These recommendations are my personal opinion, formed by experience and my own research, I’m not paid or encouraged to endorse any kind of tack or gear.
I wrote this article because I often get asked what kind of saddle or bridle I can recommend or why my horse wears hoof boots instead of shoes. There seems to be a lot of insecurity about what kind of tack to use and even well-meaning horse owners often ride on ill-fitting saddles or use 10 inch shanks – often just because the horse came with it.
There’s many options & recommendations on bitless bridles. When I got thinking about switching my riding from the classical bit I grew up using to something that would be fairer on my horse I was overwhelmed by all the articles, books, studies and recommendations by several “natural horsemanship” trainers…
So, I did what I do and started my own research. Reading books and articles on the bio-mechanic of horses, their nerve system and bone structure and I realised that putting anything on their heads is pretty fierce already since the head’s bone and nerve structure is very delicate and not protected by layers of muscle or thick skin.
On the other hand, I maintain that we have the bigger brain and with it comes responsibility – No. 1 to keep them save.
See, Wesley doesn’t mind crossing busy roads when they’re between him and his home. So, as much as I detest the word “control”, I do need a certain amount of it over a 600 kg horse to keep him save from harm. What a dilemma!
Here’s my compromise with myself: On walkies and doing groundwork we mostly go out only with a neckring only or work in liberty in the arena. With his head free and no consequence of pain whatsoever. When I ride, I use a bridle – but no more bits. Ever!
Here’s what I came up with on my research of bitless options:
Dr. Cook bitless bridle
This option is a bit more sophisticated than most bitless bridles as it offers the rider aids to ask for lateral movements and bends similar to a snaffle bit, it definitely requires a very soft hand as it acts on the horses nose as well as on the sides of the head.
Dr. Cook bridles are probably not suitable for young horses as the way the aids address the horses head may lead to claustrophobia.
Vienna riding cavesson
The bitless option for anybody and any horse.
This cavesson has been the tack of choice for dressage training since the 16th century and it’s still used for the training of all stallions in the famous Spanish Riding School at Vienna.
Unfortunately, it had been forgotten as a riding bridle among mainstream dressage lovers for a very long time. Growing up I would only see it used for lunging horses with correct “Stellung” (head positioning). I’m glad to see it coming back to the riding arenas, as it is the safest, most precise, fair and useful headstall I have come across.
Would I start a horse today, I wouldn’t think twice about what to use for it.
Buy one without metal in the nose band (except for the D-rings, of course) and make sure the chin strap works the way it should, which is much lower on the horse jaw, savely on the fleshy bit of its cheeks, and secures it in place without moving around on your horses head and causing unpleasant rubbing.
What’s great about this bridle, among its many advantages, is that you don’t need to change tack to lunge or work from the ground – it’s ideally suited for all purposes: groundwork, lunging (using the middle ring), as well as riding – using the front side D-rings to attach the reins. This way you have a much more direct connection with your horses head and can cleary ask it to turn, halt and position its head.
Sidepull and Hackamore?
I don’t like sidepulls much because they move around on the horses head too much. So if you ride with a bit of contact or want to ask for bends or sideways movements, this isn’t the choice for you. I can also not recommend sidepulls for young horses or those who tend to be very forward as you have very little choice but to heavily pull on their noses. This bridle is often praised as the softest way to ride, but I have seen it used brutally many a time.
Now, hackamores are a whole different ballgame. Simply said, with two levers on your horse’s nose it doesn’t take much strength to break it. This bridle might be very useful with forward-upward horses, but it only belongs in the hands of pros. Just as the bosal (basically the Western version of a hackamore) it is there to hardly be used.
Boots & gaiters
Now I’m a big fan of leaving horses barefoot, because it usually improves the health of their hooves and they can move more naturally. And to be honest, most horses only need protection while being ridden on stony paths or in the arena.
However, I strongly recommend speaking with your farrier before making any decision or taking off their shoes if they are already wearing some. Often it’s good to get two opinions.
Hoof boots vs. traditional hoof shoes:
- better shock-absorption for the hoof and the entire skeleton
- sense of touch is preserved, metal shoes take a lot of that away
- only used when needed, your horse is probably fine barefoot most of the time
- cheaper in the long run… good boots are ca. 200 € a pair, hold for 8 – 12 months
What to look out for when buying:
There’s great hoof-boot makers out there, companies from Norway, the USA and Spain leading the field with extensive research being done to support the leisure as well as the sports horse in their natural movement.
Don’t buy used ones, with the wear and tear you won’t have them long.
Measure your horse’s hooves properly a few days after they had a pedicure, there’s lots of instructions on how to do this on the internet. There’s even some tests you can take that ask you questions about the form, size and irregularities, such as shortened heels or flares to find the types of shoes that fit your horse just right.
