A Writer’s Guide to Horses V

In which I pontificate about brushing and tacking up horses, and you learn something (hopefully):

(Post image is from pixabay, showing Western tack typical of a working cow horse)

Grooming or brushing a horse

There’s a right way to brush a horse, then there’s the way(s) that everybody actually does it. The point of brushing a horse is to make it cleaner than it was when you started. Horses like to roll in the dirt, to scratch itches they can’t reach, and bits of dirt under the saddle or bridle can be very uncomfortable. So it’s important to brush the horse before saddling up. It’s also a comfortable, relaxing activity that promotes bonding between horse and rider. Horses groom each other with their teeth for much the same reason.

According to the manuals, a full set of brushes and combs are absolutely necessary, but most riders get by with the basics. A rubber (or, occasionally, metal; those were more common a few decades ago) curry comb to loosen caked dirt, a soft dandy brush to sweep away the dirt, a hoof pick to clean out the horse’s hooves, and a comb or hair brush for the mane and tail. Usually used in that order, working from the horse’s head to its tail and brushing in the direction the hair grows, except for the curry comb, which is used in a circular motion on the muscled parts of the horse.

These tools, combined with a bit of elbow grease, will make most horses presentable in only a few minutes. But sometimes more is needed. A body brush has harder bristles than a dandy brush, and can be used between rounds with the curry comb and dandy brush to sweep away half-dislodged dirt. A shedding blade is a long strip of flexible steel with teeth, like a serrated knife. The teeth grab onto loose hair, and can help in making a horse look neat in the early spring when it’s shedding its winter coat. Soft cloths or sponges can be used to wipe the eyes, ears, and muzzle, and get rid of surface dust.

If you must use a metal curry on the horse’s face or lower legs, be gentle. Horses have thicker skin than humans, but they can feel a fly landing on them, so there are sensitive nerve endings just under the surface. Use a shedding blade only on the muscled parts of the horse- neck, shoulders, barrel, and rump; the way you hold it produces more force on the horse’s skin than a metal curry.

Preparing a horse for competition is another kettle of fish altogether. Most people bathe their horses before a show; there are horse shampoos on the market, but human shampoo combined with a bit of conditioner usually does the trick for much less money. A horse is bathed somewhat like a dog- get it wet with a hose (warm water is more comfortable for the animal) then rub shampoo into its coat, mane, and tail, avoiding the eyes, and rinse. A sweat scraper, which can be made of steel or rubber, is used like a squeegee to remove excess water. Then a bit of diluted hair conditioner can be sponged over the horse’s coat- again, avoiding the eyes- and the horse can be left to air-dry. Be careful; many horses will try their hardest to roll in the dirtiest place they can find if left to their own devices after a bath; to avoid this, tie up the horse or leave it in a clean stall.

Some horses have their hair clipped before a show, or to keep them neat. This is accomplished by using hair clippers, which are familiar to most of the bearded gentlemen in the audience; they’re a larger version of double bladed beard trimmers. Some parts of the horse are more frequently clipped than others. A clipped bridlepath is very common; it’s a stretch of the horse’s mane beginning between the ears and going between three and eighteen inches down the neck. This hair is trimmed very short, almost to the point of shaving it, to prevent the halter or bridle from getting tangled in the mane. Some breed standards, like those for Arabians and Morgans, emphasize the leanness of the horse’s neck, and so these horses are often given a longer bridlepath to show off the shape of their necks.

The feathers (long hair on the horse’s fetlocks), muzzle, underside of the jaw, and inside the ears are also clipped on many show horses. And horses that work hard in the wintertime, or get ridiculously fuzzy, are occasionally body-clipped, where all of the hair is clipped short except for the mane, tail, head, and lower legs. There are pros and cons for clipping. The horse looks very neat, and will cool down faster after a hard workout. But the loss of the hair makes the horse prone to minor injuries like scrapes and fly bites. Also, a horse uses its whiskers like a cat; the temporary loss of these can make it difficult for the horse to feel what’s happening near its nose. And body clipped horses usually have to wear blankets when the temperature drops below 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, because all of their insulation is lost.

