Tacking Up - How to Prepare a Horse Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tacking Up - How to Prepare a Horse

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A man in a red bow tie holding a saddle addressing a horse: 'Your saddle, sir.'

Tacking up is a term used by horsey types to mean preparing a horse for work by 'dressing' it in the appropriate equipment. Sort of like Buckaroo1, but without the bucking, one would hope. Like grooming, tacking up is an opportunity to see and feel the horse and its actions and reactions, and for it to get to know you. A horse's reaction to having a saddle placed on its back, for instance, can indicate to you how much warming up it might need before you work it hard.

Before you decide to take on the task of tacking up a horse for the first time, there are a few things you really should be sure of:

First, is there someone with you who is knowledgeable about the process you are about to undertake? This Entry is a description only, and cannot replace the direct guidance of someone who has done it hundreds of times before and knows what they're doing, to make sure that neither you nor the horse ends up uncomfortable (or kicked or bitten2...) or traumatised from the experience.

Second, do you know the horse? Has it been trained to do the work you are preparing it for? Is it familiar with the equipment (we'll start calling it tack from here on in, as that's the proper term, after all) that you will be putting on it? This, too, will have a bearing on how successful your attempts are and how you approach the whole thing.

Assuming you have a docile, well-trained and willing equine accomplice and an equally calm and able assistant to show you the ropes, we'll proceed with a description and explanation of the most usual basic tack you will come across for riding English style.

The Saddle

Traditionally made of leather and stuffed with wool, the saddle is what you will be sitting on when you're on the horse's back. High quality synthetics are being used more often nowadays as a substitute for leather in the construction of saddles, as they are easier to clean and require less intensive care to keep them in good condition. Air pads and foam stuffing are also getting to be more popular fillings and shapers than wool, as wool requires re-fluffing and stuffing regularly by a qualified saddle-maker because it tends to clump which can cause sore spots for the horse. A variety of plastics are also being tried as substitutes for the classic wooden 'saddle tree', the 'spine' around which the saddle is constructed, as they are more flexible and less likely to break.

The saddle is shaped, if viewed from above, roughly like two Ps joined along the straight edge but with a rounded, flared base. This rounded bottom end is the back of the saddle and is called the cantle. The stitching will run along either side of the centre line narrowing at the waist (narrowest part) and then opening out again to cover the raised front of the saddle known as the pommel. The material will continue below this stitching near the front forming a flap. This is known as the skirt. If you lift this you will see a metal bar, often with a hinged end. This is what your stirrup leathers will hang from3.

The next large piece of material may be smooth or it could have raised areas on it. This is known as the saddle flap and the padded, raised areas are known as rolls. They are designed to keep your leg in roughly the right position but can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help if they are in the wrong place for your or your horse's shape. They are placed differently depending on the purpose the saddle is mainly to be used for, whether it be jumping or dressage, though you will most likely encounter an all-purpose saddle that can be used for both. For the novice however this is a minimal concern, so we'll move on.

If you lift the flap, you will find some long straps with holes punched in them, like the hole-end of a belt. There should be a minimum of two, although three is more common. The girth will attach to two of these straps. The extra one is there for a number of reasons4, not least of which is that having the extra strap allows for some flexibility in where the girth lies in relation to the saddle (forward, in the middle or further back) which can help to adjust the fit properly. Using two buckles on the girth not only spreads the pressure across the width of the girth, but also helps you tighten it without risking it coming loose completely should the horse move and you lose your grip.

There is usually another flap under the girth straps, which helps to stop chafing. You will probably find larger rolls attached to this flap, which will work through the upper flap to position your leg and give you more security for faster speeds and jumping. If you turn the saddle over, you will see that the underside is smooth and padded, with thicker padding right up to a long arched gap all the way from the front of the saddle to the back. This is the channel, and it is essential for the comfort and well-being of the horse. It makes sure that the saddle does not come into contact with the spine, which would cause pain and possibly permanent damage. Rather than the spine, the saddle rests on the muscle-padded ribcage.

Stirrups Irons and Leathers

The stirrup is actually one of the most important inventions in human history5. For now, though, all you need to know is that it's the metal bit, usually arched with a flat, textured base and a slot at the top, that hangs from the bars we looked at earlier. The strap it hangs from is called the stirrup leather, even if it's made of synthetic material. Your foot will rest on this once you are in the saddle.

