Pre-ride Equipment Check

A pre-ride tack check is something every rider should do before mounting up, but even some of the most experienced riders have tack mishaps because they missed something before mounting up.  Growing up I had my share of tack problems, most of which could have been prevented if I had only taken a few extra minutes to make sure my tack was in good working condition and put on properly.

ribsJust recently I had an accident where I was riding a young horse with a saddle that I failed to tighten up all the way.  The saddle slipped, the colt freaked out and I ended up with a few broken ribs and a banged up knee.  If I had only double checked to make sure my cinch was tight before I had gotten on, I could have saved my self a lot of pain and money.  The picture to the right is of my underarm after I landed in the panels when my saddle slipped. The video link here is a case where a loose saddle slips off, and the rider, Mark Lyon, takes a spill.  This was during a 2008 Extreme Mustang Makeover.  Mark actually got back on the horse and finished the ride to finish first in the event.  And neither Mark or his horse suffered any injuries.  2008 Extreme Mustang Makeover Winner Mark Lyon and Christian

Checking Your Tack

Saddle Pad

The saddle pad is pretty easy to check before putting it on your horse.  Just make sure it is free of any objects that can irritate your horse such as stickers or a piece of hay.  Also if I notice there is a lot of hair built up on the underside of the pad I will take a curry comb and brush it off.


Your saddle has so many parts to check.  I start with making sure my  cinch straps or billets are in good working condition.  Make sure there is no uneven wear on them.  Also make sure they are not cracked or dried out.  A couple times a year I will oil my straps with Neatsfoot oil to help keep the leather soft. Make sure your cinch is fairly clean and there are no broken strands if it is a rope cinch.  Also check to make sure all the parts of your stirrup fenders are in good shape.  Make sure they are not split, thin or cracked.  Then before you mount your horse double check your cinch and make sure it is snug.  I usually will saddle my horse and only cinch them up half way tight.  Then I will do a little ground work and tighten the cinch a little more.  And I will then bridle my horse and finish tightening up the cinch.  By cinching in three steps it helps prevent my horse from becoming “cinchy”.  Also make sure to have your rear cinch snug enough that it isn’t hanging down.  If you leave that rear cinch hanging down, it really isn’t doing anything but hanging there.  Also it leaves a place for a horse to catch his foot if he happens to kick at a fly. It doesn’t need to be tight, but don’t leave it hanging clear down.


When checking your bridle you need to make sure all the leather is in nice condition, free from any cracks and not dried out.  If your bridle has Chicago screws make sure they are all securely fasten.  Chicago screws have a tendency of becoming loose after a while so it is good to check them every time you ride.  If the Chicago screw is in a place that I don’t need it to ever come out, I will put a dot of glue in side the screw before fastening it.  Make sure your reins are securely fastened to your bit, and also be sure your bit is adjusted correctly in your horses mouth. I like to have the bit so it is just starting to make a wrinkle in the corner of my horse’s mouth.  Other people adjust their bits looser, and others adjust it tighter.   I have found that the start of one wrinkle works best for most horses.

Well hopefully before you hop on that pony of yours next time you will take a peek at your tack just to make sure it is all in good working condition.  You never know it might just save your life.


Parts of the Saddle

Listed are the parts of a western saddle.  Some people may use slightly different terminology for some parts, for example what I call a cinch others may call a girth, or what I call a billet may also be referred to as a latigo or a tie strap.  Either way is correct.  Also this saddle is equipped with a breast collar and a rear cinch, many saddles may not have these or may have one or the other of them.  That is fine.  They are really extra pieces used to give the saddle more stability depending on what you are doing.

Selecting a Headstall

Trying to decide on a headstall for your horse now a day can cause some major anxiety.  Your choices go way beyond the single ear or the brow band style that I had to make as a kid.  Should you get one with a cow hide or crystal inlay, one with zebra stripes or giraffe spots, crosses or star conchos, or maybe the conchos with six shooters on them?  The new one I think I want is a brow band style bridle with Turquoise and Brown floral print ocerlay with copper spur conchos and nail heads.  It is just the coolest and would look great on Dollar.  It could be mine for only $259.95.  Before you get your credit card out and make that purchase, let’s go over some headstall basics.

For starters what exactly is a headstall?  A headstall is basically the part of the bridle that goes around your horse’s head and is designed to hold your bit or bosal in place.  Manufactures have been very creative over the years and have redesigned the headstall over and over again.  Really not making it any more effective, but making it more attractive.

When selecting which headstall would be best for you, you really need to take in consideration the type of riding you will be doing, the temperament of your horse, and your budget.

Basic Headstall Types

When looking at headstalls there are basically three main types:  brow band, single ear and two ear.  A brow band headstall has a band that crosses the horses “brow” or forehead.

A single ear headstall has a loop that goes around one of the horses ears.  There are several varieties of single ear headstalls.  The most common today is the sliding loop.  The advantage to this is that you can slide the loop to fit around the ear perfectly. There is also a slide ear that has a little piece of latigo that goes around the ear to hold the headstall in place, and a slip or slotted ear that simply has a slot in the leather for the horse’s ear to go into.

