TACK is vital equipment for all horse riders and it is essential to regularly check that your tack fits properly. Whether you are a pleasure rider or compete regularly, correctly fitting tack will help your horse feel comfortable and perform to the best of their ability. Tack used, including boots, should be suitable for the purpose intended and fit correctly.
Incorrectly fitting tack can cause distress to your horse, which can lead to behavioural issues both when riding and handled from the ground, and may result in serious injury to handler, rider or horse.
Many owners may not be aware of the relatively short period of time it can take for a horse to transform in shape. A period of summer grazing or reduced exercise can lead to weight gain but reduced muscle mass, whilst a period of schooling and fitness training leads to increased muscle development. These changes can be difficult for owners to notice when seeing horses on a daily basis, however, they can lead to discomfort and pain from an incorrectly fitting saddle. Horses that are broad across the shoulders and back, those that are ‘short coupled’ and those with high withers or obvious muscle wastage are also more likely to suffer saddle fitting problems compared to others.
Physical symptoms of ill-fitting saddles are:
– Inflammation, lumps and abrasions in the saddle and girth area
– White hairs around the saddle area, commonly seen on both sides of the withers
– Bare patches and pressure sores at the back of where the saddle sits
– A dislike of being groomed over the back
– Stiffness and tenderness over the back, assessed by the way the horse moves or by manual stimulation
The horse’s physical issues require treatment and rehabilitation under the guidance of a chartered physiotherapist. It may also be advisable to consult your veterinary surgeon.
Behavioural issues can also be associated with ill-fitting saddles. Riders sometimes associate behavioural issues to the horse being naughty, however, horses may purely be responding to discomfort caused by an ill-fitting saddle.
Behavioural indicators of ill-fitting saddles are:
– Hostility when being tacked up, particularly when the girth is adjusted
– Obvious ‘cold back’
– Reluctance when being ridden, which could be increased when asked for transitions, collection, lengthening and when jumping
– Swishing tail from clenched down position
It is also important to remember the saddle must fit the rider, allowing the rider to sit securely in a balanced, relaxed position, not restricting the rider’s aids. It is recommended to use qualified saddle fitters registered with the Society of Master Saddlers to ensure the saddle fits both horse and rider.
Choosing a suitable bridle for your horse and the discipline you compete in can be experimental. With numerous bridle designs and types available, there is an encouraging change towards more sympathetically-designed bridles. Different brands and designs offer a wide range of benefits, yet is important to remember that the bridle should fit comfortably and suit your horse’s facial features when selecting and fitting a bridle.
When fitting a bridle, particular attention should be focussed on the following regions:
– Mouthpiece: pain can be caused by a too wide or narrow bit or one fitted too high or too low. Severity of the bit mouthpiece should be considered as should any sharp teeth, wolf teeth and hooks, which can be irritated by the bit
– Noseband: a tight noseband can limit breathing, normal jaw and tongue movements, and can injure the nasal bones if fitted too low
– Headpiece: too small headpiece or brow band causes rubbing, pinching and pain over the horse’s brow and behind ears where the headpiece digs in to the lower ears
– Throat: a tight throatlash restricts flexion in that region
Avoiding such problems initially is simpler than resolving them, so a knowledgeable approach and consideration to comfort are the most significant actions you can make.
Usually boots are a more favourable choice of lower leg protection for horse owners than leg bandages, as they are easy to fit, keep clean and are quick to remove. Nevertheless, the type and material of the boot used requires consideration.
Recent studies have raised awareness of how boots have the potential to increase the temperature of a horse’s leg, especially around the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT). Tendon damage and degeneration in horses happens when the fibroblast cells are exposed to temperatures of 45°C – 48°C for a period of approximately 10 minutes. A horse’s surface limb temperature during hard exercise can reach 43°C – 45°C, therefore the addition of a boot may trap heat against the tendon, potentially causing injury to the tendon structures.
Weight, flexibility and tightness of the boots worn must also be taken into consideration, as all have the potential to limit the horse’s movement, particularly at speed and over fences. If the boots inhibit the lower limb movement in any way, this will cause irregular overloading on other limbs and increase the risk of injury.
Correct fitting, cleaning and maintenance of all tack and equipment is important for effective and safe riding and above all the general welfare of the horse.