Show horses often have their manes braided or banded, and their tails braided. Horses ridden English or dressage usually have individual braids in their mane and forelock, that are then tied up into little knots. Their tails are partially French-braided, with the braid extending down the tailbone, and then much of the hair left to fall freely. These conventions are derived from the foxhunting field, where manes and tails were braided so they didn’t snag in the bushes. Saddleseat or park horses- think of the high-stepping ones like Saddlebreds- often have their forelock and one lock of mane braided with a red or white ribbon entwined in the braid. Some draft horses also have their manes braided with ribbon for the show ring. It’s also possible to French-braid a horse’s mane, and some very talented people make works of art out of their horse’s mane, when it’s appropriate for that breed or riding style.

Western show horses can have their manes left loose, or sometimes they are banded. Bands are a series of tiny ponytails down the horse’s neck, usually between thirty and fifty of them. Like braids, they keep the horse looking neat and show off the shape of its neck. The forelock is also banded; there are a few techniques to make it lie flat. A Western horse’s tail is left to fall freely. No self-respecting cowboy of the 1800s would ever band his horse’s mane; it’s a practice for the show ring only.

Show horses that are known to kick at other horses will have a small red ribbon tied into their tail near the top, as a signal to other riders that they should keep a safe distance. The ribbon should be discreet but visible; usually, a thin bow three or four inches wide is all that’s needed.

Polo horses have their tails tied up, usually with a lashing of gaffer’s or electrical tape so the knot doesn’t fall out in the middle of the game. This keeps the tail from getting tangled in the player’s mallet. High level players will usually coordinate their horses’ tail tapes with their saddle pads, leg wraps, and the player’s jerseys; for the rest of us, black or white tape is appropriate.

Most riders don’t comb the mane every time they brush their horse, and almost no one combs their horse’s tail unless it’s really disgusting or they’re going to a competition. A tail hair takes about six years to grow to full length, so it’s possible to thin a horse’s tail very easily and have to wait a long time for it to grow back. There are a zillion types of detanglers for sale, but most people prefer to let the horse’s tail grow naturally and only detangle it for shows and competitions. It’s usually enough to pick out all the bits of bedding, twigs, or other debris that gets tangled in the tail, and occasionally trim the bottom straight across with scissors if it starts to look ragged- this is called ‘banging’ a horse’s tail.

Some people like to roach, hog, or clip a horse’s mane. Polo horses are obliged to have roached manes; it makes them look neat and stops the many parts of a polo bridle from getting tangled in the hair. A roached mane is shaved close to the skin with clippers, leaving only a patch of mane about four inches long over the withers. The forelock is also shaved off. A polo horse with a three or four inch wide lock of mane half way up the neck is a green or partially trained horse. Any horse can have its mane roached, and if the mane grows very unevenly or the horse has rubbed off part of it due to dry skin, roaching may be the only way to keep the horse looking neat until the mane grows back. The mane tends to grow back vertically, like a Mohawk haircut, until it’s four to six inches long, then it begins to gradually fall to the sides of the horse’s neck.

Care of the hooves is an important part of casual grooming and prepping for a show. A hoof pick is used to dislodge dirt and stones from the underside of the hoof, which is concave and textured- perfect for trapping debris. There will be more on hoof health and anatomy in a later installment, but you should know that it’s good practice to pick out the horse’s hooves before and after every ride. Horse’s hooves aren’t as sensitive as your feet, but you wouldn’t want to walk around on a pebble that was stuck in your shoe, would you?

Show horses often have their hooves polished. Some people use a bit of sandpaper to even out the surface and get rid of stains on white hooves, then paint the hoof with black or clear polish. Colored and glittery hoof polishes are also sold, usually for children’s ponies and parade horses. Hoof polish is very like fingernail polish; it stains clothing and hands, but can be removed with acetone.

White socks are the bane of every competitor’s existence. Most stains can be removed with soap and a bit of scrubbing, but hard-core show riders also use talcum powder or spray-chalk (it comes in an aerosol can) to make the horse’s markings look truly white.

As a writer, you probably won’t show much of the above. In terms of a story, brushing a horse is sort of like getting dressed and putting on makeup. Unless an alien bursts out of the closet while it’s happening, there’s not much point to adding detailed descriptions into the book. But there are a few aspects of grooming that might be worth mentioning. The rider might pick out his horse’s hooves and discover a loose shoe, for instance. Or he might not, and be surprised when the shoe falls off and the horse goes lame later in the book. Or the horse might be agitated while being brushed, pinning its ears and stomping its hooves, to show that it’s going to be a rough ride for the hero. But unless you’re writing specifically for a horse-oriented audience (little girls love this stuff; adults just want to get to the story), you can probably get by with a very brief mention of the basics.

