Cinching Up Just Enough – Julie Goodnight Q & A Logo

Q: How tight should I tighten my horse’s cinch—and what is the right process. I don’t want to hurt my horse and I want to make sure he never becomes cinchy. –Pam Friend, via e-mail


A: How tight the cinch needs to be depends on the shape of the horse, the type of riding you plan to do, and the skill and size of the rider. The cinch and girth are interchangeable terms—depending on your saddle type. If you ride English, you probably say girth and if you ride in a Western saddle, you say cinch. The girth is also a term to identify the horse’s body part.


The cinch needs to be tight enough to allow you to mount and dismount without causing the saddle to shift. You want to keep the saddle balanced, but you don’t want to tighten a cinch more than needed—that can cause discomfort to the horse and can cause the horse to resist the saddling process.


A less experienced, or out-of-balance rider may need a tighter cinch. If they shift when a horse spooks or turns quickly, they may torque the saddle and cause it to rotate. A small and unbalanced rider may not be able to move the saddle that much, but an adult who is off balance can easily move a saddle that is not adequately secured with the cinch. If you are cutting or rounding barrels, you want to make sure your saddle doesn’t shift as the horse performs tight turns.


The horse’s conformation plays a role, as well. If you have a round horse with low withers, you may have to tighten the cinch quite a bit. Higher withers can help keep a saddle in place. The type of pad and the material the cinch is made of can also affect how tightly you’ll cinch up. If the material is smooth or shiny, it won’t help the saddle stay in place.


Let’s talk about the process. It’s best to untie a horse before tightening the cinch. Your horse doesn’t have to be totally loose, but if he becomes uncomfortable during the process, you don’t want him to be tied hard and fast to a hitching rail or cross ties. He could pull back and panic, which may lead to tying problems later on. Lay the lead over a rail so that he knows not to move, but perceives he is tied and will stand still.


I like to rub the horse’s girth area before I bring the cinch into place. With my head facing the horse’s head (to keep it out of the kick zone), I bend to reach for the cinch and attach the cinch with the buckle. At this point, I only attach the cinch enough so that the saddle will stay in place. Then I’ll move the cinch up one hole, wait a moment and cinch up one more hole. Then I walk the horse a minimum of five steps to allow the saddle to settle on to his back. Then I’ll tighten the cinch enough so that I can get on. If the saddle slips as I get on, the saddle is too loose. As my horse warms up, the tack will settle onto his back again. Check your cinch again 10 minutes into your ride or before you canter.


To check the cinch, reach between the horse’s front legs and check at the horse’s centerline. You should be able to put one index finger in to your finger’s first joint. If you can reach in at the back of the cinch more than that, it’s probably too loose. If you can’t fit a finger in at all, it may be too tight. Checking the cinch behind the horse’s shoulder may not give you an accurate reading. Most horses are concave there, just below your saddle. The cinch will always feel loose there. Tip: don’t expect your horse to always use the same hole on your cinch or latigo; it will change somewhat as he changes in age, fitness and hair coat. Go by what you notice and how it feels, not by a counting the holes.


Q: How do you train a horse to go from direct reining (two hands) to neck reining with one hand? Kim Ridgeway, via e-mail


A: When I start training a young horse, I lay the groundwork for neck reining later. I believe that all horses should be able to neck rein—English and Western. You never know when you need to ride with one hand. The training for one-handed riding starts by practicing with two hands.


To start, you’ll keep both hands on the reins and make sure your hands are in front of the pommel. Keep your hands to the sides of the horse’s neck—so that your hands are far apart with about a foot of space in between. For proper position, imagine a straight line from your elbow to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Start cueing for a turn with the leading rein. Many riders learn on trained horses and first learn the direct rein—when you pull back in the direction you want to go by pulling the rein toward your hip. The direct rein is a “rein of opposition” and interferes with forward motion. You cannot use a direct rein when you are riding a young horse—or you will stop him from moving freely forward. When you’re riding a young horse you want him to learn to move ahead. You don’t want to train him to get “sticky feet” and stop too often, so forward motion is critical.


Instead, you’ll use the leading rein. Instead of pulling back, you open your hand out to the side in the direction you want to go (imagine a hitch-hiker’s thumb). It helps the horse know to turn without stopping his forward motion. That’s the movement you’ll do with your inside hand. As a secondary rein aid, you’ll close your outside hand against the horse’s neck. Move your outside hand toward the horse’s neck, but never across the midline of the horse.


Step 1: When I’m starting a young colt, this is exactly how I cue him to turn from the very first ride. With the leading rein, I can direct the horse by opening the rein in the direction I want to go and I’m reinforcing what will be the neck rein with my outside hand. I lay the groundwork for the neck rein from the start and he begins to associate the feel of the rein on his neck with a turn.


