How to Fit Tack & Bits
It is essential that any tack used should be suitable for the purpose intended and fitted correctly. Damaged and ill-fitting tack can affect the horse’s comfort, cause behavioural problems when riding and result in serious injuries.
A bridle is a piece of equipment that is used to direct a horse. The bridle includes the headstall, bit and reins. There are many varieties of English and Western bits and their use depends on the riding discipline or purpose for the horse.
- The headstall, which forms the main part of the bridle, should lie comfortably behind the horse’s poll. A headstall used in Western riding does not have a noseband.
- A bridle used for English riding includes a browband, cavesson or noseband, cheek pieces and reins. The browband should rest across the horse’s forehead (preventing the headpiece from slipping backwards), with a clearance of two finger widths to prevent the headpiece from pinching the ears.
- It should be possible to place two fingers under the cavesson noseband if this is correctly fastened. Alternatively, you can use a taper gauge that inserts between the noseband strap and the horse’s nasal bones. This ensures that there isn’t excessive pressure placed on the horse’s nasal bones, which can restrict natural oral behaviour such as swallowing and licking and can cause pain and discomfort. Some bridles don’t have nosebands or have different-shaped nosebands that are anatomically designed to minimize pressure on the horse’s nasal bones. Cheek pieces should allow the bit to lie comfortably in the mouth.
LINK: Learn more about using a taper gauge and the welfare implications of tight nosebands by reading the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) position statement on restrictive nosebands.
Tack is a term used to describe the bridle, saddle and accessories worn by a horse. There are numerous types and makes of saddles and bridles.
The bit forms the mouthpiece of the bridle and is one of the means by which a rider, through the reins, communicates with and directs the horse.
There are many different types of bits, which are grouped according to their mode of action (bit-less bridles form a further group). Snaffle bits are commonly used in both English and Western riding.
The bit rests on the bars of the mouth in the interdental space, where there are no teeth. The bit must be of the correct size and fit to ensure it works correctly and is comfortable for the horse. Bits are available, in increments of 0.5 cm, in sizes that range from 9 cm to 15 cm. Bit sizes are measured along the length of the bar between the inner edges of each bit ring when the bit is laid flat. They are also measured along the width.
The bit should be wide enough to accommodate the width of the horse’s muzzle without being too loose or too tight, which can cause discomfort. The bit should sit comfortably in the mouth, taking into account the horse’s tongue and palate.
Bits can be divided into two main groups – snaffle and leverage bits. Both English and Western riders use snaffles. Both riders also use leverage bits of various designs. Where the reins are attached determines whether the bit is being used as a snaffle or leverage. For example, when the reins are attached to the ring of the mouthpiece in a Pelham, it is a snaffle bit. If they are attached to the end of the shank, it is being used as leverage.
The snaffle bit is made up of a mouthpiece and rings that are most commonly jointed in the middle. The headstall of the bridle and the reins are attached to the rings of the bit, positioned outside of the horse’s mouth. Pressure is applied directly to the mouthpiece, and the pressure that is applied through the reins applies the same pressure to the points of the mouth where it is affected by the snaffle bit. The bars or the jaw, tongue and corners of the mouth are the major pressure points.
A leverage bit is made up of a mouthpiece and shanks. The headstall of the bridle is attached to the upper shanks and the reins are attached to the lower shanks. The shanks apply leverage pressure on the mouth, increasing the pressure from the reins to the contact points in the mouth. The ratio of pressure is determined by the length of the bit. For example, if the ratio is 1:4, it means that the horse feels four times as much pressure as you exert. A chin strap is used as a pressure point, applying pressure under the chin.
A rider may choose not to use a bit for a variety of reasons, including teeth problems a horse may have. The pressure points of bitless bridles will vary with their design.
A bit should not be used to try to change a horse’s behaviour. Bits do not replace training. The rider should exert minimal pressure on the reins and release pressure as soon as the horse performs the desired behaviour. This supports the correct application of negative reinforcement and minimizes discomfort experienced by the horse.
A bit is only as kind as the manner in which it is applied. A rider with hard hands, who constantly pulls or jerks the reins, can cause soreness, bruising, lesions, and a great deal of discomfort to the horse’s mouth. In the wrong hands, any bit, irrespective of its severity, can cause a great deal of pain and distress to a horse.