Now that you know how to make a horse passably clean for a casual ride, or sparklingly clean for a show, let’s talk about the basics of saddling.


Saddling a horse

Once the horse is brushed to a presentable standard- for casual riding, it only needs to be free of dirt in the places that will be covered by the saddle and bridle, and its hooves picked out- it’s time to saddle up.

Start with the saddle pad, occasionally called a saddle blanket. English saddle pads are a rectangle of quilted cloth- usually cotton- about 24 by 36 inches. It often has rounded edges; orient the pad so the less-rounded edges are at the back. There’s usually a seam down the middle; this is placed over the horse’s spine. There may also be strips of nylon webbing at opposite ends, running parallel to the seam; these are to hold the pad in place and should be near the front of the pad, close to the horse’s shoulder. Some horses, because of the shape of their backs, need additional padding; put the larger pad on first, and the smaller one on top, so it’s less likely to shift.

Some English disciplines don’t use a saddle pad, namely, saddleseat; these saddles have to be very carefully fitted to the horse and cleaned regularly, since the saddle pad is used to absorb sweat and prevent chafing on the horse’s back. Some saddleseat riders will use a regular English saddle pad when practicing, and only forego it during shows. Some British (UK) riders also forego a saddle pad when showing, even though they might be showing hunt seat. Riders in regency England also didn’t use saddle pads, as you can see in paintings from that era.

Once the saddle pad is placed- the front of the pad should rest just barely in front of the withers- it’s time for the saddle. An English saddle is carried with its stirrups run up, that is, the stirrups are slid up the leathers and the leather threaded through the stirrup iron. Place the saddle squarely on the saddle pad- it should land equally distributed on either side of the horse’s back, with the pommel an inch behind the front of the saddle pad- and slide it back about two inches. This helps the hair lay flat underneath, which is more comfortable for the horse. Next, pick up the girth and attach it to the billets; these are the leather straps that lay under the saddle flap on both sides. An English girth has two buckles on each end. Attach the buckles to the first and third billets (or first and second if the saddle has only two). Do the same on the other side, keeping the saddle relatively loose. You should be able to just barely slip your hand between the girth and the horse’s belly at this point.

The bridle is next. Remove the horse’s halter and either throw the reins over its neck or buckle the halter around its neck like a collar, so the horse is restrained. Stand on the horse’s left side, with your shoulder at its throatlatch (the juncture of head and neck). Hold the bridle’s crownpiece in your right hand and rest the bit on the palm of your left hand. Bring your right hand up to the horse’s forehead, so the bit and your left hand are resting against the horse’s muzzle. A well trained horse will open its mouth automatically to accept the bit, but many require a little extra encouragement. Slip your left thumb between the lips and press on the horse’s gums. Don’t worry, there’s a gap between the incisors and the molars; it’s called the bars, and the bit rests there. You can stick a few fingers in that gap without hurting you or the horse.

Once the horse opens its mouth, slide the bit in so it rests on the bars and slip the crownpiece over the ears. You’ll have to bend the horse’s ears forward to do this; use your left hand. Buckle the throatlatch and the cavesson. You should be able to slip two or three fingers under each. The bit should sit level in the horse’s mouth, not pulling up one side of the mouth further than the other, and you should be able to see two wrinkles at the corners of the mouth. If the bit it too tight or too loose, adjust the cheekpieces accordingly. If the bridle is used only for that horse, it should fit the same from day to day.

Some English bridles include specialized tack like a breastplate or martingale. A breastplate keeps the saddle from sliding backward, and is most commonly used for sports like jumping, three-day eventing, hunting, and polo. English breastplates come in a few different types and attach to the saddle in similarly eclectic ways. It can also be padded so it doesn’t rub on the horse’s shoulders. A martingale keeps the horse’s head low, so it can’t avoid the pressure of the bit, and if it throws its head up, the rider doesn’t have to worry about getting his nose broken. A horse’s head weighs about 50 pounds; no one wants that to smack into his face.

Martingales come in two basic types, with some variations. A standing martingale attaches to the cavesson/noseband of the bridle, and to the saddle girth, passing between the horse’s front legs. It doesn’t stretch or give, but can be adjusted to accommodate the horse’s size and natural head carriage. A running martingale attaches to the girth and has two o-rings that the reins pass through. When the horse throws its head up, the running martingale applies downward pressure to the bit. Running martingales are more common when training horses; standing martingales are common in the show ring. Polo horses must wear a standing martingale, for safety reasons. A polo bridle also includes a breastplate and sometimes draw reins, which are long reins that loop through the rings of the bit and attach to the girth, making a pulley system that allows for greater control.

