It’s relatively easy to open up Instagram and find a slew of new products and pieces of equipment promising to make your horse perform or feel better. And while innovation is a wonderful addition to any sport, it’s equally easy to inform yourself of the primary purpose of each piece of equipment you use and what functions it performs.
The reality is that not every horse needs every tack fad that’s available. Not every horse needs a shimmed half pad, and not every horse needs to go in a five-point breastplate. Making informed decisions on your tack set-up is a vital part of ensuring our horses are comfortable and able to do their jobs without restriction or discomfort.
But sifting through the loads of information (and opinions) that are readily available online can be an enormous task. We tapped World Equestrian Brands owner Robin Moore for some of her best advice on fitting basic pieces of tack.
“The goal is to have the right products for the job at hand that don’t work against the horse,” Robin explained. “There needs to be a purpose for each product.”
One of the best ways World Equestrian Brands has proved its staying power is by not only curating high quality goods but also backing up the function of each product with research. “Shapes and materials really do matter,” Robin said. “The focus of each of the manufacturers we work with is really about in-depth study of materials and design and the best use in function.”
What Should I Know About Saddle Fitting?
“First and foremost, it’s about assessing the horse’s topline. Width is easy to determine, but what ends up happening a lot is that a horse may have a long sloping wither but the saddle is a short distance over the wither, so you end up catching the horse at the base of the wither with the stirrup bar, and you get a bit of a fulcrum there. You can see this without even having the saddle girthed, and when you add the girth and rider, that effect is multiplied.
For instance, with Amerigo we have 16 different tree shapes to address the various back types we see. Some backs are quite simple, while others can be quite complicated. The horses don’t lie — they’re either going to go well in the saddle or they’re not, albeit some are quite stoic and hang in there for a period of time. When you put the right saddle on the horse, they start to move their back. Many times the saddle prevents the back from moving. Horses move away from pressure, and if the saddle is for example tight under the stirrup bars or at the back of the panels, the horse can be reluctant or at times unable, to lift it’s back and come through with hind legs.
There are lots of little pieces of to the puzzle, such as a horse with a larger scapula on one side or an asymmetry. These things all affect how the saddle fits, so you really have to take the whole individual horse into account.
Don’t be afraid to stick your hands under your saddle and feel what’s happening under there, you may be surprised! One way to assess is to push down on the middle of the seat with one hand and run your other hand under the panels from the front to the back.
Feel if the saddle particularly tight or loose in one place. It should feel consistent the entire length of the panel. From the outside it may not look bad, but when you put a hand underneath you have a pressure point. The horse also may be displaying clues such as a reluctance to raise its back, or landing flat or hollow and rushing off.”
Half Pads: To Shim or Not to Shim?
“One way to answer that question is to check if your saddle is tipping down in front because it’s too wide. If your saddle is low in front it can be because it’s too wide, then that’s a great time to use shims. Keep in mind, it may be low in front because the tree of the saddle is incorrect, putting too much curve at the back of the saddle for the horse, thus tipping it down in front.
The shims are also excellent to deal with asymmetries from injuries, or other conformational issues. The Mattes half pads use a really thin (.5mm) shim so that you can be precise with the amount of correction and use only what is needed. If just one shim is needed or up to four, you can select accordingly. The beauty is the capability of making incremental changes as the horse improves. It’s super useful.
The material is also important. Mattes uses a registered Polyflex® material that is very thin and is designed so it doesn’t ‘bottom out’. Some of the foams are so soft they collapse under pressure. When you think of the dynamics of riding, when a foam bottoms out and is slow to rebound, it’s not great for managing impact. Some materials don’t breathe so it can get very hot or maybe they’re a bit too hard/rigid.
The material of the pad itself should also be prioritized. Mattes is known for its high quality, single hide sheepskin. High quality, dense sheepskin is known for the natural qualities of heat dissemination, breathability, and the ability to eliminate friction and bounce.
Additionally, it’s important to make sure we don’t undo a good saddle fit with a poorly designed or shaped pad. Try to use pads that have a topline shape, that aren’t just flat across the topline. Most pads have made this design improvement. Also, try to avoid seams near the withers, which may unintentionally create rubs and pressure points.”
