By Sarah Evers Conrad
If you have been around horses at all, you may already know that if a horse can find a way to hurt himself, he will. Last week we looked at rider safety apparel. This week, we will look at equipment that is used on horses that help keep the horse safe and in good health. Because after all, we want our rides to always be Safe, Effective, and Fun.
It is important that all tack be well-fitted to the horse and rider, should be in good condition, and be well-cared-for and maintained. Tack should be inspected each time it is used to make sure nothing has become frayed, worn, or become unsafe in any way. Of course, a visual inspection should take place before placing any equipment on the horse. Before the rider mounts, he or she should also perform a tack safety check. To learn how to do this, check out CHA’s video titled, “How to Perform a Safety Check of a Horse” on YouTube.
Of course, it is important to always make sure any piece of tack fits correctly and is being used correctly. The rider should understand the mechanics of how all equipment is used. When used correctly, tack can be used with great effectiveness. However, if tack is used improperly, it can cause harm to the horse, even if unintentional. If in doubt about the use of a certain piece of equipment, a CHA instructor can be of great help.
Breakaway halters: One thing to remember is that all halters should fit well and not rub or be so loose that a horse can get hung up on anything or get a hoof caught if he goes to scratch his head. Leather halters tend to have the ability to break if needed. Nylon breakaway halters feature a leather crown piece or a connector piece on the buckle that can break.
For safety reasons, it is best to always remove halters during turnout due to the risk of a horse getting caught on something. However, if a handler needs to turn a horse out with a halter still on, then the halter should be a breakaway halter. Otherwise a horse can seriously injure himself as he tries to get loose, especially if he panics. He could also flip over or become tangled in his fight to get free.
While there are two schools of thought on using breakaway halters when tying a horse, the Certified Horsemanship Association generally recommends that a breakaway is not used. This is because if one is used and a horse gets loose, that loose horse becomes a danger to himself and any nearby animals and people. However, if a horse is known to consistently pull back forcefully enough when tied, then he becomes a danger to himself and a breakaway halter may be warranted. However, a better option for this type of horse is to never tie him. Instead, he should be held by a handler until training can deal with this dangerous vice.
Reins: For inexperienced riders, one type of rein that is of benefit is closed loop reins. These consist of a buckle that allows the two reins to attach so that if a rider drops the reins, they fall on the horse’s neck in front of the saddle instead of to the ground.
Reins that offer better grip can help when the reins get slippery from either rain or the horse’s sweat. Rubber reins, some nylon reins, and braided leather reins offer more traction and grip than smooth leather reins. There is nothing wrong with smoother reins, but for when a better grip is needed, then rubber or braided leather is helpful. Eventually rubber reins deteriorate and will need to be replaced, so the rider needs to inspect these reins each time they are used.
Breastplate or Breast Collar: A breastplate or breast collar is used to prevent a saddle from slipping backwards. They are helpful for horses with flat sides or those who are extra round. Breastplates can be used in both English and Western riding, racing, polo, endurance riding, with gaited horses, and in driving when only a light amount of weight is being pulled. They are very popular with trail riders so that saddles do not slide backwards when going uphill and with horses that rack. In many types of breastplates, one piece connects at the middle of the girth and runs up to the middle of the horse’s chest, where it branches into two, with a piece on each side running from the middle of the horse’s chest up to connect to the dee-rings or the billets of the saddle. Where it connects depends upon the style of the breastplate or breast collar and the discipline being ridden. The material that goes across the chest can vary from leather, to elastic, to webbing, etc. Some breast collars attach to the front branch of a split-end girth, instead of the dee- rings or billets. This type is often used in jumping, eventing, or polo. The rider will want to make sure that the horse’s shoulder movement is not restricted and that any breastplate or breast collar does not rub. And most importantly, if any piece runs higher across the chest near the neck, it should not restrict the windpipe. To learn more about using a breastplate or breast collar, check out CHA’s Safety Short Video called “Breast Collar and Back Cinch Correct Fit.”
Back Cinch: A back cinch is used with Western saddles to add stability when going up and down hills and for cattle events. Imagine the force that is exerted on the horn of a saddle when a rider ropes a calf in competition and the horse sets back and prevents that calf from running off. Without the use of a rear cinch, that rider may find himself or herself catapulted out of the saddle as the force pulls on the horn. A back cinch should never be so loose that a horse can get a leg caught when stamping at flies, etc.
