If you’re new to the world of horse riding, then you may have heard the term horse tack but aren’t quite sure what it means. To help clear up any confusion, we’ve put together this quick guide to the term, including answers to some other common questions that you might have about what horse tack stands for and what sorts of things it entails.
Horse tack refers to all of the equipment that you use to ride, handle, and care for a domesticated horse, though you’ll primarily hear it used in terms of riding equipment (hence the phrase tacking up, which means fitting a horse with all of the items necessary for riding it).
Tack itself is a range of equipment, rather than a particular item. This is why stores that sell horse equipment are called tack shops or tack stores, as well as why your instructor may tell you to tack up when it’s time to get your horse ready to ride.
A lot of different horse equipment falls under the general term of tack. The more familiar that you become with riding horses, the more it will become second nature to refer to these items under their umbrella term rather than as individual pieces of equipment.
Here are some of the most common pieces of horse tack equipment:
- Saddle: A supportive leather structure used as a seat for the rider.
- Saddle blanket: A padded cloth placed under the saddle for the comfort of the horse. In English riding, this is referred to as a saddlecloth.
- Cinch: Also called a girth, this is a broad strap of material that fits around the barrel of a horse to keep the saddle in place.
- Breastplate: A harness-type structure that is also used to help keep the saddle in place, with straps that extend around the sternum and forelegs. Also called a breast strap or breast collar.
- Stirrups: Foot holds for the rider that are connected to the saddle by a strap.
- Reins: Long straps typically made of leather, metal, or nylon that are attached to the bridle and used to direct a horse.
- Bridle: A harness fitted around the head that is often attached to a lead rope to either guide or tie up the horse. Sometimes referred to as a halter.
- Bit: A piece of metal attached to a bridle that rests in the horse’s mouth (hence the term chomping at the bit).
- Hackamore: A type of halter or bridle where a noseband is used instead of a bit to guide the horse.
- Martingale: A strap connecting a horse’s noseband to their breastplate or neck strap.
Other pieces of tack used in horse riding include blinkers, boots, nosebags, and chamfrons, among many others. Some tack items are used in every ride, while others are only used occasionally.
Tack is made of many different materials, although leather is the material most traditionally used. Synthetic tack can refer to many different types of synthetic materials, which are used to make almost every type of horse tack there is.
Horse Gear Tack
It might seem like a random term, but there’s a reason that this sort of equipment is called tack.
The term tack is short for tackle, which in turn is a reference used to explain riding or otherwise directing a domesticated horse. When you outfit a horse with tack for riding or another use, you’re tackling them in the sense that you now have increased control over their movements.
Tack, or tacking up, isn’t just used in horse riding. You’ll also find this term mentioned in other activities where you need to set up certain gear in order to get moving, such as sailing.
A tack room is a place in a stable building where the tack is stored. It’s where you’ll go whenever you’re looking to get your horse outfitted for a ride, as well as where you’ll place tack items for storage after you’re done. If you’re ever in need of a piece of riding or handling equipment, always check the tack room first.
Most tack rooms are organized quite similarly, with many items hung up on the walls instead of being stored in piles. This makes it easy to keep everything organized—and to find what you need.
If you’re looking for additional tack that isn’t in the tack room, check for a storage area directly in front of your horse’s stall. Stable hands often use these areas to store smaller tack or tack that is outfitted to individual horses.
Leather or Synthetic Tack
Walking into a tack store can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many choices. This can be good because you can choose exactly the equipment that’s right for you and your horse. But, too many choices can leave you wondering if you made the right decisions and if you’ve made a mistake when you leave with your purchase.
The two major pieces of tack you’ll be choosing when you get your first horses are the saddle and bridle. These also represent the largest outlay of money and the most important gear in terms of safety. Chances are, you want to get the most for the least—the safest, longest-lasting, most effective, and most comfortable.
As you look around, you’ll probably notice that tack is made of either synthetic or leather. Bridles come in many materials, and you’ll likely have lots of color options. Saddles too can be made of synthetic or leather, and you might even find some that are colors other than the traditional browns, grays, or blacks.