Step 2: I continue to practice turns by starting with the leading rein and adding the neck rein as the secondary cue. However, when he begins to turn, I release the leading rein (moving my hand back toward the midline of the horse) while keeping the neck rein in place. My goal is to hold the horse in the turn with the neck rein. At any time (still holding the reins with two hands), I can reach down and bump (do not pull or hold pressure) with the leading rein to help him know to continue turning. That’s the second stage of training. After practicing this stage for a week or more, I’ll see if I can initiate the turn with the neck rein.


Step 3: Next I will start the turn with the neck rein. If that doesn’t cause the horse to turn, I’ll immediately bump with the leading rein to remind the horse of what I’m asking. I’ll continue asking my horse to turn with the neck rein first and then reinforcing with a bump of the leading rein until he turns consistently off of the neck-rein cue.


Step 4: Once you’re initiating and holding the turns as long as you want with the neck rein—and the horse is moving lightly off of the neck rein—you’re close to riding with one hand. At this point, I continue to ride with two hands, but I move my hands closer and closer together. Soon, I’m holding my knuckles together so my hands are together as one. The horse feels what he will feel when I move to one hand, but I can quickly reinforce if needed. I then move to a trainer’s hold on the reins—where there’s a bridge of the reins. Then I’ll switch to the pistol grip on the reins—riding with only one hand.


Depending on your horse’s age and experience, your level of skill and the amount of time you have to ride, this process can be taught in as little as three weeks or as long as several months. A colt that has just started learning any cues will take a long time to learn the different rein aids. He needs to stay at the beginning levels for quite some time to make sure he has all the fundamentals. If you are riding a trained horse that knows the leading rein well and just needs a reminder of the neck rein, you may be able to work through a step per week. If at any time you need to step back and remind the horse of the new cue, switch back to two hands.


A note about timing: A reinforcement or reward (release) must come within three seconds for the horse to learn, but the sooner in the three seconds, the faster the horse learns.


For instance, if you lay the neck rein on the horse and wait too long for him to turn before reinforcing with the leading rein, he won’t learn the neck rein as fast as if you reinforce that cue immediately. If the release or reinforcement comes within a second, the horse will learn quickly.

–Julie Goodnight


Cinch Up Your Horse Saddle Right Logo

When you saddle your horse, secure your horse's saddle's points of attachment in the proper order to keep the saddle in place.When you saddle your horse, secure your horse saddle’s points of attachment in the proper order to keep the saddle in place. If your horse takes a step when the saddle isn’t properly secured, he may feel a shift or roll, and spook.

If your horse becomes entangled in the saddle, he may develop a fear of saddling and even risk breaking a leg.

To keep the saddle in place as you tack up, first attach the front cinch, then the back cinch, and lastly, the breastcollar and/or crupper. (Tip: Connect the front and back cinches with a string or lariat so the back cinch doesn’t slide back and irritate your horse’s inner thighs.) To remove the saddle, reverse the order: Undo the breastcollar/crupper, then the back cinch, and finally, the front cinch.

How To Settle Your Cinchy Horse Logo

Is your trail horse cinchy? That is, does he act up when you saddle him, even before you reach for the cinch or girth? (Generally the term “cinch” is used for a Western saddle and the term “girth” is used for an English one; these terms can be used interchangeably when discussing this behavioral issue.)

Signs of a cinchy horse include tensing, head raising/bobbing, ear-pinning, pulling back, threatening to bite, and kicking at the cinch or girth. Such behavior is not only annoying, but also can post safety risks to both you and your horse. Sometimes, a horse is fine in one area, such as at a trailer, but acts up in or around his stall.

Here, I’ll first explain where cinchiness comes from. Then I’ll tell you how to deal with it.

A ‘Fear Memory’
In my opinion, cinchiness is a problem created by humans, and horses are just expressing their emotional discomfort. Having started hundreds of colts in my career, I know that a certain number of them will have a strong negative reaction to the girth the very first time it’s tightened.

Whether this reaction is caused by pain or panic, it’s a real emotion on the part of the horse. On the first saddling, if the horse is girthed up abruptly and tightly, the pain or panic he feels is very traumatic and is permanently logged in the horse’s brain as a “fear memory.”

Research has shown that once a fear memory has been logged in a horse’s brain, it’ll always be there. Since you can’t erase the fear memory, the only option is to override the reaction it causes by using training or replacement behavior.

Horses become cinchy because humans are insensitive to the amount of pressure they put on him, either the first time he’s saddled or in subsequent saddlings. Whether or not the horse actually feels pain or discomfort we don’t really know, but certainly cinchy horses develop resentment about the action of girthing.