Some farriers even specialise in this and have models to try out, ask them next time!
Wesley, for example, has huge hooves that are regular, round and with short heels.
I will always ride my horses with gaiters on their front legs to protect their tendons. It can easily happen that a horse steps into its own front legs from behind or hits himself with a front hoof – this is especially dangerous with horses that wear traditional shoes.
And when you think about it, gaiters (I like the hard-shell ones) don’t cost much, are very durable and it takes seconds to put them on. So what’s to think about?
What needs to be said about saddles in general, irrelevant of style and type, is that its the connection point between your horse’s back and your seat and therefore the single most important piece of equipment used in horseback riding. As a horse’s back is highly sensitive and by far not as strong as many people believe, we need to make sure it fits perfectly.
A good saddler will not only measure the back, take a mould and consult you thoroughly on your options, but they will also lend you a saddle for a few days to test it out. This way you can find out if you, and most importantly, your horse feel comfortable with it.
Western vs. English
Now, I come from traditional English riding and therefore use English saddles for dressage as well as jumping and trail riding. I prefer them because they are very light, force you to assume an upright and correct seat and do not impair my horses movement in the shoulder and lumbar region.
Here’s where I beg to differ with Western riders, even though I have no premonitions whatsoever on what kind of riding style you prefer. I’ll just say it straight: I don’t like your sofa-like, heavy saddles!
They are probably great for herding cattle, I don’t know – never tried it myself, after all that is what they were made for: working cattle on the prairies of North America.
In the foothills of the Bavarian Alps where we are located I still have to come across someone who actually puts this saddle with its practical horn for lassoing to its intended use. What I usually see is leisure riders in cowboy saddles.
Here’s a list of disadvantages of the Western saddle:
- They are immensely heavy, adding to the rider’s weight.
- The sheer size impairs the horse’s shoulder movement.
- They are often too long in the back and hinder free movement.
- The girth is antiquated with a thin leather strap, no elastic parts.
- The seat is usually huge and riders who do not have an independent and upright seat yet slide around in it a lot, which throws the horse off-balance constantly.
- Since these saddles do not offer the padding, called panels, they need to be used with very thick saddle pads which create a huge distance between seat and horseback.
- The very large flaps and stirrup leathers also create distance and prevent instant feedback and light riding aids.
More and more often in recent times I come across great treeless saddles. What used to be the last resort for horses with “difficult” backs, large shoulders, high withers or very round barrels, now seems to be a viable option even for competitive sports riders. There’s many saddle brands nowadays where the naked eye couldn’t even make out if it was treeless or not. They exist for classical, baroque, english, western, endurance sports.
Had I not the privilege of riding my old boy on tailor-made saddles, especially made to fit his high withers, I would have already gone treeless by now. I really like the idea of having a saddle that fits virtually any horse and by its ergonomic shape does not hinder it in any movement – what’s more: they are super-light!
Here’s a list of advantages of treeless saddles:
- They move perfectly with the horse’s back.
- No pressure points, no pain.
- Fits even “difficult” backs.
- Facilitates close contact to the horse.
- Can be used on different horses.
- They accommodate for changing shape that occur with seasons, growth, training and age.
What to look out for when buying a treeless saddle:
Look to saddle-makers who can demonstrate long term research and commitment.
Like with all types of saddles there’s poor saddle making upstarts, you can usually spot them because the price is too good to be true – even when considering that a good treeless saddle is probably still considerably less than a quality English or Western saddle.
And again: don’t buy before you try – at least a few days.
Bareback pads are a great way to improve your feeling for rhythm and analyse your horse’s movement, they improve seat, balance and consciousness.
In the Spanish riding schools a rider’s training begins with 6 months on the lunge without a saddle to train for an independent, balanced seat.
However, I think the saddle is THE necessary connection point between horse and rider – as we both haven’t been made for bareback riding, it protects the horse’s back from our seatbones. Another problem with bareback riding (pad or no) is the lack of stirrups, which not only provide us with extra security in the saddle in a dangerous situation, but also help us alleviate our horses’ backs by posting to the trot or galloping over the meadows in a light (or hunt) seat.
So, I recommend riding without a saddle as often as possible – just a few minutes if you aren’t used to it, since it is so useful a training element to achieve and independent seat and the art of fine riding.
Pads are a great way to protect your horses back because they act as shock-absorbers, however I would only use a pad when needed, and then as thin as possible. Their disadvantage is that they increase the distance between rider and horseback.
A well-fitting saddle on a healthy horse is enough for a good and pain-free ride.
