Correct tack fit not only ensures your horse’s comfort, it can also improve their performance. Two experts share tack fit tips.
Saddle fit is extremely important to your horse’s comfort and athletic ability, but don’t overlook the role that correctly fitting bridles, cinches, breast collars and other tack play in your horse’s performance. Whether you’re experienced or new to Western riding, it’s always a good idea to make sure everything you put on your horse is adjusted to fit them. We’ve gathered some tack fit tips to help you make all the adjustments needed for your horse.
Why Good Tack Fit is Important
Dennis Moreland of Dennis Moreland Tack has spent decades making high-quality tack for Western performance horses. In his view, making sure your tack fits your horse is essential. For instance, a poorly fitting headstall can even affect the way your bit works on your horse.
“Everything needs to fit, and it’s really important that it fits right, or it’ll make them uncomfortable,” Moreland said.
Sharin Hall is a professional barrel horse trainer and champion futurity competitor, and she also has a line of tack and saddle pads under her SH Pro Series Tack Shop. She says correctly fitting tack is a key part of being a successful competitor.
“Without proper fit, it’s almost like a mechanic not having good tools, or the right tools, to do the job,” Hall said. “You need to have good quality tack, that is properly fit, so it can function correctly and do its job.”
Poor tack fit disrupts communication between the horse and rider, says Hall.
Your bridle’s earpieces or ear slot should be positioned where it doesn’t press on the ears. Make sure your browband is centered and the correct size for your horse’s forehead.
“If a bridle doesn’t fit a horse’s head right, nothing works,” Moreland said. “If the headstall is adjusted too tight, it may have the bit in a bind. If the browband is too short, it pushes into the horse’s eyes and makes them uncomfortable.”
Make sure your throatlatch is not too tight. Moreland says you should be able to easily fit your hand between the strap and your horse’s throat.
“If you pull the throatlatch up tight, and you ask the horse to give his face, it can be too tight on his throat,” Moreland said.
Your curb strap should not be so loose that it doesn’t engage when you pull your reins. A too-tight curb prevents proper communication between the reins, bit and your horse’s mouth.
“[Reined cow horse trainer Bozo Rogers] once told me when I had a too-tight curb strap, ‘You’re not giving the bit time to give the horse a signal before the curb is up against her jaw,’” Moreland said. “Two fingers between the curb and the horse’s chin is correct. The bit has to move enough to give the horse a signal before the curb comes in contact with the horse.”
Hall looks for the bridle to be snug, but not overly tight.
“I like to be able to put two fingers against the jaw [under the headstall] and not have it be pressing on my finger,” Hall said. “I want it to be as comfortable as possible. Just like I want my clothes to be comfortable; I don’t want it too tight.”
A too-loose headstall causes the bit to hang too low in your horse’s mouth, requiring more rein cues to connect with the horse’s mouth and distracting the horse as they try to keep the bit in place.
“You want it to have light contact with the corners of the horse’s mouth, but not too tight to where they’re smiling and have a constant pull on the horse’s mouth,” she said.
Secure your cinch so that when it’s snug, the rings in the center are positioned in the middle of your horse’s belly. Moreland said if the cinch comes up higher on one side than the other, it can rub the horse where a breast collar or tie-down strap connects.
“I’ve seen horses that actually have open sores on the inside of their legs from where a nylon tie-down strap rubbed because the cinch was off-center,” Moreland said.
Moreland suggests having 6-8 inches of latigo on each side of the cinch. If you have more or less, you probably need a longer or shorter cinch.
Hall prefers 3-4 inches of latigo from below the saddle pad to the cinch.
“I want a lot of protection for the horse, and I’m big on a fleece-backed cinch instead of scratchy wool or neoprene,” Hall said. “I also don’t want the cinch’s D ring lying on the skin of the horse. I want it behind the material, to protect my horse’s comfort in the turns.”
Tie-Down or Bonnet
A too-tight tie-down doesn’t actually prevent your horse from throwing its head, but it can restrict their movement and impede their performance. Moreland says the noseband should not be too low nor too high. Look for the spot just below the horse’s cheek bones as the point to place the noseband.
Hall doesn’t use tie-downs herself, but she will use a bonnet occasionally if a horse has a neck that ties in high from their shoulders. The bonnet is a piece of equipment that goes across the poll and forehead and clips to the cinch like a tie-down. Hall says this tool teaches the horse to move forward, allowing them to be more flat or lower-headed, and still bend freely right and left.
“I just want them to be balanced, without lifting their head too high,” Hall said. “If it’s too loose, the horse will continue to carry its head high with knee action, which costs time in the pattern. If it’s too tight, it will become restrictive on their gait or performance stride and may cause more anxiety.”
Your breast collar should make a “Y” around your horse’s neck, securing to D-rings on the saddle on the sides and at the cinch between your horse’s legs. Make sure the Y is positioned at the center of your horse’s chest. Moreland advises against securing it too tightly.
“If it’s pulled up too high, it could actually choke a horse,” Moreland said.
Hall attaches a strap across the withers to keep the breast collar in the correct position, parallel with the slope of the horse’s shoulder. She says the strap connecting the center of the breast collar to the cinch should be loose enough to not impede the shoulder’s movement.
“You want full mobility when in full stride, so the breast collar will not restrict their ability to run their fastest,” Hall said. “Simply stretch their front leg out in front of them as far as they are capable when adjusting your breast collar the first time.”
Hall chooses a saddle pad designed to protect and distribute pressure from the weight of the rider and saddle. Her choice in pad peaks over the spine and withers, rather than pressing down on these points. She prefers a fleece-lined pad with memory foam gel.
“I don’t think there should be anything pressing down on the spine or the withers, so my particular pad is cut out and built up off the withers,” Hall said. “The pad, in my opinion, is just supposed to take the shock out of your tree.”
Bell boots should hit just above the ground to protect the heel bulb and adjusted tight enough to not rotate.
Make sure leg protective boots are the correct height to offer suspensory protection on your horse, are secured at the right amount of pressure, and are put on the correct legs. Too loose boots allow more dirt to get inside and offer less protection and support.
“You want them snug to where they’re supporting the soft tissues and the ligaments,” Hall said.
If you’re realizing that correctly fitting your tack to your horse is a challenge, Hall suggests reaching out to a professional trainer or barrel racer in your area. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—you can always simply ask for help at your next barrel race.
“A question is striving to learn something new or to better yourself and your knowledge,” Hall said. “If you ask the right people, most likely they will give you the right answer and words of advice.”
This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue of Barrel Horse News.