*Tacking Up The Horse*
A horse is the stuff of dreams. And horse-back riding only enhances that dream state. It's exhilarating, relaxing, challenging and highly addictive. But first, you need to tack up the horse - add accessories - to ensure that you both work from the same plans.
If showmanship is your thing, stop here. We will never see eye to eye. If your idea of a saddle and bridle has to do with silver and gold, fringes and frills, polish and shine, stop here. You and I will never agree on this subject - and certainly not on the choice of tack (the horseman's word for saddle, bridle and other accessories).
Once you are standing in front of a horse, you can be ready to ride for a couple bux or couple thousand bux. The price of tack varies that much.
So, for starters, you need a bit, headstall (often mistakenly referred to as a bridle) and reins.
The bit is the part that goes in the horse's mouth. For you mechanical types - putting a bit in the horse's mouth is the same as installing brakes on a machine. It's pretty important to have a bit. Then you need a "headstall." Liken this to a "motor mount." It keeps "the brakes" attached to the horse - whether in use or not. The "reins" that you hold are attached to the bit. These are the steering wheel and brake pedal.
Disclaimer: Depending on the horse's previous training and use, a bit, headstall and reins could be completely unnecessary. I've owned horses which could be ridden with nothing in their mouths, nothing on their heads, nothing in my hands and no saddle. Picture a wild horse running free - add a person on his back and that person can completely control the horse, turn, stop, backup and sidestep - all by giving such "commands" with your legs and body movement. This article, however, does not cover that level of poetry in motion.
So, back to the horse and the need to ride in a pinch. A "bridle" refers to a whole package - the combination of reins, bit and headstall already assembled. But if you don't have one, you need to know what the components are and what purpose they serve.
First the bit. This is a metal rod of which there are way too many variations to list here. There is also the issue of the curb chain or the curb strap which is only necessary if you are using a bit that has "shanks" or side bars attached to the actual part that goes into the horse's mouth. For the sake of this article, I'm intentionally keeping it simple, so I'll go over the simplest bit to find and use - one without shanks and no need for the curb strap. See the illustration below. This is a copper snaffle bit with 2" rings at either end. It is, as the picture illustrates, two rods hinged in the middle. The width of the bit is relevant. The thinner the bit, the more harsh to the horse's mouth. If a horse has a "hard mouth" or is poorly trained, a thin bit is often used to add control. Few well-trained horses require a thin bit of any kind. But if you don't know anything about the horse you are going to ride, better to be safe than sorry. The level of severity the bit administers is measured most accurately by the rider.
For an average size horse of 15 hands (1 hand = 4 inches) or 5' at the top of the shoulder (known as the withers), the snaffle bit should be 5" long from one side of the horse's mouth to the other. If any part of the rings are in the horse's mouth, the bit is too short. If more than 1/4 of the bit is not in the horse's mouth, it is too big. If there is just enough of the rod sticking out on either side of his mouth that the hinge of the bit where the rings are attached are just protruding from either side of the mouth, it is just right.
To put the bit in the horse's mouth, lay the bit out lengthwise in your open hand. Present the bit to the front of the mouth where the upper and lower lips come together as if offering the horse a sugar cube - hand flat with the bit laying in your hand. Usually, the horse will open his mouth and part his teeth to let the bit slip right in. If not, you can cheat by putting some grain in your hand with the bit - dab some molasses on it. When he takes the bribe, slip the bit into his mouth, over his tongue and push it past his front teeth. There's a soft spot beyond his front teeth where the bit will rest on his gums.
Young horses will have two canines behind their front teeth and in front of the back row of teeth - one on each side. One tooth on each side of the horse's mouth. The bit goes past these, too. He'll still be able to chew the grain that went in his mouth with the bit, so you don't have to be an Indian giver with what you bribed him with.
Now that the bit is in the mouth, you'll need something to hold it there. That's the headstall. In it's purest form, the headstall serves only one purpose - to keep the bit from falling out of his mouth. One rope, leather strap, nylon cord, nylon strap or even paracord will do. Attach the strap, rope or cord to one of the rings. Run it up the side of the horse's head, just behind his ears, down the other side of his head to the ring on the bit on the other side. The bit should create ONE wrinkle at both corners of his mouth. If there are two wrinkles, the headstall is too short. If the bit dangles loosely in his mouth and you can tell it is resting on or hitting any of the front teeth or the canines, it is too long. You wouldn't want anything banging against any of your teeth, would you?
Disclaimer: If using paracord or similar string for the headstall, you'll need to wrap the part that goes behind his ears to make it thicker in that area. Braiding 6 or more strands of paracord to fashion the headstall would be preferable to using just one strand. Horses are sensitive where the headstall rests behind his ears - and since there is a constant pressure with the weight of the bit coupled with his movements, you could be giving him signals you don't intend by using too thin a headstall.
Now for the reins. You need something you don't mind holding in your hands - so a soft rope will do. Two large dog leashes will do. Two lead ropes will suffice. Just snap the swivel hook to the lower half of the rings on the bit - one on each side and viola - instant reins! One 6-8 foot length of rope will do nicely if you don't have two lead ropes or two large dog leashes. Just tie one end of the rope to the lowest part of the rings on one side of the bit and do the same with the other end of the rope on the ring on the other side of the bit. I do not recommend the use of bailing twine or paracord for the reins. You want something comfortable to hold with your bare hands and there may come a time when you need to apply more pressure to the bit than you had counted on - for example if he spooks at something and starts to run in a panic. Applying firm pressure to stop the horse will do some serious damage to your hands.
