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Shopping for a Western or English Saddle

When you go saddle shopping the store will have saddles with trees of varying length, width, shape, and angle of slope to the bars.  When you read the tag to determine the size, be aware that this is just a jumping off point on your quest for the perfect saddle.  You may know that your horse has a broad back and low wither and needs a wide tree, or a sharp wither and narrow ribcage and requires a narrower tree with a high pommel.  Even if you see exactly what you're looking for written on the sale tag, don't rely on what it says or assume that it will be a perfect fit your horse when you get it home. 


The size, shape, and angle of every tree will vary greatly depending on the manufacturer.  The terms semi-quarter, full-quarter, narrow tree, wide tree, Arab tree, etc., can vary as much as shoe sizes.  Not every pair of size 8 shoes fits even if you own a perfect size 8 foot.  Saddle sizing is completely arbitrary.  There is no standardization or regulations regarding size within the saddle manufacturing industry.


So, when you find a saddle that looks like it might fit AND what the tag says makes sense too, it's time to try it on your horse.  Make sure the store you are purchasing the saddle from will allow you to take the saddle on trial.  If it doesn't, go to a store that will so you don't get stuck with a saddle you can't use.  If you're purchasing online, most internet saddle stores will let you try out a saddle for a few days and send it back for a refund.  You may have to pay to ship it back, but it's a small price compared to the price of the saddle itself.  Take care to protect the saddle from damage, such as scratches when you mount and dismount and dirt from your boots, so you can return it in the same condition you received it and recoup all of your money.


Saddle shopping can be a long and tedious process, but it's time well spent.  A saddle is a major purchase and a long-term investment into your horse's comfort and performance. 


How to Post the Trot


Few horses offer a smooth ride when they lengthen and extend their trot.  As their stride gets bigger, there's more suspension to the gait and more bounce under the saddle.  Posting makes the ride more comfortable for you and for your horse.  It also makes it easier for you to stay balanced in the saddle and give your horse the freedom to reach fluidly from his shoulders and hips - the trademark of a good trot.   

A posting rider rises and sits in rhythm with his or her horse's movement.  It's as though the natural "bounce" in the horse's gait pops the rider out of the saddle for a moment during the "up" beat of the stride and then settles briefly onto the saddle during the "down" beat. 

Ask your horse to extend his trot.  Listen to or feel the 1-2 rhythm of the gait.  Allow the increased energy that comes from his  hindquarters to naturally push your hips up and slightly forward in the saddle with every other stride, and let your seat softly drop into the saddle on the downbeat of the trot.  Beat #1- rise up. Beat #2-sit down. Push down evenly against your stirrups to help lift your pelvis off the saddle and support your upper body.  Stay tall and elegant in your ribcage and keep your shoulders back so that they don't round forward.  Also make sure your heels stay down and your ankles remain soft and flexible as your rise and sit. 

When traveling on a circle, you must alter on which stride you rise and fall in order to be in proper balance with your horse.  If your horse is circling or turning to the left, you should be rising as your horse’s right foreleg reaches forward.  If you are circling or turning to the right, rise as the left foreleg steps forward.

Posting is a useful tool whether you ride Western or English.  It saves your horse's back and yours as well.  It is a requirement in many English events, and can be seen at Western shows when horses are asked to extend.  It strengthens your seat and legs, improves your rhythm, and lets you ride your horse at varying speeds for optimum performance. 


Proper Use and Adjustment of the Martingale


A martingale is commonly used as a training tool.  It may be an English standing martingale, a Western tie down, or a running martingale that is often used by English and Western riders.  If you use a martingale on your horse, there are important steps you’ll want to take make sure you are using it properly and, more importantly, make sure you’re using it safely. 

Always use a neck strap to hold the martingale in place.  Without a neck strap, the fork and straps can drop to the ground when your horse lowers his head.  In an instant he can step his leg on or through the dangling leather.  That can cause a real wreck when he figures out his head is trapped between his legs.  If your martingale lacks a neck strap, you can outfit your horse in a breast collar and run it under that.  If you don’t have a breast collar, don’t use the martingale until you get one or buy one that has the neck strap built in. 

If you use a running martingale (a running martingale has rings that the reins pass through) always use rein stops on your reins.  They are inexpensive pieces of rubber or leather that prevent the rings from sliding up toward your horse’s mouth.  That keeps the martingale away from inquisitive lips, which can lead to having the martingale inside your horse’s mouth and wrapped across his lower jaw.  That can put him into a panic, possibly to the point of flipping over.  The reins stops also prevent the martingale rings from catching on the ties or clips that attach your reins to the bit, or grabbing onto the bit itself.

Adjust your standing martingale or tie down so that the long strap that runs from your girth to your horse’s head touches the bottom of your horse’s neck when his head is in a relaxed position.  A standing martingale or tie-down that’s too tight can interfere with your horse’s comfort and balance.  It’s dangerous when your horse can’t freely use his head to head and neck especially if he needs to recover from a stumble or counterbalance with his neck while he’s trying to navigate over a fence.  If he feels too confined, he could also become agitated or even panicky.  It can definitely have a negative impact on his performance. 


Your running martingale should be adjusted so that you can lift the rings up to the midpoint of his neck when your horse has his head in a relaxed position.  They shouldn’t pull down on the reins unless your horse elevates his head above his withers.  They aren’t meant to “set” your horse’s head.  They are meant to redirect the pressure of a snaffle bit onto the bars of your horse’s mouth instead of the corners of his lips should he lift his head up too high.  No matter what type of martingale you use, consider it as temporary tool to use as your horse learns to carry himself in a more relaxed and balanced frame.  Then when you achieve that, you and your horse won’t need the martingale at all. 