Replacement training is a method to replace one behavior or emotion with another. In this instance, you can replace your horse’s resentment with positive associations by rewarding the appropriate behavior (relaxed acceptance of girth pressure). Just make sure that you reward only the correct behavior.

The “Blow Up” Myth
Contrary to popular belief, horses don’t “blow up” so that the girth isn’t tight. First of all, the girth goes across a ring of bone, which a horse can’t really expand. Secondly, horses don’t have the ability to take an action now that leads to a different outcome in the future.

Rather, a gradual loosening of the girth may be caused by compression of the saddle, pad and your horse’s haircoat, and muscle contraction as your horse works.

Horses that have been gut-wrenched (suffered a sudden tightening of the girth) will learn to flinch at any girth tightening; this is often mistaken for “blowing up.” If every time I walked up to you, I punched you in the stomach, you’d soon learn to flinch at my approach.

Step-by-Step Technique
To teach your horse to accept the cinch, it’s helpful to use the same desensitization techniques as you would for a first saddling. To follow each step, click on the numbers below.

Step 1. Put safety first. Never tie your horse while you girth him up, or he could develop a dangerous pull-back problem.Position yourself in such a way that you won’t get hurt should he decide to bite or kick. Keep your left elbow out or even a stick or a crop so that if the horse swings his head around to bite, he hits his face against a hard solid object as a deterrent.

Step 2. Start slow. Saddle your horse, but leave the girth loose. Massage the girth area, and watchfor any negative reaction. If he’s not bothered by the girth massage, then pull the girth up around body. Pull it tight, then release it. Repeat this step over and over, increasing the pressure each time.

Gradually, start pulling down on the saddle at the same time you pull up on the girth, always with a release in between.

If your horse shows a negative response to pressure at the girth area (tensing, raising head, pinning ears), slow down, and stay at that stage until he’s ready to move forward.

Step 3. Advance and retreat. As you progress through these steps, use my “advance and retreat” method. That is, advance only as far as you can until your horse tenses, then hold that ground until he relaxes and accepts the pressure.

The instant your horse relaxes, retreat (momentarily release the pressure or walk away from him) as a reward. (For more on my “advance and retreat” method, click here.)

Give your horse as much time as he needs to become desensitized to the girth before you fully saddle him.

Step 4. Fasten the girth. If your horse has come this far with no adverse reaction, actually fasten the girth. At this point, the girth should be just tight enough to hold the saddle in place (it’s extremely critical at this stage that the saddle doesn’t slip under his belly), but not so tight that it’ll cause him discomfort. At first, just snug the girth up just enough to safely hold the saddle in place.

Step 5. Walk him forward. Now, desensitize your horse to the feel of the tightened saddle and girth while he’s moving. While leading him, move him one step at a time. After each step, stop and praise him, and allow him to relax and accept the new stimulus. Gradually work toward your horse moving in a relaxed, steady manner.

Step 6. Slow down. Cinch minimally at first, and then gradually tighten the cinch as you get ready to ride. Lead your horse around between tightenings so he can get accustomed to the tightness. As you finish tacking and getting ready to ride, tighten the girth gradually, going up a notch every few minutes, allowing him to relax and accept the new level of pressure for a few minutes.

Before you step up into the saddle, make sure the girth is adequately tight so that the saddle doesn’t slip when mounting. Warm up your horse, and tighten the girth again.

Step 7. Avoid a too-tight girth. Of course, you don’t want your girth to be so loose that it doesn’t hold your saddle safely in place. However, a too-tight girth can compromise safety by leading to behavior problems, such as bucking and balking. It can also lead to more cinchiness issues.

Tighten the girth enough to keep the saddle centered during mounting and dismounting; this degree of tightness will vary with the individual horse.

For instance, a horse with prominent and well-defined withers won’t need a girth as tight as a horse with low withers and a very round shape.

Tightness Check
To check for tightness, don’t slip your fingers in the girth just below the saddle, as is commonly done. Most horses are concave in this area, so the girth may always feel loose here.

Instead, place your fingers under the back of the cinch at your horse’s sternum, right between his legs. This is an area where the girth crosses bone, and you’ll get a much more accurate feel for how tight the girth truly is.

Saddle Trees Fit And Riggings Logo

Saddle Trees Fit and Riggings

I’m often asked about saddle fit and tack— what’s the best type of saddle tree for my horse? How do I know if my saddle fits? And how should I rig the saddle so that my horse is comfortable? The variety of trees and saddles on the market can be overwhelming. It’s a big job to find out what will fit your horse well. Once you purchase a saddle, you’ll need to know which rigging (many new saddles have more than one way to “cinch up” your saddle) to use to keep the saddle safely in place and comfortable for your horse’s conformation.

Here, I’ll help you understand the types of saddle trees (the tree is the inner structure of the saddle and what balances the rider’s weight over the horse’s back), understand how a saddle should fit, then help you know how to cinch up your saddle to make sure your horse is comfortable as you ride.

