Horse Riding Tack & Equipment

How to saddle a horse (a step-by-step guide)

Saddling a horse might seem like a straightforward task, but its implications run deep.

Safety for the rider is paramount and an incorrectly saddled horse is a hazard.

If the saddle slides, tips, or even falls off during a ride, the consequences can be severe, ranging from minor injuries to life-threatening accidents.

Equally important is the comfort for your horse.

A saddle that doesn’t fit well or is placed improperly will cause your horse great discomfort.

This isn’t just about the horse’s immediate well-being and the pain the saddle can cause while on the back; sores, bruises, and long-term back problems will also develop, affecting your horse’s health and longevity.

A well-fitted (to both horse and rider) and correctly positioned saddle allows you to maintain optimal posture and balance.

This alignment doesn’t just make the ride more enjoyable, it makes communication between you and your horse better, enhancing the synergy between the two.

It’s important to make sure all your tack is a good fit for your horse, because behavioural problems in horses can often be traced back to discomfort.

A horse in pain can become skittish, show signs of aggression, or simply refuse to be ridden. Proper saddling acts as a preventative measure against these problems.

From an economic perspective, proper saddling also has its benefits.

A well-maintained saddle has a longer lifespan, and saves costs in the long run.

Making sure that your horse is free from saddle-related injuries also prevents hefty vet bills.

A rider’s relationship with their horse is built on trust. By taking the time to saddle your horse correctly and ensuring that the tack isn’t painful or uncomfortable, you’re showing a level of care that helps build your horse’s trust in you.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you saddle your horse safely and correctly.

  1. Prepare your tack
    • Saddle: Ensure it’s clean and in good condition. Check for any wear or damage.
    • Saddle pad or blanket: Should be clean and free of debris.
    • Girth or cinch: Make sure it’s the right size for your horse and in good condition.
    • Bridle: Inspect it for any signs of wear or damage.
  2. Approach your horse calmly
    • Always approach a horse from the side, speaking softly to alert them of your presence.
    • Ensure the horse is tied securely, trained to ground tie, or held by someone to prevent it from moving away or getting spooked.
  3. Brush down your horse
  4. Position the saddle pad or blanket
    • Place the saddle pad or blanket on the horse’s back, ensuring it lies flat. Put it a little too far over the withers and slide it back until it’s in place, this so that the hair underneath is in the direction of growth as opposed to pulled forward.
    • The front edge should be positioned a few inches before the horse’s withers (the highest part of the back, located at the base of the neck).
  5. Place the saddle
    • Gently place the saddle on top of the pad or blanket, ensuring it’s centred. Don’t plop the saddle down with a smack (that’ll just teach your horse to hate being saddled).
    • Especially, if you have a western saddle, you’ll want to learn the “cowboy swing” where you swing the saddle up into the back in one smooth, one-handed motion which disturbs the horse as little as possible.
    • Do the same with the saddle as with the saddle pad, placing it first a little too far forward and sliding it back until it stops, to get it into the right place on the back.
    • The pommel (front) of the saddle should be over the withers, and the cantle (back) should rest on the horse’s back.
  6. Attach the girth or cinch
    • Stand on the horse’s left side and reach under its belly to grab the girth or cinch from the right side.
    • Buckle or tie the girth on the left side, ensuring it’s snug but not too tight. You want it on tight enough that it stays on for mounting. After mounting, you’ll tighten it further still for riding.
    • Walk around to the horse’s right side and check the girth’s tightness there as well. Adjust if necessary.
  7. Check the saddle’s position
    • Ensure the saddle is still centred and hasn’t shifted during the girth tightening process.
    • The saddle should be stable and not wobble from side to side.
  8. Bridle your horse
    • Once the saddle is secure, you can put on the bridle. Make sure the bit is positioned comfortably in the horse’s mouth and that the straps are adjusted to the right length.
  9. Final check
    • Walk around the horse, checking all straps and buckles one last time.
    • Ensure there are no wrinkles in the saddle pad or blanket underneath the saddle.
  10. Mounting your horse

Remember, every horse is different. Some may be more sensitive or skittish during the saddling process.

Always be patient, gentle, and observant of your horse’s reactions.

If your horse seems uncomfortable or the saddle doesn’t seem to fit correctly, consult with a knowledgeable trainer or saddle fitter to ensure the best fit for both you and your horse.

What does it mean when a horse is cinchy?

When a horse is described as “cinchy,” it means the horse displays discomfort, sensitivity, or even adverse behavioural reactions when the cinch or girth (the strap that holds the saddle in place) is tightened.

