When Tack Hurts

Resistance to your cues, time off for injury, or even permanent damage--painful equipment impacts your horse's performance. Just as a shoe must fit your foot, any type of strap or apparel needs to conform to the horse. When you apply any piece of saddlery to your horse, the item influences the animal in some way. Tack remains in place through gravity or through enclosing a portion of the horse's body. The inner surface contacts the horse, and by its contact can cause irritation or even injury.

Most of the time, the contact is trivial and the horse tolerates the feel of the equipment. Effects of tack vary according to the length of wearing--the horse wears some tack for a short, supervised period, while other items are left on the horse while he's in a stall or at turnout.

Your horse can't tell you where tack hurts, but he can express sensation through his movement. Any sort of tack can impact the horse's attitude and well-being. Tack can cause discomfort or pain by undue pressure, or even its presence against skin, muscle, or bone. We'll explore the possible effects of various types of saddlery and horse clothing, excluding injuries caused by saddle fitting.

Surface Irritation

Equipment rests on the horse's coat and skin. An article can chafe, especially if it has a rough texture that rubs the hair or presses into the skin. Tack of plaited rawhide, braided leather, or nylon rope can lead to abrasion.

Your horse might tolerate a sensation that would irritate another horse. Even a strap of a flat surface, such as a halter or breastplate of firm leather or nylon webbing, can irritate skin. On a horse which sustains chafing from nylon webbing, choose a nylon halter with a padded lining in the crown piece and noseband, or a nylon breast collar lined with felt or fleece.

A caveson, pulled tight on a hunt or dressage bridle, might need cushioning to prevent abrasion on the horse's nose or chin. Your horse might even be sensitive about pressure of the crown piece behind his ears--you can pad the crown piece with a short length of closed-cell foam or sheepskin.

Tack can irritate the skin's surface just because of what it is made from. Metals such as nickel and chromium are contact allergens, with nickel associated with contact dermatitis in humans and dogs. Nickel is an element in bits and other hardware. The "18-8" type of stainless steel is alloyed from iron combined with 18% chromium and 8% nickel.

Some manufacturers now market nickel-free bits. However, generations of horses have worn bits of steel and nickel alloys with most showing no ill effects. Dermatologists surveyed on this issue report that no research has shown that nickel bits have caused problems in horses.

The condition of an item can cause irritation. A girth with a felt lining acts as a cushion against the skin, yet the fabric becomes stiff and hard when sweat dries.

A leather cinch or girth must be kept  supple, smooth, and free of salt that abrades the skin. C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM, rides and cares for dressage and endurance horses, where the girth is a crucial component to a sound competitor. "Salt will inhibit the leather from sliding," said Tomlinson. "Once the horse is foaming--lathered up--the leather girth will slide. But when it dries out, that dry salt rubs against the skin."

A cinch or girth must rest flat in place. Western cinches should have no gaps between the strands to collect sweat or loose hair. Each strand must lie level against the skin. The wide roper's cinch is constructed with a loose overlay of strands, to account for the conformation of the horse while allowing all strands to lie flat with an even pressure. A diamond or other shape woven into the cinch helps keep the cords spread and flat, so the cinch remains smooth and tight.

"There is no perfect girth for every horse, for every use," said Tomlinson. "A horse doing dressage today probably will need a different girth to do endurance tomorrow. The girth that worked for the horse in January may not be the right girth for that horse in August."

Because the girth snugly wraps around the horse, it must be cleaned regularly. Tomlinson prefers the string girth, and he recommends washing this fabric after every other ride: "Use a brand-name soap, such as Orvis--a very mild soap that rinses out well. Then rinse, rinse, rinse."

To avoid a rash caused by soap or detergent, he advised rinsing the girth twice in a washing machine, then rinsing it again by hand. "Then hang the girth on the clothesline to dry. From a health standpoint, line drying is good in that sunlight kills the bacteria and viruses."

Dermatophytes, or microorganisms that cause fungal diseases, thrive in warm, moist environments. A girth or saddle pad that doesn't "breathe" can increase the horse's susceptibility to conditions such as girth itch. Fungus can survive in a girth or pad, and spread from horse to horse through the tack.

