Properly Fitting Western Tack
There is already a thread about fitting a western saddle and recently, I’ve seen several threads that either had obviously poorly fitted tack or threads asking how to fit various other pieces of western tack so I just figured I would go ahead and make a general thread for that. Some of the pieces that I’ll include are also used by English riders, such as halters, but mostly, what follows will be western tack since that is the style that I ride.
When fitting a halter, you need to take into account the age and size of the horse. You wouldn’t try to make a full grown horse fit into a weanling halter so the same goes that a weanling will not fit into a full horse halter (most times, unless you have a very large breed horse). The halter should fit close all over the horse’s head. The nose should fit cleanly with very little open hang room at their chin. The throatlatch should be up at the horse’s throat where it was designed to fit. If there is room for you to fit a closed fist between the horse’s face and the nose of the halter, then the halter doesn’t fit. If you have the halter buckled or tied as tight as you can over the poll and the throatlatch is still hanging halfway down the horse’s face, then the halter doesn’t fit.
Proper fit for a nylon/leather halter: See that the nose has only a couple of inches of space at the chin, the throatlatch is actually up at the throat where it should be, the noseband is just below the end of the cheekbone, and the buckle is centered just below the ear.
Improper fits for nylon/leather halters:
Too small: See how the nose is tight, the throatlatch is pulled down and the buckle is in the very last hole? This halter is too small for the horse wearing it.
It was a very tight fit trying to squeeze 2 fingers between his jaw and the halter.
Too Big: See the lead ring hanging several inches from the horse’s jaw, the throatlatch hanging far away from the throat? This halter is too big for the horse wearing it.
I could easily fit my entire hand between the halter and his jaw.
Even if the halter was tightened up at the buckle, this halter is still too big.
Proper fit for rope halter: See that the nose has no more than 2 inches of space at the chin, the throatlatch is actually up at the throat where it should be, the noseband is just below the end of the cheekbone, and the tie is centered just below the ear with the excess tucked into the throatlatch (that will keep it from swinging around and hitting a horse in the face while being worked).
Also note the proper way to tie a rope halter. If tied this way, the halter will not work loose as you work the horse or if they pull when tied. Also, even if pulled tight, this knot is very easy to undo.
Improper ways to tie a rope halter:
Tied with the knot above the loop closure, this will work loose as you work the horse or if they pull. The halter could eventually be pulled down off the horse’s nose and this knot is very hard to untie once pulled tight.
Knot tied backward with the excess pointing toward the horse’s face. This puts the excess rope in a prime position to hit the horse in the face or the eye when tied or worked. Always tie so that the excess is pointed away from the horse’s face.
Improper fit for rope halter:
Tied too loose: The halter should be tied up with the throatlatch snug, not left to hang halfway off the horse's face. If the halter is left tied like this, there is a very real possibility that the horse could stretch the knot just enough to get the noseband down off of his nose so that he is tied only by the neck. OR, the noseband could end up in his mouth. Either way, that could cause a catastrophe where the horse gets severely injured.
A rope halter that is too tight will have the exact same problem as a nylon/leather halter that is too tight. That is the one picture I forgot to get today but I can get it later if anyone really needs it.
Too big: See the noseband hanging very loose around the nose and the heel knot hanging several inches away from the jaw, the noseband is far up the horse’s face and even though the throatlatch is up where it should be, there is still a lot of room between it and his throat, and the knot is up behind the ear, almost on top of the poll?
Improper fit with this halter is especially easy to see if it is tied with the poll knot where it should be, just below the ear.
There are numerous different styles, widths, and materials for cinches. Front cinches come in roper style
which are designed to spread the pressure of a tight cinch over a larger portion of the horse's body. The added width also adds stability to the saddle so that it won't move when you are dragging a heavy cow on the end of your rope.
Or, straight style:
and be made of anything from rayon, mohair, alpaca, neoprene, felt, wool, and I’m sure there are others that I am less familiar with. When choosing one for your horse, you need to match your needs and his/her preferences. For example, there are many horses that are very sensitive and react badly to neoprene. Other horses gall badly when they are ridden in felt or string or neoprene. Some disciplines or horses need a cinch that will grip better and wool is too slippery.
The length of cinch you need is very important, the length can dictate whether or not your horse gets galled and it can change how stable your saddle stays. A girth too short can allow the saddle to wiggle back and forth more. A girth too long gives you limited space to tighten it before running out of space on your latigo.