Place the slack in the reins over the horse's head so it rests on his back just behind the withers. You are now ready to mount up if riding bareback. If you can jump on throwing your right leg over the horse from the left side, go for it. Be careful not to let your right foot kick the horse in the right flank. Never use your leg to grip the horse to pull you the rest of the way up. Imagine how that kind of pressure will feel on the soft right flank side of the horse! If you can't jump on in this manner, jump up resting your belly on his back before swinging your leg over to seat yourself behind the withers. If you aren't up to that, either, it's OK to stand on something to elevate you so that you can get your right leg over his back.
Saddles can be purchased used or new and vary greatly in price, style and purpose. But a saddle is not entirely necessary. Riding "bareback" always remains an option - possibly the only option after a SHTF incident. And no, it has nothing to do with taking your shirt off. It pertains to riding a horse without benefit of a saddle. Be forewarned, the body hair on a horse tends to be ... well, IMHO ... as slick as snot. If you've never ridden a horse, riding bareback is not the way you want to go the first time - unless there's no choice. If you're a man - you may never care to ride again - under any circumstances.
The key is to grip with your knees. Control the speed of the horse with your heels. If you want to slow down, pull back on the reins. Use only enough pressure to get a response from the horse. When the horse has slowed down to a walk, ease up on the reins and let the horse have his mouth. Keep your heels - in fact, your feet just off his sides while slowing down. Lean back slightly. The message you are sending to the horse is that you intend to slow down, if not stop. Many working horses know to slow down - or even stop - with the change of your body position. Be ready for it. Using more pressure in the pull-back than is necessary could send you over his head and moaning about the status of your crotch.
The most important thing about stopping is to know that a horse is not like your car - you don't have to keep your foot on the brake pedal even after the car has stopped. Once the horse has obeyed you, put some slack in the reins so there is no pressure on the bit. He should stand there without further cues frim you until you urge him to go. If you don't release the pressure on the bit after he has stopped, the horse will likely start walking backwards - assuming he has been so trained. If he hasn't been trained to "back" then he won't understand the command.
Unlike a machine that can stall out on you, you are dealing with a living thing with ears, eyes, and most importantly, a brain. If you were the horse, what would you do? Ditch the driver!
Making him go is simple enough - if he was trained as a pleasure horse. A kick in his ribs with your heels is all it takes. Many will respond similarly if you cluck to them or making a kissing sound and lean slightly forward. To go faster, another kick of your heels in his ribs - directly below your knee and behind the front legs of the horse will do it. If I had a nickel for every time I've seen someone trying to kick the horse by swing their leg back from their own knee, I would be a wealthy woman. It's no wonder the horse doesn't go under such circumstances. No contact is being made with the horse.
Turning. Not all horses are western pleasure horses. I'm sure you've seen in westerns where the cowboy holds both reins in one hand and by moving that one hand with both reins in his grasp, gets the horse to turn in the direction his hand is going. This is called neck reining. If the horse is ridden english or is a hunter/jumper, he won't know what that means - and will either stop or turn the wrong direction. If you are riding bareback for your first ride and make the mistake of thinking he will respond the way the horses do on westerns, prepare yourself to kiss the ground your horse walks on. Literally.
So, for the sake of safety first, do it the old fashioned way - harness reining, plow reining, english reining - whatever term you prefer, the concept is the same - to go right, pull on the right rein while leaving plenty of slack on the left rein. He will need more slack on the left rein because his head will turn right before his body follows. The same to turn left.
Horses tend to be very precise animals. They follow the commands you give them to the letter. Be sure you ask him to do what you want him to do. If you are in a car stopped at a stop sign and want to turn right, does your car turn right if your turn the steering wheel to the right? No. It might help if you put pressure on the accelerator while you are turning the steering wheel. Otherwise, you will just turn the direction your front tires are heading. Same thing with a horse. You are both standing still and you pull on the right rein. The horse will turn his head to the right. If you want to pet his nose while sitting on him, this is how you would go about it. But, to move toward to the right, pull on the right rein and kick with your right heel. Same for the left. Although this is the correct way to go about turning while moving, it is not entirely essential to kick with just one heel. Nothing will go wrong if you forget and kick with both your heels.
Very important. If you find yourself falling - or slipping off, never, ever try to right yourself by tugging on the reins. Let go of the steering wheel! Otherwise, you are going to fall and the horse is apt to follow you down - or at best, back up over you.
Again,.very important: If you have to lead the while all you have on him is a headstall, bit and reins, there is a right and wrong way to do it. He is not a dog and is not wearing a collar. Do not lead the horse holding just one side.of the reins. Do not lead while the single rope reins are still over his head. Slip the reins back over his head and lead him with equal pressure on both sides of the bit in the direction you are walking. Keep your hand about 12" from the front of his mouth. This gives you instant control if he should spook at something as you are leading him. Walk to one side of his head or the other - never directly in front of him. If something goes "BOOM" behind him, he's likely to bolt forward - into you. Always be at his side
This should be enough to get you started. But nothing written can ever prepare you for that first ride. If you have the time and money, invest in proper riding lessons. My recommendation is to learn on an english saddle, on an english lesson horse at an english riding academy. No other method of riding will teach you the most essential aspect of riding - your own sense of balance. Learning the english way will teach you the proper placement of your legs and is unsurpassed when teaching you to grip with your knees. Your legs will be strengthened (and sore) from the experience. From there, go on to riding any way you want - including bareback.
All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright © 1996 - 2005 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.