badly if the bit came in contact with her teeth in the process. I noticed that she had small ‘wolf teeth’ and, figuring that might have been the cause, contacted our equine dentist. He came and removed the teeth — which turned out to be the crux of the problem. But from that time on, and with successive horses, I am always careful when bridling, and use my left hand to guide the bit out of the horse’s mouth gently when un-bridling. They will often lower their heads to make the job easier, and seem appreciative of the extra efforts.
Lastly, after you check all your gear (including another snug on the girth or cinch if necessary) and before you mount up, don’t forget your riding helmet. As an adult, I wear a safety helmet each and every time I ride my horse. Back in 1999, I purchased my first riding helmet and was on a trail ride the very first week afterwards; my 3-year-old green-broke horse spooked and I landed flat on my back — sustaining a fractured vertebrae, cracked hip and torn rotator cuff — and I have no doubt that wearing that helmet saved me from severe head injury.
Being prepared with a well-groomed horse and tack in good repair will ensure that you have a fun and successful ride, and so be sure to get out and enjoy this beautiful time of year with your horse — and Happy Trails!