Now your horse is almost ready to ride. Tighten the girth gradually- the exact amount depends a little on the horse, but in general you should be able to slip one finger between the girth and the horse’s belly.

As a writer, you probably won’t show a character tacking up his horse, unless you want to foreshadow shenanigans. Some horses don’t like being tacked up, and though many of them settle down when the rider is aboard, there are a few who continue to be reluctant. Some horses are cold-backed, which means they will pin their ears and hump their back when the saddle is first put on or the girth tightened. They usually settle down once they get moving and their muscles warm up. Some horses bloat; they take a big breath when the girth is being tightened and let it out later, so the saddle is loose and will slip at an inopportune moment. If you encounter a horse like this, be sure to tighten the girth gradually and check it three or four times before riding. Horses can also stick their tongue over the bit (the bit is supposed to rest on top of the tongue) and this prevents them from feeling the pressure of the bit as effectively. There are types of cavessons to prevent this, like drop-nosebands, which are common in England and are used for polo horses around the world.

You might encounter some of the same problems in tacking up a Western horse, and the order of operations is the same, but the tack is very different, so it’s worth explaining. And of course, if you want a more visual explanation, YouTube is a good resource. After reading these articles, you’ll know what to type into the search box.

A Western saddle pad is bigger than the English version, and comes in two varieties. There are saddle blankets, which are thinner, made of wool, and designed to be folded in half with the seam placed over the horse’s withers. Some are actually big enough to be used as a blanket, so if your cowboy hero is sleeping rough, he might drape his horse’s saddle blanket over him and use the saddle for a pillow- horse sweat and crud notwithstanding. The other type is a saddle pad, which is a two-inch-thick pad of wool about 30 inches square. If the pad has leather trim (usually three pieces on the sides of the pad) orient the pad so the trim is over the horse’s withers and on either side of the horse; it protects the wool from being worn away by the girth.

The saddle is placed in the same way as an English saddle, but it’s much heavier. A Western saddle weighs 30 to 40 pounds; an English saddle weighs about ten. Before you throw the saddle onto the horse, drape the girth (attached to the right side of the saddle) over the seat, do the same with the breastplate if there is one, and hook the right stirrup over the horn (some people, like me, hook the breastplate over the horn because it’s less likely to slip). This keeps them out of the way. Once the saddle is on the horse’s back, unhook everything and allow it to fall straight down. Twisted tack is a Very Bad Thing; it’s uncomfortable for the horse and can come loose at exactly the wrong moment (hint, hint, to all you writers out there who need to give more problems to a character).

A Western girth or cinch is very different than the English beast. There are no billets on the left side of a Western saddle, only a palm-sized ring in front of the fender (stirrup leather). This ring has a leather cinch strap attached; this strap is threaded through the girth ring and tied in a knot. Everyone has their own favorite cinch knot; mine looks rather like a very simple necktie. This gave me trouble as a child because I’m left-handed, and the knot is exactly backwards from the same knot when used by a right-handed person. So I really had to think about how to tighten the cinch (my spatial reasoning wasn’t very good at that age, either). But a good cinch knot will hold all day and is easily adjustable without untying it. Tighten it gradually, making sure the horse can still breathe. Buckle the breastplate if there is one; it’s y-shaped and attaches to the saddle on each side just below the pommel and to the girth between the horse’s forelegs.

If there is a back or rear girth, buckle it now. Loosely. This cinch attaches behind the fender, and goes around the horse’s belly. But it falls on spots that are ticklish, and many horses will turn into bucking broncos if the back girth is too tight. You should be able to put a closed fist between the back girth and the horse’s belly.

A Western bridle is put on the same as an English bridle, except that it usually lacks a cavesson, unless one is used in conjunction with a standing martingale. A Western standing martingale is called a tie-down. A running martingale is called training forks, and is used almost exclusively on young and partially trained horses. Tie-downs are used almost only when roping cattle in the modern era or competing in a rodeo. Most other western horses don’t wear any sort of martingale; your cowboy hero in the 1800s will not use one, nor are they used in non-rodeo competitions.

Some Western bridles have ear slits or loops instead of a browband. They serve the same function- keeping the crownpiece from sliding too far back. Gently slip the horse’s ear into the loop or slit, taking care to bend the ear forward rather than back if possible.

