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Equipment for the Trail Rider -Dec 2013

As published in the December 2013 edition of West Coast Horsemen Magazine

As published in the December 2013 edition of West Coast Horsemen Magazine

Trail Tack – Equipment for the Trail Rider

As published in the December 2013 edition of West Coast Horsemen Magazine

There’s so much equipment that can be used for trail riding depending upon your plans for the ride. Let’s explore the very basics of what most riders will need for a great day on the trail; saddles and their related tack. Before we begin it’s important to note that the features and characteristics we’re going to explore are highly subjective. Ask any five riders how they (or their horses) like a given item, and brace yourself for five diverging opinions. With that being said let’s see what you need to hit the trails less traveled.

A quick trip to your local tack shop will present you with a number of saddle options.  Western rigs in every flavor competing with English styles in, again, a myriad of different models will be seen stacked along the walls, and many of them may have a trail saddle sign attached. So what should you look for when selecting a saddle suitable for collecting trail miles? There are a number of items that I look for when checking out a new rig.

  • First and foremost it has to fit my animal. The knack of getting a static, or rigid, piece of leather and wood to fit an animal whose back moves in a number of different directions while heading down a wooded trail is a challenge. Add to that the physical changes that our horses and mules go through during the course of the year and saddle fitting sometimes seems to be more of a dark art than a science.
  • Secondly, the saddle has to fit you. If a rig doesn’t fit you you’ll either be walking or wishing that you were.
  • The next most important thing to look for a good saddle is that it fits your animal. An ill-fitting saddle is the root of all evil.
  • The weight of a saddle is very important. Trail riders ask a lot of our animals. If your horse is going to carry you 20 miles up and down mountain ridges it’s only fair and considerate to try to reduce the load as much as possible.  Fortunately, many saddle manufacturers are specifically designing and building lightweight trail saddles that weigh far less than rigs of just a decade ago. Many of them are excellent investments in your horse’s well- being and your continued comfort.
  • After considering the weight of a potential rig make sure that it fits your horse.
  • The saddle’s rigging. The rigging of a saddle is what holds it in place. That is accomplished via how and where the cinches attach to the saddle. The type of rigging can affect your comfort as it determines where the cinch lies under your leg. I’ve found that ⅞ or ¾ works well for me as it gets the cinch away from the front legs and the skin folds behind the animal’s elbow.  For the high mountain terrain that I find myself drawn to I double rig which means adding a flank cinch to prevent the saddle from tipping and excessive sliding.
  • Once you’ve thought about how you’re going to secure the saddle make sure that it fits your animal. He’ll appreciate it.
  • If you’re going to be riding anyplace with a grade you’ll want to make sure that the saddle you’re examining can accommodate a breast collar. A breast collar, or breast plate for the English set, keeps the saddle from slipping backwards as you’re going uphill. That’s a good thing.
  • After you’ve checked that the saddle has front dees, or D rings, to connect the breast collar check that the saddle fits your horse.
  • The rear of the trail saddle should also have dees that you can use to attach a crupper or breeching. Where the breast collar will keep you from sliding off the rear end of the animal a crupper or breeching will keep you from sliding forward when going downhill. Going down a steep hill on your horse’s neck is no fun for you or the horse.
  • Once you’re confident that the saddle can accept a crupper, make sure that it fits the beast that you plan on riding.
  • Dees are handy. Besides front and rear D rings for the breast collar and crupper you’ll most likely want to have more of these convenient rings on your saddle. I use them for securing saddlebags, my rain slicker, holding my lead rope, and any number of other items.  More is better when it comes to dees.
  • If the saddle you’re examining has plenty of D rings to hold all your stuff make sure that it fits the animal you’re asking to haul it.
  • And lastly, does the saddle fit your animal?

If the saddle that you’re considering meets all of the criteria listed above it should work just fine.

In a perfect world a saddle will fit perfectly and pad shouldn’t be required. We don’t live in a perfect world; the saddle that fit flawlessly in spring won’t in the fall after your horse has slimmed down and shaped up. A little cushion between the saddle and the horse will go a long way towards evening out the pressure of the saddle and help to wick heat and moisture. When I look for saddle pads I generally look for products that put 100% wool against the horse’s back, have a rugged outer shell against the saddle bars, and a layer of cushioning material in between.

Earlier I mentioned breast collars. If you ride on any type of a grade or do any kind of hill work you’ll appreciate one of these handy pieces of tack. They help hold your saddle in place, reduce friction and saddle slippage, and allow you to use a slightly less tight cinch. There are a few different styles and they all do the same thing. Find a breast collar that has rounded edges to prevent chafing and fit it so that you can slide a hand between the collar and the horse.  Much tighter or looser and you can very easily sore your animal.

