Tack Cheats for Little People

I don’t often have an opinion on a pony’s tack. I may recommend some form of grass rein if the pony snatches at the reins, or I may comment on the size of stirrup iron or leathers if they’re unsuitable, but I don’t like too many gadgets on a pony because although the gadgets may solve the initial problem, they don’t allow the rider, however small, to learn correct habits which means that they will run into difficulties later on in their riding career.

As long as the tack is safe, I don’t tend to change things. However, recently I’ve found myself making little adjustments to tack to help my little riders.

My most common suggestion at the moment is that my young riders have a piece of electric tape wrapped around their reins so they know when a) their reins are the correct length, and b) that their holding the hands level. Often children have one hand which has a longer rein and sits back, just above the saddle, a throwback to when they were holding on to balance. Others will shorten one rein more than the other, especially if feeling nervous. Putting a visual cue helps correct this subconscious habit. You can buy multicoloured reins which do a similar thing, but electrical tape is free and quick to apply. As soon as a rider’s hands are held level they begin to sit straighter and their pony responds to a more even rein contact so becomes easier to control. Most of my Pony Clubbers have tape on their reins.

The other bit of tack which I’ve been tweaking recently are knee rolls. Most saddles nowadays have velcro knee rolls, which means they can be adjusted so that they support a rider’s leg. Sometimes, as in the case of inherited ponies, the knee rolls were adjusted for the tall previous rider, and the new, shorter jockey ends up swinging their legs around as they try to find their balance in rising trot. A quick adjustment of the knee rolls means that they have some support at the knee which discourages the knee from reaching forwards and subsequently stops the chair position developing. It’s worth reviewing the positioning of knee rolls as children’s legs grow, and as they develop their muscles and balance they become less reliant on knee rolls anyway.

Last week I was working on jumping position with a young rider. We’d managed to get her folding nicely, but her lower leg started to look insecure. When I looked closely I noticed she didn’t have any knee rolls on her saddle. So I’ve dispatched her Mum off to buy some velcro knee rolls, which I believe will solve the wobbly leg problem and help this rider feel more secure folding into her jumping position.

Another cheat I’ve suggested recently, which is also useful for slight adults riding big ponies, is that if the saddle seat is a bit big for the rider – because a child has moved up a pony size or a family pony means everyone has to try to make fit – a seat saver can help reduce the size of the saddle seat. It does not need to be extra grippy, or memory foam or anything in particular, but the aim is to shorten the distance from pommel to cantle so that a rider with a small seat, especially one developing their balance, doesn’t feel the need to push their bottom backwards to feel the cantle and get some support from it as the learn to rise to the trot. This should help stop the lower leg going forwards and them developing a chair seat.

Saddlers should always fit tack to both horse and rider, so in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to make these cheats, but new saddles are expensive and situations less than perfect with young riders having growing room on new ponies, so we need to think outside the box and make adjustments to develop good habits, which is far easier than correcting ingrained bad habits as a result of not having support from tack in the right places.

Poll Pressure

When I first started riding this horse I noticed that on the walk  home on hacks he would throw his head around. Not in a twitchy way, but throwing his whole neck around.

Initially I thought it might be because the horse was tired, or that I had him in a long and low frame and, with his long neck, his muscles were fatigued. 

But the behaviour continued in walking, some days worse than others, and I couldn’t put my finger on the cause. But as it didn’t improve on time I could cross fatigue off my list of causes.

I ran through my checklist

  1. Do his teeth need doing?
  2. Has his back been checked recently?
  3. Is his tack ok? Has it changed recently?

Everything was fine until I thought about his tack. 

The horse has a small head for his size, but has comparatively big ears. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have donkey sized ears, but they are horse sized ears on a delicate head. 

He wears an ear bonnet, and one day as I tacked him up I realised that the bridle was quite tight around the base of his ears when he was also wearing his bonnet. He also had more sweat around the base of his ears after exercise. After discussing with his owner we decided to see how he behaved in walk without the bonnet to see if there was a pressure problem there.

He seemed to be more comfortable and stiller in his head and neck so we thought about ways to make him even more comfortable and reduce the pressure even further. I checked the rest of his bridle and the bit is the correct height in his mouth, and the grackle is not done up tight.