Saddle Trees
The purpose of the saddle tree is to distribute the weight of the rider over a larger area of the horse’s back. A simple way to understand this distribution of pressure is to poke someone in the arm with the point of one finger versus pushing on their arm with the flat of your hand. In my experience starting young horses under saddle, horses will buck more with an English saddle than with a western one. This is often because the tree of the western saddle covers a larger area and distributes weight more evenly.

In general, you have three choices when it comes to a saddle: a rigid tree (usually wood), a flexible tree (synthetic) or treeless. The rigid tree would give the greatest distribution of weight but may be more difficult to fit. The flexible tree gives good weight distribution and because of the slight flex, it will fit a greater variety of horses. The treeless saddle causes the weight of the rider to be focalized in one spot under the rider’s seat bones but for horses that are very difficult to fit in a treed saddle, it may be more comfortable for the horse.

In addition to the fit issues of the horses, there are several other considerations in determining what is the right type of saddle for you and your horse. First, the size of the rider: a horse that carries a heavy rider will need more weight distribution from a bigger sized saddle seat. A 17″ saddle has more weight distribution than a 14″.

Also you must consider the type of riding that will be done and the rider’s skill level. For very arduous sports like cutting and roping, the horse needs a rigid tree for his own protection. The more skilled a rider is, the better balanced, the less important the tree becomes. A beginner rider that is very off-balance can be hard on the horse’s back. The proof of the pudding is how the horse responds. For instance, my horse is mildly difficult to fit because of his far set-back withers (a good trait, it just makes saddle fit trickier). He works infinitely better in a flexible tree than he does in a rigid tree; the difference is distinctive. I’ve seen horses that love the treeless saddle and others that absolutely hate it. Sometimes that is because of what the horse is used to, other times it is because of the focalized pressure of the rider’s weight.

Saddle Fit
Your saddle should fit your horse so that the seat is level on his back and the bars of the tree do not pinch, but sit level on his back. It’s a good idea to work with a reputable saddle shop and to ask someone to evaluate the saddle’s fit on your horse. You’ll need to make sure the saddle doesn’t interfere with the horse’s motion or block his shoulder movement.

One of the easiest ways to check saddle fit is to look at the sweat marks from your saddle and pad right after a long hard ride, when your horse is fully sweated up (not just damp). If there are any dry spots under the bars of the saddle’s tree—anywhere there are dry spots, there has been excessive pressure and the sweat glands have been shut down.

Saddle Rigging
Once you have the perfect saddle, you may still need help to “rig it up” so that your horse is most comfortable. You’ll know if your saddle can offer multiple riggings if you look under the saddle’s stirrup fender and see multiple dee attachments instead of one metal loop.

While most of us were taught to cinch up a Western saddle with a “full position” rigging, that might not be the most comfortable rigging for your horse. If your horse is high withered or you need to move the balance of the saddle back a bit, another rigging can help. You’ll also need to understand rigging options so that you can switch the rigging if your horse has a girth sore.

There are three basic styles of rigging available in a traditional Western saddle: full rigging, seven-eighths and three-quarter. It will help you to understand each type of rigging, so that you can understand the advantages of having multiple rigging options.

Full rigging: You may be most familiar with a “full” saddle rigging, when there’s a dee-ring attached to the saddle’s tree or skirt directly beneath the pommel. This is the most forward position for saddle riggings. To cinch up, you would wrap the latigo from the cinch to this dee-ring, with layers of the latigo lining up in one vertical line. Saddles with this rigging often have a flank cinch, or rear cinch, (a double rigging because the saddle is attached at the front and back) to keep the saddle from tipping forward when traveling downhill or to help distribute the pressure when the rider dallies the rope to stop a steer. This full double rigging is the preferred outfit for ranch riding and roping. The pressure of the saddle lands just under the pommel then the flank cinch keeps the saddle balanced.
7/8 rigging: This measurement title means that your cinch is 7/8 of the distance from the cantle to the pommel and it brings the pressure from the cinch slightly rear-ward on the horse’s back, compared to the full rigging. You can also use a rear cinch with the 7/8 rigging to help secure your saddle on hills. This configuration helps the saddle sit in a balanced point and can relieve pressure from the horse’s withers.
3/4 rigging: Similarly, this rigging means that the dee-rings are attached a little behind the 7/8 rigging, or three quarters the distance from cantle to pommel. This will protect the shoulders and withers even more and give more room between the horse’s elbow and the cinch. This rigging position can be very useful on a horse which the saddle tends to “bridge” on the back (with pressure at the front and back of the tree, but not in the middle). Keep in mind: The farther back the rigging, the more pressure rests in the middle of the saddle instead of at the front, where the horse may be stronger. This 3/4 configuration moves your cinch back from your horse’s heartgirth—switching to this rigging can help your horse avoid girth sores during long rides.
There’s a great illustration of the saddle riggings from The Horse Saddle Shop

If your saddle has multiple rigging options, you’ll have more flexibility for saddle fit and making the saddle useful on a variety of differently shaped horses and circumstances. In a saddle with 3-way rigging, there will be two dee rings at the front of the saddle and it can be rigged up three ways—in the full, 7/8 or 3/4 positions. Make absolutely certain when using a saddle with multiple rigging, that the rigging is the same on both sides.