An easy way to measure for a girth and it will get you close to the correct size is to set your saddle on your horse, run a string through the rigging on each side and under their belly where your cinch would go. Pull it snug and mark it at the D-rings on both sides. Measure the string and then subtract 16 inches (round off to the nearest increment of 2 inches; 26, 28, 30, etc).
Proper length: Here is an example of a horse with a cinch that is the proper length.
Too Short: This horse has a cinch that is far too short due to his body size and barrel width. You can see that the cinch only covers the very bottom of his barrel and the latigo is taking up well over a foot of the distance between the cinch and the rigging.
Too Long: This horse has a cinch that is too long for his body. The buckles come up too high and there is limited room for tightening.
**Back cinches: These are generally made from leather (though some cheaper ones can be found in nylon). They are most commonly used by trail riders and ranch hands/ropers. They can help to keep your saddle stabilized while climbing steep hills and they help even out the pressure along the entire length of the saddle tree during activities like roping or dragging. You should choose one to match how sturdy you need it to be. The ones for pleasure riders average 2 inches wide and are often nothing more than single ply leather, then there are others that are 6+ inches wide and heavy duty leather that are designed for people like ropers and ranch hands that usually do a lot of heavy pulling and holding on their horses.
Proper adjustment of the back cinch: The buckles should be in roughly the same holes on each side so that the cinch is centered around the horse’s belly. It should be kept snug, within an inch or two of the horse’s belly at the loosest.
Too loose: The back cinch should not be left hanging away from the horse’s belly. Not only does this defeat its purpose, but it can pose a very serious danger for both the horse and rider. If left hanging like this, a horse can get a hind foot hung in it while kicking at a fly or a tree branch could run up between it and the horse’s belly on a trail ride. Both of these possibilities will likely tear up your tack and could very easily cripple (or worse) a horse.
You should always make sure that both your cinches are centered on the horse's belly so that the center of the cinch is as close to directly between the front legs as you can get it. You should be able to draw a line from directly between the front legs, along the belly, to directly between the back legs and both D-rings on the front cinch and the buckle for the cinch hobble on your back cinch should be on or very close to that straight line.
A front cinch adjusted up too high on one side and too low on another can wear a galled spot on your horse’s belly where the center D-ring rubs.
Also, if you ride with a breast collar, it can cause the bottom tug of the breast collar to rub on the inside of the front leg and wear a sore there as well.
A roper cinch adjusted off center can also cause your saddle to slide a little bit off to one side and stay that way during a ride.
**Breast collars: There are many different styles of breast collars. The most common types are:
, roping collars
, tripping collars
, over-the-neck collars
, and pulling collars.
For the standard type collars that are designed to attach to the rigging D-rings on each side, fit can sometimes be difficult. Some horses are just almost impossible to fit properly with this style due to their conformation and the way the saddle hangs on them. If they are short or narrow, the rigging will sit lower on their sides and make the entire breast collar hang too low.
Most modern saddles come with already placed D-rings for the breast collar farther up on the skirt, sometimes almost at the bottom of the swells, which makes fitting these types of breast collars easier.
Other times, the use of a neck strap is needed to aid the fit of these types of breast collars. Here, you can see that a neck strap is being used to hold up a very poorly fitted standard type collar.
Too tight: See how it sits high on the horse’s neck and is very tight across his shoulders? Not only would this restrict his movement and likely wear sores on him over a long ride, but if something happened to pull the saddle backward, it would pull even tighter across his neck and possibly choke him down.
Too Loose: If the collar is allowed to fall down over the point of the horse’s shoulder, it not only loses its effectiveness, but it can also restrict movement and wear sores where it rubs.
Ideally, if you were to pull on the center D-ring of the breastcollar, all 3 tugs should come tight at the same time and the center ring should not change its relative position on the horse. It should pull straight out from the chest without moving up, down, or to either side. If it doesn’t change position or only changes position slightly, then that means that the collar is adjusted correctly.
The bottom tug:
If the bottom tug is left long, like so many people do, and the saddle is suddenly pulled back, then the top 2 tugs will come tight long before the bottom one does. When that happens, not only does the breast collar pull back, but it pulls upward too. If it is allowed to pull tight over the place where the horse’s neck meets their chest, then the horse will choke down after only a short length of time. I’ve seen that happen dozens of times, mostly when roping, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened on a steep incline either. Not only is that a risk, but a hanging breast collar tug is no different than a hanging back cinch. When you are riding trails, anything hanging 3 or 4 inches off the horse is a perfect place for a tree branch to get hung and tear up both a good horse and some good tack.
