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The ESSENTIALS for fitting horse gear

Apr 04, 2021
Equiculture - the ESSENTIALS for fitting horse gear

The correct selection and fitting of gear are very important if you want your horse to be relaxed and to be able to work with you without being uncomfortable or in pain. A horse cannot go well in badly fitting gear in just the same way that you cannot walk in badly fitting shoes or cope with clothes that are too tight etc.

Badly fitted gear rubs and causes sore areas - leading to discomfort or even strong pain in a horse; therefore poorly fitting gear can be the start of many physical and behavioural problems in horses. It is very common for horses to be blamed for ‘bad behaviour’ when in fact the poor horse is simply trying to avoid pain caused by poorly fitting gear.

An inexperienced owner/rider will need help when fitting new gear to a horse. Fitting gear, particularly a saddle, is difficult until a horse owner is experienced enough to know exactly what to look for. Therefore if you are inexperienced or unsure seek expert advice.

In this photo the bit is in an ideal position, not too high or too low in the mouth. The noseband is not too tight and sits well below the protruding check bone (arrow).

Physical and behvioural signs that a horse is sore from poorly fitted gear include:

  • Tender areas which may be felt when grooming.
  • Resistance to being saddled.
  • Reluctance to being caught.
  • Head tossing, bucking, rearing.

In particular the areas of the horse that are commonly affected by badly fitting gear are the mouth corners (due to problems with the bit), the base of the ears (due to problems with the browband), the front of the nose, and the back of the jaw (due to problems with the noseband), the area behind the elbow (due to problems with the girth) and the back area due to problems with the saddle cloth and/or due to incorrect saddle fit.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the bit

Poorly fitting and inappropriate bits cause many problems for horses. The bit should have no sharp edges, should be the correct size for the horse, and should be fitted at the correct height in the mouth. Bits vary enormously in type and severity.

Never use a bit without fully understanding how it works and why you are using it, many bits are very severe and should not be used by an inexperienced horse person. At the same time, knowledgeable horse people usually realize that severe bits are counterproductive and do not use them.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the browband

The browband can be a source of discomfort if not fitted properly. If it is too tight it can pull the headpiece too close to the ears so check that it is not doing this. Horses that are uncomfortable due to an ill-fitting browband may shake their head or may keep trying to rub the bridle off although many horses show no outward signs even though the browband is too tight.

This browband is not actually pulling the headpiece of the bridle forwards (arrow) but if it was any shorter it would do. When the browband is too short it rubs the back of the ears which are very sensitive.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the noseband

A bridle may or may not have a noseband fitted. A noseband should not be tight around the nose/jaw of the horse. Unfortunately, it is very common to see nosebands that are far too tight. There should be room to fit two fingers between the noseband and the head.

Be especially careful with a young horse (up to five years old) that will have molars erupting in the jaw (‘tooth bumps’). A too-tight noseband in this case will cause additional pain. These ‘tooth bumps’, which are the roots of the large molars protruding down through the jaw, disappear over time as the tops of the teeth wear down in the mouth and the large molars continue to ‘erupt’ upwards into the mouth. They are not usually a problem other than they can become tender if a noseband is fitted too tightly.

In this example the bit is slightly too high in the mouth (even though creases in the mouth corners used to be regarded as correct - arrow). The noseband is correctly fitted but notice the ‘tooth bumps’ of this five-year-old horse (arrow) which can become painful if a noseband rubs them. In many cases a noseband is not necessary.

Unfortunately, a bridle now tends to be sold with a complicated noseband that is designed to keep the horse's mouth closed (rather than a simple 'cavesson' noseband) as standard. This means that people often use them when they are totally unnecessary.

They should not be used by an inexperienced rider, yet often are. The reason for using them is to force the mouth shut so that the horse cannot evade the bit. If a horse is evading the bit it is usually because the bit hurts, the horse has sharp teeth, the rider is too heavy-handed or the horse has not been taught how to ‘accept’ the bit properly (or a combination of these factors).