The Tortoise Always Wins

Horses are prey animals.  Therefore they are inherently afraid of predators.  The distinguishing characteristic of a predator is that when it’s attacking, it moves very fast.   Even in a “safe” environment, such as your barn, a horse still remembers that he’s a prey animal.  He always has his radar tuned in to anything that moves with intimidating speed.   If he perceives it as a threat, it can certainly strike fear in his heart or at the very least make him uncomfortable.  Whether large or small, anxiety causing experiences can have a long lasting impact on a horse’s behavior.  That’s because of the impact they have on a horse’s confidence.  Over time it can be completely whittled away.

Any number of stressors can cause a horse to feel tense.  If it takes him too far out of his comfort zone or is unrelentingly repetitive, his fight or flight instinct can be brought to the surface and keep him on the verge of panic or self-defense mode.  That’s why it’s so important to handle your horse in a way that assures him that the world is a safe place to be.  There is a lot you can do to help your horse wisely accept the world around him, by treating him like a prey animal and by behaving like anything but a predator.  So, take the time to do things in a manner that makes your horse feel secure.   Sure the big things are important, but it’s the small day-to-day ordinary activities that lay the groundwork for how your horse relates to you and the world around him.

Move around your horse in a calm and confident manner.  If you watch a dominant horse move around a subordinate without any intent to run him off, he completely ignores him and goes about his business indifferent to his lesser herd-mate’s presence.   By quietly and capably going about your tasks without making anything a big deal, your horse will see you as a non-threatening superior and feel comfortable.  Be relaxed when you halter your horse and take care that he’s not made uncomfortable during the process.  Haltering may be the first interaction you have with your horse each day.  To avoid anticipation of stress on your horse’s part, take it slowly and be considerate of your horse’s eyes and ears.  Stand to the side to halter your horse and drop the nose of the halter down below your horse’s nose before slipping it on.  Don’t come at your horse from the front and hastily shove it onto his face.

Make grooming a spa session.  A quick and harsh rub with the brushes can create nervous energy in some horses, although some like a brisk brushing.  As a general rule, let your goal be to put your horse in a relaxed state of mind.  Don’t throw the saddle at your horse either.  Swing it smoothly and set it down gently.  When it’s time to put the bit in his mouth, take your time and give your horse a chance to open his mouth instead of forcing it.  If you rush to put the bit into your horse’s mouth before he’s ready, he’ll be more likely to become tense and clamp his jaw shut.  That means the bit will smack him in the teeth and he'll have an unpleasant experience that you can bet he'll remember next time. 

When you get on, sit quietly for several moments.  Rub your horse on the neck until you are both relaxed.  Teach your horse he has no reason to expect to move off right away and you'll have a horse that stands as still as an ancient oak every time you get on.

With a small amount of effort and a smidge of extra time, your horse will know that when he’s with you, everything is okay.  Over time, the power his instincts have over him will fade father and farther from his mind.  However, rush him too many times and you will teach him to life in survival mode.  

So, slow things down and take the time to acclimate your horse to what’s going on around him.  Then he’ll have little reason to worry or be upset, and your horse will be happier,  easier to work with, and safer to be around. 

The Perceptive Rider

If you have a passion for riding, you’re always searching for that perfect ride:  you and your horse working as a cohesive team while he performs at his athletic potential.  Turning a horse into a top performer is an exhilarating experience, but it can be a challenging one. 

There are countless resources available to help you get the job done right.  Professional help, how-to-train-your-own-horse books, and more horse training DVDs than stars in the sky are available to teach you the fundamentals of equine balance, movement, and technique.  But, you need more than basic knowledge if you want to get the most out of your horse.  You need to be able to feel from the saddle how your horse is using his body and know what is going on inside his mind.  You need to possess the power of perception

An effective rider is aware of the various changes, from the blatantly obvious to the extremely subtle, of his or her mount’s physical and emotional state during the course of a ride.  This ability is an essential tool for giving the horse the guidance and support he needs to work at his best.  Left alone, a horse will make the same mistakes over and over again.  Any action or behavior is reinforced when it is constantly repeated, so if his training isn’t heading in the right direction his progress will slow and he could lose ground.  

For example, let’s say that your horse is distracted and anxious under saddle.  He travels with his back hollow.   He tends to drop his right shoulder and veer off the rail or be inconsistent in his gaits in circles or through changes of direction.  If you don’t notice that this is happening you don’t know that it’s a problem that needs to be resolved.  Then these behaviors continue and become routine to your horse, ingrained as “the norm” in his body and in his brain – becoming worse and more problematic for you over time.

On the other hand, if you immediately notice when your horse becomes anxious, has lost his balance, or he’s lost hind end impulsion, you can take immediate steps to restore his confidence and equilibrium.   Doing so breaks habit and halts unwanted repetitive behavior.  It’s also the first step along the path to building new muscle memories in your horse’s body which is a necessity when your goal is to develop and retain positive habits and behavior over the long term. 

Since neither your horse’s body nor his brain will spontaneously improve or progress on their own, your horse needs you to keep him on the right track and redirect him to it when he wanders.  That’s where riding with awareness comes into play.   It means that you are keeping tabs on your horse’s emotional and physical state from the saddle, and riding in standby mode so that you’re ready to lend him a hand when he needs it.   This mindful approach to riding leads to a stronger relationship with your horse.  Horses need calm and competent leadership to feel secure, so when your horse knows that you have his back and are consistently supporting him, he will be more confident and willing to trust you.  The result is connection, when a horse actively and willingly follows a human who is actively leading him.