Our focus so far this year has been on fun. We’ve talked about the fun you can have with rescue horses, the great fun afforded by the sport of eventing, and other assorted topics that generally relate to a good time for the rider.
But how can we make sure that the riding experience is fun for the horses, too?
Before we even get to sitting in the saddle, there are several important issues to consider when you tack up your horse and get ready to ride!
Naturally, you’ll first carefully and thoroughly groom your horse, paying particular attention to the areas that will come in contact with the saddle, girth and bridle. Clean out her feet, making sure there are no stones, muck or debris. Brush off her legs and remove any burrs or shavings from her tail and mane.
Place a quality, clean, dry saddle pad on your horse's back before putting on the saddle. Make sure it's even on both sides of the horse. Place the saddle on top of the pad with ample pad in front of the saddle and enough in back. (see the photo with this article)
Next, you’ll want to pay close attention to the fit of the saddle. You certainly can’t just throw any old saddle on any horse. Making sure that it doesn’t pinch the horse’s withers, interfere with shoulder movement or obstruct the comfortable motion of his loins is essential.
LIFT the front of the saddle and pad, making sure the saddle pad peaks up over the withers. Otherwise it will rub and cause a sore spot on the horse's back.
How we cinch up that saddle is another vital element. Be certain that your girth is evenly balanced (meaning that the billets or latigo are the same length from the saddle to the girth, or cinch, on each side). Tighten your girth incrementally – a little at a time – so as not to cause discomfort to your horse or upset her with abrupt movements.
A good rule is to cinch it just tight enough at first to ensure that your saddle won’t slip on the horse if she moves suddenly. Do something else, move the horse around a bit and tighten your cinch a little more. Make your final adjustment just before stepping up onto the horse’s back.
If the saddle is western and offers multiple rigging options, make sure you’re using them correctly on both sides of the saddle. If using a western latigo that is equipped with holes, use them! Some western saddles fit better with the aid of a rear cinch. If your horse is comfortable with this, tighten it so that it just touches the horse. It should never be so snug that it presses into the horse but also not so loose that a foot could be caught if the horse put a foot up to scratch or kick.
Fit the bit; make sure the bit is neither too wide nor too narrow for your horse’s mouth. Is the bit clean and does it appear to be comfortable for the horse? Is the bit appropriate for his level of training? While most horses can go well in a snaffle, you would never want to use a shank bit on a young, green horse (or in the hands of an inexperienced rider). Make sure it’s not too cold or, if it’s summer and it’s been sitting in the sun, be mindful that it is not too hot.
Add the headstall with care. Gently and thoughtfully put the headstall (or bridle) on your horse. Be especially careful when placing the bit in her mouth and make sure you never ever smack the bit against her teeth!
Are the side pieces holding the bit adjusted comfortably? The bit should sit just at the corners of the mouth. You don’t want it hanging down on the tongue, but at the same time there should be no pressure against the sides of the mouth. Do you see a wrinkle? If yes, then it’s too tight!
Why no wrinkles? Back in olden times, when the earth was flat and people openly opposed gay marriage, it was a common belief that there should be at least a wrinkle or two on the sides of the horses mouth. As expert horseman Pat Parelli discovered and generously shared with the rest of the horse-handling public, this puts unnecessary pressure on the face of most horses. Notice we say most, not all. If your horse has very thick lips, or is old with loose lips, or if their dental structure creates a problem with the bit sitting in a particular area, you'll have to adjust accordingly. Always listen to your horse!
And when removing the headstall, use extreme caution. Be slow and thoughtful. Never ever EVER just pull the bit out of the horse’s mouth or cause it to clank against their teeth!! Let the horse softly spit it out on their own while you support it lightly in your hand.
Attach your reins on ONE SIDE of the bit while you're getting ready. Don't attach both sides until you're ready to get on. Why not? If the horse moves off he can get his leg through the reins and have a terrible wreck. (DO check that both are attached just before you get on the horse though).
Before climbing aboard adjust your stirrups. By standing next to the horse and holding your finger tips on the top of the stirrup leather (English) or fender (Western), you can pull the stirrup itself to the pit of your arm. That should give you a relatively good indication of how long that stirrup leather should be for your proportions.
Be absolutely sure that your stirrups are even. Riding unevenly puts you out of balance and will cause your horse to be sore! And a sore horse is uncomfortable, unhappy and will not have fun (and cannot be ridden until he heals).
Develop good habits for tacking your horse. Be considerate of the horse at all times. Slow down, think, and pay attention to what you're doing.
These habits will only lead to attention to detail and awareness that will also help you improve your skills as a handler and rider, adding to the overall fun for you and the animals with whom you get to interact.