Watch this [60.24 mins] video by Equestrian Canada on Bit Fitting the Dressage Horse which explores bit fitting, including the horse’s oral anatomy, materials used in bits and the action of bits on the horse’s mouth and head:
LINK: Get more information on fitting a Western bit in the video "How to Fit a Western Bit". Find a detailed overview of bits and bridles in the "English Tack and Equipment" video from Equestrian Neightion. What are the main differences between Western and English bits?
It is vitally important a saddle is both well-fitting and positioned correctly on the horse’s back. Fitting should be carried out by a qualified saddle fitter. However, every rider should be able to position a saddle correctly for use and be able to identify signs that a saddle no longer fits and requires attention. The saddle should be assessed off and on the horse, with and without a rider. A well-fitted saddle should distribute weight evenly through the panels to the horse’s thoracic region, with complete clearance of the spinous processes by the gullet. If the horse’s shape alters, as a result of aging, weight gain or muscle development, the fit of the saddle should be checked.
An uncomfortable or poorly fitting saddle may be evident in the way a horse moves and reacts. Horses may display stress, pain, or discomfort when saddled or ridden. For example, the horse may become reluctant to move forward and may start hollowing or hunching its back or even buck. There are also physical signs of an ill-fitting saddle, such as pain in the horse’s thoracic and lumbar spinal regions, swelling under the saddle, and dry spots under the saddle immediately after exercise surrounded by sweat. A rider should be observant of any physical or behavioural changes that may indicate that a saddle no longer fits comfortably. The advice of a qualified saddle fitter or veterinarian should be sought if these behaviours are observed under saddle.
Watch this video [5.15 mins] by Equitopia that discusses saddle fitting for horses:
LINK: Find additional information on saddle fit from Schleese's eGuide. These fit guidelines can be applied to English and Western saddles. You can also check out these videos on how to appropriately fit a Western saddle and judge how well your Western saddle fits your horse. Similarly, watch this video to learn how to properly fit an English saddle. Why is it vital to ensure any saddle fits correctly?
THE GIRTH OR CINCH
Girths and cinches are vital pieces of tack because they attach the saddle to the horse and help maintain its position. Girths and cinches are available in many shapes, types and sizes to suit a range of different saddles. A girth, used with English saddles, should be broad and smooth, fitting comfortably around the horse’s barrel. A correctly fastened girth should rest approximately one hand’s width behind the horse’s elbows. A cinch, used on Western saddles, is connected to the saddle on the right and left sides and secures the saddle in place. A Western saddle may also have a back cinch, which attaches to the back of the saddle for added security.
SADDLE PADS AND HALF PADS
Saddle pads and pads are used to prevent rubbing of the saddle on the horse’s back and provide extra cushion for the horse’s back from the rider’s weight. If they are too thick or allowed to crease up under the saddle, they can alter the fit of an otherwise well-fitting saddle. Even the type of material (e.g., wool, leather, gel, foam) that the saddle pad is made of can impact the pressure and distribution of pressure on the horse’s spine. They should not be used in an attempt to improve the fit of an ill-fitting saddle. Undue or uneven pressure can be placed on the horse’s withers and spine if the pad is not pulled up fully into the gullet.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE RIDER
The horse’s movement is influenced by the rider through the rider’s position, weight distribution, asymmetry and imbalances, leg and rein pressure, the application of riding aids such as whips or spurs, and other factors.
Watch this video by Equitopia [7.22 mins] that shows how sensors can be used in research to investigate how the rider influences the horse during riding:
When mounted, the rider must sit centrally and correctly in the saddle, thereby distributing their weight evenly. A correctly fitting saddle will help the rider to adopt the optimum position, allowing for the correct application of leg and seat aids. However, a poor rider who sits asymmetrically or unbalanced (crookedly or tipping forwards or backwards) can have a detrimental effect on the horse’s movement and rider-horse communication.
Rein pressure is used to decelerate the horse’s speed, stop (halt) the horse, or cue the horse to turn in a particular direction. Leg pressure can be used to accelerate the horse’s speed (or to go forward) and lateral movements. A minimal amount of leg or rein pressure should be used to cue the desired behaviour. As soon as the horse responds to the applied pressure, the pressure should be released immediately.
LINK: Watch these videos by equitation science practitioner, Jody Hartstone, about how the rider communicates the ridden behaviours of acceleration (or going forward), deceleration (or stopping), turning, the rein back, and yielding.