Riding trails in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Greg Schatz leading his string of horses up to the lookout at Prairie Reef. Photo: Kaye Wittig

Trail Riding Tack

Trail riding tack needs to be comfortable for both horse and rider, sturdy, and safe.

Saddles

The most important and usually the most expensive piece of tack to consider is the saddle. Choosing one can be a bewildering chore, particularly if you’re new to trail riding. It can be frustrating even if you’ve been riding for years. Saddle shopping is one of those things we rarely have to do as long as we have a favorite saddle. But if our saddle is in a wreck or we get a new horse that doesn’t fit what we already have, it’s back to square one. It’s not unheard of for a trail rider to spend a season or two trying to find a Goldilocks saddle — one that’s “just right.”

Most pleasure-type saddles can be used for trail riding if they:

Fit the horse well (nothing’s perfect, but you should get as close as you can)

Are adequately comfortable for the rider 

Allow additions such as breast collar, britching, and saddle bags to be added securely

That sounds simple enough, but it actually is a tall order. If you’re lucky enough to have a stock-type horse with an average length back with normal muscle and defined withers, saddle fit shouldn’t be a problem because that’s the type of back manufacturers target. But if your horse has any variation of shape: a short back or low withers or a flat back or a sway back or is overweight, then getting a saddle to fit gets complicated fast.

Saddle quality also varies tremendously. Now that there are several types of synthetic materials and trees in addition to leather and wood, construction of the saddle takes on even more importance than it did before.

As for rider comfort, it’s easy to discover what you don’t want. Generally, it takes less than the first hour of a trail ride to notice that the stirrup leathers are two different lengths or that the saddle is ridiculously creaky or the seat is too hard/too short/too long or that the stirrups haven’t been “turned” and they’re already killing your knees. All saddles should be sold on a trial basis. If you buy a saddle from a private seller, make an agreement to return it if it doesn’t fit. Custom saddle makers should build the saddle to fit both a special horse and a particular rider, then offer to alter anything that causes discomfort.

Some people try to fix saddle fit issues with a saddle pad, but often that’s like trying to wear thicker socks when your boots pinch in one spot. Some saddle comfort issues can be fixed with swivel stirrups, angled stirrups, or a padded seat cushion, but you might be surprised to find that simply riding in another saddle clears up whatever pain your older saddle gave you. I’ve ridden in one saddle for a day and felt great the next, whereas I was almost unable to walk after riding in another saddle for less than an hour. Also, don’t assume that because a saddle is comfortable for someone else that it would be comfortable for you. 

The saddles we have listed as our recommendations are from good brands which offer refunds on returns and good customer service. We can not foresee how any of these saddles would fit you or your horse, however. The only thing we suggest is to learn about saddle fit HERE, learn about different styles of rigging HERE, learn about different trees HERE, about different saddle seats HERE, and about different stirrups HERE. Hopefully, all that will help you when you find yourself looking for your next saddle.

Western Trail Saddles

Most western trail saddles are designed to be lighter and more comfortable for horse and rider than standard ranching and roping saddles.

Trail Saddles

Several trail saddle makers have catered to the long distance trail events which require dependable, lightweight saddles made with high-tech materials, but other trail saddle makers have made updates to older designs such as the famous McClellan saddle or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police saddles.

Australian Saddles

Australian saddles come in a traditional style (without a horn) and a stock style (with a horn) along with a range of cross-over styles.

Mule Trail Saddles

Some mules can be ridden in standard horse saddles, but many mules require a saddle designed for their unique build.

Gaited Trail Saddles

If you have a gaited mount, you really should ride in a gaited saddle so that your weight is in the right place.

Pack Saddles

There are essentially only two types of pack saddles: sawbuck and Decker. 

Saddle Accessories

When choosing a saddle, you should also consider what accessories you will need and how they will fit with the saddle.

Saddle Pads

Saddle pads and blankets come in a bewildering array of materials, colors, and shapes. Over the years, we have always returned to the same style, however: a medium-thick felted wool pad.

Cinches and Girths

Greg calls them cinches and Kaye calls them girths. They have the same function: keep the saddle on, but what are the differences?

Breastcollars

You may never notice a need for a breast collar while riding on the flat, but the minute you ride up a steep incline for more than a few strides, you will feel your saddle slip backwards if you don’t have a breast collar on.

Breast collars are also helpful to keep your saddle in place if you have a mule or if you have a horse with low or padded withers.

Breeching (Britching) and Cruppers

Mandatory on mules on all rides, britching and cruppers are also a necessary piece of tack while riding in the mountains or steep territory.

Breeching is the leather configuration which goes around the horse or mule’s rear to keep the saddle from slipping forward. 

A crupper is one piece which goes around a horse’s tail to keep the saddle from slipping forward.