Two ear headstalls are similar to the one ear headstalls, but they have a slot for each of your horse’s ears to go into.  These are most commonly used in showing.  And this year they have even put a new twist on the two ear headstalls and make cross-crown head stalls.  These are the hot new items for showing this season.  They have two slots for the horse’s ears and they cross in the middle of the horse’s foretop.

Type of Riding

The type of riding you do should play a major role in they type of headstall you choose.  If you just ride for fun on the weekends and don’t do anything real intense then you could use any type of headstall you want.  However, if you are riding colts or doing heavy work on your horse, I suggest that you use a brow band headstall for the simple fact that they tend to stay in place better than most.  The other thing about a brow band headstall is that they are typically equipped with a throat latch.  This will prevent the headstall from slipping off of your horse’s head.  The single ear headstalls are starting to move away from having a throat latch on them, which to me seems like a major hazard if you are anywhere out in the open or on a young horse. Without the throat latch, it is easy for the bridle to slip right off the horse, leaving you with no real control of the horse.  Two eared bridles are typically designed for showing although I do have one that is just plain leather.  Like many of the one eared headstalls, the two eared bridle is usually not equipped with at throat latch, so I recommend using it only for arena work.

Temperament of Horse

The temperament of the horse can make a difference to me which type of bridle to use.  If I’m riding a really mellow, broke horse, I don’t mind not having a bridle without a throat latch on it.  However, if I’m riding a horse that rubs on things or tosses his head around, I definitely want a bridle with a throat latch on it.


Budget can really put a damper on which headstall you choose.  If you have a small budget and don’t ride too often, you probably don’t need a really fancy headstall.  There are some pretty cool ones out there, but if you don’t have the means to pay for them, you should stick to something basic.  A plain headstall, new starts right around $30 for leather, less for nylon.  Fancy headstalls go for just about any price you can imagine.  I’ve actually seen headstalls that cost over $1000.  You do need to be aware that if you are shopping on line, sometimes pictures make a headstall seem nicer than it actually is.  My rule is that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.  There are many people out there selling “silver show” equipment that cheap tin and painted (not oiled) leather.  Also if you have a slim budget you can look at buying used tack.  Leather can last forever, and sometimes people get tired of their headstalls before they are even near wore out.  I have found many deals on tack in consignment shops and on ebay.  You just need to keep your eyes open and shop around.

There are thousands of choices out there when it comes to choosing a headstall for your horse.  Take some time and shop around to find the one that best fits your riding style and your horse.  And if you happen to run into this headstall (click for link) my birthday is in December. 🙂



Flexing at the Poll-Using Aids

In today’s world of horses, we are told to soften our horse’s face or to collect our horse.  Or we often wonder how do those people get their horses to carry their heads so low.  Any of these start with teaching your horse to flex at the poll.  For someone who is just learning how to train a horse, this can be pretty tricky to do.  Teaching a horse to break at the poll without any aids takes a lot of practice.  In this post I will tell you about several different riding aids a person can use to help them teach their horse to flex at the poll.

Draw Reins

When I was training my first horse I used Draw Reins to help me teach him headset.   There are many different styles of draw reins, and different trainers each have their opinion on how to use them.  Basically, draw reins are a continuous line that runs from one side of your cinch, through the bit, to your hands, back through the other side of the bit and to the other side of the cinch.  They really are a  single movable pulley.    When you pull your hands back it causes the horses head to move inward and down.  I recommend only using draw reins with a mild snaffle bit.  Also because draw reins don’t offer much in the line of stopping power, I like to pair them up with a regular set of reins.  Where a person connects the draw reins to their cinch depends on the individual and the style of draw reins they are using.  I’ve seen people hook them to the  center D-Ring of the cinch, running the reins between the horse’s front legs.  I’ve seen them hook to the rigging of the saddle where the cinch fastens to the saddle.  I personally prefer to hook them to the center of the cinch, but run them around the outside of my horse’s legs.  By using them this way, as the horse walks it bumps the reins.  Therefore, when I ride without the draw reins, if I need my horse to lower his head, I can simply bump the reins in rhythm with his steps.  (The draw reins pictured above are ones I made.  I just took a piece of yacht rope and fastened snaps on the ends. Notice that the pony is flexing at the poll and the front of his face is vertical.)

Training Fork and Running Martingale

These are two similar devices.  The training fork is primarily for western disciplines and the running martingale is used mainly for English riding.  The only real difference is that the martingale has a neck strap that goes around the horse’s neck.

To use either of these you simply fasten them to the center of your cinch (or girth) between the horse’s front legs.  If you are using a martingale, you will fasten the neck strap around the neck of the horse. And finally you run your reins through the rings and then up to you.

These devices work by creating leverage through the reins on the bit and on the bars of your horse’s mouth.  This happens when the horse raises his head too high.  The pressure encourages the horse to lower his head.