Armed with these tips and ways to affect the weight your horse carries and the way he carries it, I hope you have many good, long rides together! I’m glad to help with more saddle questions and talk to you about the saddles I designed at

–Julie Goodnight

On The Trail Survival Guide Logo

Even if you haven’t had a big wreck with your horse, you’ve imagined what can happen out on the trail. You’ve felt your stomach tie in knots as you headed up a steep hill, passed through deep water, or worse, seen a friend slip or fall with her horse. Those moments of fear aren’t bad and shouldn’t be dismissed says natural horsemanship trainer Julie Goodnight. “Fear is a natural response,” she says. “It can keep you alive. With horses, it’s always important to think ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’ If you know what can happen, you can make plans to avoid it.”

Here, Goodnight has outlined potential tragedies that can happen because of faulty tack or fastening, because of what you’re wearing, or because of who you’re riding with. Read on to find out what can happen and what you can do to avoid the scenario. Keep in mind—ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to horses and safety. Once you know what may happen, you can take the necessary steps to ensure your safety and health for your horse. When you know what steps to take to be safe, you can envision a safe and relaxing ride.

Before you ride
Check your cinch
Problem: Your saddle becomes loose and swings beneath your horse.
Worst-case scenario: You’re going along the trail at a brisk pace when you realize you haven’t checked your cinch for almost an hour. And you can’t quite remember—did you check the cinch after stopping for a lunch break? Your saddle slips to the side—taking you with it. Your try to untangle yourself from the saddle—which is now upside down and hanging below your horse’s belly—but your foot is caught. Your horse is moving faster as the “attacking” saddle chases him. You’re terrified as you’re being dragged down the trail. If you’re lucky, your worst problem will be a horse that’s terrified of being saddled for the rest of his life. If you’re not so lucky. . . .
Solution: Goodnight says she’s seen many saddles slip and flip during her years as a horse trainer and trail guide. “That traumatizes a horse for the rest of his life—he’s afraid of a saddle after it slips and that’s a difficult and sometimes impossible fear to un-train.” Avoiding this wreck is simple—take time to check your cinch (or girth as it’s sometimes called) and know where to check.
How to go about it: You may have been taught to check your cinch at a point parallel to your horse’s elbow. The horse is concave in shape on his side, so the cinch will almost always feel loose at that point—it’s a false reading. Check the cinch between the horse’s front legs at the point where the cinch crosses your horse’s sternum—that’s hard bone. You’ll get a true feel for the looseness or tightness there. To be sure, straighten your index finger and place it between your horse’s haircoat and the cinch. Reach in from the side closest to your horse’s tail so that when you pull your fingers out, you’ll leave the horse’s hair flat and avoid causing him to be sore. If you can push one finger in up to your first joint, your cinch is tight. If you can easily push two fingers—or one finger farther than the first joint—between your horse’s body and the cinch, your cinch may need to be tightened. If you can’t get your finger in at all, the cinch is probably too tight—causing your horse to feel undue pressure.

Keep in mind, how tight your cinch should be depends on how your horse is built. If your horse is round and doesn’t have high withers, you may need to ride with a tight cinch to be safe. If your horse has high withers and is somewhat thin, your cinch won’t need to be cranked. You may be safe if you can fit two fingers in up to your first knuckles.

You’ll want to check your girth before and after mounting because your weight compresses the saddle and the pad and may allow for extra room. Plus, when your horse warms up and his muscles tighten during exercise, he begins to sweat and air rushes away from his body and out of the saddle pad. All these factors create space between your horse and the cinch. You may have heard that horses hold their breath during saddling to create more room between their bodies and the cinch. Goodnight says horses don’t plan ahead for a way to escape pain, but they do remember if someone has cranked up their cinch too much at one time. If your horse braces against the cinch, consider tightening his cinch in increments so he doesn’t flinch and tense then relax and loosen the pressure later on.

Get in the habit of checking the cinch each time you mount up and again about 20 minutes into each leg of your ride. Tip: to remind you to re-tighten your cinch after you break for lunch, put your stirrups up over your saddle horn or, if you’re riding in an English saddle, leave a billet hanging down. You’ll see the strange set up and remember to adjust your gear before moving on.