It is possible to have both breeching and a crupper on a horse (driving harnesses use both) but it shouldn’t be necessary to use both for trail riding. 

Caution with cruppers: it is possible, though not common, for a horse or mule to actually break their tail from use of a crupper. We tend to prefer breeching over cruppers for that reason, for the animal’s comfort, and for the fact that if one piece of leather breaks on the breeching, there still is enough there to keep the saddle stable.

Saddle Bags

You would be surprised at what you can carry in a saddle bag.

The obvious things are: water bottle, camera, sweater, rain jacket, lunch, sunscreen, and phone.

Oops! No, don’t keep the phone in your saddle bag. Your phone belongs on yourself because in the event you part ways with your horse, you won’t be able to access your saddle bags. 

Halters and Lead Ropes

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Leather Halters

Leather halters are the traditional headgear for horses and we trust them to hold a horse in most situations and break when they need to.

What? You want a halter to break?

Yes, there are times you want a halter to break, though usually not on a backcountry trip. If you have a favorite leather halter, by all means, use it. But before you do, give a good rope halter a try and see what you think.

Synthetic Halters

For years every horse wore a nylon halter everywhere, even in the pasture.

And nylon halters killed a lot of horses.

If you want to tie a horse and keep it tied no matter what, a well-fitting nylon halter can’t be beat. That’s why we use nylon halters when tying a horse in a horse trailer. Then when we get to our destination…we take them off.

There are other types of synthetic halters on the market: biothane and beta which are favorites of distance riders. So what’s best?

Rope Halters

Pat Parelli sold a LOT of rope halters, but he didn’t invent them. Humans have been leading horses around with rope for a long time and there’s a 700-year old Chinese painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the same design as  “Parelli” halter.

The Chinese didn’t have poly dacron…but they did have silk.

There are a lot of reasons to love rope halters. And a few times when they should not be used. One of the times we try to avoid using them are when tying a horse in a trailer, especially if the halter doesn’t fit the horse perfectly.

Want to learn how to tie your own? It’s easy to do and if you tie your own, you can get the fit just right.

Lead Ropes

Ok, you would think the choice of a lead rope would be simple, wouldn’t you?

Not so fast. Cotton twist or cotton web? Nylon or poly? Yacht braid or core? 6′, 8′, or 10′? Swivel snap, carabiner, or no snap at all?

Generally it’s best to skip the snap because they have a tendency to break in the backcountry. Most packers simply tie their lead ropes to the halter. Synthetic works fine for most uses but cotton doesn’t give a rope burn. It does get heavy and saggy when wet, though. Our favorites are usually 10′ long, but one that length isn’t necessary for all applications.

Bridles and Hackamores

Once you have a halter and rope to lead your horse, your next question might be, what kind of bridle do I need?

Most people are first taught to turn a horse using neck reining and to stop a horse by pulling back on the bit. For a lot of horses, thats basically correct. Sort of. Except for when that doesn’t work.

When your control of your horse under saddle doesn’t work, one of the first things trainers often ask is “what bit are you using?”

At which point the rider may shrug and answer, “the bit that came with the horse.”

That would be a fair answer. But as with most everything in the horse world, there’s a lot more to choosing a bit for trail riding than simply accepting what “came with the horse” even if, once you understand your options, that’s what you ultimately stick with.

 

Bits vs Bitless

For those of you who have missed the whole bit vs bitless discussion raging in the horse world, it may come as a surprise to you that you can ride your horse on trails using nothing more than a halter. 

(Actually, some horse/human relationships don’t even require a halter – or saddle – but for the rest of us mortals, we’ll touch on that another time.)

Essentially, what you choose to use on your horse’s head to cue a change of direction boils down to a choice of two:

 1) a headstall securing a bit in the horse’s mouth, the combination commonly referred to as a bridle

2) a bitless headstall which places pressure on a horse’s nose, cheeks, chin, and/or poll

 

1) Headstall with Bit

2) Bitless Sidepull Headstall

Snaffle Bit
Curb Bit
Tom Thumb Bit
Gag Bit

Bits

There are three categories of bits.

The first category- snaffle bits – place pressure on the sides (bars) of a horse’s mouth from direct pressure on the reins. (aka – pull left, go left, pull right, go right)

A snaffle may have a solid or a jointed mouthpiece. The thing that identifies it is that the rein is attached directly to the side of the mouthpiece. If a snaffle has a chin strap, the chin strap only serves to keep the bit centered in the horse’s mouth.

The second category – curb bits- use lever action to place pressure on a horse’s palate, chin, and poll.

Like the snaffle, a curb bit can also have a solid or a jointed mouthpiece. The thing that identifies the curb is that the rein is attached to the end of a shank which creates leverage when the rein is pulled. Chin straps on curb bits create pressure under the chin, unlike the straps on snaffle bits.