Fabric manufacturers have developed antimicrobial fabrics, now seen in some saddle pads. An antibacterial compound incorporated during fabric manufacture inhibits growth of microorganisms associated with disease of the skin.

Dermatologist Julie Delger noted that no research has been done on antimicrobial fabrics and horses. She described a hypoallergenic article as "a fiber that does not support the growth of bacteria. It would not support the growth of ringworm or rain scald." She contrasted the antimicrobial lining with one containing chemicals in an insufficient concentration that could lead to resistance, or chemicals that could be a source of irritation to the animal.

Tack against the skin also causes heat. You want to reduce heat by allowing sweat to escape, so the skin is cooler. If your saddle pad holds in heat, any soap left in the pad can complicate skin problems.

To manage moisture, certain porous materials encourage evaporation. A water-loving (hydrophilic) material absorbs moisture, or wicks moisture away from the skin.

Some man-made products, like neoprene, retain more heat. The increased heat can lead to contact dermatitis, so wash the horse's legs after you remove boots or wraps. Be careful fitting your horse with neoprene boots for turnout, as the material causes heat buildup and can result in hair being rubbed off.

Better-quality neoprene does allow some air circulation. Manufacturers address the problem of heat with removable inserts of a breathable foam, or pinholes in the material.

Although neoprene is marketed as a low-maintenance product, manufacturers recommend regular cleaning. "Hose off wraps after use," advised Gerald Detty of Equine Sports Medicine. "Wash every two weeks, in cold water with a mild detergent." He mentioned dishwashing soap, a cleanser that rinses out well.

Dirt under a horse's boots can be another source of abrasion. When your horse goes through sand or mud, soil can work underneath a boot of neoprene, vinyl, or leather to rub against the skin. Some models are constructed to fit snugly to prevent dirt from penetrating.

To reduce heat and encourage evaporation, look for breathable fabrics such as wool. Wool fleece is a strong fiber and a soft cushion.

You'll see fleece in saddle blankets, girth covers, and halter tubes. Dense wool pile cushions the horse against pressure. Wool tends to mat with use, so brush or wash the fleece to remove dried sweat and restore the fluffy texture.

Equip For Comfort

Horse clothing also can irritate the skin. A blanket that's slightly tight in front can rub at the shoulders, resulting in patches of shortened hair at the points of the shoulders. Also, the neck opening can press against the withers.

Equine fashion might fit current trends, yet cause discomfort to some horses. In jumper competitions, the elastic breastplate has gained popularity. The stretchy strap is designed to conform to the shoulders and chest, and move with the horse's galloping and jumping efforts.

Tomlinson advised against this model, explaining, "Any time you have pressure, the wider it is, the less pressure per square inch you're getting. But you have to move the breast collar lower, not on the trachea. What's lower is the shoulders, and they are moving." If a breast collar is required, he mentioned the more comfortable "Y" shape, or a broader band to distribute the pressure.

Whatever the model, incorrect fitting of tack can increase pain to the horse. The metal rings of a cinch can rub against the sensitive skin. A cinch that's too long moves the rings or buckles high up on the horse's sides, making it more difficult to secure the saddle snugly. A cinch or girth must be wide enough so the strap doesn't bind the horse, but not so wide it chafes the elbows.

Some training devices are designed to function by causing intentional pain to the horse. The pages of tack catalogues display gear that could come from a torturer's toolkit: bits with chain mouthpieces, nosebands with spikes, or even a "gag" headstall with a crown piece of steel cable or chain links.

However, the appearance of a bit doesn't reflect its action in an individual horse's mouth. In the light hands of an expert horseman, a harsh-looking bit can signal the horse without harm. The ported bit allows tongue relief, as the tongue can slide under the port. A jointed bit can pinch and press more severely against tongue, lips, and jaws.

Bitmaker Dale Myler explained, "Find the mouthpiece that the horse can relax into the hands that are holding on to it. If the horse is not relaxed into the bridle, it makes no difference where your hands are--you'll get resistance. When he is relaxed and comfortable, your horse will follow your hands if you lift them."