Analyze your bridle
Problem: Your bridle comes off because you don’t have a throatlatch or your rein breaks away from the bit.
Worst-case scenario: You’re loping across an open meadow when suddenly you realize you have no contact with your horse’s mouth. You’re holding on to your reins as your bridle drags along the ground beside you. Your horse senses your panic and takes off faster—and heads straight for the tree line. Without reins, you don’t have a way to steer your horse through the approaching trees. Will he rub you off because you can’t maneuver quickly? He knows how wide his own body is, but you probably can’t trust him to judge how wide he is while you’re on his back. How will you stop without your trusty rein aids? The trees are getting closer. . . .
Solution: Make sure your headstall has a throatlatch and it’s properly connected. Also take time to analyze the screws or leather pieces that connect your headstall to the bit and your bit to the reins. Goodnight says losing one rein isn’t as traumatic as losing your entire bridle. Still, if your horse isn’t properly trained, you may have trouble stopping without pulling the bit through his mouth. Plus, stopping for repairs during a ride is never a fun way to spend time.
How to go about it:
Goodnight recommends purchasing a headstall with a throatlatch included. She says many riders who show in Western classes ride without the throatlatch attached so that their horses look refined. But out on the trail, your horse can easily pull off even a split-eared headstall if there’s not an extra fastener around his jowl. Put on your horse’s throatlatch and make sure you can fit three fingers vertically aligned between your horse’s jaw and the latch’s leather.

While you’re checking your bridle, look closely at the connections between leather and metal—that’s where you’ll first see wear and breaking. Replace any worn leather before you leave for a ride. Also check your bridle’s Chicago screws to make sure they’re tightly fastened. Consider dotting the back of the screws with super glue to ensure you won’t lose a rein (just make sure you know you won’t want to change your tack set up later).

Double check your halter and bridle
Problem: Leaving your halter and lead attached beneath your bridle may leave dangerous loops for your horse to step through or tangle on passing brush.

Worst-case scenario: You’re almost ready to stop, rest and eat some lunch. You’ve left your rope halter on—with the lead in place—beneath your horse’s bridle to make sure he doesn’t get away in the wide-open spaces. When you stop, you’ll take off his bridle and allow him to rest and graze. As you approach your lunch site, you realize your halter’s lead has come untied and hangs down near your horse’s lower chest. Since you’re almost at your stopping point, you think you’ll fix it later. As you step over a log, your horse places his foot in the swinging loop. He raises his head to find he’s tied to his legs. He pulls against the solid rope and finds no relief. If the halter doesn’t budge, your horse could break his neck. You’re out of balance and risk falling as your horse continues to bob and fight the connection.
Solution: Goodnight says she’s not against riding with a halter under a bridle, but recommends using a flat, nylon break-away halter instead of rope. She also recommends detaching your lead while you ride. “A rope halter may feel uncomfortable for your horse if it rubs beneath other layers,” Goodnight says. “Plus, if you have a heavy rope lead swinging from the rope halter, your horse may become insensitive to any pressure on his face. He’ll feel a constant downward pulling pressure all the time—which fights the cues you’re giving with your rein aids.”
How to go about it: Choose a flat halter that fits your horse well. When you put the bridle on over it, make sure to adjust the bridle. It may suddenly be snug with the extra layer beneath it. You’ll know you need to loosen your bridle if you see more wrinkles than usual at the corner of your horse’s mouth—where the bit and bridle meet. Instead of attaching your lead and tying it anywhere on your horse’s neck, choose a lead with a snap and simply detach and store away in your saddlebag until it’s time for a break.

Take off the tie down
Problem: A tie down interferes with your horse’s balance.
Worst-case scenario: You’re riding down a steep hill toward a deep-water crossing. Your horse slips sideways as you head down the hill and needs to correct himself and take a step up to be back on the trail. He could correct himself easily if he wasn’t tacked up. You outfitted him in all the gear that came with him—including his tie down. With a tight strap connected from the bridle to his body, he can’t use his head to balance his bodyweight. As he attempts to climb back onto the trail, he stretches the tie down and slips again. You’re sliding toward the water. With his tie down in place in the water, you’re in even more trouble. Your horse must keep his nose above water to breathe as he attempts to swim across. The tie down keeps his nose under water. If you can’t find your knife in time to cut the line, your horse may drown. . . .

Solution: Make sure you’re using tack that you and your horse really need—don’t use equipment just because it came with your horse or because every one else is using it. If your horse tosses his head and a tie down keeps him more calm and manageable, make sure your gear is fitted appropriately—with enough room for him to move and save his balance. Any time you’re headed toward water that may be deep, make sure to stop and take off the tie down before entering.