The simplest change to his bridle was to replace his plain headpiece with a cutaway design to free up the base of his ears. If the bridle still seems snug to his ears then perhaps using a full size browband instead of a cob size will stop the headpiece being encouraged forwards. 

I hope that once the new bridle moulds to his shape he will stop tossing his head, but we will see next week! 

Interestingly the same subject came up at the riding club committee meeting. One lady said that her horse is so sensitive around his head he needs a sheepskin pad under his noseband, which cannot be tight, and has a cutaway headpiece. Someone else there is looking to try a Micklem bridle on their horse for similar reasons. The penny also dropped for me when someone commented that “there’s a link between horses scratching their heads after being exercised and nerve pain”. The horse I ride always rubs his nose on his foreleg after I ride. However he’s also usually very sweaty so I don’t know the ratio of causative factors. 

I think in recent years equestrians have become more aware, as science develops, of the effect of tack on facial nerves. Reading the signs of discomfort in the horse and then choosing from the wide range of styles, sizes, designs that are available nowadays will only help the horse’s performance – it’s just a shame they can’t tell us where the pressure is because the mystery would be so much easier to solve!

Putting Bridles Back Together

On Thursday I went into the BHS tent at Windsor Show to find out about their replacement Register of Instructors, which I`ve typically just renewed but that’s another story. Anyway, I saw an interesting competition they were running.

Akin to Top Gear`s celebrity racers, there was a tall board with names and times written on. Who could put the bridle together the quickest?

Tonight I was cleaning my tack. One of my favourite evening pastimes. I strip cleaned the bridle and oiled it, and then I had a lightbulb moment! Why don`t we have some fun, and see how quickly everyone can put their bridle together?

I had cleaned my jump tack, so I put the breastplate aside as many people won`t have one. The rest of the bridle consists of a snaffle and a grackle noseband, but I don’t think nosebands influence putting it together that much. Don`t forget the reins too. Oh, and it`s also a traditional style bridle with the noseband running underneath the headpiece, rather than buckling up on both sides of the headpiece.

So there I sat, on the floor with the leatherwork out in front of my on a saddlecloth, and asked the non-horsey other half to time me.

My time, wait for it, was 2 minutes 4.32 seconds. Not overly fast, as I don`t think oiling my tack helped my cause, but I challenge you to beat me – comment with your time below. The bridle needs to be put together correctly; no twisted leather or backwards bits, and buckles on the correct hole in all the keepers – otherwise start again!

Oh, and you may as well clean your bridle while you`re at it!


A Pair of Hands

Recently I`ve had a theme flowing through my lessons, where I`m trying to encourage my riders not to pull back on the inside rein. I`ve often told riders to feel like they`re indicating with the inside rein, and it`s a forwards movement akin to opening a door away from you.

But anyway, I have a more succinct and elaborate analogy and explanation now.

The reins support the shoulders. That doesn`t mean that you bring your hands so close that you trap the horse`s shoulders in a narrow triangle. It means that the reins act as guides for the horse`s neck and shoulders.

Often when people are riding a centre line I tell them to imagine their reins are creating a tunnel for the horse and then the leg pushes the horse down the tunnel. Reins should be of an even length and even on each side of the wither.

Now we`ll think about applying the same theory when turning. If you open your inside rein you create some empty space by the inside shoulder. The horse will want to fill this space. Then by closing the outside rein against the neck you are encouraging the horse to move his shoulders to the inside, thus enabling him to turn.

This has many benefits in that it teaches the rider to ride the outside of the horse; the horse learns not to fall out through his shoulder and so steps under more with his inside leg; and the horse has a more uniform bend through their body so stays in better balance.

For some, this makes perfect sense, but I`ve found it really useful with riders whose horse tends to look out and fall in, especially on circles. Today, for example, the gelding I was teaching with falls in on the right rein. So I asked his rider to check that she had created a tunnel down the long side for him and that he was straight there. He was, and when he became straight his stride opened up because energy flows more efficiently in a straight line, rather than round corners (think of a flowing stream). However, my rider lost this straightness around the bend. I suggested that she thought about the inside rein supporting his inside shoulder, to stop it falling in, by closing towards his midline. When the inside leg was applied, the horse changed his bend and balance to fill the outside rein, which hadn`t changed, and he no longer fell in around the corner. Obviously when the horse improves his suppleness and bend to the right, the inside rein can take a step back and not be quite so supportive.

