Horses have played important roles in society for thousands of years, from farming and transport to warfare. Today they generally live more leisurely lives, but you might find them serving in the police force, competing in famous races, or helping out on the farm.

In order for horses to do their jobs safely, they need to be tacked properly. But what is tacking, and how do you do it?

In this article, we will explore everything you need to tack a horse properly and highlight the risks for both horse and rider when proper care isn’t taken. We’ll also find out how horse rider insurance can provide cover for expensive tack alongside other vital benefits.

What is tack and what is it used for?

Before tacking up a horse, it’s important to understand the equipment available, the situations it will be used in and why.

Tack refers to any equipment or accessories fitted onto a horse so it can carry out tasks, whether that’s carrying a human rider, competing or towing something. Common pieces of tack include:

  • A bridle
  • A bit and reins
  • Saddle
  • Girth
  • Driving harness

The bridle, attached to the horse’s head, will be used to communicate with and direct a horse during a ride. The rider will signal to the horse which way they want to go by pulling the reins in particular directions.

Girl tacking up horse

There are many kinds of bridle available and they come in various materials including leather and synthetic. Depending on the size of your horse, you’ll go for either a pony, cob or full bridle, which can then be adjusted to fit the animal comfortably.

In order to be used for communication with the horse, the bridle will be fitted with reins and a bit. Most people will recognise the reins – they’re the long, thin straps the rider is holding when in motion. The reins attach to the bit, which is the mouthpiece part of the bridle. The type of bit you use will vary according to the size and shape of the horse’s mouth.

The bit you choose for your horse may also be determined by the type of activity planned. A ‘snaffle’ bit is where the bridle is fitted with one bit and a set of reins. This is the most commonly used bit for riders as it is the mildest available, found on a range of horses from racehorses to riding school horses.

Snaffles themselves vary and will often be the only kind of a bit a horse uses throughout its working life. However, for some activities, such as show jumping, there are tougher, more specialised bits available.

Up next, the saddle. Choosing the right saddle is not only important for the welfare of your horse, it will also play a role in how comfortable your own experience is as a rider. Saddles come in a wide range of styles and variations depending on your level of riding expertise and your needs.

General purpose saddles will be the right choice for beginners and intermediate riders. After that, more options open up, such as side saddles, specialist saddles for dressage or jumping, and western saddles – also known as cowboy saddles – which are popular with ranch hands who spend hours on horseback and need to carry heavy loads.

To attach the saddle safely and comfortably, you’ll need a girth, which helps maintain the saddle’s position and stop it from slipping during a ride. Like your choice of saddle, you will choose between various kinds of girth to suit your needs, possibly determined by what saddle you have chosen. The right size and style of girth can make a big difference to the comfort of your horse.

A driving harness is used for connecting a horse to a vehicle or load, such as a carriage. The two main types of these are a breaststrap or breast collar, and a collar and hames design. The breaststrap is generally used for lighter pulling, such as small carriages at shows, as this harness puts weight across the horses sternum and windpipe. For heavier pulling, the collar and hames can be used as this puts the load on the shoulders of the horse but a horse collar must be used for the horse to be able to use it’s strength and weight.

How to tack up a horse properly

Tacking up your horse should be a considered process so don’t cut any corners. Aside from getting your horse ready for the rigours of riding, it’s also an incredible opportunity for the two of you to bond.

The importance of a bond with your horse cannot be understated – it’s a living being with emotions and feelings, just like you. If you’re going to be working closely together, like any working relationship it will be much stronger and more fruitful with a mutual feeling of care and trust.

The first thing to do when tacking up your horse is to tie it up, which will help keep it safely in place as you go through each important step in your routine. This will stop it from running off if it gets distracted or distressed. However, make sure you do this with the horse’s safety in mind. By tying your rope with a safety release knot, you’ll be able to quickly free the horse if it becomes anxious, avoiding any potential injuries from struggling against the rope.

With the horse secured, before adding any tack, it’s time to groom. The RSPCA says grooming should be part of your routine horse care, with benefits for both you and the horse, including keeping you fit and protecting your horse’s skin.

It’s a perfect time to check your horse for injuries, clean its hooves and ensure none of its shoes are loose. Giving your horse a good brush before adding your saddle is crucial, as any remaining dirt can rub against the saddle. It’s uncomfortable for your horse and can lead to avoidable issues like saddle sores.

