Article and photos by Michael Mahaffey
Have you ever spent the day out in the woods on a camping trip carrying a backpack full of gear only to wake up the next morning with a sore back and shoulders? Or maybe you’ve had a pair of shoes that didn’t quite fit, but you wore them anyway, only to ache from hip to toe the following day?
While we as humans routinely subject our bodies to all manner of abuse due to ill-fitting accessories, many of us also unsuspectingly do the same things to our horses. Whether it is through habit, inattention to detail or simply never having learned how to properly outfit a horse, taking the time to perform a few simple checks the next time you saddle up can save your equine companion from suffering preventable aches and pains.
Whether you’re gearing your horse up for a training session or getting ready to make a competitive run, try following four-time NFR qualifier Sharon Camarillo’s tack fit rules and get the most out of your equine athlete.
The largest piece of tack is also the most important piece to fit properly if you want your horse to give you a top performance every time you race or ride.
Camarillo says that a poorly fitting saddle can cause not only discomfort and pain, but it can also lead to soreness and impact the horse’s attitude about performing.
“Horses aren’t capable of telling you they are uncomfortable,” Camarillo says, “but they do communicate how they feel to you through irregular movement and poor performance.”
The saddle’s tree—which provides the strength and structure of the saddle—must fit the shape of the horse’s back. A saddle that fits your horse well will let your horse move freely.
Sweat patterns are a good indicator of how well the saddle you are using fits your horse. An even sweat pattern usually shows that your saddle fits your horse well, while uneven patterns can tip you off to exactly where your saddle may be causing problems for your horse.
In addition to fitting your horse, it is just as important that your saddle fits you as a rider, too, since the saddle is the one piece of tack that should fit the rider just as well as it fits the horse. Camarillo says it is just as important for her to observe how her students are sitting in the saddle as it is to see how well the saddle fits the horse.
According to Camarillo, the size of the seat should compliment the rider’s body type as well as the discipline in which the rider is competing. She observes her students for signs that their seat size is correct and that the rider is appropriately balanced. A saddle that is too small can cause the rider to tip forward and lose seat position, thereby making the horse compensate for the rider’s lack of balance and increasing the chances of the horse becoming sore.
Camarillo has a simple test to determine if your saddle, and the seat size you normally choose, is the best fit for you.
“There should be at least a two-finger measurement between the swell and your thigh,” she says.
Allowing yourself the two-finger cushion ensures that you will have the flexibility and range of motion necessary to ride comfortably and stay balanced effectively.
Additionally, Camarillo says a good saddle pad can go a long way toward closing any gaps in how well your saddle fits your horse, especially if he has an irregular shape to his back or is especially narrow in the withers. However, it is just as important to make sure it does not impede your horse’s ability to move his shoulder.
“Before cinching your saddle, you want to cup the saddle pad so it rests away from the withers to allow a full range of shoulder movement and prevent pinching,” Camarillo says.
She also checks both the front and back cinches, making sure they are adjusted securely. The back cinch should hang loose by about the width of a hand to allow the horse’s lungs to expand fully while running or working hard.
The Breast Collar
The importance of the proper placement and adjustment of the breast collar cannot be overstated. A poorly fitting breast collar can not only impede a horse’s stride if it causes resistance against the horse’s shoulder, but it can also potentially cut off its air intake by pressing against the windpipe. In both cases, performance and the health of your horse suffers.
Camarillo says rider’s should locate the forward point of the horse’s shoulder and elevate the straps of the breast collar that attach to the saddle above those points to ensure freedom of motion in the shoulder.
The center of the breast collar should rest well below the soft tissue of the throat to avoid cutting off the horse’s ability to breathe while working.
“You want to feel for the horse’s breastplate to center the breast collar,” Camarillo says.
If the breast collar is adjusted appropriately, you should be able to slide your hand between the collar and the horse’s chest without effort.
Stirrups and Spurs
Camarillo advises that stirrups should be adjusted so that the rider’s knee is even with the rim of the saddle while the leg is bent at a comfortable angle. Stirrups that are set too short, like a racehorse jockey’s, will leave a barrel racer unbalanced and prone to losing seat position.
To help achieve a correct seat, Camarillo prefers to use crooked or angled stirrups with a wide bottomed base.
“I believe they stabilize the rider and prevent twisting or torque in the knee and lower leg while riding,” she says.
The more balanced a rider feels, the more balanced your horse will feel as a result, so Camarillo recommends experimenting with different styles and sizes of stirrups until you find ones that fit you best and provide a secure feeling of balance.