Another element of this that you can think of, is that the rider is creating a box for the horse`s forehand with their reins as the long sides and bit and gap between the hands as the short sides. The box needs to stay rectangular – i.e. no widening of the hands – but when you want to turn left or right, imagine moving the box left or right. It should help keep a consistent contact and even rein pressure, as well as the outside rein looking after the outside shoulder and stopping the horse falling through it.

Some people fall into the habit of closing both reins together, but you want to think of it as more of an airlock. In order to close one rein (or door) you need to open the other rein, otherwise the horse will feel trapped and unable to go forwards. Or you can imagine you have a rod between your wrists. One hand cannot move without the other moving too, and then you will maintain the same amount of space for the horse`s forehand.

When I`m doing lateral work I will open the outside rein to invite the horse to move into it, but if they move over too much then simply moving the reins back over can straighten them subtly, and without causing them to wiggle and become more crooked. You can also control the amount of sideways by the amount of space you give the shoulder.

This way of thinking verges on neck reining, except that when necessary you can use each rein independently! Make sure you feel that your reins are providing support and guidance to the forehand and not pulling the head about. The mere pressure of the cheeks of the bit will cause your horse to adjust his position and alleviate the pressure. Then, when he is straight, the bit and the contact should be neutral.

Buying a Bridle

I decided to embark on the difficult task of buying a bridle when Mum and I went to Horse of The Year Show earlier this week.

Who knew it could be so difficult? I mean, I’m not fussy.

My bridle needed to be black. After all, my saddles and other bridles are black so it would just be strange having a brown bridle, or God forbid, a tan bridle. So I’m down to 50% of available bridles. Given that I need a full size bridle I am now reducing my options to one third. Those mathematicians amongst us can calculate the percentage of bridles which could be suitable for me. I think it is about 16% …

It’s an every day bridle, and I don’t own a money tree, so the bridle needed to be competitively priced. But at the same time I don’t want to buy cheap nasty leather – what if it breaks mid cross-country?! Despite the show bargains available most bridles were still on sale for three figures. I remember buying Otis’s first bridle for £30 and it was, or still is as I use it to lunge, good quality English leather. The last bridle I got for him was a prize, so I don’t really know how much that cost.

I don’t like bling. I think it looks naff on a Welsh Cob, and is frivolous for every day wear, which narrows down my option of bridles considerably, as most had the diamanté browband. Or even worse, the coloured piping on the noseband and browband.

Another pet hate of mine is the crank noseband. I think they can be so easily over tightened, and are bulkier on the head so make Otis’s nose look clumpy. Furthermore, I dislike the crank and flash combination. There were very few cavesson bridles available at the show, numerous flashes but predominantly cranks. All I can say is that I am thankful I wasn’t looking for a drop noseband, as that would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Then we move onto the “comfort” range. I’m quite ambivalent to the padding on the nose and poll, but don’t want it to be excessive. Unfortunately for me, most comfort bridles come with a crank noseband.

So with my, what I would consider, normal constraints, Mum and I scoured every aisle and stall, until eventually we found a general tack shop in the back corner, which stocked English leather, reasonably priced daily bridles and I got the last black, full sized, flash noseband bridle. With padding on the brow and nose band, but without an integrated noseband which means I can swap to a drop if necessary (I recently rode Llani in a drop noseband and quite liked the feel, so if I find myself getting stuck with the flash I may trial it properly). It seems like the ideal bridle.

So why is it so difficult to source one?!?

So difficult in fact, that a quick look online hasn’t produced a photo of the bridle I bought, or would even consider buying!

Tight Throatlashes

I was competing today, and whilst wandering through the car park I was amazed to see such a number of tight throatlashes. Or throatlatches as some write. I saw a few horses tied up to lorries with their throatlashes flush with their jaw. These horses weren`t even working onto a contact and the strap was too tight already, so heaven knows how the horse felt once the reins were picked up and they flexed at the jaw.

