Learn more about Horse tack
Tack is a term used to describe any of the various equipment and accessories worn by horses in the course of their use as domesticated animals. Saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits, harnesses, martingales, and breastplates are all forms of horse tack.
Saddles are seats for the rider, fastened to the horse's back by means of a girth (English-style riding) or cinch (Western-style), a wide strap that goes around the horse at a point about four inches behind the forelegs. Some western saddles will also have a second strap known as a flank or back cinch that fastens at the rear of the saddle and goes around the widest part of the horse's belly.
It is important that the saddle is comfortable for both the rider and the horse—an improperly fitting saddle may create pressure points on the horse's back muscle (Latissimus dorsi) and cause the horse pain and can lead to the horse, rider, or both getting injured.
There are many types of saddles, each specially designed for its given task. Saddles are usually divided into two major categories, "English saddles" and "Western saddles" according to riding discipline they are used in. Other types of saddles, such as racing saddles, Australian saddles, and endurance saddles do not fit in either category.
A new class of saddles have no tree inside (treeless saddles); they are mainly used for pleasure and trail riding and endurance.
- English saddles
- Jumping or close contact saddle
- Dressage saddle
- Polo saddle
- Park saddle
- Racing saddle
- Show saddle (gaited)
- A/P or All Purpose (G/P General Purpose)
- Western saddle
- Roping saddle
- Barrel racing saddle
- Endurance saddle
- Trail saddle
- Pleasure saddle
- English sidesaddle
- Western sidesaddle
- Military saddle
- Australian stock saddle
- Treeless saddle
Stirrups are supports for the rider's feet that hang down on either side of the saddle. The invention of stirrups was of great significance in mounted combat, giving the rider a secure footing while on horseback. At the same time the stirrups are problematic due to the tendency for feet to get stuck in them in dire moments, causing the rider to be dragged. Because of this danger saddlers have developed both safety stirrups or peacock stirrups —which are either shaped to allow the rider's foot to slip out easily or are closed with a rubber band—and safety stirrup bars that are hangers for the stirrup leather that allow it to detach from the saddle in an emergency.
 Bridles and halters
Bridles and halters (headcollars) are an arrangement of straps around the horse's head used for communicating with the animal. Bridles often contain a bit (see below) attached to reins and are used for riding and driving horses. On the other hand, halters have no bit, are more general-purpose, and most often equipped for leading (particularly pack horses) or tethering a horse with a lead rope. A hackamore is a type of bitless bridle usually used to train young horses, or to go easy on an older horses mouth. Hackamores or bosals are usually seen in western riding.
Raised bridles have a raised noseband and are seen in English riding, as western bridles rarely have nosebands.
Double bridles use two bits in the mouth at once. The two bits allow the rider to have very precise control of the horse; usually only very advanced horses and riders use double bridles. Double bridles are usually seen in the top levels of dressage, as well as for showing purposes.
A lungeing cavesson is a special type of halter used for lungeing a horse. Lungeing is causing a horse to walk, trot and/or canter in a large circle around the handler. It is used for training and exercise.
Reins consist of leather straps or rope attached to the outer ends of a bit and extend to the rider's or driver's hands. Reins are the means by which a horse rider or driver communicates directional commands to the horse's head. Pulling on the reins can be used to steer or stop the horse. The sides of a horse's mouth are sensitive, so pulling on the reins pulls the bit, which then pulls the horse's head from side to side, which is how the horse is controlled.
On some types of harnesses there might be supporting rings to carry the reins over the horse's back. When pairs of horses are used in drawing a wagon or coach it is usual for the outer side of each pair to be connected to reins and the inside of the bits connected by a short bridging strap or rope. The driver carries "four-in-hand" or "six-in-hand" being the number of reins connecting to the pairs of horses.
A rein may be attached to a halter to lead or guide the horse in a circle for training purposes or to lead a packhorse.
 Bits and hackamores
Bits and hackamores are used on the head of a horse for control or communication with the horse. A bit is a device placed in a horse's mouth, a hackamore is a device that goes around the horse's nose instead of into its mouth. Both are kept on a horse's head by means of a headstall. The horse's mouth and nose are both very sensitive areas, and thus both hackamores and bits need to be handled carefully. However, each can be useful for specific types of riding and training.
The first bits were made of rope, bone, horn, or hard wood. Metal bits came into use between 1300 and 1200 BC, originally made of bronze. Stainless steel is the most popular material used today, although copper and "sweet" iron (cold rolled steel) are incorporated into some bits to encourage salivation in the mouth of the horse and hence a softer mouth. Other materials such as rubber or plastic are also used, sometimes in combination with metals.
The mouthpiece of the bit does not rest on the teeth of the horse, but rather rests on the gums or "bars" of the horse's mouth in an interdental space behind the front incisors and in front of the back molars. When a horse is said to "grab the bit in its teeth" they actually mean that the horse tenses its lips and mouth against the bit to ignore the rider's commands (although some horses may actually learn to get the bit between their molars).