The Girth

This is a long strip of strong material with sets of buckles at both ends. It can be made of leather or be synthetic, it can be padded, lined with fleece (real or synthetic) and even have elastic inserts. This will wrap around the horse's belly behind its front legs and hold the saddle more or less in place, attaching to those belt-like straps we saw earlier under the saddle flap. It is often left attached to one side (usually the right) of the saddle and slung over the top so it's where you need it when you come to tack up. Which we will get to eventually!

The Saddle Pad or Numnah

Not all people use these, and they should never be used to pad out a badly fitting saddle. They come in various shapes and sizes, either shaped to trace the saddle's outline and extend about an inch all round or rectangular and larger than the saddle. Certain riding styles and traditions (some Western-style riders or former cavalry types, for instance) may use a carefully folded blanket, however, the scope for mistakes in folding and fitting renders this method less than ideal for a novice. Nowadays, gel pads are sometimes used to minimise slip; these tend to be rather smaller, and you should consult your instructor on how to fit them. The cloth or fleece ones will have loops for the girth straps to pass through so they stay in place. They are used mainly to absorb sweat and keep the saddle cleaner than if it was in direct contact with the horse's coat. Some specialised ones have moveable foam pads to balance out saddles, but these are best left to the experts to worry about. All you need to know is that the pad should be lifted right up into the channel of the saddle when fitting so that it doesn't sit directly across the spine, which would put pressure on that sensitive area.

The Bridle

The bridle is a collection of different straps and gadgets that we put on the horse's head. This allows us to communicate with the horse so we can control the speed, direction and style of our travels. Described here is a standard English bridle with a noseband and a quick description of martingales as they are often fitted on horses being used for novice riders for extra security.

The Bit

This is the metal piece that goes in the horse's mouth. Sometimes, it will be coated in rubber or plastic (nowadays scented plastics are popular in varieties such as apple, mint and carrot), sometimes a single solid bar6 or a string of what look like metal beads, two pieces jointed in the middle, or perhaps three pieces with a little 'bean' in the centre. The rings, the parts on the outside of the horse's mouth which the reins and bridle attach to, can be large or small, or perhaps even with straight pieces designed to sit vertically outside of the mouth with the rings attached to them.

Entire books have been written on bits, how they work, and what different things do to direct, stop, encourage, hurt and signal the horse. For now, all you need to do is check the condition. If plastic or rubber it shouldn't have any sharp edges or be chewed through to the core (often metal cable or solid metal). If metal, it should similarly be free of sharp edges - that includes baked-on grass or dried horse saliva someone forgot to clean off! If any of it looks fatigued or worn to the point where it could break or cut the horse's mouth, then it should not be used. Other than that, the responsibility is with your instructor to choose the bit that will suit the horse, for now.

The Headpiece and Cheekpieces

These attach to the rings of the bit and will fit up the cheeks and around the back of the head behind the ears. The cheekpieces are adjustable to make sure the bit sits in the right place, although they should be roughly adjusted to the right length - so don't fiddle with them for now. It also splits off just behind and below the eye to a long, thin loop with a buckle, which is the throat-latch. This is always fitted reasonably loosely and is intended to stop the bridle being pulled off over the head when it's done up. Don't tighten it around the horse's throat, or it can't breathe or swallow properly!

The Browband

This is often quite plain but can be as fancy as you want to buy. Diamante, sparkly effects, plaited velvet and myriad other decorative doodahs are all used to make this part of the bridle look interesting. It is relatively short and has large loops at either end for the headpiece and noseband straps to pass through. The throatlatch splits off just below or in front of the browband, which sits across the horse's forehead just in front of the ears. It shouldn't be so narrow as to pull the side-pieces of the bridle up to the horse's eye or so high or tight that it chafes the base of the ear.

The Noseband

The noseband can have various functions from the decorative to the corrective. Like the bit, there are so many variations that to discuss them all here would take all day and sidetrack this Entry more than a little. You're most likely to come into contact with either a simple noseband or a so-called 'flash'. The basic noseband is a strip of leather with an adjustable buckle end (which sits underneath), which runs through or is stitched to a long narrow strip of leather (also adjustable and buckled), which will run around the head with the headpiece. The broader band of the nosepiece itself literally 'bands the nose' (goes around the horse's face) usually just above the last delicate bone in the front of the face and sits under the cheekpieces of the bridle. A flash noseband will have this basic design but there is another thinner strap hanging off a small loop at the top and in the middle of the noseband. This is fitted around the horse's muzzle below the bit and fits in behind the lower lip (you will see a natural groove that it will fit into). It is designed to stop the horse evading signals through the bit by opening its mouth.