If you do a lot of steep downhill riding, have a horse or mule that is mutton withered, or both, a flank cinch and a crupper or breeching will most likely be in your future.  These devices help to stabilize your saddle, and greatly increase both you’re and your animal’s comfort.

Flank cinches, also known as rear cinches, are available in a variety of styles and widths, any of which will work as long they fit your animal. In my experience I’ve found that the flank cinch should be snug on the horse, but not too tight to slip a hand under.  One of the most common issues with flank cinches that I see are cinches that are much too loose. When a flank cinch hangs low a hoof can get caught, causing a big wreck. Also, a loose cinch isn’t doing anything to help secure your saddle.

Cruppers are very simply a piece of material that attaches to the rear of the saddle and loops around the horse’s tail to help secure and prevent the saddle from sliding forward. Since having a loop of leather or neoprene under its tail can be disconcerting at first it’s best to introduce your animal to a crupper before you arrive at the trailhead. When fitting the crupper the strap should be snug enough that you can easily slide a couple of fingers between it and your horses. If it’s too tight, your horse animal could very easily become annoyed and or sored.  Conversely, if the crupper is too loose, it won’t engage in time to stop your saddle from sliding forward. One last note on cruppers is that if you use one you must keep it clean, very clean. A dirty crupper can, and will, sore the skin of your animal in short order.

Now that we’ve discussed all the gear on top of your animal let’s move to the undercarriage and talk about what is going to hold it on. That would be the cinch or girth. The idea behind this vital piece of tack is misleadingly simple: Hold the saddle in place so that it’s comfortable and safe for horse and rider. Anyone who has ever had a cinch or girth fail and found themself suddenly sideways, upside down or on the ground can tell you that it is important to select the right cinch. Any horse who’s ever had to endure chafing, pinching or the painful constriction of a poorly designed or ill-fitting cinch or girth would agree. A good cinch can make the difference between a great ride and a long walk home.

A primary concern in selecting a cinch or girth is its material. Various materials offer significant benefits such as softness, sweat absorption, resistance to slipping, and easy maintenance.  There are also downsides that need to be considered such as lack of durability, a tendency to cause galls, an affinity for brush and burrs, or too little give. Therefore, you’ll want to know what a cinch or girth is made of and the characteristics of each type of material.

A few popular materials found in cinches are:

  • Polyester is cheap and doesn’t hold seeds and burrs but neither does it breathe or wick sweat.
  • Neoprene is very easy to clean and doesn’t attract burrs. Neoprene doesn’t give, can be very easily over tightened, and they don’t breathe.
  • Wool and wool blend string girths all breathe and wick sweat well. They resist collecting burrs and seeds and rarely cause soring when used properly.
  • Fleece attracts grass seeds and burrs like a magnet. If you use a fleece girth you should quickly get in the habit of checking to ensure that could nothing that could sore your horse is caught in the fleece.
  • Those that ride Australian or English rigs have the option of leather girths. Leather is easy to clean, gives slightly, and doesn’t hold burrs and trail detritus.

Fortunately cinches are relatively inexpensive. If your current cinch isn’t working it’s easy to try a different one.

Hanging off the saddle are your stirrups and although many folks think that they’re part of the saddle it’s so easy to swap them out to meet your individual needs that I like to think of them as accessories. Trial riders who spend long days in the saddle will want a set that features wide bases with plenty of room to distribute pressure during a long ride. An accessory for stirrups that I find very useful is a good set of tapaderos; simply a cover or hood for your feet, these handy devices will protect your feet from brush and rain. Most importantly, tapaderos add to your margin of safety by preventing your foot from sliding through the stirrup.

Riders that never dismount may not need a halter. The rest of us that explore the backcountry should always have a halter on hand. The vast majority of trail riders will get off of their horse at some point during a ride, whether for a potty break or to stretch your legs. For that reason I keep mine on the horse and fit the bridle over it so it’s handy at all times.  The two most common types of halters are flat webbing or rope halters. Both have their benefits. Flat halters lay nicely under a bridle but have hardware that can fail. Rope halters have no hardware that might fail while in the backcountry and this is the type that I find myself using most often.

The whole purpose of a halter is to attach a lead to so let’s consider the hank of rope that we’ll use as a lead.  Your lead rope should be long enough to tie around a decent sized tree, but not so long that you have a lot of excess material hanging from your saddle waiting to snag and catch something that you don’t want. I’ve found that a length of 10-12 feet is usually good for my needs without becoming cumbersome.

And with that we should wrap up this particular topic. I hope that this article has given you some new ideas about trail riding tack. Now’s the time to consider what equipment and gear you may need to be well equipped and prepared for a wonderful ride. As always for more information on trail riding, North America’s largest equine trail directory and much more please visit