Bits are designed to work by pressure, not pain. Depending on the style of bit, pressure can be brought to bear on the bars, tongue, and roof of the mouth, as well as the lips, chin groove and poll. Bits offer varying degrees of control and communication between rider and horse depending upon their design and on the skill of the rider. It is important that the style of bit is appropriate to the horse's needs and is fitted properly for it to function properly and be as comfortable as possible for the horse.
The basic "classic" styles of bits are:
Mouthpieces may be single jointed, double-jointed, "mullen" (a straight bar), or have an arched port in the center of varying height, with or without joints. They may also be smooth, roughened or of twisted wire or metal.
While there are literally hundreds of types of mouthpieces, rings and shanks, essentially, all bits work with either direct pressure or leverage. Bits that act with direct pressure on the tougue and lips of the bit are in the general category of snaffle bits. Snaffle bits most commonly have a single jointed mouthpiece and act with a nutcracker effect on the bars, tongue and and occasionally roof of the mouth. However, any bit that operates only on direct pressure is a "snaffle" bit, regardless of mouthpiece.
Bits that have shanks coming off the mouthpiece to create leverage that applies pressure to the poll, chin groove and mouth of the horse are in the category of curb bits. Most curb bit mouthpieces are solid without joints, ranging from a straight bar with a slight arch, called a "mullen" mouthpiece, through a "ported" bit that is slightly arched in the middle to provide tongue relief, to the full spade bit of the Vaquero style of western riding which combines both a straight bar and a very high "spoon" or "spade" extension that contacts the roof of the mouth. The length of the shank determines the degree of leverage put on the horse's head and mouth. Again, a bit with shanks and leverage is always a "curb" type bit, even when it has a jointed mouthpiece more commonly seen on a snaffle (such bits are sometimes--incorrectly-- called "cowboy snaffles").
Many bits combine both direct pressure and leverage, the most common examples being the Pelham bit, which has shanks and rings allowing both direct and leverage pressure on a single bit and is ridden with four reins; the Kimblewick or Kimberwicke, a hybrid bit that uses minimal leverage on a modified snaffle-type ring combined with a mouthpiece that is usually seen more often on curb bits, ridden with two reins; and the double bridle, which places a curb and a snaffle bit simultaneously in the horse's mouth so that each may act independently of the other, ridden with four reins. Another bit that combines direct pressure and leverage in a unique manner is the Gag bit, a bit derived from the snaffle that, instead of having a rein attached to the mouthpiece, runs the rein through a set of rings that attach directly to the headstall, creating extra pressure on the lips and poll when applied. Usually used for correction of specific problems, generally illegal in the show ring.
In the wrong hands even the mildest bit can hurt the horse. Coversely, a very severe bit, in the right hands, can transmit extremely subtle, nuanced signals that cause no pain to the horse. Commands should be given with only the quietest movements of the hands, and most steering is done with the legs and seat. Thus, instead of pulling or jerking the horse's head to change direction by force, a skiller rider indicates the desired direction by tightening and loosening the grip on the reins. The calf of the leg is used to push the body of the horse in a certain direction while the other one is used as a pivot and to provide the correct amount of impulsion required to keep the horse moving. Likewise, when slowing or stopping, a rider sits deeper in the saddle and closes their hands on the reins, avoiding jerking on the horse or hauling back on the reins in a "heavy-handed" fashion. Change of position of the seat and the pressure of the rider's seatbones are also extremely useful for turning, speeding up and slowing down.
The word "hackamore" is derived from the Spanish word jaquima. The first hackamore was probably a piece of rope placed around the nose of a horse at the time of domestication, perhaps as early as 2,500 B.C. Over time, more sophisticated means of using nose pressure were developed. Today, hackamores can be made of leather, rawhide, rope, cable or various plastics, sometimes in conjunction with metal parts. Hackamores are most often seen in western riding and other styles of riding derived from Spanish traditions, though they are occasionally seen in some English riding disciplines. While usually used to start young horses, they are often seen on mature horses with dental issues that make bit use painful and on horses with mouth or tongue injuries. Some riders also like to use them in the winter to avoid putting a frozen metal bit into a horse's mouth.
Like a bit, a hackamore can be gentle or harsh, depending on the hands of the rider. It is a myth that a bit is cruel and a hackamore is gentler. The horse's face is very soft and senstive with many nerve endings. Misuse of a hackamore can not only cause pain and swelling on the nose, but extreme abuse can cause damage to the cartilage on the horse's nose, or even break the fine bones that protect the nasal passages. Thus a rider must take equal care with both a bit and a hackamore.