I like to have no more than 2 inches of hanging space between the bottom tug of my breast collars and the chest of the horse. That is snug enough to be effective but loose enough to be comfortable. Because I ride in pulling style collars, I like to center that center ring a little bit lower on their chest so that there is zero risk of cutting off their oxygen, even on horses whose necks tie in low and even if the saddle is pulled far backward when pulling heavy things behind me. After I get the bottom tug adjusted where it is just right, I simply buckle the upper tugs where they keep the center ring centered on the chest.
Proper adjustment of bottom tug:
Too long: runs the risk of getting caught on something while riding:
If it is pulled too tight, it can also rub sores on a horse. It seems I failed to get that picture as well.
Proper adjustment of a pulling style collar:
Proper adjustment of a standard style collar with no neck strap:
**Curb chains: A properly adjusted curb chain on a shanked bit will have about an inch of space between it and the horse’s jaw, just enough room to comfortably fit 2 fingers in there.
If left too long, then it allows the bit to pivot too far in the horse’s mouth and basically defeats the purpose of even using a curb bit.
If kept too tight, it can make the action of the curb bit too abrupt.
**Tie downs: Most people who use tie-downs on their horses use them for the wrong reasons. They are designed for horses that are doing a lot of high torque turning and stopping like roping and barrel horses. The tie-down gives them something to brace against and helps them maintain balance and power in a turn or a stop. It is NOT designed to put a headset on a horse. If you are using a tie-down because your horse slings their head around or sticks their nose up in the air and runs away with you, then you have a training issue that needs to be addressed. A properly adjusted tie-down should very seldom actually come into play on a horse.
If adjusted properly on the horse's head, the tie down should be just below the cheekbones of the horse.
Too high and it will pinch their face and make them want to evade it.
Too low and they can’t brace properly and they lose mobility in their head/neck.
When you attach the strap of the tie-down, it should always attach to the front D-ring on your cinch. I have seen some people who have it snapped to the center ring on the breast collar. That is incorrect.
Tie down hobble:
If you use a tie down, a tie down hobble is a necessary piece of safety equipment. It is a piece of strong string that is tied to the center ring of the breast collar. The tie down strap is then run through there before being snapped to the cinch.
Without this hobble, the tie down strap will just hang loose under the horse's neck. If he were to put his head down, he could easily get a foot through it and that could cause a very big wreck.
It is also very important to adjust the tie-down strap to the proper length. If adjusted properly, you should be able to touch the strap to the horse's neck when their head is at a relaxed level.
Too Tight: However, if it is shortened and kept too tight, it will greatly restrict the horse's normal movement in all gaits and can create some very problematic training issues once it is taken off like rooting the nose out and improper frame.
If it is left too long, then it's just like you don't have a tie-down on at all.
Tie downs are not an appropriate piece of equipment for use when trail riding. Not only does it pose the exact same risks of getting hung on something as a hanging breast collar tug or hanging back cinch, but if you attempt to cross water that is even a little bit too deep and the horse is unable to lift his nose above the water level, you will likely drown your horse. Things like that happen much more often than people are aware of.
In ending, I would like to say a word of thanks to Dobe for being so tolerant with me while I put stuff on and took it off and put it too tight or too loose and while I pulled and pushed around on him. He was a champ to just stand there for all of that.
smrobs, I have a question, which is not quite fit-related, but related to the rope halter. I tie similar knot you do. However if the horse steps on lead and pulls the head up (not even sharp or strong) that knot seems to tie really tight (it's hard for me to un-tie it, it somewhat looks like "burnt" if you see what I'm saying). So is it because of the halter material? Should I get something different?
Very informative and the pics are super helpful. Thanks!!!
KV, I know what you're saying. I've had that issue with those cheaper nylon lead ropes when a horse sets back when tied. The lead rope knot gets melted a bit by the friction heat and it gets a bit hard to untie. I would guess that it is due to the material. I've not run into that problem with the halters I've got (cheapie Mustang brand).
Love it smrobs! Very nice post..Possibly made into a sticky??
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