The Reins

These are long strips of leather or synthetic material that could be smooth, plaited, woven, coated with rubber or have strips sewn onto them at intervals. These will attach to the bit and sit along the horse's neck and over its back. They are for you to use to signal the horse through its mouth. They are not there to keep you on so do not use them as a safety handle or to steady yourself!


Your horse may also be fitted with a martingale. Martingales are designed first and foremost to keep the horse's head down far enough to allow full control through the reins to the mouth and, in some cases (which you shouldn't come up against, as a novice) to prevent a rearer7 from getting get its head up enough to lift the front end off the ground properly. They come in two main types, with a few minor variations. The standing martingale works directly on the noseband and is therefore rather inflexible, while the running martingale works on the reins so the rider has the choice of how much freedom they allow the horse. They also incorporate a handy neckstrap that gives the novice rider something to grab on to!

The martingale is a strap that buckles around the girth, runs up between the front legs, through a ring in a strap that hangs around the horse's neck8 and then does one of two things: A standing martingale will run up to the noseband and attach to it. It should be fitted so that, when attached, the slack can be held up into the join of the lower jaw and the neck. A running martingale will split into two pieces with metal rings on the end. The reins will pass through the rings. This one should be adjusted so that the rings will reach the withers 9 when the reins are not passed through them. Martingales are often left attached to the bridle for ease of fitting.

Side Reins

Side reins are sometimes fitted to a horse about to be ridden by a novice. They are straps that attach between bit and the girth, usually with a rubber or elastic insert somewhere along their length which allows some flexibility for the horse's head position. Their use varies from country to country, with very different opinions on what is appropriate. However, their intended use is to keep the horse's head in a useful position. Some cultures disapprove of their being used for ridden work, others prefer to use them to martingales for the novice rider's mount where any control of the head is perceived to be necessary.

Tacking Up

Finally! First of all, you will groom the horse. Once the horse is cleaned up, you are ready to tack up. The horse should be tied up by the headcollar, as it was when you were grooming. We will start with the saddle10 after a quick note about transporting the equipment.

Carrying the Tack

In order to get the tack from the tack room to the horse, you will have to figure out how to haul around this huge lump of wood and leather that is the saddle and the spaghetti loops that make up the bridle. Here's the trick to it: First of all, find the bridle. Pick it up by the headpiece in your right hand, then pick up the reins with it (and the martingale's neckstrap, if one is being used). Now, put your left arm through the bridle above the bit with the browband facing out and hook the headpiece, reins and neckstrap over your shoulder. Then approach the saddle. It is easiest to pick it up with a hand at each end, the pommel in your left hand and the cantle in your right, so that you will have it the right way around for placing it on the horse's back. If you will be carrying it far, it's easiest to slide your left arm down the channel (or the padding around it, depending on the size of your arm and the channel) until you're up to your elbow in it (or even further if you feel the need). You can still use your right hand to steady and support the saddle, but you also have it free to open and close doors, stroke the horse and the barn cats, and grab a sip of that cold coffee by the door in the tack room that you left there before you got started on grooming...

Fitting the Saddle

Make sure that the girth is attached on the off11 side, as most of the work is traditionally done on and from the left or near side of the horse, and make sure the stirrup leathers are hanging on the bars, with the stirrups run up the lower strap to the skirt with the extra leather passed through the main arch of the stirrup from outside to inside with the (stirrup) iron resting on the end and loop of leather. This secures them out of the way so they don't bang the horse's sides or get caught up in things while you tack up. Also check that the saddle pad if being used is pulled up into the channel of the saddle.

Making sure the horse knows where you are and what you are doing, lift the saddle, the pommel in your left hand and the cantle in your right, over the horse's back. Place it gently on the back, forward of where it will sit, which is usually on the withers. Then, slide it back into position, usually only a couple of inches. This is to ensure that the hairs lie flat so as not to cause discomfort. From here, you should be able to fit a couple of fingers in between the front of the channel and the horse's back, and the same at the back (though you may be able to fit a few more at the back, it depends on the horse's back and the design and fit of the saddle).

Now, walk around the horse (as you did when grooming) and pull the girth over so it is hanging down. Make sure you don't bang the horse's leg with the buckles when you do this. Go back around to the near side, reach under and pull the girth through under the belly. If you are using a martingale, then you will need to have fitted the bridle first, as you will pass the girth through the bottom loop of the martingale at this point. Pull the girth up to the straps on the saddle, making sure it's not twisted, and do the buckles up so that the girth is against the skin, but not tight for now. You will generally use the front and rear straps if three are fitted, unless directed otherwise by your instructor. Make sure you've not pulled the skin, or caused any folds or wrinkles at this point. If you have, smooth them out with your hand under the girth to ensure that the horse isn't uncomfortable.

