Basic horse tack explained

By Sarah Chamberlin on |

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Understanding basic tack

Horse tack can seem incredibly complicated to a beginner — there are bits (if you pardon the pun) and pieces for every imaginable kind of riding on every imaginable type of horse — but to begin with it’s best to get familiar with the most basic pieces in the tack room.

Halter or headcollar and lead rope

The headcollar fits loosely around your horse’s head. Fastened with a single buckle on the side, it’s used to tie him up for grooming, transportation or when you’re leading him from one place to another with the lead rope.

The saddle

Saddles are the robust pieces of carefully shaped, stuffed leather that help you to sit properly when you’re riding. They are carefully moulded underneath to trace the contours of a horse’s back, and on top to allow you to sit comfortably, with your weight evenly spread.

There are many different types of saddle, but a good general-purpose saddle is likely to be the first one you use. It’s absolutely essential that the saddle fits a horse properly, as it can do lasting damage otherwise. Saddles come in different sizes and it takes an expert to really assess whether it’s a perfect fit. If you have any doubts about the suitability of a saddle, you’ll need to get in touch with a master saddler.


A numnah is a piece of material shaped to fit under the saddle, which prevents chafing of the horse’s skin and helps to absorb sweat. You can usually fix it to the saddle to prevent it slipping around.


Usually made of soft, durable material or leather with a double buckle at each end, the girth loops underneath the horse’s belly and keeps the saddle in place. It’s fastened on either side with buckles, which can be adjusted by the rider before and during a ride.

Stirrups and stirrup leathers

Stirrups are the arched metal frames with a flat base which support your feet. They are attached to the saddle by the stirrup leathers on each side of the saddle. To avoid slippage, it’s a good idea to use grooved rubber treads on the base to give your feet a little more grip. The stirrup leathers are just as they sound: leather straps which thread through the saddle and stirrups; they can also be adjusted for different leg lengths, or disciplines.


Bridles are composed of a jigsaw of different pieces of leather which all buckle together around the horse’s head; some of which are adjustable. The pieces of a basic bridle include the headpiece, the browband, cheekpieces, the throatlash, the noseband and the reins. The piece in the horse’s mouth is called the ‘bit’.

Just as with ill-fitting saddles, the wrong bridle, or a bridle fitted incorrectly, can do a lot of harm, so you will need to learn exactly how each piece fits together and how they should sit against the horse’s head.

The bit

The bit not only holds the bridle together but it connects the reins you are holding with the horse’s mouth, so it’s an important point of communication between horse and rider. But be warned: there are an enormous number of different bits and an even larger number of people with opinions on which bits are best.

The most commonly used bit is a simple snaffle and unless your horse has some very specific requirements, this is the first one you’ll meet. It has a single jointed mouthpiece and acts by putting pressure on the tongue and bars of the horse’s mouth.

As you gain more experience, you will doubtless encounter a bewildering array of bits, but it pays to remember that a fancy pants bit won’t make you a better rider, and unless you’re planning to be the next Carl Hester, you probably won’t ever need a vast selection of bits to achieve your goals.

Or you can find out the real purpose of tack with Nicola Jane Swinney’s equestrian glossary….

Image: tack by UpSticksNGo Crew via Flickr, CC BY 2.0


1 Comment

  1. Ingrid

    I would turn around the last phrase: any person that has any hopes of becoming the next Carl Hester, should most certainly NOT see a vast selection of bits as an instrument to achieve his/her goals.


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