Stirrups that help you naturally keep your heel and toe parallel to the horse’s side will be the most comfortable for long riding or training sessions. A parallel foot position will also keep a rider’s spurs from accidentally touching the horse’s side.
When it comes to wearing spurs, Camarillo says barrel racers must be cautious because unintentional contact of your spur with the horse’s sides can distract your horse and cause him to run tentatively. She recommends that barrel racers choose short spurs of an inch or less in length, preferably a bumper spur or one with a rounded tip, to minimize the chances of unintentional contact with the horse.
“[Making contact with a spur] should be something that you really have to work hard to get into you horse’s side,” Camarillo says. “A cutting spur, unless you really know what you’re doing, should never be used in a barrel race.”
Although many riders may wear spurs 90 percent of the time or more, most only use the spur about 5 percent of the time. Camarillo believes that spurs should be worn only during training sessions and never during a competitive run.
“Spurs are used for lateral position, not speed,” Camarillo says. “If you use them, use them responsibly.”
Bridles and Bits
Adjusting a bridle may seem like a straightforward exercise, but care should be taken to understand how it has been designed to connect to the pressure points on a horse’s head, mouth and jaw, Camarillo says.
“Bridling is a big issue, especially for barrel horses,” she explains, “because the fad in barrel racing now is no tie-down and ring snaffles. You’re limited to three points of control—lip, tongue, bar—and you have no noseband, so if you take control of him with your hands, and he leans forward, he can just lean forward as much as he wants to and drop his shoulder and hit the barrel.
“If you wonder why you can’t control the shoulders or the rate, it’s really because you’ve selected a bridle that does not have enough pressure points to control the horse. They might work perfect at home, but when you take them out and add that much more speed and that much more external pressure on them and then the stampede of the other horses working, you really limit the amount of control you have.”
Tack designers focus on several points of interest when constructing a bridle—the lip, the tongue, the bars, the curb, the brow, the poll, the nose and the softer tendon lower on the nose—so you should take care that the bridle you choose fits your horse well at each of those points. Using a bridle that fits your horse well and is adjusted correctly will keep your horse comfortable and responsive and allow you to maintain a greater sense of control.
Perhaps the biggest mistake riders make in bridle fit is over or under-adjusting the bridle in a way that affects where the bit sits in the horse’s mouth. Camarillo determines how she wants to adjust the bit based on the responsiveness of each individual horse.
“I want to have one wrinkle to two wrinkles [at the corners of the horse’s mouth] depending on the horse that I’m riding,” Camarillo says. “If he’s kind of a heavy-faced horse, then I want to take the bridle up an extra notch in his mouth to get the contact a little quicker. But usually, just one little wrinkle is sufficient.”
Camarillo also adjusts for wrinkle and curb pressure based upon the amount of gag the bit she is using on a particular horse is designed to have. She increases the wrinkle and decreases curb pressure for bits with more gag, and does the opposite for bits with less gag.
Once you have chosen a bit for your horse, Camarillo recommends testing the action the of the bit so you can see how it is designed to work, that way you can make sure that the curb is adjusted in a way that makes it a truly useful part of the bridle.
Many riders will choose to use nosebands, cavasons or other pieces of equipment designed to help gain more control over the horse. Whenever you adjust these pieces, you want to make sure that the equipment still allows the horse to have a soft jaw.
“We don’t want to tighten this equipment down so much that he can’t move his lower jaw,” Camarillo says. “If he’s locked in his lower jaw, he’s going to be locked in his TMJ [temporomandibular] joint, and we’re going to cause the horse to be very rigid.”
She advises adjusting nosebands so that you can slide two fingers between it and the horse’s nose. Light pressure on the nose is enough to get the horse to respond.
“A good neutral adjustment for any bit is to place the mouthpiece so it meets the corners of the horse’s mouth and allows for a two-finger gap between the horse’s jaw and the curb strap,” she says.
The bit and curb can be tightened from there for horses that require more contact and control, or loosened for horses that need to be freed up.
About Sharon Camarillo
Clinician and trainer Sharon Camarillo has traveled around the world for more than 30 years teaching the fundamentals of good horsemanship and barrel racing. A four-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo, Camarillo has taught thousands of students in 40 states in the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia and South America.
One of barrel racing’s most visible spokespersons, Camarillo, who lives in Lockeford, Calif., has designed saddles and tack for 30 years, including her Sharon Camarillo Collection. She was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame & Museum in 2006 for her lifelong efforts in promoting the equine and Western lifestyles.
For more information about Sharon Camarillo or to learn more about her clinics, training programs or Sharon Camarillo Classic races, visit sharoncamarillo.com.