How Do I Know If I Need a Breastplate?
“It’s not ideal for the horse if we use a breastplate to keep the saddle from sliding back, but I get it on cross country that a lot of times they are a necessity. However, if you get off and the breastplate is digging in to the horse’s chest, there may be another option to help the saddle from moving, understanding that on some horses even the best fit saddles can move a bit more than usual at the higher levels.
Some horses are built like greyhounds, deep chest, and then rising toward the flanks, and frequently girths slide back with this type of conformation as there is no ‘girth pocket’. As soon as the girth slides back, the saddle goes with it.
There is definitely a relationship between the girth and the saddle dictated by the horse’s conformation. Some of the monoflaps are designed with the billets stitched to the bottom of the flap — and they are true monoflaps: one single piece of leather — however the billets aren’t free to swing and finding the correct girth position can be a challenge. In these cases, finding the right girth is almost more important than your choice of breastplate. It can be a ‘both and’ rather than a ‘one or the other’ situation, where the girth and breastplate need to be addressed (as well as saddle fit of course). ”
“Some brands are trying to do some really cool and innovative things with bridles, but sometimes in that effort they might fix one problem and make another one. Beware of where the contours of the bridle are and if they are in an appropriate place for the horse’s ears. Sometimes the super wide crown piece cuts back a little too far. Run a finger under every place that the leather touches the face looking for edges or pressure points. There are some good ideas out there, but maybe not totally perfected.
Pressure points are important to avoid. The rings on the Vespucci Figure 8 have a leather fob so they don’t dig in, and they’re positioned in certain ways so the straps go a certain way. Our buckles have a unique shape so the leather lies flat on the horse’s face rather than having a pressure point. Some of those little details are easily overlooked.
Materials and quality of leather come in to play of course. Vespucci uses vegetable-tanned hides from a source in Pennsylvania.”
How Do I Pick the Right Boot for my Horse’s Legs?
“Equilibrium Products have done so much advanced testing over the years. Dr. David Marlin in the UK assisted with research, material studies, and so on for both the Tri-Zone® products as well as Stretch & Flex®. They did a study to measure of the impact on a horse’s leg when horse hits a cross country jump, finding out the actual force that the horse incurs on impact. Before this study, there was no real known level of protection that was needed, so some boots had significantly more protection than necessary, which meant quite a hard outer shell, and others didn’t offer enough.
“The information from the study provided Equilibrium the ability to produce in the Tri-Zone® range boots that we know provide the level of protection needed to protect the horse’s legs from concussion and penetration, while also using materials with added benefits that make the boots lighter, softer, cooler and they do not absorb water that also can increase the weight of the boot. A little weight on the leg has great impact on a cross country course. The Tri-Zone® Impact XC Boots as well as Allsports have, with in-depth independent study, been able to build a superior boot that can deliver the variety of properties that should be considered. Equilibrium also just added some fun colors – ticking all the boxes!
It’s important to ask what the purpose of the boot is. Are you trying to protect against concussion and penetration, or are you looking for support for flatwork? Knowing the purpose and the right size for your horse’s legs is important to prevent rotation or slipping.”
Ultimately, with any piece of tack, it’s important to first ask yourself what’s trying to be accomplished and is that purpose actually being accomplished? If the answer is no, then your tack set-up might need a few changes.
Riding with empathy as well as an understanding of biomechanics — what is happening under the tack — for our horses is important, and often times less is more. A horse will always go better in properly fitted tack, so investing the time in making sure that your equipment is not hindering your horse in any way can lead to a happy, willing equine partner.
Virtual Vendor Village: Don’t forget to enter the Kentucky Top Dog Contest, presented by World Equestrian Brands! This year the lucky winner will take home a set of Equilibrium Tri-Zone Impact XC Boots valued at $275.
Most years, we ask readers to share photos of their dogs at Kentucky (see last year’s finalists here) — but this year is a LITTLE different. This year, we want you to show us what funny or helpful things people’s dogs are doing to “help” with barn chores. Click here for details about how to enter.