The classic hackamore is often called a bosal hackamore (pronounced "bo-SAL," not "Bo-sul"). It consists of a fairly stiff rawhide nosepiece with a large knot or button at the base--the bosal. To keep the bosal properly balanced on the horse's head without rubbing or putting excess pressure on the nose, it is held on with a headstall with a specialized rope throatlatch called a fiador. The reins are made from a specially tied length of rope called a mecate (may-CAH-tay), which is tied in a specific manner to both adjust the size of the bosal, and to make a looped rein with an extra length of rope that can be used as a lead rope. The bosal acts on the horse's nose and jaw, and is most commonly used to start young horses under saddle in the Vaquero tradition. The bosal is a very sophisticated and versatile style of hackamore. Bosals come in varying diameters and weights, allowing a more skilled horse to "graduate" into ever lighter equipment. Once a young horse is solidly trained with a bosal, a bit is added and the horse is gradually shifted from the hackamore to a bit.
A modern variation on the bosal is called a sidepull and consists of a rope noseband with a leather or synthetic strap under the jaw, held on by a leather or synthetic headstall. Rings for rein attachment are placed on either side of the noseband, allowing very direct side pressure to be applied. Sidepulls are primarily used to start young horses or on horses that carry a bit. While severity can be increased by using harder or thinner rope, a sidepull lacks the sophistication of the bosal. Once a horse understands basic commands, the trainer needs to shift to either a bosal or to a snaffle bit to further refine the horse's training.
English riders sometimes use a jumping cavesson, which is a type of hackamore that consists of a heavy leather nosepiece with rings on the sides for reins, similar to a sidepull, but more closely fitting and able to transmit more subtle commands. A jumping cavesson is put on a standard English-style headstall and often is indistinguishable at a distance from a standard bridle. It is often used on horses who cannot tolerate a bit or who have mouth or tongue injuries.
The mechanical hackamore falls into the hackamore category as a device that works on the nose and not in the mouth, but it uses shanks and leverage and thus is not a true hackamore. A mechanical hackamore has a noseband, usually leather, with a strap under the jaw, often of chain, though sometimes of leather, and the two are connected by a metal link that also includes a long shank that applies pressure to the nose, chin groove and poll when pulled. Mechanical hackamores are often seen on rodeo horses and occasionally in show jumping competition, but are illegal in most horse show disciplines. They are often used by casual riders, especially for trail riding, and by hunters who must ride and camp in freezing weather where a frozen bit can injure the horse's tongue. While mechanical hackamores made entirely of leather with short shanks can be relatively mild, the addition of a longer shank and chain under the jaw can make this device a very severe piece of equipment. If adjusted too low, it can also put excessive pressure on the horse's nose cartilage and even obstruct the horse's breathing. Mechanical hackamores lack the sophistication of bits or a bosal and primarily are used for their considerable stopping power. It is not usually possible to teach a horse to soften its jaw or flex to the rider's hands with a mechanical hackamore, and horses ridden in these devices quite often develop a bad habit of head-tossing.
A harness is a complicated set of devices and straps that attaches a horse to a cart, a sledge or any other load. There are as many kinds of harnesses as there are vehicles and loads to attach to a horse.
A horse that is used solely for draughting will have a bridle, reins, collar and hames, and traces. A horse that is supporting shafts, such as on carts, will also have a saddle to support the shafts and a britchen to brake the forward motion of the vehicle, especially when stopping or moving downhill. Horses guiding vehicles by means of a pole, such as a wagon, a hay-mower, or a dray, will have at least pole-straps attached to the lower part of their collar.
 Martingales and breastplates
- See also: Martingale (tack)
A martingale is a strap that (1) keeps the horse from raising its head above a point of control or (2) keeps the horse from tossing its head and smacking its rider in the face.
Martingale types include:
- Running martingale: There are two types: 1 has a yoke around the neck, a part that runs between the front legs and attaches to the girth of a saddle, and a fork at the chest that branches off and attaches to each rein, so that the bit presses on the bars of the mouth if the horse raises the head too high. 2- has a "yoke" around the neck, attaches to the girth, and either has a ring on each side of the yoke or a "fork" with a ring at each end, where the reins run through the rings, enabling the rider to more easily keep the horse flexed at the poll. Fitted correctly, this 2nd type of running martingale does not control how high the horse carries his head.
- Standing martingale: similar to the running martingale, but instead of a fork it has one strap that runs from the chest and attaches to the noseband of the bridle, and therefore has no effect on the bit in the horse's mouth. A western counterpart to this piece of equipment is the tie down. The standing martingale, however, does not provide as much freedom for the horse, which could be dangerous for cross-country riding. Therefore, when a horse is used for eventing it must use a running martingale for safety reasons, if a martingale is to be used at all.
- Irish martingale: Unlike the previous two martingales, this does not control the height of the horse's head, but merely keeps the reins from going over the horse's head in the result of a fall. It consists of a piece of leather with a ring on each end in which each rein runs through.
- See also: Breastplate (tack)
Breastplates, breastcollars, and breastgirths are all extra equipment used to keep the saddle from sliding back. They are usually seen in demanding, fast-paced sports like eventing, show jumping, and polo, as well as fox hunting. They are also seen in Western events, with a more decorative than utilitarian function.