Trail Riding Equipment: Saddles and Tack

I find the term Trail Riding Equipment on the one hand to be rather vague, and on the other all-encompassing. By this I mean that there is so much equipment that you use on the trail that could be considered trail riding equipment, but could also be classified as simply riding equipment. So, when I was asked recently what equipment a person should have to be well set up to ride trail, I divided my answer into two parts: the trail riding saddle and its related tack and trail riding accessories. In this article, I will discuss trail riding saddles and the various pieces of trail riding tack a person might use.

The Trail Saddle. Trail saddles have improved ten-fold over the years, and now you can get a very lightweight saddle without sacrificing fit, strength or quality. Regardless of the saddle brand you choose, here general properties of a good trail saddle. While any saddle can be used on the trail, I believe the following are necessary characteristics of a good trail saddle:

  1. It fits the horse.
  2. It fits you.
  3. You are comfortable and relaxed in it.
  4. It fits the horse.
  5. It has good rigging, usually in the ⅞ or ¾ position as this puts the cinch back away from the front legs and loose skin behind the elbow.
  6. It can accommodate a breast collar.
  7. It can accommodate a rear cinch, crupper or saddle breeching.
  8. It fits the horse.
  9. It has strings and/or dees for securing saddlebags, horn bags and other gear.
  10. It has a horn or some other place appropriate and safe for dallying your lead rope.
  11. And, it fits the horse.

Regardless of what the saddle was intended for (roping, barrel racing or whatever), if it does all of the above, I think it will make a fine trail saddle.

Saddle pads. A good pad can sometimes make the difference between a good ride and a long walk. I like a thicker pad for trail riding, about ¾” – 1”. I prefer wool or some wool content in the pad because the wicking and heat distribution properties of wool are so beneficial on a long ride. The pad can be 100% wool felt or simply have a wool blend backing against the horse. I like a pad long enough to provide some protection for my horse from my saddlebags. This means generally about 2-3” of pad behind my saddle.

Breastcollars. If you are doing any hill work at all on your rides, I strongly recommend a breastcollar for your saddle. They help hold the saddle in place, reduce friction by saddle slippage, and disperse the stress of holding the saddle in place from the cinch. There are a few types of breastcollars, all of which will do the job if they fit your horse. My favorite is what I call the Backcountry Breaststrap, which does not have a center piece running between the legs, but rather a strap around the neck and the two side tugs. In my experience, it has been the least likely to sore a horse and has the bonus quality of being easy to take on and off. However, many people like the look of the three piece breastcollars, which come in a number of styles including straight, contoured and a more English styled breastplate, also with an overcheck strap. Once again, all of these are fine if they fit your horse correctly and do not rub and cause soring.

Flank Cinches, Cruppers and Saddle Breechings. A horse with decent wither conformation will generally do fine on downhill sections without additional tack to hold the saddle in place. If your horse has a more mutton wither type conformation or if you do a lot of steep downhill riding, the addition of a flank cinch, crupper or saddle breeching can help stabilize your saddle and increase your horse’s comfort. I have previously discussed Cruppers and Saddle Breechings, so I will concentrate on flank cinches here. Flank cinches, also known as rear cinches, come in many widths and styles, most of which should be fine as long as they are properly fitted to the horse. The flank cinch should be snug on the horse, but not tight. It should never be loose and floppy because 1) it wouldn’t do anything for you and 2) a horse could get his foot caught in it swimming or kicking at a fly.

Cinches. Just like the saddle pad, a good cinch can make the difference between a great ride and a long walk. Cinches come in several styles and materials:

  • Polyester or acrylic: Very economical, but this is the only attractive feature. These do not wick or breathe.
  • Neoprene: These can be hot, they do not breathe and you must be very careful not to over-cinch. However, they are popular because they stay in place well, do not pick up seeds and burrs and are easy to clean. Some customers have told us that they could “under-cinch” by about one hole and give the horse a little more breathing room.
  • Mohair (or wool) or mohair- (or wool-) blend string girths:. Very popular. Both breathe and wick sweat well, do not pick up burrs and seeds easily and, when used properly, very rarely cause soring. The blend will be more economical and is usually about 60% mohair or wool, but it would be wise to ensure that is the case.
  • Wool fleece. These are typically of a wool-blend fleece material and built on nylon webbing. They work fine, although grass seeds and burrs may cling more easily to the fleece than other materials. If you use on of these, you should get in the habit of checking it often to ensure nothing is caught in the fleece that could rub and sore your horse.

The advice I give anyone who tells me that their current cinch isn’t working is to try another one. The material you are currently using may simply not agree with your horse and it is simple enough to just try another one until you find the one that works.

Stirrups. I address this separately from the saddle because they can be easily changed out to fit your needs. At a bare minimum, I think a good trail stirrup needs to have a wide tread (or foot base) to give your foot plenty to rest on all day. If you have a larger foot or are wearing a larger boot for warmth, be sure that your stirrup is wide enough that your foot remains loose in the stirrup. I prefer hooded overshoe stirrups myself. They protect my feet from brush and wet and keep my feet warmer when it’s cold. Many people like a hooded stirrup, especially with children, because they are safer since your foot cannot go through the stirrup. Several trail saddle companies currently use another type of trail stirrup that has a wide foot base lined with a shock absorbing pad. These stirrups are known for providing extra comfort and support for riders with bad knees and ankles. Like cinches and pads, there are enough options, that if your current stirrups are not working, try another pair.

Halters and Leads/Headstalls and Reins. I discuss your choices for a halter and lead in my article, Halter and Leads, where I also discuss Halter Bridles as a headstall/halter option. I don’t have much advice on headstalls as I think anything will work as long as it fits your horse. I do prefer a style that has a throat latch for added security if the horse gets to rubbing his head and I personally prefer leather, but other than that, it is really up to you and your horse.

Reins, however, have their pros and cons. There are basically two types of reins: splits and single reins, both of which will work on the trail. Many people prefer split reins because 1) it is easier to lead your horse if you get off and walk, 2) if you have to get off in an emergency, you can take a rein with you and still have control of your horse and 3) they won’t get hung up on anything because they are not in a complete loop. However, if you drop one, it can fall to the ground where the horse can step on it and break it…which is why some people prefer a single rein. Once again, choose what works best for you and your horse. Just bear the safety issues of each style in mind. As for material, once again, I prefer leather, but there are other choices of materials as well.

Shoes and Boots. By this I mean those for the horse. Most trail riders I know shoe their horses at least in the front, but every horse is different, so I will state the obvious: shoe horses that need it with shoes that work best in your terrain. Hoof boots are another option if you prefer to leave your horse barefoot. There are a few different styles on the market now. They can be expensive, but depending upon your situation, may prove to be more cost effective in the long run. One reason I like mules is that they seem to get by quite well without shoes for simple recreational use.

Trail Riding Equipment is such a vague term. You could ask ten people what constitutes Trail Riding Equipment and get ten different answers. Even if my list above seems short (or long) to you, I hope that it gets you thinking about what you need or might need so that you are ultimately well equipped and prepared.