Generally speaking, leather tack costs more than synthetic. Poorer quality leathers will cost around the same as synthetic items. Tack made of cardboardy, stiff leather should be avoided. These items won’t last as long as good quality leather and they may be more prone to breakage. If cost is a major factor in your decision, you may be better off with good quality synthetic tack, than poorer quality leather. Good leather tack is an investment, that will hold its value better if you decide to resell it. Buying used is an affordable way to buy good-quality leather bridles and saddles.
Identifying Leather Quality
Poor quality leathers will feel stiff and cold. The edges may be different colored than the surface because the surface dye and/or tanning don’t go all the way through. This is sometimes masked by tinting the edges to match the surface after the pieces used to construct the saddle are cut. The underside may be fibrous-looking. The surface may be stamped with a ‘skin texture’ and the leather may be more chemical-smelling than leathery. Cheap dyes can seep out of the leather and discolor your riding pants after rain.
Good quality saddle leather will be smooth and supple, There may be the odd tiny imperfection. This is visible because the surface has not been sanded down and refinished. This means the leather will actually be stronger, and will not discolor badly over time. Saddlers generally work around these imperfections in whole hides used to make saddles, but small scars, nicks, and other naturally occurring marks may still appear even though they strive to use top quality, blemish-free vegetable-dyed leather. There is no need to dye or paint the edges on good leather, because the finish goes through, although there may be a final finish put over the whole saddle, because the leather used may come from different hides, and even different types of leathers may be used. Billet straps made of top-quality leather will not feel as elastic as cheaper leathers. Good quality leather reins will feel supple in your hand, and not plastic or cardboard-like, as poorly tanned leather is.
Buying a saddle made by a well-known manufacturer of quality goods is the easiest way to avoid cheap leather that will break and discolor over time. Visit a saddler, or examine carefully the higher-end saddles and bridles tacks shops sometimes carry to educate yourself further.
It’s hard to see the tree of the saddle, but it is easy to check the metal fittings. Good saddles will not have light steel or nickel-plated rings and buckles. On saddles, the fleece should be real sheepskin that is thick and even. Girth straps on saddles should be thick and strong, without much give. Rigging and rivets should be made of good quality metals that won’t rust. And, and decoration on western saddles should be minimal and made of good quality materials.
A good quality leather saddle will last a lifetime with the proper care. That’s not always a goal, especially with a horse we know we won’t be keeping for a long time. Leather English saddles can be re-stuffed and refitted to fit many different horses, but there is a limit to how much a saddle can be altered. So if your first horse is an Arabian, and your next is a Clyde cross, you may need a different saddle. Yes, the resale value on a good leather saddle is better than a synthetic. But, if low cost alone is an important factor, you may be better off with synthetic for short-term use. A good quality leather bridle will fit many different horses, and is a good investment over the long term, although making the Arabian to Clydesdale transition may still send you looking for a bigger bridle.
Leather English saddles are much easier to re-stuff and fit to different horses. There are limitations, however, so a leather saddle will not fit every horse that comes along. Synthetics are harder to fit and as the materials break down, the saddle may lose some of its shapes.
Girths on Saddles
A girth is a very important addition to your saddle. Without it, your saddle is of little use. A girth is a broad strap of material like webbing, leather, or cotton that goes around the horse to secure the saddle onto the horse’s back. It attaches by buckles to the billet straps of an English saddle, goes under the barrel of the horse just behind the elbows, to another set of buckles on the opposite side of the horse. When tight enough, it prevents the saddle from slipping sideways, backward, or forward. Without one, it would be very difficult to keep the saddle on the horse.
Girths are made of many different materials or combinations of materials. They come in many lengths, widths, and styles. They have buckles on both ends so they can be attached to the saddle, and adjusted so they are tight enough to hold the saddle on, but not so tight that it will pinch the horse. Choosing a girth outlines the many types of girth available so you can find one that is safe and comfortable for you and your horse.