I was always taught to fit four fingers between the throatlash and the horse`s cheek, and if in any doubt between two holes I usually opt for the looser one. As a horse works correctly and starts cantering the windpipe needs to expand so that the horse can get enough oxygen to perform properly. The purpose of the throatlash is to prevent the bridle from coming over the horse`s ears in an accident, not to control the horse.

I did a bit of internet research to see what everyone else`s opinions are, and many people seem to be confused between the fitting of the noseband and the throatlash. This seems to be a detrimental mistake for the horse, as it can mean the difference being able to breathe properly and opening the mouth. 

In my reading I also saw a few more “fittings” , which mainly concerned the noseband. My Pony manuals told me that I should be able to fit two fingers between the cavesson noseband and the pony. Nowadays however, the trend seems to be one finger. And of course we have a choice of many different types of noseband, which all apply pressure in different parts of the horse`s face. I`m not saying it`s wrong or right, but I find with Otis a tight noseband, either cavesson or flash, creates tension in his jaw. After all, the purpose of the noseband is not to strap the mouth closed, rather encourage it to not open widely and to help with control. If the jaw is stopped from opening then the horse cannot relax; this is highlighted in the fact Otis licks his lips when he`s concentrating. If he wants to do that and he still performs well then I don`t mind!

Other forums mentioned having the flash so tight you can`t put a single finger between it and the nose. Again, to me this seems far too tight to be comfortable for the horse. Can you imagine galloping across country with someone pinching your nose?

I think what I`m trying to say here, was that I am surprised how many horse owner`s don`t seem to realise how they jeopardise their horse`s health and comfort by over tightening their tack and can hinder their performance. Perhaps it`s people taking the golden rules and adjusting them to a certain pony or horse but have forgotten to revert to the golden rules on other horses, which has resulted in tack being fitted incorrectly. Perhaps bridles or tack should be sold with a fitting guide booklet?It needn`t be big, but should just point people into the right direction. After all, if you`re told to buy a breastplate as your saddle slides back yet you don`t know how to fit it properly how do you know if the saddle is prevented from sliding back? In the worst case scenario the saddle slides back even with the breastplate on and there`s an accident. There`s so many options for tack nowadays that it is impossible to know the correct fitting and measurement for all of them, so a fitting guide would serve as a useful educating tool, as well as reminding owners to have a regular check of the way their tack sits on their horse.


Bits, nosebands, treeless saddles and many other things

The November/December issue of the BHS magazine had some very interesting articles; I enjoyed Patrick the Pony`s witticisms, and on the final page the quote by a long suffering husband that horse shows “are like standing fully-clothed in a shower for hours putting twenty pound notes down the drain”. He obviously hasn`t been to many successful competitions with his wife!

Interestingly enough there was an article about irresponsible breeding (see my previous post about Princess Anne) and the steps charities are taking to combat this. I look forward to a time when all horses have to be approved before being bred from (on the following page there was an article about a Freisian Stud, and all Freisian stallions have to be approved, otherwise they`re gelded).

Moving on was a smaller debate, stemming from a previous issue, was the recent ruling by competition organisers that in some disciplines you cannot compete barefoot, or bitless. Now I`m not going to go in depth into the whole barefoot versus shoeing as that is a whole new can of worms! But I am going to highlight a few views on tack.

We`re all taught that, particularly in dressage, the less contraptions you have on your horse the better; i.e. snaffles and cavesson nosebands. Snaffles are the ideal bit, and traditionally most horses wore them, but then probably about 20-30 years ago there was a rise in new bits. People moved away from traditional training methods, and wanted brakes. Particularly on the hunting field. This is where my memory kicks in; most of the riding school ponies I learnt on wore kimblewicks and had running martingales. And I remember one of the bigger horses wearing a Cheltenham gag, and then a driving bit with a very long shank. We also had a series of whizzy ponies, who were a chicken nugget short of a happy meal, and had every bit under the sun put into their mouths. This worked for a couple of months, and then a new bit had to be found. Ideally, they would all have been re-schooled, but impatient teenagers and stubborn ponies don`t always make a good mix in that department.
dutch gag



