Do You Know What You Don’t Know? Logo

Identify holes in your horsemanship training and continually seek new information

An assignment from my first riding instructor—assembling a bridle from scratch—at first seemed like an easy task. But what seemed easy turned out to be daunting. I knew what a bridle should look like, but I hadn’t gained enough wisdom to know how each piece fit together. I finally I got it right, but I was humbled in the process.

This was the beginning for me. I realized that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve come to believe this is especially true of horses. The more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know. It’s important to make sure you know more than just how to do something—to understand the “whys” of horsemanship and to continually seek a better understanding.

That early lesson helped me understand that I needed to know how the bridle worked and why each piece was important. That first lesson helped me form my own teaching style—making sure to teach riders why they do a task instead of just teaching how to do it. When you understand the whys, you’re drawn into horsemanship and you yearn to know more. Learning why you should move a rein a certain direction or why you shouldn’t greet a horse by rubbing on his muzzle helps you understand horse behavior and make sure you continually learn.

The First Lesson

As a youngster, I took riding lessons from a wise old trainer, Miss Valla. I was her hungriest and most dedicated student, albeit one of her youngest riders, and I worshipped the ground she walked on. I finagled way more than my allotted lesson time with her–coming early and staying late, endearing myself to her by spit polishing the horses and being her gofer, when I wasn’t in a lesson. It was a mutually beneficial relationship (the barn rat to the old master), although I thought I was incredibly lucky to be under her tutelage.

One evening when I was only nine or ten years old, Miss Valla gave me a challenging homework assignment to be completed before I could ride again the next day. She handed me the English bridle from my favorite school horse and made me sit down in front of her and take it apart until every single little piece was in a pile. Then she shoved all the pieces in a bag, along with a rag and a bar of glycerin, and told me to take it home, clean every piece, and then reassemble the bridle. Only when the bridle was completely together correctly, should I even bother to bring it back for her approval–and only then would I be able to ride again.

“Piece of cake,” I thought, as I jumped on my bike and headed for home, thrilled to bring a piece of tack home with me. I was sure I would have the task perfectly completed well before my bed time; I would bring it to her bright and early the next day, proving once again what a talented student I was. After cleaning and scrubbing every square centimeter of leather and washing and polishing the bit, I was left with a jig-saw puzzle of pieces, with no idea how they fit together. I must have put that bridle together and taken it apart at least a dozen times before I got it right. I knew what it looked like when it was right; I just didn’t know how to get there. Although I had previously memorized the parts-of the-bridle, I didn’t really know what each piece was and how it all fit together.

By the time particular this exercise was over, I knew everything I needed to know about the bridle and it was a skill-set that I would draw on for the rest of my life. It taught me the importance of fully understanding tack, not only knowing the proper terminology for its parts, but also what each part does and how it fits together. I also came to understand the value of studying basic information. I never again complained about the worksheets we had to fill out on parts of the tack, horse breeds or common equine diseases. For a kid that absolutely hated school work, I would dive nose-first into every homework assignment I got from Miss Valla.

I was fortunate to have a great classical education in horsemanship as a youth rider and this upbringing shaped the way my career unfolded and I believe it is responsible, in part, for my success. I learned early on in my career, first as an instructor, and later as a clinician, that without a solid foundational layer in your knowledge, it does no good for me to teach you higher level skills.

Understanding the WHY

When I first started teaching clinics, about 20 years ago, I realized that a lot of very experienced horse people often have gaps in their knowledge when it comes to horsemanship. It doesn’t do you any good to work on flying lead changes if you don’t understand leads, footfalls and the canter cue. It doesn’t do you any good to try a certain groundwork exercise if you don’t understand what behavior you are trying to change and what signs to look for when the horse is responding correctly.

I learned a long time ago that just because someone can DO something, doesn’t mean they understand WHAT they are doing and WHY it works. I also learned, as most good teachers do, that many people will never tell you when they don’t know what a certain term means or when they don’t fully understand. So I define and explain as best I can, whether they ask or not—never assume the student knows or will ask if they do’t. To teach successfully, you must break down the lesson and help the student learn why each step is so important.

Backing Up to Move Forward

With horsemanship and with horse training, it is important to have a solid understanding of the basics—in all matters. Sometimes we have to go back to fundamentals before we can move forward, even with an experienced horse or rider. When I teach any given topic, I work hard to cover it from A to Z, never leaving out the important  fundamentals before moving onto the higher level application. It’s amazing how often the more experienced riders will comment how grateful they are to have the gaps filled in their knowledge. In many instances, it is the fundamental information that was the missing link that makes everything come together with your horse.

So I ask you, do you know the parts of your bridle? If someone handed it to you in a pile, could you whip it together right away? Do you know the parts of the saddle, what type of saddle it is and what the pros and cons of that saddle design are? If I asked you to check to see if your horse’s gaskins were equal, would you know where to look? Do you know what the term ‘collection’ really means and could you define it for someone that had no idea? If not, it’s time to study! Come to one of my clinics and we might talk about all of this!

My favorite part of horses and horse sports is that it is a life-long pursuit and there is always another challenge ahead of you. I’ll never grow tired of learning more about horses and riding, and I love sharing my passion and knowledge with others. This is why I created my online resource library for horse enthusiasts, Horse Master Academy.

I hope you’ll join me, either online, or up-close-and-personal at a horsemanship clinic or horse expo near you, in the pursuit of more horsemanship knowledge. Until then…

Enjoy the ride,






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