The correct selection and fitting of gear is very important if you want your horse to be relaxed and to be able to work for you without being uncomfortable or in pain. A horse cannot work well in badly fitting gear in just the same way that you cannot walk in badly fitting shoes. Gear that rubs causes sore areas, leading to mild to extreme discomfort in the horse; therefore poorly fitting gear can be the start of many physical and behavioural problems with horses.
An inexperienced owner/rider will need help when fitting new gear to a horse. Fitting gear, particularly a saddle, is difficult until a horse owner is experienced enough to know exactly what to look for therefore if you are unsure seek experienced advice.
Physical signs that a horse is sore from poorly fitted gear include tender areas which will be felt when grooming the horse or will cause the horse to resist being saddled or ridden, through to actual open sores which obviously will lead to even more resistance on the part of the horse due to extreme pain.
In particular, the areas of the horse that are commonly affected by poor gear fit are the mouth corners (due to problems with the bit), the base of the ears (due to problems with the browband), the front of the nose and the back of the jaw (due to problems with the noseband), the area behind the elbow (due to problems with the girth) and the back area due to problems with the saddle cloth and/or due to incorrect saddle fit.
Poorly fitting and inappropriate bits cause many problems with horses. The bit should have no sharp edges, should be the correct size for the horse and should be fitted at the correct height in the mouth. Bits vary enormously in type. Never use a bit without fully understanding how it works and why you are using it, many bits are very severe and should not be used by an inexperienced horse person – at the same time knowledgeable horse people usually realise that severe bits are often counterproductive and do not use them.
The browband can be a source of discomfort if not fitted properly. If it is too tight it can pull the headpiece too close to the ears so check that it is not doing this. Horses that are uncomfortable due to an ill-fitting browband may shake their head or may keep trying to rub the bridle off although many horses show no outward signs even though the browband is too tight.
A bridle may or may not have a noseband fitted. A noseband should not be tight around the nose/jaw of the horse (although many people fit a noseband in this way). There should be room to fit two fingers between the noseband and the head. Be especially careful with a young horse (up to five years old) that will have molars erupting in the jaw. A too tight noseband in this case will cause additional pain.
A girth should be the correct length and should not rub (which will cause girth galls/pressure sores). The material that a girth is made from can make it rub the horse as can a build up of dirt on the girth and/or on the horse. When a horse has been out of work for some time girth galls are more likely to occur when that horse returns to work due to the skin in this area becoming softer (this of course applies to young horses who are starting work for the first time), in the same way that blisters initially form on your hands and feet if you do unaccustomed hard physical work. A girth that is too tight or too loose can also cause girth galls.
A saddle cloth or blanket can be used to keep the underside of the saddle clean and to soak up or wick away sweat. Synthetic saddles should always have a saddle cloth underneath them because they create a lot of heat. Western saddles must always be used in conjunction with a thick pad because the saddle itself does not have padded panels.
A poorly fitting saddle causes many problems because poor saddle fit is exacerbated by the weight of the rider. A saddle can be too narrow in the tree (the internal ‘frame’) which will pinch the horse’s back or too wide (which will cause the saddle to put direct pressure on the bones of the horse’s back). A saddle can be too short (which will concentrate the weight of the rider into an area that is too small) or too long (which will put the weight of the rider over the weakest part of the horse’s back – near the loins).
Remember that a horse changes shape as he or she loses or gains condition and develops or loses muscle tone. For example a saddle that is fitted to a four year old horse will not necessarily fit that same horse after a year or two of work because the horse will have developed muscle that will cause the back to change shape.
If possible a saddle should be fitted by a professional saddle fitter. Saddlery stores often provide this service. If not your riding instructor, Pony Club or local riding club should be able to help with gear fitting in general.
For more information please see the Equiculture Responsible Horse Care page.