Congratulations! You just fitted a saddle! You're halfway there!

Fitting the Bridle

You're best off watching this being done a few times before you try it for yourself as it's very easy to get in a muddle, poke the horse in the eye, jab it in the mouth, drop things, get tangled up and basically end up with leather everywhere, a loose horse and a stepped-on toe. However this is how one should fit a bridle with a basic noseband, with notes to help you if a martingale is attached.

First, check that you have the right bridle for the horse. You want to be fairly confident that it's adjusted to the right sizes, so the bit won't be too high or low in the mouth and so on. While you are a novice, your instructor should ensure that this is the case.

Now, pick the bridle up by the headpiece with the browband facing you. The bit should be hanging at the bottom; the noseband should be the next thing up, inside the cheek pieces and then the throat latch, with the reins hanging down from the bit. You can pick the buckle end (or furthest point from the bit) of the reins up and place it over the headpiece in whichever hand is holding up the bridle. Make sure that the cheekpieces are adjusted level and that the noseband and throat latch are undone. If you have a martingale, you will also pick up the neck strap and hold it with the reins for now.

Approach the horse calmly and gently and put the reins over its head along with the martingale's neck strap, if using. Make sure the neck strap is below and inside the reins and they are not tangled in one another. Now unclip the lead rope, and re-clip it to the headcollar the other side of the reins and neck strap, allowing them to slide freely down the neck. At this point, if you have a headcollar that unbuckles at the nose, unbuckle it and allow the whole thing to slide back and out of the way a little. If not, undo the headpiece, drop the front strap off the end of the nose and then do the headpiece back up as it was before, again allowing it to drop back out of the way a little. This helps to keep the horse secured in place while allowing you to fit the bridle to an uncluttered head.12

Now position yourself facing in the same direction as the horse, your right arm or shoulder under its nose, your hand out in front holding the top part of the bridle whichever way is most comfortable. Often it will be bunched up, usually just below the browband, unless it's a very small pony and you have long arms.

With your left hand and a gentle word or two, control the lower part of the bridle so that you guide the cheekpieces either side of the head, the noseband up the face and the bit towards the mouth. The right hand will be lifting the bridle up in front of the face at this point. Be careful not to bump the horse's eyes!

When you get here, a well treated, willing horse may well open its mouth for you to insert the bit, but most will require a little prompt. You do this by gently sliding your left thumb into the corner of the mouth while your fingers, held together and flat, support the bit just in front of the mouth. Almost as if it were designed for this very purpose13 there is a bare bit of gum here and a gap that you can slide your thumb into. This gap is where the bit will sit, and it's a sensitive area, just skin over jawbone - that's why you should never pull on the reins harshly! Usually just your thumb being in the mouth is signal enough, sometimes a little wiggle on the gum is necessary, but the horse will open its mouth just enough for you to gently slide the bit (using your right hand to lift the bridle) into place. Avoid banging its front teeth with the bit! The trick is to guide the bit with your hand without losing a finger. See? Told you to watch someone else a few times. Anyway, keep concentrating, this is where it gets fiddly!

Holding the bridle in place, with the right hand, quickly make sure the noseband is not tangled up in the cheekpieces, then move the left hand up to take hold of the top part of the headpiece and let go with the right hand which you can now take out from under the head and use to assist in pulling the ears through the headpiece14 gently and settling the bridle into place making sure that you pull the bridle as little as possible to avoid jabbing the horse in the mouth with the bit and trying to avoid the eyes as best you can. Now you can gently lift the forelock out from under the browband and smooth it down the face neatly, then do the throatlatch up. This should be adjusted so that there's four fingers' width between the strap and the hollow between the bony plates of the jaw under the head, or so that it's not going to be tight when the horse flexes his head15. It sometimes needs to be a little looser on a heavy-necked horse. Then fasten the noseband. You should be able to fit two fingers comfortably between the noseband and the underside of the jaw, unless it's a special noseband that is designed to clamp the mouth shut.

Ensure that all of the straps are sitting flat and comfortably, that the reins and neck strap (if used) are not tangled, and that the bit is sitting in the right place in the mouth. A basic snaffle or similar should just make two creases in the corner of the horse's lip as a rough guide, but assess the demeanour of the horse and check with your instructor to make sure that the bit is not being held too high or low by cheekpieces that are too tight or loose.