Running Martingale

Training Fork

German Martingale

The final aid used in teaching the horse to flex at the poll, I would like to tell you about is the German Martingale.  This type of martingale works in much the same way that draw reins do.  You have rope (or some have leather straps) that runs through the bit to create a pulley.  Unlike the draw reins, the rope on the German Martingale then fastens to rings on the reins.  Because these reins are attached to the bit you have a little more control of your horse than you would if you were just using draw reins.  When you have slack in your reins, the draw rein part of the martingale is working to help lower your horses head.

The German Martingale has four parts: the chest strap, which fastens to the center ring on your cinch; the neck strap, which goes around your horse’s neck; the draw rein, which runs through your bit and then you have the reins, which have rings on which to fasten your draw reins.

Pictured is Dollar with the German Martingale on.  In the second picture you can see that he has dropped his head, and it is now vertical.  The German Martingale should only be used with a ringed snaffle.  (Dollar is pictured with a curb bit, but the picture was taken to show how the martingale operates. Please if you decide to use a German Martingale, use it only with a snaffle bit.)

There are many different training aids on the market.  I think that before you run out and buy any of these, that you should try to borrow one see if  that particular aid will work for you.  Training aids can be great tools when used correctly. If you are uncertain if you are using any equipment correctly, ask a trainer or someone with more experience.  If you have any questions about these training aids or anything else, feel free to ask questions in the Forum section of this website.


Bits for the Western Horse

For most riders, the bit is the main means of communication with their horse.   To the rider, the bit is like the steering wheel of a car.  Bits come in all different shapes and styles; however, most of the bits you would use on a western style horse will fall into two different categories: snaffle bits and curb bits.  Finding the right bit for you and your horse can be nerve wracking.   Typically I try several different bits on my horse to see which one works best.  Just because you like the way one bit works with one horse doesn’t mean you will like how that same bit works with another horse.  Likewise, you may have a bit that works great for you and your horse, but with a different rider the same bit will work differently with the same horse.

Snaffle Bits

Snaffle bits are the most common type of bit used in the horse world.  Basically they are some sort of ring with a mouth piece in the middle.  They work by applying direct pressure on the bars of your horses mouth (space between incisors and molars).  In the western world, the snaffle bit is considered a two handed bit, and when using a snaffle you should ride your horse with two hands on the reins.  Also in most western show rings it is acceptable to use a snaffle bit on a horse five years old or younger.  After that the horse should be switched to a curb bit.  Pictured are several different snaffle bits I have in my tack room.  You will notice the bit crossed out.  Many people will refer to this as a Tom Thumb Snaffle bit;  however, since it has shanks on the side it actually is not a snaffle bit, but a curb bit.  On the left of the picture from top to bottom are an eggbutt  snaffles, D-ring snaffle, and an O-ring snaffle. They are named for the shape of the rings on the side.  Most commonly a snaffle bit will have a jointed mouth piece; however, any bit with a ringed side is considered a snaffle bit.  The two bits pictured below are both O-ring snaffle bits. They just have different mouth pieces.

Curb Bits

Curb bits are bits with a shank on the side and a mouth piece in the middle.  The shank on the curb bit creates a lever action and applies pressure to places other than just the bars of the horses mouth.  When using a curb bit, a pull on the reins does a number of things.  First there is pressure on the bars of the mouth.  The curb strap is lifted and puts pressure under the horses chin.  Then the bridle itself will put pressure on the poll.  Also depending on the mouth piece, pressure can be put on the horse’s tongue or the roof of his mouth or the bars of his mouth.  The bits pictured here are type of curb bits. All have shanks, and all work with leverage.  Curb bits are normally used when riding with one hand, or neck reining.

Choosing a Bit

When I first start a colt I like to use a broken mouth snaffle bit.  They allow me to guide my horses better, and let me show them what I want them to do.  Typically I don’t transition to a curb bit until my horse is starting to neck rein and moves off of leg pressure.  Personally when I first move into a curb bit, I start with one that has shorter shanks.  The shorter shanks mean that there will be less pressure on my horse’s poll and chin.  As he progresses I move to a longer shanked bit.

Choosing a mouth piece is the trickiest part of bit selection for me.  Once I move out of a snaffle bit, I try to avoid mouth pieces with a single joint in them.  When you pull back on the reins with both hands, they have a nutcracker effect on your horse’s mouth.  I know if I was a horse I wouldn’t like this.  So I tend to select mouth pieces with at least two joints or a solid mouth piece.  The best way to select a bit is to try different bits out on your horse and use the one that works the best with you and your horse.  If you don’t have a tack room full of bits, ask some of your horse people friends if you could barrow one of their bits for a few rides before you decide to purchase one like it.  I know I have bits that have cost me over a hundred dollars, and I’ve seen bit that cost as much as $500+.  That’s a pretty big investment for something that might not work for you or your horse.

With my horses, even after I advance them up to a curb bit, I will have days that I work them in a snaffle bit to try to get them to soften up.  Really the most important thing to remember is that a bit is only as severe as the hands holding the reins.  Whether  you choose to use a snaffle bit or a curb bit, if you don’t have soft hands you can hurt your horse’s mouth.  If you want to develop a horse with a soft mouth don’t pull on your horse or use more force than necessary.