Feature of a Girth Is Its Strength
A girth must never be made of any material that could break easily, and it should always be in good condition so that no part gives way when strain is put on it. It should also be comfortable for the horse, and not cause injuries such as girth galls. If the girth does cause galling, soft girth covers of quilted fabric or fleece might be used to protect the horse’s skin. Or, a shaped girth may relieve the pressure that causes galling.
When to Use a Girth
In normal riding, it is usually sufficient to use only a girth. However, where the horse changes direction, such as in playing polo, is jumping or must travel up and down steep terrain, a girth might not be sufficient to keep the saddle in place. Under these circumstances, a crupper that straps to the rear of the saddle and loops under the tail, and a breast collar or breastplate that attaches to the front of the saddle and loops around the horse’s chest might be useful. These will prevent the saddle from sliding backward and forwards, and help prevent the saddle from slipping sideways. In some cases, a second girth called an over girth that wraps right around the horse, and over the saddle may be used. For ponies and horses with very flat, round backs a crupper and breast collar in addition to the girth can help secure the saddle.
Check the Girth Frequently
Because a girth is such an important piece of equipment it should be checked frequently and repaired if possible. Good quality leather girths can last decades with regular cleaning and repair. Synthetic girths can wear out faster and should be replaced more often.
Bit for Your Horse
There are many different choices when it comes to bits, and the selection at your local tack shop can be overwhelming. It sometimes takes some experimenting to find just the right bit for your horse. When determining what type of bit should be used on your horse you should consider:
- What your riding skill level is.
- How your horse has been trained.
- The shape and size of your horse’s mouth.
Types of Bits
You should be riding in the mildest bit that still allows you to communicate clearly with your horse. Most horses do very well in some sort of simple snaffle. Sometimes, you’ll have to try a few bits to find one that your horse is happy in.
Many horses are trained as youngsters in a snaffle and are ridden in snaffles for their whole lives. If you are pleasure riding in a saddle, there’s nothing wrong with riding in a snaffle bit, even if you neck rein.
Many bits are curb bits, but a beginner who might still inadvertently balance themselves with his or her hands can harshly jab his or her horse’s mouth with these bits. A snaffle bit can be quite harsh if a rider is heavy-handed, but a curb bit with its leverage action will amplify any mistakes that much more. If you feel you must use a curb bit, choose one with the shortest shank you can find. Ideally, a curb bit should only be used if your horse has learned all of his lessons well in a snaffle bit.
Often riders will resort to a curb bit, or a long-shanked mechanical hackamore because they don’t have enough “whoa” in a milder bit. If you are having trouble stopping, you may be better off going back to schooling and reinforcing the basics. If a horse is hard-mouthed, it’s because the rider has been riding with inconsiderate hands.
Your Horse’s Mouth
One thing that is sometimes overlooked is the shape of the horse’s mouth and dental condition. If you find your horse is having difficulty holding the bit, is lolling its tongue, tossing its head, or stiffening his jaw and poll, it may be because the bit is uncomfortable in its mouth. Some horses have shallow palates, thick tongues, or other conformation that makes it difficult to carry some bits. Overgrown teeth and wolf teeth may interfere with the way the bit sits in the horse’s mouth. A vet or equine dentist can help with dentition problems. It might take some trial and error to find a bit that is comfortable for your horse to carry.
When choosing a bit for a new horse, consider what the horse has been ridden in before. It wouldn’t be fair to use a long-shanked curb bit on a horse that has only ever been ridden in a snaffle and expects it to understand your aids completely. If the horse is used to a long-shanked curb, you might find the horse doesn’t respond well—you might not have enough brakes—in a simple snaffle.
This does not mean you cannot make a transition from one type of bit to the other. Horses that are ridden in a curb bit because they have learned to ignore a milder bit can be re-schooled. If for some reason you want to ride in a curb bit, you can school your horse to understand your aids with considerate hands.
Trying out different bits can get expensive if you have to buy each one. Either borrow bits to try or head to the consignment section of your tack shop.