How to go about it: If you feel you must use a tie down, make sure your horse has plenty of room to move his head. That’s his balance mechanism. When your horse is standing still and relaxed with his head in a neutral position, lift up on the tie down. It should have enough slack to reach up to your horse’s throat. If it’s shorter than that length, it will interfere with your horse’s balance. Always take off your tie down before entering deep water.

Wear a helmet
Problem: Wearing a helmet is hot and just not stylish.
Worst-case scenario: The Rocky Mountains are a great place for your first ride of the season. In cowboy country, you decide to wear your hat instead of your helmet. After all, you have a trustable horse. Your helmet is in the truck, but it’s so hot in the sunshine. You think your hat is an acceptable choice. Twenty minutes into your ride, the trail opens up onto a rocky climb. The footing smooth and covered with small rocks. Your trust your horse to move on—and he tries—then slips backward. You lose your balance and roll off of his back onto the hard rock. Your head hits with a thud. . . .
Solution: Goodnight says most trail riders don’t wear a helmet for one of two reasons: helmets are too hot—and not ‘cool’—or riders trust their horses and don’t think there’s any chance of bolting or falling. The justifications don’t make sense. Wear a helmet.

“When I made the decision to ride a helmet when I do my demonstrations and clinics, it was difficult because none of my peers did the same,” Goodnight says. “I was concerned that it would make me appear un-cool. I also worried about getting too hot and not looking nice later. Then I realized that no one was going to not like me because I wore a helmet. No one else cares that much about you. Now, if anyone comments on my helmet, I tell them that obviously I’m smarter than them and my brains are more important.”

Modern helmets are designed to allow more airflow than their older counterparts. New helmets come in a variety of colors and styles—not just the big black versions you may remember from your younger days.

If you’re still arguing that you have a safe, well-trained horse, Goodnight lends this wisdom, “You’re in an uncontrolled environment with unmanaged footing. Even the best-trained horse isn’t guaranteed not to slip or fall. There’s more of a chance that your head would hit a rock if you do fall off on the trail. It just isn’t worth the risk.”
How to go about it: Look for lightweight helmets designed for horseback riding and that carry the ASTM/SEI seals. The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) includes doctors, engineers and physicists. ASTM sets standards especially for riders—judging the impact that could happen falling from a tall horse at high speeds. The criteria for horseback riding helmets are different than any other sport’s helmet. Workers at the SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) test equestrian helmets to be sure they meet the ASTM standard. Don’t be budget conscious and decide to wear your bike helmet while you ride your horse. The standards are quite different.

Slather on the repellent
Problem: You and your horse may be mosquitoes’ victims.
Worst-case scenario: While you’re trotting through the mosquito-infused forest, your horse—accustomed to a bug-controlled barn—gets a terrible case of itchiness. Hoping to rid his skin of the pests, he purposefully aims for the bushes. As he brushes off the bugs, you lose your balance and come off, too. Worse, if the wrong bug bites, you or your horse may also come in contact with West Nile Virus. Horses infected with WNV may stumble, stagger, grind their teeth, lose the muscle strength to stand, have facial paralysis, go blind, and suffer effects of encephalitis that ultimately take their lives. If an infected bug bites you, you’ll experience headaches, a high fever, a stiff neck, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, and even paralysis if the bite results in encephalitis.
Solution: Avoid mosquitoes to avoid the virus. Protect your horse with a vaccine against WNV. Protect yourself with long sleeves, bug spray and bug-repelling clothing. Even if mosquitoes in your area don’t have the virus (yet) new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston shows that bites by “healthy” bugs may prime your system and make it easier for you to contract a severe virus variety. To find out more about the mosquito population in your area visit AABB’s (the association formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks and now known by its acronym) web site,, and search for “2008 West Nile Virus Biovigilance Network.” You’ll find up-to-date charts and maps showing where the virus is found; you’ll also find tips to help you avoid the problem.
How to go about it: Get your horse vaccinated each spring and ask your veterinarian what boosters are needed to keep your horse safe throughout the warm mosquito season. Before you get ready for a trail ride, make sure to pack a mosquito-repelling spray for you and for your horse. Ask your veterinarian which brands she recommends for ultimate bug control and safety for your horse. If you plan many ventures into the woods, consider adding mosquito-repelling clothing to your wardrobe. Fabric is infused with Permethrin, a man-made form of a natural insect repellent found in Chrysanthemum plants. Check out the Buzz-off line at

