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Utah’s horse world – Keep your horse comfortable on the trail

Indy is shown wearing a Sensation Ride saddle, from Nicker's Saddlery.
Indy is shown wearing a Sensation Ride saddle, from Nicker's Saddlery.
photo by Meisja Turner Wagner (with Sarah Terrien Robertson and Indy)

Now that you, as a confident, seasoned rider, are comfortable heading out on the trail, assured that you’re dressed in practical apparel and taking along the right accessories to enhance your experience, you’ll want to evaluate your tack and supplies to be certain you’re providing for your horse’s optimum well-being.

Just as we think of safety and comfort when putting on a riding helmet, we want to make sure our horses’ feet are healthy and well-protected, too. If your horses wear shoes, you’ll want to see that those shoes are in good repair before you head out onto new terrain. Are all nails securely and correctly in place? Have the horses been recently trimmed, so that their toes are not too long and heels neither too high nor under-slung?

Are you fortunate enough to have a sturdy breed that can travel on any ground barefoot? Of course you’ll still want to make sure no chips or cracks are forming, and that the heels or toes are not overgrown. If your horses are barefoot but don’t yet have trail-hardened feet, you’ll want to protect them with properly sized hoof boots or glue-on shoes.

A local barefoot trimmer can offer expert advice regarding the best solutions for your horses. Meisja Wagner is located in Salt Lake and takes care of clients across the greater Wasatch Front, including West Bountiful. Chad Montee, located in the Bluffdale area, also travels north, south, east and west to take care of equestrians and their healthy barefoot horses. Shane Phelps is a local favorite amongst stables just south of Salt Lake (Lindon, Lehi, Spanish Fork).

Bell boots and sport boots (leg wraps) offer added protection to the horse’s legs. If you’re traveling through areas with a lot of stiff brush or rocks, these can be helpful. Make sure you know how to place the wraps correctly around the leg so that they stay on securely, offer the right amount of support, but are not so tight that they may pull, bow or otherwise damage a tendon. Take along a hoof pick in your saddle bags!

Proper saddle fit is always paramount to your horse’s health, comfort and the long-term function of its spinal processes and long back muscles. Keeping in mind that the horse is not designed to carry a burden, but rather for locomotion, it’s absolutely imperative that the rider carefully and continually assess the correct fit of any saddle.

Depending upon the rider’s weight, a quality treeless saddle can be a wonderful choice, as it will accommodate the horse’s changing form. As horses age and encounter changes in the amount of exercise or feed that they’re offered, you’re likely to see alterations in their body mass. A young horse may change greatly as their top line develops and shoulders fill out.

Investing in a good treeless saddle can save you a lot of frustration (and save the horse from undue soreness) as time goes on, providing those riding the horse are not too heavy; treeless saddles are usually not recommended for those over 170 lbs. Sensation Ride saddles, available from Nicker’s Saddlery in Penticton, B.C., are absolutely wonderful; comfortable for horse and human alike and made with the utmost quality and attention to detail.

Some saddles have a flex tree or even customizable panels that offer support for riders of any size and weight and also accommodate a growing and changing horse. They are a great choice for riders who ride multiple horses, too. Consider Circle Y’s saddles with their patented Flex2 trees or Specialized saddles, a favorite amongst Utah’s endurance riders. Expect to pay roughly $1600 - $2000 on up for a good, new saddle. You may also find quality used saddles on reputable tack sites, online sources or through local consignment dealers.

Padding is another consideration. More padding doesn’t always mean more comfort. In many cases, excessive padding can lead to saddle roll and actually irritate the horse’s hair and skin. Always make sure to lift the front of any pad up over the withers to make sure it doesn’t rub. Some horses like a wool pad, providing you find one that’s evenly pressed and offers absorption of sweat. As with all tack, don’t go cheap. A lumpy, misshapen pad blended with course fibers is sure to make your horse uncomfortable and unhappy.

Some pads are made to prevent saddle movement and thus offer a bit of grip. These are nice for short distances but can create a buildup of heat and sweat over longer rides, particularly in hot weather. They’re easy to hose off and simple to clean, but may add discomfort for the horse if they have to wear them for too long.

Cinches and girths are a personal matter and your horse is likely to have a favorite. Just make sure it’s of the proper length and width and that is doesn’t pinch or irritate the horse. As with any ride, be sure your cinch is snug enough to keep the saddle in place! Of course you don't want to cut the horse in half or squeeze the air out of him, but do be certain that your girth is tight enough to prevent the saddle from sliding to the side. Remember your standard pre-ride practices (whether heading to the trail or arena); carefully and thoroughly groom your horse each time before tacking him up.

Use a bit that you know your horse accepts willingly and will carry without argument. The last thing you want on a trail ride of any length is a fussy, head-tossing horse. The fit of the headstall is important too, making sure it's not too tight over the poll, not pushing on the horse's ears, that the browband is not too tight and that the cheek pieces are adjusted to the proper length (your bit should be sitting just at the corner of the mouth, touching but without wrinkles).

Reins that are long enough to allow your horse to graze intermittently are recommended. Something soft that still enhances your grip (ThinLine reins are the absolute best) will have a little give for the horse and a nice, cushiony feel for the rider.

Put some hay in the trailer’s feed compartment to reward your horse after the ride is done and to help him enjoy the road trip to and from your home.

You can take water to offer before and after the ride at the trailer or, if you’re going to be out for a while and are not sure your horse will drink from a stream, you may want to pack a collapsible bucket so you can offer your horse a little water along the way. Staying hydrated is important for you both.

A horse that’s happy, comfortable, content and well cared for is sure to be a better trail partner, and will no doubt enhance your own adventurous outings.

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