Signs your horse is cinchy:

  1. Biting or nipping: The horse might try to bite or nip at the person tightening the cinch or at the area around the cinch.
  2. Swishing the tail: This is a clear sign of irritation or discomfort in many contexts, not just when saddling.
  3. Pinning the ears back: Another sign of irritation or displeasure.
  4. Dancing or moving around: The horse might become restless or try to move away when you attempt to tighten the cinch.
  5. Bloating or holding the breath: Some horses will inflate their belly when they sense you’re about to tighten the cinch, making it seem looser than it actually is. This can be a sign they’re uncomfortable with the process or trying to avoid the cinch being too tight.
  6. Bucking or rearing: In extreme cases, especially if the discomfort is severe or the horse is particularly fearful, they might resort to more drastic behaviours like bucking or rearing once the rider mounts or when the cinch is tightened.
  7. Kicking: Especially with the hind leg on the side the girth is being tightened. Be careful that you don’t get ninja-kicked.

You want to rule out a poorly fitting saddle and any medical conditions, such as ulcers, before starting to retrain your horse in accepting the saddle.

How to tell if your saddle is a bad fit for your horse.

An ill-fitting saddle can cause a myriad of problems, from behavioural issues in your horse to physical injuries.

The underside of the saddle should make even contact with your horse’s back. Lift the saddle flap and look for any unwanted gaps or pressure points.

The saddle shouldn’t be touching or pressing down on your horse’s withers (the bump where the neck meets the back).

You should be able to fit in three fingers (stacked on top of each other) between the gullet and the withers (less and it’s too tight more and it’s too large).

The channel of the saddle should be wide enough to not press on the horse’s spine, and the saddle should direct the weight of rider and saddle to muscles, not onto the spine.

When you put the saddle on without a pad, you should be able to see into the gullet, to ensure that it’s wide enough and distributing the weight correctly.

The saddle can also not be too long.

The part of the horse’s back that can bear weight is relatively short, and putting pressure beyond that area is only going to cause your horse pain.

Always keep your eyes peeled for signs of an ill fitting saddle.

Check for any areas of swelling, rubbing, or hair loss on your horse’s back after riding.

After a ride, an even sweat pattern under the saddle indicates good contact.

Dry spots can indicate pressure points where the saddle is lifting away from the horse’s back or pressing too hard.

Gently run your hand along the back and observe your horse’s reaction. If they flinch, it’s a sign of discomfort or pain.

After removing the saddle, check for unusually hot spots on the horse’s back, which can indicate pressure points.

If your horse becomes agitated or tries to move away when you approach with the saddle, they might be associating it with discomfort.

While these can be signs of other issues, a sudden onset of these behaviours after saddling is often due to discomfort.

If your horse seems reluctant to move forward, is hollowing the back, or is not extending the stride as usual, the saddle might be the cause.

If you find it hard to maintain a stable position, especially during transitions, the saddle might be sliding or not providing enough support.

If you feel like you’re leaning to one side or the other, the saddle is most likely not sitting evenly on your horse’s back.

It’s always best to get a professional saddle fitter to come fit you and your horse for the perfect saddle.

They can assess the fit and make recommendations for adjustments or a different saddle if necessary.

Remember, a horse’s shape changes with age, work, diet, health and even seasons, so it’s essential to regularly check the saddle fit and adjust as necessary.

How to unsaddle your horse.

  1. Put up the stirrups: First you’ll want to put up the stirrups (English saddle), so that they don’t hit the horse as you take the saddle off.
  2. Remove any attachments: If you have any saddle bags, tools, or other equipment attached to the saddle, remove them. Also detach any breast collar or other parts of the saddle.
  3. Loosen the girth/cinch: Stand on the horse’s side and begin by loosening the girth or cinch. This is the strap that goes underneath the horse’s belly to hold the saddle in place. If your saddle has two girths or a rear cinch, loosen those as well. Don’t let the girth suddenly drop, because it might hit the legs, instead lower it down slowly to hang from the side it’s still attached on.
  4. Lift the saddle off: Stand beside the horse’s shoulder, bend at your knees, and using both hands, grasp the saddle’s front (pommel) with one hand and the back (cantle) with the other. Grab the saddle pad at the same time, and lift the saddle + pad up and off the horse’s back, moving it to the side in one smooth motion.
  5. Place the saddle safely: After removing the saddle, place it on a saddle rack with the stirrups tucked up and the girth/cinch draped over the seat to keep it in shape, but don’t store it like that!
  6. Inspect your horse’s Back: After removing the saddle, it’s a good practice to check your horse’s back for any signs of soreness, rubs, or injuries. This will help you identify if the saddle is fitting correctly or if there are any issues that need to be addressed.
  7. Brush off sweat marks: Using a soft brush, gently brush off any sweat marks or dirt from the horse’s back where the saddle was sitting. This not only keeps the horse clean but also promotes good skin health. It’s also a good idea to check over the hooves again and pick them if needed.
  8. Clean and store equipment: After unsaddling and getting your horse settled, it’s a good habit to clean your tack and equipment before storing it. Wipe down the saddle and girth/cinch with a damp cloth, and if necessary, use saddle soap or leather cleaner to keep the leather in good condition.

Remember, always approach and handle horses with calmness and confidence.

If you’re new to riding or handling horses, it’s always best to have an experienced person or instructor guide you through the process until you’re comfortable doing it on your own.

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