Watch for catching clothing
Problem: Hoodies, loose-fitting shoulder bags or fanny packs, dangling jewelry, and jackets with zippers all can cause hang-ups.
Worst-case scenario: As you dismount for a lunch break, your zipper-closed jacket slips over your saddle horn. With your feet already out of the stirrups, you can’t push yourself up to free yourself. Your horse feels your strange movements at his side and takes a step to the side. When you move along with him, he steps away again then starts to trot and canter to get away from your too-close stance. Your horse is dragging you by your unbreakable jacket. . . .
Solution: Make sure all of your clothing and accessories fit close to your body and that no straps or outerwear layers can catch.
How to go about it: Look for equestrian-specific jackets that have snap—rather than zipper—closures. A snap will come apart much faster than a zipper will break. Make sure to tuck in your shirts and hoods. Tuck the base of loose sweatshirts and any under-layers into your jeans or jods. Pull your hood out from beneath the smooth protection only when it’s time to put it on. When it comes to accessories, leave your jewelry at home. If you wear a fanny- or backpack, make sure the straps are adjusted so that they lay flat next to your clothing. Consider turning your fanny pack toward your backside so that it’s out of the way as you mount and dismount. Better yet, store all that you can in your saddlebags and hide your needed emergency items (your cell phone with in-case-of-emergency number clearly labeled, knife, ID, protein bar, compass or handheld GPS) in a zip-closed pocket or hide-away satchel beneath your outer layer—or shop for a specially made wallet that attaches to your leg. Check out for non-catching totes.

Personal safety
Leave word
Problem: You’re riding alone and no one knows where you are or when to expect you back.
Worst-case scenario: You take off for some personal rejuvenation time. It’s just you and your horse out on the trail. No one knows where you are or when you’ll return—and for a while, you’re glad for that freedom. Suddenly, a summer storm sweeps the sky. A lightening bolt lands too close for comfort and your horse charges off. You’re left behind and you’re far from home. Worse yet, your cell phone was stored in your saddlebags. Your horse doesn’t know how to dial and you don’t know how you’re going to get back to the trailhead and out of the storm. Which way did you come from? You hope your husband will miss you—but he won’t be home until at least 9:00 p.m. It’s getting scary and darker. . . .
Solution: Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll return. Goodnight says “Riders’ lives have definitely been saved when they’ve left word—clearly stating when they should return and when to send help.”
How to go about it: Call a friend—whom you know will get the message—from your cell phone as you set out on the trail or before you leave home. Let your friend know which trail you’ll take and how long the trip should take. Also let her know whom to contact if you haven’t checked in by a certain time. Have a list of park ranger or other emergency numbers ready.

Once you mount up, stick to the trail you told our friend about—and don’t tarry. Make sure to have your cell phone, a GPS or compass, and a protein bar stored on your person—not in your saddlebags. Your horse may not be with you when you need the items. Also make sure to attach some form of ID on your horse—use a luggage tag to list your name and contact info—and your emergency contact’s number. A rescuer may find your horse before they find you—and your friend will know what trail you took. That information will speed up your rescue!

When you’re done riding—and if you didn’t have a problem—call your friend to check in.

Keeping Saddle On Logo

Dear Julie,
My friends and I have a problem with our saddles rolling over to the side when we get on. My horse in particular has a flat broad back with wide withers. Any suggestions? I know we are cinching our western saddles up tight enough.
Roly Poly

Dear Roly,
A round, mutton-withered horse is difficult to keep a saddle on, but there are a few things that may help.

First, make sure your saddle fits. That seem like a no-brainer, but if your tree is too wide or too narrow, it’ll be more likely to slip. Often a flexible tree will hold better on a round horse than a rigid tree saddle because it shapes to the horse’s back. This is one reason I like the Circle Y Flex2 saddles.

Secondly, the saddle pad you use can really help or really hurt. Make sure you are not using too thick a pad—usually round horses don’t need a lot of padding. For the really round horses I like to use a split-withered pad—sometimes called a cut-back pad (incidentally, this also works for very high-withered horses). It helps to hold the pad in place around the withers. I also often use an open-cell foam pad that has a suction-like effect and holds on the back really well.

Make sure when you saddle that you pull the pad well up into the gullet of the saddle—causing a V-shape to the pad, which is less likely to slip. If you don’t pull it up and create an air space over your horse’s spine, the pad sits right on the withers and has a round shape which slips much easier (not to mention puts uncomfortable pressure on his spine).

Unfortunately for the round horse, you have to keep the cinch much tighter than you would on a horse with good withers. Make sure you tighten the cinch slowly—don’t gut-wrench him right off that bat—that will create a cinchy horse, or one that is resentful of the cinch. Tighten the cinch gradually over 10 minutes or so and walk him a little between tightenings. Check your cinch again about 15 minutes into your ride or before you do any loping.

Finally, you might consider using a breast collar and/or a crupper, which attaches to the back of the saddle and goes under the horse’s tail. Neither one will stop your saddle from sliding but they will help stabilize it. Good luck and be sure to keep you weight in the middle of your horse!
–Julie Goodnight