Curb bits give poor direct reining cues because of the twist the shank causes and so they should be used only with horses who know how to neck rein. 

Some bits with jointed mouthpieces and shanks, such as Tom Thumb bits, are mistaken for snaffle bits, but they really are a leverage bit. (Yes, I know that Weaver Leather calls their bits “Tom Thumb snaffles” but they have shanks and that’s their marketing.) Because they are a leverage bit, they should not be used in direct reining (pull left, go left), either. 

The third category, one familiar in polo and show jumping, are gag bits. These can be built to look similar to a snaffle or a curb, but their main action is to place pressure on the sides of a horse’s mouth and the top of the poll to get the horse to elevate their front end. This often results in a horse throwing their head up in a rider’s face. Because of this, gag bits are not for trail riding.

Headstalls for Bits

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Bosals and Mecates

A bosal is a specially braided rawhide loop meant to be hung around the horse’s nose with a leather headstall, some of which are simple and some which are ornate. Instead of reins, the rider uses a mecate -a special rope made of horse hair, but sometimes made of yacht braid.

In the Spanish Vaquero tradition, the bosal is a training aid which the cowhorse graduates to after being ridden in a snaffle but before the leverage bit. It’s a refined tool in the hands of a master. We’re not saying a bosal and mecate can’t be used on a trail horse, but they weren’t originally meant for that purpose. 

There are bosal-like nosebands which are used in headstalls, however, which do a good job of cueing a horse and are favorites in competitive distance trail riding. Some riders like a modified mecate which serves as both reins and lead rope. 

Tying a horse with the long end of the bosal’s mecate is definitely NOT recommended.

Sidepulls

In most ways, a sidepull is simply a halter with a tighter nose piece and rings attached at the side to direct rein the horse.

Some horses love these. Some horses don’t. 

If you have a horse with bitting issues or one with dental problems, you certainly should consider training your horse to take cues from the sidepull.

Sidepulls are also ideal to use on the trail because they allow a horse to drink and/or eat without the bother of a bit. They are especially handy in the winter when you don’t want to put a cold chunk of metal in a horse’s mouth.

The horses who don’t like them are usually bothered by the pressure on the nose. Some horses who pull have a tendency to either ignore sidepulls or rub the skin on their noses raw. Some horses seem to find the snugness of the nose piece too confining. If the rider likes to ride with contact, that, too, can affect how the horse tolerates the sidepull.

If you have a horse who accepts the sidepull without fuss, it’s a great tool.

Mechanical Hackamores

Mechanical hackamores are meant to be used with horses or mules who have already been taught to direct rein with a snaffle or sidepull and who have been taught to neck rein. 

Mechanical hackamores are NOT to be used on green horses, and they’re probably not all that appropriate for beginning riders who hang on the reins.

That said, mechanical hackamores are definitely a favorite of many for trail riding, especially for gait horse owners.

Reins

If you thought the choices of lead ropes are complicated, wait until you see the options in reins!

Hoof Protection

Almost every horse needs some form of hoof protection when ridden more than a few hours on stony ground or gravel.

Metal Shoes

If you’re planning to use a horse for several trail rides over the season, traditional horse shoes offer great protection, especially if you follow your farrier’s instructions and have them refit when you’re supposed to.

Metal shoes are not a great idea if you keep your horses out on pasture with other horses for the summer. They’re also expensive if you only ride a horse once for a short time.

Synthetic Shoes

Glue-on synthetic shoes still require a farrier to set them on a trimmed hoof. They offer great protection and traction. They are not dangerous if left on a horse in a pasture with the herd. They do, however, wear out faster than metal horse shoes.

Reusable Boots

Hoof boots are the way to go if you have a horse who is going barefoot well. There are several brands of boots and if you have problems fitting one to your horse’s hooves, try another brand. 

The reason we like reusable boots is since they last several trips, you don’t feel that you’re losing money if you use them on a horse for only once or twice a season.

Everything Else from Fly Masks to Feed Bags

These items are especially important to have in your pack in the backcountry.

Hobbles

Training to tolerate hobbles before your trip is essential for all trail horses. And don’t think that just because a horse has hobbles on that they can’t move. Some get very adept at sneaking away from you at high speeds. It’s good to know before you go how fast your horse can move in hobbles.

Picket Line

A picket line kit is mandatory when camping in the wilderness. Practice tying your horses at home so that they don’t pull and are happy to stand all night on the line.

Fly Masks

In some areas fly masks are a vacation-saver, for you and your horse. Bug spray should almost always be packed, too.

Feed Bags

After using a feed bag once to portion feed to each member of the herd, we wouldn’t go anywhere without them, now. They solve the problem of tipped buckets and spilled feed. Remember to pack certified weed-free feed for most areas.