Safe, comfortable, trail-ready tack says you’re a dedicated, knowledgeable trail rider. You’ll also be ready for long rides in fall’s cool weather.
On the trail, your tack must stay in place, fit well, and be attached correctly so that your horse can conquer any terrain comfortably. If your saddle doesn’t fit, his back will be sore after just a short ride. If your saddle isn’t securely attached, it could slide backward or forward, especially when you ride up and down hills. If your bridle doesn’t have a browband and throatlatch, it could come off if your horse brushes against a low branch.
Here, I’ll explain what’s safe and unsafe in your trail bridle, trail saddle, and your saddle’s attachments that help to keep it in place—the flank cinch, breastcollar, and crupper. I’ll also share the type of tack I prefer on the trail and how to fit it to your horse so he stays comfortable and pain-free.
Your Trail Bridle
Use a bridle with a browband and throatlatch to help keep it secure and balanced. (One-eared headstalls can come off on the trail.) Adjust the headstall evenly on both sides. The browband should be level and sit just below your horse’s ears.
Tighten the throatlatch just enough so that you can fit three fingers between the strap and your horse’s throat. This will keep the throatlatch tight enough to keep the headstall from slipping over his ears, but not so tight that it interferes with his breathing when he breaks at the poll.
The bit must sit level in your horse’s mouth. I fit my horse’s bit so no wrinkles show in the corners of his mouth. The bit sits at the top of the mouth, with no gaps between bit and lip.
Your Trail Saddle
For trail riding, I prefer a Western saddle that puts my legs and body in a balanced position and with a narrow twist and padded seat for comfort.
Your horse’s comfort is paramount. I prefer to ride in a flexible-tree saddle that conforms to my horse’s back shape and absorbs shock. These saddles are lightweight and allow your horse to move his shoulders.
A saddle horn allows you to pony another horse and gives you something to hold onto in steep terrain. Horn-free Western or “hybrid” trail saddles tend to be lighter.
A saddle skirt will help keep your trail gear from rubbing your horse’s back. Back skirting lets you hook on large bags for long rides. Also look for plenty of ties and D-rings to attach jackets and water bottles.
Check the saddle’s fit and placement. The seat should appear level when viewed from the side. The screw at the base of the pommel should sit behind your horse’s shoulder blade, in “the pocket.” You should be able to insert your whole hand over his withers under the pommel to ensure that the saddle won’t push down on his withers.
When you saddle up, pull the saddle pad up into the gullet so your saddle doesn’t create pressure at your horse’s withers. Also make sure your saddle doesn’t dig into his back or hips.
Rigging refers to where the D-rings are placed to hold your saddle onto your horse. For trail riding, I prefer Y (centerfire) rigging, in which an additional D-ring allows you to run the latigo front and back to create a “Y” to help hold your saddle in place. You can also change cinch placement if your horse gets a saddle sore on a long ride.
A flank cinch secures the back of your trail saddle when your horse rounds his back. Make sure the flank cinch is snug, but not so tight it causes discomfort. Use a cinch hobble (connecting the two cinches) to prevent the flank cinch from slipping back and becoming a bucking strap.
A breastcollar helps to keep your saddle from slipping back when going uphill. I prefer a wide, sculpted breastcollar for comfort. Fit the breastcollar so it sits above your horse’s shoulders. Center the middle strap, and attach the collar evenly on each side. Make sure it isn’t so tight that it interferes with your horse’s breathing when his nose touches the ground. You should be able to place a fist between the strap and the front of his chest.
If your well-fitting saddle slips forward when going downhill, consider a crupper—a leather strap that attaches to the back of your saddle and goes under your horse’s tail—to hold your saddle in place. Desensitize your horse to the crupper before hitting the trail.