The International Society for Equitation Science has developed a Noseband Taper Gauge for stewards of competitions to use to check the tightness of nosebands before horses enter the ring - www.equitationscience.com/store/taper-gauge

If you are involved with a pony club/riding club why not suggest they buy a couple of these inexpensive gadgets?

This is not an affiliate link - just recommending because I think they are a great idea.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the girth

A girth should be the correct length and should not rub (which will cause girth galls/pressure sores). The material that a girth is made from can lead to rubbing as can a build-up of dirt on the girth and/or on the horse.

When a horse has been out of work for some time girth galls are more likely to occur when the horse returns to work, due to the skin in this area becoming softer (this of course also applies to young horses who are starting work for the first time), in the same way that blisters initially form on your hands and feet if you do unaccustomed hard physical work.

A girth that is too tight or too loose can also cause girth galls (too tight causes too much pressure, too loose can move around and rub).

A girth should ideally fit when on the middle holes of the girth straps, so that there is room for expansion and contraction as the horse changes condition.

Modern materials for girths tend to work well and are easier to keep clean - an important consideration when you consider that girth galls can be caused by dirt. Modern girths also tend to have some elasticated properties which is good.

A girth should ideally fit when on the middle holes of the girth straps, so that there is room for expansion and contraction as the horse changes condition.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the saddlecloth

A saddlecloth or blanket can be used to keep the underside of the saddle clean and soak up or wick away sweat. Synthetic saddles should always have a saddle cloth underneath them because they create a lot of heat. Western saddles must always be used in conjunction with a thick pad because the saddle itself does not have padded panels.

Make sure that the saddle cloth is pulled up into the gullet of the saddle before the girth is fastened, otherwise, the saddlecloth will pull tight over the withers and cause a sore spot. Once the girth is fastened check that the saddle cloth has not been pulled down tight over the withers.

Make sure that the saddle cloth is pulled up into the gullet of the saddle before the girth is fastened, otherwise the saddlecloth will pull tight over the withers and cause a sore spot.

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - the saddle

A poorly fitting saddle causes many problems because poor saddle fit is exacerbated by the weight of the rider. A saddle can be too narrow in the 'tree' (the internal frame of the saddle) which will pinch the horse’s back, or too wide (which will cause the saddle to put direct pressure on the bones of the horse’s back). A saddle can be too short - which will concentrate the weight of the rider into an area that is too small, or too long - which will put the weight of the rider over the weakest part of the horse’s back - near the loins.

This saddle is the correct length for the horse’s back, neither too short or too long. The good quality thick saddle ‘pads’ shown here are needed under this style of saddle because they do not have padded panels as ‘English’ saddles do.

Remember that a horse changes shape as they lose or gain condition (fat and muscle). For example, a saddle that is fitted to a four-year-old horse will not necessarily fit that same horse after a year or two of work because the horse will have developed muscle that will cause the back to change shape.

Two other areas for concern with a saddle are that the pommel should sit well above the withers and that a hand should be able to be run down between the saddle and the shoulder each mirroring the other i.e. your hand should not feel more or less pressure as it moves downwards.

If possible a saddle should always be fitted by a professional saddle fitter. Saddlery stores often provide this service. If not your riding instructor, Pony Club, or local riding club should be able to help with gear fitting in general. In fact, why not suggest to your club that you have a gear fitting day and get an expert in to teach the members?

The ESSENTIALS of fitting horse gear - welfare

In this age of enlightenment, many people talk of having a better ‘partnership’ with their horse yet this is often not reflected in the harsh gear and gadgets that they use. It is a good idea to evaluate your gear from time to time and check that you are not using harsh gear simply because it is fashionable to do so (peer pressure) or because you do not know any different.

This article is just a very quick guide to fitting gear and covers some of the more important points. Please always get expert help with fitting gear - it is so important that your horse is as comfortable as possible. If you would like some advice post a picture in the Facebook group below.

I hope you have enjoyed this article, it is one of the Equiculture Essentials articles for members of our Facebook Group for novice horse riders and owners (there are also lots of equine professionals, as well as ourselves, to give help and advice) - anyone can join: www.facebook.com/groups/novicehorseriderowner - hope to see you there :)

Jane xxx