Join world-champion trainer Lynn Palm as she guides you through a tack check to optimize the safety and comfort of both you and your horse. Lynn Palm will teach you how to check your saddle, saddle pad, bridle, and bit to prevent horse problems in the future.
Lynn Palm’s equine partners are Rugged Painted Lark, a 9-year-old Paint stallion (Western tack) and Lark’s Painted Dinero, a 5-year-old Paint stallion (English tack).
Checkpoint #1: Saddle
Saddle fit/placement. Be sure your saddle fits your horse. If the tree is too narrow, the saddle can slip back, putting painful pressure on your horse’s lower back and loins which can cause serious horse problems later on. A host of physical problems can be caused by an improperly fitting saddle. Consult with a saddle-fit expert if you have any doubts a particular saddle is a good fit for your horse. An improper saddle fit will cause horse problems that could later result in more serious issues.
Surprisingly, many riders unknowingly place their saddle too far forward on their horses’ backs. When this happens, your horse’s scapula (shoulder blade) actually hits the saddle tree as he strides out. To avoid pain, he compromises his stride; this unnatural, altered stride causes him to land harder than usual, putting more pressure on his feet, joints, and muscles.
Also, the under-panels of a too-far-forward saddle don’t come in contact with your horse’s back. Instead, your saddle bridges, meaning that it touches only his withers and lower back. This creates undue pressure on these areas, rather than distributing your weight uniformly.
Cinch/girth. For schooling, Palm suggests using a neoprene or leather cinch or girth, which is easy to clean and disinfect — an important point if you use your tack interchangeably on different horses. “I really like a neoprene girth, but you have to be cautious, because you can get one overly tight,” she says. “On long rides, particularly when it’s hot, I always use a leather girth. I don’t like to have rubber against my horse’s skin, especially in tender places, such as the girth area or on the back. Neoprene can irritate the skin, because it doesn’t breathe.”
If you ride with a back cinch or girth, you shouldn’t be able to see a noticeable gap of daylight between the cinch/girth and your horse’s belly. A loose back cinch is asking for an accident to happen.
When tacking up, tighten the cinch or girth at least twice. After the first time, leave the stirrup hooked on a Western saddle horn, or English irons run up the leather. This will remind you to tighten the cinch or girth once more before mounting.
Safety check. Before every ride, turn your saddle upside down and give it a quick visual inspection. Pay close attention to places where hardware connects with leather, looking for cracks or signs of wear. Inspect the billets and buckles on an English saddle and the latigo on a Western saddle. If you find any cracks in a leather latigo, replace it immediately. A nylon latigo will last longer than leather, but be careful you don’t overtighten it when cinching up.
Checkpoint #2: Saddle Pad
Pad type. A wool saddle pad is ideal, as it conforms to your horse’s back, wicks away sweat, and is long-wearing. Look for a wool pad that’s one inch thick. Avoid a synthetic-fleece pad, which lacks the moisture-wicking properties of wool.
A single Navajo-type blanket isn’t typically thick enough for your horse’s comfort; add another pad or blanket underneath. Square cotton blankets and half pads are popular among English riders. Palm personally likes Professional’s Choice SMx Air-Ride pads, in both Western and all-around styles. These pads conform both to your saddle and your horse’s back.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking “the thicker the better,” as too many pads will cause a barrel effect, which causes the saddle to shift; this, in turn, can sore your horse’s back. You can’t make a saddle fit better by adding pads. If a saddle doesn’t fit properly, no pad can correct the problem. Be sure your pad is large enough for your saddle. There should be a minimum of one inch of pad showing around all edges of the saddle.
Tack-up tip. Whenever you tack up, pull the front of your pad or blanket up to the top of the cantle. This creates a “tunnel” allowing air to enter and reach your horse’s back, making him cooler and more comfortable during the ride. This is also a good time to make sure no mane hairs are trapped under the pad and pulled tight.
Pad cleaning. Clean your saddle pad/s regularly; a buildup of hair and dirt on the pad can irritate your horse’s back. Also, use a clean pad if you switch horses; shared equipment can spread skin problems from horse to horse. Toss cotton blankets and pads in the wash, but wool requires hand washing with cold water, a mild soap such as Ivory, and a hard bristled brush. After washing, air-dry blankets and pads in the sun.