Safety Stirrups: Safety stirrups were developed for increased safety in the event of a fall by the rider. They are designed to prevent the rider’s foot from being caught during a fall, which could lead to a rider hanging from the saddle or being dragged by the horse. Instead, under the right pressure, part of the stirrup will “break away” or allow the foot to become free during the course of a fall. There are various designs to safety stirrups, with some even looking like non-safety stirrups. One popular kind, the Peacock stirrup, is designed so the outside part breaks away when sufficient pressure is felt. The Peacock stirrup looks like a stirrup with a “rubber band” on the outside edge, however the material involved is sturdy enough to hold in place during riding.
Tapaderos: The tapadero consists of a thick piece of material, usually leather, plastic, or mesh, which forms a barrier over the rider’s foot and toes and attaches to the stirrup, usually of a Western or endurance saddle. Sometimes they are referred to as “hooded stirrups.” There are also tapaderos for English stirrups, which can usually be removed when not needed. This optional piece of equipment is often used for safety to keep the rider’s foot from unintentionally slipping through the stirrup, thus causing an accident or causing the rider to hang from the stirrup in the case of a fall. Some riding instructors will use these as extra precaution with young or inexperienced riders. They can also prevent brush from getting caught on a stirrup or catching a rider’s foot when a rider is trail riding or working cattle or sheep. They can also help keep the foot a bit warmer in cold weather or protect against wet weather. Some sellers of tapadero stirrups even promote benefits for the rider, claiming that they help with fatigue through the knees and back or for those with foot, knee, or lower back problems.
Saddle Blanket, Saddle Pad, and Saddle Cloth: Saddle blankets, pads, and clothes refer to any material placed between the saddle and the horse. While they are used to increase comfort, as shock absorption, and to protect the horse’s back, a well-fitted saddle that has been fit to the horse should not cause discomfort or sores. It is important to keep in mind that sometimes saddle sores can be caused by other issues other than poor saddle fit, such as dirt trapped under the pad, hair not brushed flat before saddling, extreme sweating, etc. Sometimes saddle pads can help with minor fitting problems, especially in a barn where each horse does not have his own saddle. Some are designed to help lift the saddle off of the withers or to elevate the seat. However, a saddle that is a really bad fit for the horse will not have fit improved by the use of one or two saddle pads or saddle clothes; they can even make the fit worse. Saddle blankets, pads, and clothes also absorb sweat and keep the saddle clean and dry.
From thinner pieces of material as a saddle cloth to thick pieces of padding covered in heavy-duty fabric for Western saddles, the style, design, durability, ease of cleaning, performance, and comfort level can vary a great deal. They can consist of cotton, wool, sheepskin, leather, suede, felt, fleece, nylon, rubber, foam, gel, synthetic materials…the sky is the limit. While a heavy saddle pad might look like the most comfortable to use, they do have some disadvantages. They can slip and slide, sometimes put pressure on the horse’s back where not intended, and can bunch if the person that tacked the horse did not place it carefully. Saddle pads, blankets, and clothes should always fit well on the horse and with the saddle being used.
Obviously, the horse’s legs are often in need of protection. We will discuss boots, wraps, and bandages next time. In the meantime, if you are unsure about the tack and equipment being used, checking with a CHA professional or other experienced horseman could help you to use your equipment more effectively and with increased safety and comfort for you and your horse.
We are curious, have you had a piece of safety equipment save you or your horse from injury? Please share with us in the comments below.
Sarah Evers Conrad is currently the Digital Content Editor at Horse Illustrated and Young Rider magazines. She also owns All In Stride Marketing. She is an award-winning equestrian journalist with a background in magazine publishing, feature writing, news and event coverage, editing, digital marketing, social media, and website management. Conrad has been published in equine publications such as The Horse, Blood-Horse, Equestrian, Arabian Horse Life, USDF Connection, the American Quarter Horse Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Off-Track Thoroughbred, Stable Management, Camp Business magazine, Lexington Family magazine, and HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com. She is also the current editor for the Certified Horsemanship Association’s official publication, The Instructor magazine. Conrad has also edited several books, including CHA’s “The Equine Professional Manual—The Art of Teaching Riding.” Learn more at www.equestrianjournalist.com.