Take hold of the reins and remove the headcollar, which you should hang on an appropriate hook. Never tie your horse by the bit, as it can seriously injure the horse should it shy. If you need to keep the horse tied up for any length of time after tacking up, fit the halter or headcollar on over the bridle, reins and all, and tie a knot in the reins high on the neck so it can't step in them. Some bridles for trail riding have a bit that snaps out for tying the horse up and feeding it without untacking.

Now stand back and admire your work. You have tacked up a horse!

Finishing Touches

To complete the job, before riding you will need to check the tightness of the girth (which will probably need pulling up by a hole or two) to make sure that it's going to hold the saddle in place. Many horses take a deep breath and hold it when you saddle up to gain some extra freedom, so re-tightening the girth just before you mount will gain you an extra hole or two. It should be firm but not tight. You should be able to slide two fingers flat against the skin under the girth all the way around. This is the horse's ribcage and it needs to be able to move it in and out to breathe, the same as we do! When you've adjusted the girth, run a hand down the horse's upper leg and behind the knee and ask the horse with a gentle pressure to lift the leg and then gently stretch it forward, supporting the back of the knee. Replace the leg carefully. Do the same with the other leg. This ensures that you haven't got any creases of skin caught under the girth at the elbow, which could cause discomfort. An uncomfortable horse cannot give you all of its attention or work its best for you.

Once this is done you will have to prepare your stirrups while you're still safely on the ground. Pull the extra leather out from the iron and pull the iron to the bottom of its loop. As a rough guide, if you put your fingertip on the bar on the saddle, the bottom of the stirrup iron should fit snugly in your armpit, so adjust the leather to this length for now. If you're between two holes, go shorter for now as you will feel more secure in the saddle. Measure both stirrups this way! The nearside leather usually stretches from being used to mount, or one leather may have been replaced before the other, so counting the holes wont necessarily mean your leathers are the same length! Now run them back up and stow them as before, until you are in the place you will be mounting.

There you have it, a horse prepared and ready to ride! If you've gotten this far, it'd be a shame not to 'spring lightly' into the saddle and see how it feels... But your first lesson is definitely a place and time to have a qualified person at your side to keep you safe and give you the right instruction. Good luck and enjoy!

1A children's game in which a plastic mule is piled high with gear, hopefully without triggering the mechanism that will cause it all to be thrown off.2You, that is. On a safety note, it is advisable to wear a safety hat and sturdy boots at all times when working with horses, and gloves are a good idea, too.3Unless the hinged end is well maintained and releases when the leather is pulled back so it can slip off reasonably easily, the best advice is not to flip it up, as you want to be sure that your stirrup leather can slide off the bar if you should fall and catch your foot in the iron. Simply leave it in whatever position it's in; the saddle's owner will know best.4Including having an extra strap to fall back on, in case one breaks while you're out and about.5Like many inventions, its historical significance is a martial one - stirrups give the rider the necessary leverage to fight on horseback.6Though these, especially in combination with longer shanks on the side, are rather harsher than jointed bits, and you're unlikely to use them until you've gained some expertise.7A horse who rises up on its hind legs in order to evade pain or instructions or out of fear. A bad and dangerous habit in a ridden horse unless trained to do it by an expert and it’s only done on command, although it can also be indicative of unseen injuries if it’s out of character for the horse. Horse riding is not an absolute or safe science, you cannot guarantee your safety at any time with any horse no matter what equipment you use.8This is the neckstrap mentioned earlier that you can feel free to hang on to if you feel insecure as there's no danger of you hurting the horse's mouth by holding on to it. Alternately, grab the pommel, or just a handfull of mane!9The withers is the name for the bony hump of spine at the bottom of the neck where the last hairs of the mane grow.10Unless you are using a martingale, in which case you should skip to fitting the bridle first, then come back to the section about fitting the saddle.11Right hand.12Tip: The bridle can be hooked, browband out, over your shoulder by the headpiece to put it out of the way whenever you need your hands free, not just when carrying the saddle.13It wasn't - the gap is natural, not made by equine dentistry!14Some people insist on bending the ears forward rather than backward to avoid negative connotations, as ears flattened back along the head are a signal that the horse is annoyed and may bite. Whichever way you do it, remember that the ears are delicate, and often ticklish!15This is when a horse pulls its head down and in at the poll. The poll is the joint between and slightly behind the ears.

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