Checkpoint #3: Bridle
Bridle type. Either leather or nylon is acceptable for schooling. Secure the headstall with a browband and throatlatch. When riding English and using a snaffle, Palm adds a cavesson (noseband) to keep her horse from opening his mouth and to provide more control. Because a snaffle works off the sides of the mouth, if the horse can open his mouth, he can evade the pressure of the bit.
If you trail ride, consider a combination halter/bridle. Or, put a well-fitting nylon halter on underneath your horse’s headstall. Make sure the halter is fitted high enough (one inch under each cheekbone) to prevent pinching from the bit. Take along a stout lead rope so you can safely tie your horse when you stop along the trail.
Reins. Split reins or a single rein are a matter of personal preference. Palm chooses to ride with 5/8-inch wide split-leather reins made of bridle leather, because they’re a good fit for women’s hands.
Round reins are Palm’s second choice, but she prefers leather over nylon, because nylon is slick and can be slippery, while leather offers better grip and contact. In rainy weather, however, leather can become slippery, so choose nylon instead. If you ride English, you’ll find laced or braided reins offer a good grip.
If you ride with a single rein, note that the reins should be long enough that when you pick them up, there’s a good 6 to 12 inches of bite, the part of the rein that hangs down. This extra amount of rein gives you more options for rein adjustment and allows you to maintain a loose rein or light contact when you don’t need greater control.
Hardware. Palm cautions against using snaps instead of buckles or leather lacing to attach the reins to the bit. “Snaps are always jiggling and can be annoying to a sensitive or nervous horse, because it stimulates them even more,” she notes. “If you use snaps, make sure the snap weight isn’t heavier than the rein; otherwise it’ll move constantly and send vibrations to the bit, which some horses find very annoying. These vibrations also interfere with clear rein cues. If you have snaps on the reins and your horse mouths the bit a lot, or is nervous, try replacing those snaps with a leather attachment, and you might notice a big improvement.”
Checkpoint #4: Bit
Bit type. “You should ride in as less severe a bit as you need to have control of your horse,” Palm notes. “People tend to have more bit then they need. A more severe bit enhances sensitivity and response. Instead of getting more control, you can actually have less.”
Any bit can be abusive depending on the rider. Even a snaffle bit — which sports a broken mouthpiece and lacks shanks for leverage — can be severe in the wrong hands.
Bit fit. Make sure the bit you are using fits and is adjusted properly in your horse’s mouth. It shouldn’t sit too low. There should be one wrinkle in the corners of his mouth, just above the bit.
If your horse is comfortable with the bit, his mouth will be relaxed, as will his head-and-neck carriage. His eye will be soft, and his neck muscles won’t be tense. Is his mouth always moving, is his neck tense, or does he frequently toss his head? Any or all of these can be signs the bit isn’t right for him, isn’t fitted properly, or you’re being too heavy-handed.
Curb strap/chain. If your bit requires a curb strap or chain, check the adjustment, as this directly relates to how well your bit will function. For example, with a curb bit a properly fitted curb strap allows the bit to have the right leverage to work on the bars of the horse’s mouth. If the curb strap is too tight, there is always tension on the bit. If the strap is too loose, the bit loses leverage.
You should be able to slip two fingers under the chain or strap and slide them along your horse’s chin. Palm prefers a plain leather curb strap with buckles on both sides for ease of adjustment.
Do you ride with a breastcollar? Look for a well-made, leather breastcollar, and properly adjust it to fit your horse. It should fit snugly — not tight and never loose. It should rest above your horse’s point of the shoulder (as shown). If it sits too low over the point of the shoulder, it’ll restrict movement and cause him pain. The metal center ring in front should rest right at the base of his neck; if it’s any lower, it’s sitting too low.
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for national horse publications and is the author of eight books. Horse-crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She enjoys trail riding on her Paint Horse gelding, Ben.
Lynn Palm has shown more than 34 Quarter Horse world and reserve champions, competing in both English and Western disciplines. She’s won a record four AQHA Superhorse titles and was the first rider to win the prestigious Superhorse title twice on the same horse, Rugged Lark. In 2000, Palm was named Horsewoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation and the AQHA. In 2003, Equine Affaire gave her its Exceptional Equestrian Educator award.