If your horse is uncomfortable it could make riding more dangerous. Make sure you have horse rider insurance in place to protect you in case of an accident.

You’re now ready to tack up your horse, starting with the saddle, which should be well-fitted by a qualified saddle fitter. Over time, the fit may need a check-up – keep an eye out for any changes in your horse’s shape or weight, or for any signs that the saddle isn’t positioning as it should be. Either way, the British Horse Society recommends having your saddle checked by an expert twice a year.

If you’re fairly new to riding or horse care, it’s a good idea to have an experienced rider shadow you until it’s clear you know what you’re doing and understand how to position a saddle, as well as what it should or shouldn’t look like. Place the saddle over the horse’s wither, then slide it backwards. If it has been well-fitted, the saddle will find its natural resting place easily.

Now it’s important to check for any signs the saddle isn’t placing properly. It should be level, with no tipping backwards or forwards, and no part of it should be touching the horse’s wither or spine. The saddle tree – the firm inner part that helps it keep its shape – should be sitting behind your horse’s shoulder blade, allowing your horse to move as normal. It also means the points of the saddle won’t dig into its shoulders.

With the saddle sitting correctly, the next step is to keep it in place with the girth. This will attach to your saddle via the girth straps, commonly known as billets, and should sit naturally in your horse's girth groove.

Use this as an opportunity to feel around your horse’s girth area before attaching it, to check for any mud or dirt that might need to be brushed off, as well as any cuts or bumps that might need some care. When attached, try to tighten the girth gradually to avoid causing any discomfort to your horse.

The final part of your pre-ride tacking process will be putting on the bridle. Check that the headpiece is sitting comfortably behind your horse’s poll, with the brow band resting across its forehead. Make sure there’s enough clearance here so that the headpiece doesn’t pinch your horse’s ears. A good reference point is to use your fingers – there should be two finger widths of clearance between the horse’s forehead and the brow band. The cheek pieces should be equally buckled on either side, allowing the bit to sit in the mouth with no discomfort.

To tell if the bit is sitting comfortably, it should lie flat in the mouth with about 1cm of space either side, while the corners of the lips should only be slightly wrinkled. Given the varied shape and size of horse’s mouths, it’s really important your bit is the right size.

Common mistakes to avoid when tacking

Horse tacked up

If you’re new to horse riding and lacking the experience or know-how of a veteran rider, it can be easy to allow mistakes to creep into your tacking routine. But being a competent rider requires care and attention to detail. Regularly making mistakes in tacking, or cutting corners, can lead to serious issues down the line.

It’s important that grooming becomes a ritual you perform before every tack. Without a good brush, debris can get stuck in your horse’s coat, leading to chaffing and general discomfort.

Meanwhile, if you start habitually skipping checks on your horse’s hooves you’ll miss items that have got lodged in the hoof that will hurt your horse and affect its stability. In the long term, it could be even more serious. The horse could suffer from lameness, where its normal stance and gait are hampered by injury or pain. Checking the hooves is also your chance to spot diseases like thrush that only get worse without treatment.

When bridling, don’t get careless or rush the process. You run the risk of making the horse uncomfortable and over time, it may make bridling more difficult. This is known as becoming ‘head shy’, where bridling becomes increasingly time-consuming for the rider and unpleasant for the horse.

Why bad tacking can put you at risk

Sloppy tacking can cause long-term behavioural issues for your horse. It can also put you in danger during the tacking process or when you’re out for a hack, that’s why it’s so important to take your time and get it right.

Tightening your horse’s girth too quickly or bridling carelessly can cause the horse a lot of distress, leading to poor behaviour. They may begin to anticipate similar pain or discomfort when you’re tacking in future. When this happens, horses can kick and bite. Horse kicks are notoriously powerful, while their bites can also lead to broken fingers, cuts and bruising.

Remember to use the tacking up process as a way to bond with your horse. Talk to them gently, tell them what you’re doing – and try to do it the same way every time so the horse sees it as a natural process.

Remember that horse rider insurance from Equesure can cover personal accidents, including dental treatment caused in an accident.

Protecting you, your horse and your tack

A horse rider insurance policy with Equesure will help you look after your tack, while protecting you financially in the event of an accident.

Our specialist team uses over 60 years of insurance market experience to offer bespoke horse rider insurance policies, tailored to your needs. We can offer saddlery and tack cover up to £2,500, personal accident cover up to £20,000 and death of horse cover up to £3,250.

Get a quote for horse rider insurance today.

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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