Australian saddles use a combination English/Western girth- seriously; it looks like someone laid one of each side by side and mashed them together. The breastplates are similarly schizophrenic; they are halfway between the two in thickness (English tack is usually less robust than Western), attach to the saddle like an English breastplate, and attach to the girth like a Western one.

Historical saddles, because they were made to individual specifications, do not have standard rigging (rigging is the way the girth attaches to the saddle). Many medieval saddles have the addition of a crupper, a long strip of leather that attaches to the cantle of the saddle and loops around the base of the horse’s tail; it prevents the saddle from sliding forward. Some Western and Australian saddles have cruppers, but they’re used only when riding in rough terrain. Modern sidesaddles can have English or Western rigging, depending on the type of sidesaddle.

Now you’re ready to ride. I think I’ll do a later installment about harnessing and driving, after the one on basic riding; I feel like I’ve been testing everyone’s patience with the length of these posts.

The previous installments can be found here:

Part I (Basic Terminology and Tack)

Part II (Colors, Markings, and Breeds)

Part III (Behavior)

Part IV (Basic Safety and Handling)


  1. “Most people bathe their horses before a show; there are horse shampoos on the market, but human shampoo combined with a bit of conditioner usually does the trick for much less money.”

    Mane ‘n Tail is about $6/quart at Walmart (sold as separate shampoo and conditioner), about half the price of basic human products. Also superior for use by humans with dry or brittle hair.

    Most comfy saddle I ever sat in was an antique Mexican roping saddle. High fore and aft, padding in all the right places; too bad I didn’t have a horse to go with it, or I’da bought it.

    1. I can’t say where you buy shampoo, but I was thinking along the lines of Suave or V05- the stuff that costs a dollar a bottle. But you’re right about Mane ‘n Tail; that stuff is great for humans and horses. Cowboy Magic works pretty well, too.

  2. In case anyone ever wondered, saddle mules require more tack, especially if you are in rough terrain. Since their shoulders are narrower, the saddle “likes” to slide forward when the animal points downhill, making the mule cranky and off-balance, and making the rider prone to being removed by said mule. A crupper and breast-strap are used. The crupper is a strap that goes under the tail and helps hold the saddle back when it tries to slide forward. Be very careful when putting on the crupper. (I watched someone get kicked that way. Fortunately, they were very close to the leg so the mule could not “wind up” and they just got a large bruise instead of flying lessons.)

    The site has pictures of mules “tacked up” in various ways: http://www.muleridertack.com/products/amish_made_single_strap_saddle_horn_crupper.html

    1. *chuckles at flying lessons*

      Tangential thought; are mules, donkeys, burros, etc ‘cheaper’ to keep than horses? Some stuff I read when younger gives that impression; more recent example would be a scene in Otoyomegatari where twin girls are looking over various men (and discussing whether or not they’d be wealthy and handsome enough to consider being married to) and they spot a good looking young man, but then dismiss him because he’s riding a donkey, not a horse.

      1. Donkeys are smaller, hence probably cheaper to feed. Donkeys have a reputation for being smarter than horses. (The animals symbolizing the major American political parties are elephants for the GOP, and donkeys for the Democrats.) I think they also have a reputation for toughness and hard work. If costs were the same, someone who worked with their animal and had a limited budget might use a donkey. A young man with the budget for many animals would want a horse, because of speed and perhaps the military utility. Like buying a sports car for speed, or a hummer as a status symbol. Plus, I think the high end of the market for horses goes higher than donkeys, so more value in ownership for status.

  3. Interesting posts. We were up in Iowa this summer and visited a historic US Calvary post. Going thru the stables they had a poster listing what each horse was fed each day and it was a lot of food, multiple quarts of several different grains, oats, corn ect. Just guessing it was 10 or 15 pounds of grains a night. Plus a fair amount of hay. Nothing like the stories where you read about the horse getting a quart of oats at night and allowed to graze hobbled during the night. Don’t horses sleep BTW?

    I had heard before that one huge advantage the US Calvary had over the Indians was that the Calvary could ride their horses in the winter, they were grain powered. The Indian horses were worthless during the winter since they only got what hay the Indians managed to cut during the summer.

    And the other day I happened on a site which mentions hoof care, which I see you are going to cover in detail, and they said a horse needed to be reshod every 4-6 weeks and/or have it’s hooves trimmed monthly. Not to mention having their teeth filed down. Geez, horses are a lot more work than any books let on…heh.

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