I hated the Sandmarsh Pelham (second) with a passion, and refused to ride with it, but most others I`m afraid to say I have experienced. The upshot was that I knew every bit under the sun and exactly how they worked. My pony was ridden in the Dutch Gag, or Bubble Bit, but with only one ring below the large one, making it much less obtrusive and with less leverage, and it was only because cross country he got a bit strong. Although I understood the bits, and was fascinated by their working principles I was already, at the age of 12, developing a theory that they weren`t necessarily correct in where the bit put pressure on the horse and that some bits were confusing to the horse because they said “raise your head” and “put your head down” at the same time! For showing purposes I often used a Pelham, as my pony found a double bridle uncomfortable in his little mouth. He also responded quite well to poll pressure, which drew me to using a hanging cheek, or filet boucher. But I am digressing.

The magazine article was highlighting how some people think that riding without a bit shows a better degree of horsemanship, as they don`t need a piece of metal in their horses mouth. I beg to disagree; I`ve heard, read, and seen that a horse ridden by a talented rider with a simple snaffle bit, works in harmony and to the best of its ability because the bit is fitted correctly, the rider carries his hands, so there is no dead-weight in the horses mouth, and he has an independent seat so any movement on the rein, however slight, is an instruction to the horse, and the horse is predominantly listening the other body aids. In addition, a friend of mine recently attended a clinic by Dr Hilary Clayton, who has done research in the US about forces and pressure points on the horse, and had found the bitless bridles put the most pressure on one part of the horse`s body; it`s nose. So whilst people may be thinking that the nose is more tolerant to pressure than the mouth, therefore a bitless bridle is more humane, they would be wise to remember that the end of the nose has very fine, delicate, bones which are susceptible to breaking with an ill-fitting hackamore, or by a rider with clumsy, heavy hands. Now I`m not an expert, and I know some horses who go well in hackamores, and for medical reasons are the only way horses can be ridden, but I think it would do people good to think about past and current research, as well as the type of rider they are, what they do, how their horse responds, and which method creates the most harmonious working relationship. Just like, some horses, without rhyme or reason, prefer a bit with a single joint compared to a double link, which theoretically reduces the nutcracker action over the tongue and thus makes the bit “more humane”.

Either way, I don`t think it is in the governing body`s favour to rule out competing bitless.

Taking a sidestep, has anyone else noticed how new bridles seem to always come with a flash crank noseband? Now don`t get me wrong, I don`t mind the flash, in fact it can be useful when the horse opens his mouth and runs with the bit. But if you overtighten it then, just as we do with an overtight belt, the horse will strain against it. I find the BHS fitting, of one finger, too tight for my boy. He likes to lick his lips when he`s concentrating, and over tightening the flash makes this impossible for him, therefore he resists it more. But when trying to buy a new bridle a couple of years ago, I couldn`t get a nice, good quality one without a flash. My first bridles had cavesson nosebands, and if we needed we bought flash attachments and straps, a little known piece of equipment.
Crank nosebands are disgusting. They do exactly what they say on the tin; crank the horse`s mouth shut; sometimes putting so much pressure on the nasal bone it breaks, and then the horse is expected to work in harmony with us. That`s ignoring the matter that ignorant people can easily overtighten the noseband. I hate the fact all dressage bridles come with crank fittings, it is the trend, but hopefully it will be fazed out now with the return to more classical riding.

Don`t even get me started on the coloured leather piping on nosebands and browbands …

I`m not adverse to the other nosebands, grackle, drop or even kineton (not that I`ve ever seen a horse wearing one) so long as they do their job in a sympathetic manner, and riders know how to fit them and how they should adjust their riding to accommodate them.

Reverting back to Dr Hilary Clayton; I did a lot of reading about her and her work, and found that she has done similar research into treeless saddles. Again, I don`t have much experience in them, and to be honest, they don`t appeal greatly. But I was surprised to find that they don`t distribute the riders weight over the horses back, like traditional saddles, but rather focus is under the riders seatbones. Now I guess that this means the riders seat aids influence the horse a bit more, but on the flip side, a crooked rider, or an unbalanced rider, will put more stress and strain on the horses back. Obviously for every piece of research there is a counter argument or theory, but it is definitely worth taking a more in-depth look from all angles. As someone once told me, “don`t judge a man until you have put on his shoes and walked round in them”.

Further reading: