Saddle Trees Fit And Riggings

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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 http://www.horsesaddleshop.com/:

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 facebook.com/horsemaster.tv

–Julie Goodnight

Keeping Saddle On

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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

Reconditioning Program

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Question: Hello Julie,
My horse has been off all summer due to an injury and I would like suggestions as to how I can get him in shape for spring. I will work with him all winter and need help with a plan. Can you help us?
Thank you,
Karen
Boise, Idaho
Answer: Karen,
When a horse has been laid off for a year or a season due to an injury, you’ll want to start slowly in his reconditioning program and build over time. Assuming you’ve had this horse cleared by a vet to start reconditioning, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask him/her for suggestions or to go to the AAEP website http://aaep.org/ to see if you can find some answers there.
I can give you an idea of what I’d do, from a horse trainer’s perspective. Let’s say you’ll start your reconditioning program in January—I’ll give you a five month plan that will hopefully have you and your horse fit for summer riding.
In January, I’d start with 10-15 minutes of lead line work—no circling work—4-6 days a week. If your winter conditions permit it, you could just hand-walk the horse down the road/trail for 10-15 minutes. Or you could spend the time actively training on your horse in an arena with specific lead-line exercises, which are thoroughly explained on volume 2 of my groundwork video series, Lead Line Leadership. There are also some articles in my training library on the subject.
The last two weeks of January, I’d start adding some trotting (in-hand). Practice your walk-trot-walk-halt transitions and you and your horse will really get in sync with each other. As a bonus, you’ll get in better shape too!
You can also start using an elbow pull (I call mine Goodnight’s Bitting System) to help your horse develop his top line and work in a collected frame while you work him in the round pen. The tool—much better than using side reins which don’t allow the horse a release—will help remind your horse of your riding days as he feels gentle right-left pressure on the bit, learns to put his head down and works his body in a collected, muscled frame. The Bit Basics DVD teaches you how to use this.
In February, I’d continue with his groundwork but I may add circling work in-hand, depending on the nature of his injury. In the last couple weeks, you can probably saddle him up for some short rides about 2 days a week, and continue the ground work in-between. Keep your rides short with 10-15 minutes of walk only and progress toward 10 minutes of walk and 10 minutes of trot when your horse is ready.
For March, you should be able to transition to riding 3-5 days per week, with the same workout of 10 minutes’ walk and 10 minutes’ trot. The trot is the most conditioning of gaits, so it is good to maximize your time long trotting, but stay away from more demanding work like collection, circling and more advance maneuvers.
In April, assuming your horse is growing stronger and feeling good, you should be able to up the ante a little in his conditioning program. Start by making 1-2 of your regular workouts more demanding, such as long trot up a gentle slope. Adding hill work helps strengthen the horse’s hindquarters and prevent stifle problems. If you do not have access to hills, you could add some canter/hand gallop to your rides. By the end of the month, you could be doing three hard workouts a week, with either days off or light work in-between.
By May, your horse should be getting pretty fit. Continuing April’s program is sufficient to make him buff for summer riding, but this month, you may want to add some more discipline-specific activities, like ground poles and cavaletti or reining maneuvers or even just some simple collected work with bending and lateral movements. For more information on this, see volume 5 in my video series on riding, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Refinement & Collection.
If you follow this recipe, by June, you and your horse will be ready for just about anything. Good luck and be sure to monitor your horse’s injury closely and consult with your vet if you have any questions.

Good riding!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Saddle Advice

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
Is My Saddle Causing My Horse’s Issues?

Question: Dear Julie, I am switching from English to Western and am hoping to get one of your Peak Performance saddles. I am looking at the Monarch Arena/Trail saddle or the Wind River Trail saddle. I really like the sounds of the close-contact design, the narrow twist and especially the memory foam in the seat for my tired old rear-end! But not knowing too much about Western saddles, I am confused by a couple things. First, what does “3-way in-skirt rigging” mean and what is the advantage of that? Also, I noticed that your saddle does not have fleece on the bottom like other Western saddles I have seen and I was wondering why?
Thanks for your help!
Carolyn
Answer: No matter which of those two saddles you choose, I am sure you will love it! Actually they both have many awesome features that I designed into the saddle, some obvious, some not; both the Monarch and Wind River have all the same great features—the only difference is that the Wind River has a more rounded skirt, which is often better for a short-coupled horse. Also, both saddles are made on the Flex2 tree, which provides the benefit of weight-distribution like a rigid tree, as well as a better fit for the horse and greater comfort for the rider because of its flexibility. While the flexible tree is not right for every rider, if you are under 230 pounds and not planning to rope steers, it’s a great choice– more comfortable for the rider, gives better fit for your horse and fits a greater variety of horses.
Other comfort features that these saddles have, in addition to the narrow-ness of the saddle and the cut-aways under your leg that give closer contact with the horse (and make the saddle lighter weight), they also have pre-twisted stirrups and specially softened leather under your leg that gives the saddle a “broke in” feel when it is brand spanking new. I should know, I ride in a brand new Monarch saddle every weekend, since Circle Y ships me a “demo” saddle for people to sit in and try on their horse at expos and clinics. By the end of the weekend that saddle always goes home with some lucky buyer and I start with a new one the next weekend.
The 3-way in-skirt rigging gives you better fit options for a variety of horses and helps with the close-contact design, reducing some of the bulk under your leg. The rigging on any Western saddle refers to where the dee-rings are located that you attach your latigo and cinch to. “In-skirt” means that the dee-rings are sewn into the skirt of the saddle—between the layers of leather, rather than sitting on top of it, like a more traditional saddle. The “3-way” part refers to multiple rigging options, allowing you to move the pressure of the cinch either forward or rearward, depending on the fit-needs of the horse.

There are three basic styles of rigging available in a traditional Western saddle: full rigging, seven-eighths and three-quarter. Most Western saddles only have one rigging option but my saddles allow you to easily change the rigging according to the needs of each horse you put it on. It will help you to understand each type of rigging, so that you can understand the advantages of having multiple rigging options. Here’s a video that talks more about riggings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmgykJDIX1s&feature=channel_video_title

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. The Rocky Mountain Ranch saddle in my line of saddles is the only wood (Kevlar reinforced) tree in my line; a wood tree is necessary for roping and cow work or for riders that may be too large for a flexible tree. It has “J” rigging which allows for both full and 7/8ths rigging and it comes with a flank cinch.

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 on the Flex2 tree 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.

Trail rigging: The Blue Ridge Gaited Trail saddle in my line has a dee-ring at the back of the saddle known as a “Y rigging,” which is angled down from the cantle to form a Y shape, in addition to the 3-way rigging. Instead of attaching two different cinches, these saddles are designed so that you can run the latigo through the front D and cinch, then the back D to help keep the back of your saddle anchored. This Y rigging will move the pressure back away from the withers, freeing up the shoulders and it works well on gaited horses and other short-coupled horses.

My Peak Performance saddles, made by Circle Y, juliegoodnight.com/saddles, have multiple rigging options, giving 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. If you use the front dee, it will be full rigging and if you use the back dee, it is ¾ rigging. To achieve 7/8 rigging, you create a V with the latigo by running it through the front and back dee. To view a video which explains the rigging in a visual format, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmgykJDIX1s&feature=channel_video_title .

People often ask me about the lack of fleece on the underside of the saddle; it is a unique feature and there are a few reasons I designed them this way. The purpose of the fleece under a saddle is to provide padding and to absorb sweat; but this is a layer that adds unnecessary thickness and it wears out before the saddle does. So by removing the fleece, it helps make the saddle even narrower and closer contact and it improves the longevity of the saddle. Since most riders use an absorbent pad (I prefer a ¾” wool felt pad); neither the padding nor the absorption are needed under the saddle. And one of the most important reasons I took out the fleece layer is because on the underside of my saddle, gel pads are sewn in between the bars of the tree and the horse’s back. The memory foam in the seat is for your luxury; and the gel pads are for the horse’s comfort. Without the fleece layer, the saddle is thinner underneath you, the horse gets the full benefit of the gel pads and the leather bottom of the saddle is much easier to clean and maintain.

I couldn’t be happier with my line of Circle Y saddles; I ride in them every day and my horse works so much better in the Flex2 tree. I’ll have a demo saddle available for everyone to look at and try out, at each clinic and expo that I do this year, so I hope you’ll be able to check one out in person. For more information on my Peak Performance saddle line, visit http://juliegoodnight.com/saddles or contact your local Circle Y dealer. Whichever saddle you choose, I know you’ll be happy with it!
Good luck!
Julie

Saddle Fit Issues

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
Is My Saddle Causing My Horse’s Issues?

Question: Dear Julie,
Six months ago I bought a seven-year-old Quarter Horse gelding and he has turned out to be an awesome trail riding horse and a promising versatility ranch horse prospect. He is dark brown and very cute but over the past couple months he has developed spots of white hairs just below his withers on both sides—but worse on the left. At first there were just a few white hairs, but now the dots are about an inch around and almost solid white on the left.

When I purchased Sonny, I had a vet exam done and he passed with flying colors. The vet said he had good conformation with a short strong back. It seems like this could be a saddle fit issue but I am not sure what to do now.

Thanks for your time, Polly

Answer: Dear Polly,
You’ve definitely got a saddle fit issue and most likely it is from “bridging,” which means there is pressure from the tree in the front of the bars and the back but not in the middle. This means there is an excessive amount of pressure at the front of the tree, at the point where you are seeing the white hairs.

These white hairs represent scarring and in time the scars may become permanent. These marks are often worse on the left because when you mount the saddle shifts and a lot of riders fail to balance the saddle after they mount, continuing the whole ride with un-even pressure from the tree on the horse’s back.

Given the relatively short amount of time the spots have been present on your horse, if you get your horse better fitted in a saddle, they’ll probably turn back to brown and you may see a reduction right away in the number of white hairs. For horses that are ridden in ill-fitted saddles for years, these marks become permanent scars, often mistaken by the novice horse-person for white markings.

Since your horse is appendix registered, it means he has some (or a lot) of Thoroughbred in him so he is probably fairly narrow and high withered, compared to a foundation-type QH, which may cause the saddle to sit down more in front. If the withers are set well back (which often comes with a short-backed, athletic horse), that would contribute to the bridging. Short-backed horses, both broad and narrow, can be really challenging when it comes to saddle fit. Other horses that may have bridging problems are older horses whose back has begun sagging and sway-backed horses of any age.

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 tree, which you will likely see right over the white spots, that is where there has been excessive pressure and the sweat glands have been shut down. This could be a sign of bridging or too narrow a tree or even too wide a tree that is pitching forward.

The job of the saddle tree is to distribute the weight of the rider evenly over as broad an area as possible, to protect the horse’s back. If the saddle is bridging, there could also be excessive pressure on the horse’s loins which would contribute to back soreness as well.

Actually, bridging is a big problem with my personal horse, Dually (a purebred QH but very athletically built with withers set far back), and one reason I switched to the Flex2 saddle tree made by Circle Y and worked with them to create a saddle line that has the horse and rider in mind. Because the bars of the tree flex slightly with the weight of the rider (the flex tree is only advisable for riders under 230#– and not for all western disciplines), it increases the contact in the middle of the tree and actually causes the front of the tree to flare out a little giving the horse a little more room at the shoulders. Unless you are roping, cutting or a heavier rider, the Flex2 tree may be a good option for your horse.

Another thing that has really helped my horse’s bridging problem is using a saddle with multiple rigging options. Several of the saddles in my custom designed line of saddles have rigging options (rigging refers to the D-ring that the latigos and billets are attached to). For a more thorough explanation of saddle rigging, check out this video. But the short story is that a “full-rigged” saddle has the D-ring for the cinch hanging directly below the pommel; a 7/8 rigged saddle has the D-ring a little farther back and the ¾ rigged further back yet. The farther back the rigging, the more the contact comes toward the middle of the bars of the tree. In a Flex2 tree, this really helps the bridging problem. Here are some videos helping to understand saddle rigging: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmgykJDIX1s and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEXKcjRzcBY

The saddle that fits my horse the best is the Monarch Arena Performance/Trail saddle http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/images/Monarcharenaperformance2.jpg I designed this saddle to give optimal performance in the arena, but be comfortable enough for both horse and rider out on the trail and my horse and I absolutely love it.

When I am doing a lot of cutting, roping or cow work, I switch to my ranch versatility saddle, the Rocky Mountain High Performance saddle http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/images/rockymountainsaddle1.jpg , which has a rigid high-tech tree. The other saddles in my line of 5 custom designed saddles by Circle Y are all Flex2 trees and are designed specifically for reining, trail or gaited horses. For a look at my full line of saddles, check out my website.

It is possible to pad out a saddle with a minor fit issue. In the case of bridging I’d use a special pad made for that—thin in front and back and more padded in the middle of the horse’s back (sometimes called a ‘bridge pad’ or a ‘shim pad’). But be very careful about trying to pad-out a mis-fitting saddle. In many instances, adding more padding could make the saddle fit issue worse (imagine wearing shoes that didn’t fit and were putting pressure on your foot – then adding an extra thick pair of socks). In the instance of too much pressure at the front of the tree, if you padded up the front of the saddle, it would likely put too much stress on the horse’s loins, which is also a big problem.

The best-case-scenario would be for you to have a professional saddle fitter take a look at your horse and saddle in action. I’ve been around horses my whole life and dealt with literally thousands of horses but I learn something new every time I work with a professional fitter. Unfortunately they are few and far between (and easier to find them qualified to fit English saddles than western). Many trainers and some vets are good with saddle fit too, so you may want to get a professional opinion—since diagnosing a saddle fit problem via the internet is not a sure bet! Here’s a clip of a show that we did on saddle fit, that might help, too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1qceJLjhOM
Good luck and enjoy the ride!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

How Do Rope Halters Work?

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Ask Julie Goodnight: What to Know About Rope Halters

Question: I have what’s probably a silly question…. My mare is 15 years old and I’ve never used a rope halter with her. What do I need to know to help me better understand how a rope halter works?
Answer: I wish more people would ask simple questions like this– it’s not silly, but smart! When people stop and think about what they fundamentally know (or more likely, what they do not know) they generally get a lot further with their horsemanship. There’s a lot to know about using rope halters: how they work, how they should fit, when to use them, and when NOT to use them.

I think of rope halters as a training aid-it’s a way to apply enough pressure on the horse’s face to get his attention and/or gain control. It’s a far superior tool, in my opinion and experience, than using a stud chain to control a horse because you can finesse the pressure with a rope halter. A stud chain will put constant pressure on the horse-you can make the pressure worse but you can never totally release it. With the rope halter, there’s only pressure when you manipulate the lead rope, so you have more training ability and finesse. But all rope halters are not created equally! A rope halter can be harsh or mild, depending on the diameter of the rope (thinner is harsher) and the number of knots on the noseband (more and bigger knots create more pressure)

For groundwork, I prefer to use a rope halter (my halters are specially designed for comfort, fit and effectiveness) and a long training lead—12 or 15 feet. I do not have metal buckles on my training leads because when I snap the rope, the chin knot will bump the horse in the chin (that is the pressure he feels when he is doing something wrong) and a metal buckle hitting the chin can be too much pressure for many horses (and they become afraid of the correction and quit thinking). To me it is critical that the training lead be made of the highest quality marine rope that is soft in your hands and heavy enough to have good feel so that you can make subtle movements with the rope and impact your horse.

The rope halter should always be adjusted correctly and make sure you learn how to tie the halter knot right. At the start of every groundwork clinic that I do, I spend a few moments adjusting halters and retying the knots correctly on most of the horses in the clinic. A rope halter that hangs too low can really hurt a horse’s nose and if the noseband were to sag so much that the horse could get a foot in, it could really hurt your horse.

As for the DONT’S: never turn a horse loose in a rope halter. For that matter, I wouldn’t turn a horse out in any halter but definitely not a rope halter. Generally they are made of high-tensile rope that will not break; a horse turned loose in a rope halter could catch it on something and panic and get hurt. For the same reason, I would never tie a horse in a trailer in a rope halter. You know he will get off balance at times and end up pulling on the halter—I don’t want him to have too much pressure on his face, just because he got off balance. Plus, in the trailer the horse should be outfitted in a break away halter in case of an emergency. In the trailer I want him to be safe and comfortable, so I’ll use a leather halter with sheepskin lining. Don’t use a rope halter that’s too snug—there will be constant pressure on his face so you lose the ability to release the pressure. Don’t use one that’s too big either; the noseband should not be so large that the horse could get it caught on something like his foot.

Tying a horse in a rope halter can be good training or can cause a problem if you have a horse that has a pull-back issue. We tie all our yearlings and older in a rope halter as they are learning to stand tied quietly. They learn not to pull on it because they’ll feel pressure every time they do. But if you have a horse that is already a chronic panic puller, the rope halter may make him worse by increasing his panic and fear when he pulls.

An important thing to know before you invest in a rope halter is that all ropes are not created equally and all halters are not tied correctly. With rope, you get what you pay for. Really high-quality rope that does not stretch out or break and works well in your hands is more expensive. You may have already figured this out with cheap lead ropes that break and burn your hands. Also, if not made correctly, the proportions of the halter can be off so that it never quite fits your horse’s face right—I see this a lot with home-made rope halters. As with most equipment that you buy for horses, it is best to stay away from the really cheap stuff.

Of course, the real benefit from rope halters is in the training techniques you use to teach your horse obedience and ground manners. Once you invest in a good rope halter and training lead, use my video, Leadline Leadership, to learn specific training techniques and exercises to teach your horse to stand quietly, walk and trot off your body cues, back, circle and change directions so that he becomes focused on you as his leader. Thanks for asking a great question!

Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

My Horse Bucks When I Ask Him To Canter

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Common Complaints
My horse bucks when I ask him to canter.

When you ask your horse to canter, does he pin his ears and hump his back—making it feel like he just swallowed a watermelon? Does he sometimes refuse to pick up the faster gait and then put his head down between his knees and kick out when he does begin to canter? Does he swish his tail and crow-hop or just totally break “in two” after a few strides?

If you’re experiencing these kinds of behaviors from your horse when you ask him to canter, riding—at least cantering—has probably lost its appeal. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to help your horse canter smoothly and willingly. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that is pleasant to ride at any gait.

The Reason

When a horse bucks at the canter under saddle, it can be from any number of reasons, both physical and training related. Bucking can be induced by pain, aggravation, irritation or frustration; it can be an avoidance technique employed by your horse or a refusal to move forward. Or it may mean that your horse is “cold-backed.”
Physical pain issues could be caused by an ill-fitting saddle, poor saddle placement or a cinch fastened too tight. Your horse could also be suffering from spinal mal-alignment or a rib out of place, which might not bother him at other gaits but may be exacerbated when the horse rounds his back to canter.

A cold-backed horse is one that is uncomfortable with the feel of the saddle, particularly if he hasn’t been ridden for a while. A cold-backed horse will often hump-up a little when first saddled and may crow-hop when first cantered, but otherwise has no training issues. Sometimes the most gentle, willing and well-trained horses are cold-backed—they just have to get used to the feel of the saddle sometimes.
Training issues are often the cause of a horse bucking when asked to canter; these issues are usually rider induced. Most horses don’t really want to canter; loping circles with the weight of a rider on his back is not something he would generally elect to do.
Sometimes horses will hump-up or buck a little when asked to canter, as a way of protesting having to work harder. This will often disconcert the rider, who may be a little bit fearful of the faster and stronger gait, and her first instinct is to stop the horse, in order to regain control and get back her composure. Since the horse was bucking because he didn’t want to canter and immediately upon bucking the rider makes the horse stop, the rider has essentially rewarded the horse for bucking. It may only take one time before the horse learns that bucking is a highly effective technique to get out of cantering.

Bucking can also be an emotional response from the horse, indicating frustration, aggravation or irritation. Often riders learning to canter or dealing with a lack of confidence will send mixed messages to the horse—cueing him to canter, then snatching back on the reins as soon as he does. Or the rider may tense up in fear when the horse canters, causing him to yank on the horse’s mouth then slam down on the horse’s back.
Bucking is a natural response to an irritant on the horse’s back and getting mixed messages from the rider, making it impossible get the right answer, can understandably cause frustration and aggravation in the horse.
Whether your horse engages a minor amount of crow-hopping or throws a full-blown bucking fit when you ask him to canter, there are some steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution

First, you have to rule out a problem that is causing physical pain for the horse, unrelated to a training issue. Consider having your horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor. A horse’s spine is so huge and it is easily put out of alignment. If your horse requires a major adjustment or turns out to be suffering from a long term issue, it may take some time, several treatments and slow reconditioning to rehabilitate your horse.
You should also have a qualified expert evaluate your saddle fit and placement. If you can find a professional saddle fitter, it will be well worth the money and you will surely learn a lot. If you cannot locate a saddle fitter in your area, get some advice from a seasoned professional about how well your saddle fits and whether or not you are placing it in the right spot on your horse’s back.
If your horse is simply cold-backed, you’ll just have to work around it. Take your time to saddle him, walking him between tightening of the girth. If you haven’t ridden him in a while, you may want to longe him first or just accept that he may crow-hop a little when you first canter. There’s an article on my website about cold-backed horses and how to deal with them. www.JulieGoodnight.com
Once you have ruled out any possible physical issue with your horse, it is time to consider a training issue. If your horse is lazy and balky and bucks when you cue him, chances are your horse has inadvertently been rewarded for his bucking. If he is bucking in a refusal to move forward and as a tactic to make you stop him, then he needs to learn some new rules.
Remember, whatever your horse is doing when you release him is what you are training him to do. In this case, he has bucked because he didn’t want to go and the rider stopped him. Since stopping is exactly what he wanted, he thinks his bucking made you stop him (and he’s probably right). He needs to learn that when he bucks, he’ll have to work even harder.
When you cue him to canter, if he gets humpy, you’ll have to spur him on and make him go faster. Only let him stop when he is cantering with a relaxed back and in a very compliant way. With consistency, he’ll learn that bucking only makes him have to work harder and it will be more trouble than it’s worth.

There’s another concept in horse training that says, it always gets worse before it gets better. So when you ask your horse to canter and he bucks and then you make him go harder and faster, he’s likely to buck even more. If you do not feel qualified and confident enough to ride your horse through this, you’ll need to enlist the help of a stronger rider or send your horse to a trainer.
If your horse is acting out in frustration or aggravation, it’s probably your riding that needs to change. Make sure that when you ask the horse to canter that you reach forward with your hands, exaggerating the release so that he doesn’t get hit in the mouth. In the first stride of canter and every stride thereafter, your horse drops his head down. If you ask him to canter without giving a release, he hits the bit—getting punished for doing exactly what you asked. You’ll have to exaggerate the release for a while until your horse can learn to trust you again.
Often when riders get tense, they stiffen their legs, losing the shock absorbing quality of their ankles, knees and hips, causing them to bounce. The horse’s back lifts up a lot in the canter stride and if he is coming up at the same time you are coming down, it can cause a pretty big blow to his back and it is natural for him to want to buck when he feels this irritation on his back.
If this is the case, I recommend sitting way back, with your shoulders slightly behind your hips and imagine you are pushing a swing as you canter. Most nervous riders will be okay for the first few strides of canter and then gradually tense and stiffen. So if you are just learning to sit the canter, I recommend only cantering a few strides at a time. Start with your horse on the straightaway (turns are harder), canter about 4-5 strides, then come back to walk through the trot. Relax and compose yourself and then go again for a few strides.
Volume 4 in my riding videos is called Canter with Confidence and addresses all of these issues and much more, from cueing for canter, sitting the canter to dealing with lead problems and other problems at the canter, right up to simple and flying lead changes.
For a wealth of information on this and many other topics and to purchase educational videos and training equipment, visit my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com.

Coming Next:
Julie Goodnight reveals the scenarios and answers she’s asked to help with most often. Her Common Complaints series details what to do when your horse is disrespectful in the field, on the ground and when you’re riding. In the multi-part series, Goodnight will help you understand why your horse does what he does and give you step-by-step directions to help you solve the problem. Next month, she’ll teach you the emergency stopping rein to use if your horse spooks and bolts. Watch “Horse Master” with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV every Wednesday at 5:30p EST —Direct TV channel 379, Dish Network channel 231 or 9398. JG