I use a 5 mm perforated gel pad between a thin saddlecloth and my English dressage or show jumping saddles. Those fluffy lamb skin pads look nice and cuddly, but they are way too thick to properly fit underneath a fitting saddle. Everything else is meant for chairs!
As promised before, I’ll do a post about lunging soon. It’s such a versatile art of training horses and much has gone wrong in round pens and riding halls with lunging horses.
What to use: The Viannese Cavesson
Alternatively, just use a neck rope or lunge tied loosely around the neck. This only works for well-balanced horses that don’t fall into or drag out of the lunging circle though.
The cavesson is best suited for lunging, since it does not disturb the forward motion by tugging backwards as lunging on a stable halter does. It provides a natural and simple way of asking for correct “Stellung” (head positioning) which then is followed by a nice, natural bend inwards. Always look out for a light inside front shoulder. If your horse puts its weight on this shoulder, it cannot move freely and its posture will deteriorate even further.
This is the point where I wished more people learned how to lunge correctly, read a book, online articles or best, get a good trainer who understands the horse’s biomechanic.
Why no side-reins for lunging? Why no bit?
Don’t. Just don’t! This is where I quit being diplomatic. Just don’t even think about it.
Your horse is better off not leaving the stable at all if you do this. It’s lazy, unnecessary and counter-productive to any training. It will hurt your horse, lead to bad posture, creates front-heavy brutes and accelerates natural wear-and-tear manifold.
Forcing horses into unnatural postures is completely futile! There’s no short cuts to an open, swinging back with active, pushing hindlegs that take on weight, lower the croup and free up the front shoulders to actively reach high and wide, supporting a high, arched and proud head and neck position with lifted withers and rib cage or allowing them to stretch their necks deep and forward to open up a back that might be tense and relax.
I’m sure nobody reading this blog needs explaining that whips aren’t for whipping. But what are they for?
I use the whip for groundwork, lunging, sometimes for riding and with young or pushy horses even when leading. For me it is an extension of my arms, it helps me, for example, to give signals to front and hindquarters simultaneously. The great thing about working with horses from the ground is their amazing field of vision, your horse has no trouble seeing and understanding what you are indicating with your hand, voice and body posture standing by its shoulder and at the same time processing what you are signalling to its hind legs with the whip.
The whip is also a great way to engage hind legs while riding, just a tap – even a movement is enough to say “chop, chop – pick up your legs, buddy”, it can be useful as a barrier with personal space debates or as an attention grabber (just wiggling it around to regain attention). Asking for bends while lunging or working in hand is easy as a horse will automatically bend around an object pointed at its flanks, it also helps with adjusting tempo or switching gaits on the lunge.
I like to use a longish dressage whip (110 – 120 cm) for everything, but will soon try out a touchier whip (bit longer with a tassel or short cord attached) to ask for lateral movements towards me – as this is a bit difficult to point out this request to a huge horse.
I find jumping crops too short and lunging whips too long to be useful.
Walkies & Groundwork:
Neck rope, Stable halter and rope halter
I do most of my groundwork at liberty and I go for walks with only a neck rope or lunge tied loosely around Wesley’s neck most of the time. I use the stable halter for when the vet is coming, I need him to be still for something or when he gets a bit too difficult to handle around the fresh, young grass in spring when he’s still not allowed out on the meadows (finally he’s been out since Thursday!).
I do not like to engage in tag-of-war games, since 50 kg vs. 600 kg is simply an unfair match.
I’ve recently asked a “natural horsemanship” trainer why he uses rope halters with all his pupils. He explained to me it’s just a “sharper” version of the stable halter and helps his pupils make their (often young) horses finer. Well, at least this gentleman isn’t lying to himself here…
You might have noticed by now, I’m not a fan of the rope halter. I think they are brutal.
Even though the aforementioned gentleman made me realise I use the stable halter just the same way – to make my horse lighter and more attentive again, just for short periods of time before going back to a simple neck rope.
I get the motivation to use them though. Too many light women (and men) get pulled around by their front-heavy and brutish horses left and right and they are sick of it.
Well, I could write an entire book about the fact, that a horse becomes (or ideally stays) light by way of correct and fine training, not by putting on sharper tack…
But for now I can only recommend the following for those being pulled around and desperate enough to use a not only sharp but also dangerous (they don’t break in panic situations as stable halters do) rope halter: use a Viennese cavesson and a dressage whip when leading, walking or ground training your horse. Or even better: train at liberty!
It’s very effective and you can work on giving lighter and lighter aids – combined with praise, your horse will soon become nimble.
After all this talk about equipment, here’s a question for you, the horse-owner:
Can you go out with a neck ring or just a lunge rope around the neck?
Try it out: Leave all the tack at home and go exploring together, it’ll be fun!