The curb chain, fitting in the chin groove on both Western and English curb bits, can rub off hair and "bite" into the skin. If fitted incorrectly, the points of the curb hooks of an English curb can dig into the skin every time the rider uses the reins. Prevent such pain by keeping the chain flat, or even sliding it through a rubber curb chain guard. Make sure the points of a bit's curb hooks face away from the horse's lips and chin.

Tack Attacks

Ideally, flexible material bends with the horse's structure or motion, without pressing into the skin. Pressure sores result when the pressure exerted by a pad or strap exceeds the normal amount.

Frictional forces can cause an article to rub the skin as it moves. Tack that's adjusted too tightly can compress the skin.  Transmitted through the skin, pressure impacts underlying tissues and structures, and the compression can result in a lesion. For example, a girth must be snug enough to keep the saddle in place, but not squeeze the skin too tightly. If it rubs the skin excessively, the pressure can produce a friction sore.

A girth can be too loose, so it rotates. Movement causes rubbing and leads to a girth gall. A girth gall abrasion can make the horse reluctant to move forward.

Tomlinson explained the benefit of the string girth. "It moves with the skin. It gives, and it doesn't bind." String girths traditionally were made of cords of mohair wool, although most today are a blend of mohair and rayon.

Tomlinson did note that in some situations, even a string girth can gall a horse. "The gall is not from the girth's being too tight, but from its being too loose and having movement. The string girth gives horizontally very nicely, and it's good with a horse that moves with a long stride."

A rider with an insecure leg also contributes to the girth's movement. When the girth slides, its action over hundreds of strides can result in a lesion by rubbing off the hair.

"The hair is the first line of defense for that area," said Tomlinson. "If there's no hair, you've cut out the first line."

Even a minor gall can take a month, or even two, to heal completely. The surface can look smooth, with slightly pink skin, but the hair has to grow back.

To heal the inflammation, Tomlinson recommended applying Desitin and baby powder. He added that an initial gall can lead to further occurrences. "Once a horse has girth problems, he will be very prone to those problems from then on."

You'll see some girths and breastcollars made with neoprene linings. These are marketed as easy to clean, but they might not necessarily prevent galling. Neoprene's insulating properties retain heat against the skin.

"Heat will break down the skin tissue, and heat will enable a gall faster than you ever knew," said Tomlinson.

As in the girth, the saddle pad should disperse shock over a wide area. Therapeutic and now even "curative" saddle pads promise to correct mismatches between horse and saddle.

Tomlinson noted, "The only reason you need a pad is because your saddle and your horse are not perfect for each other. A pad is simply there to help the horse's back with the saddle." He doesn't blame the pad for a sore back, as the pad can't make up for the saddle.

"Any skin or back problem will take quite a while to heal," said Tomlinson. "I have seen wither sores that take three or four years to heal. One horse developed a bone infection from wither sores."

For the horse's legs, wraps intend to support and protect. Sports boots are designed to distribute impact. Some models aim to add support. Any boots or wraps should permit the leg to stretch. If fastened too tightly, the pressure can irritate the leg. If fastened too loosely, they can slip and bind.

If you wrap your horse's leg with a tight bandage, you might see inflammation when you remove the bandage. The compression of the tendon is caused by wrapping too tightly, or pulling the bandage unevenly while spiraling it over the tendon. Called a bandage bow, the swelling can persist.

On gaited horses, action devices can cause injury. Appliances used include action chains or rattlers and bracelets of wood or aluminum beads that fit around the ankles. As the horse moves, the device shakes against pastern and coronet. Such devices usually cause no problem, but misuse can cause soring.

Accessory To Injury

Improper use of tack can lead to accidental injury, or even death. When two forces impact, one will weaken before the other. You want tack to remain in place during normal activity, yet break away and release from the horse in certain emergencies. Accidents occur when tack fasteners fail, or the fasteners don't give way under extreme pressure.

Supervise the horse carefully when you leave him on his own while wearing tack. Avoid accidents by thinking ahead, especially when you tie a horse. Never tie the horse with the reins, or with the lead rope snapped to a bit ring, or with a lead shank with a chain end threaded over the horse's nose. If the horse pulls reins or shank taut, the sudden, painful pressure can make him fight the tie. A bit exerts pain in his mouth, and he might panic because of the pain.

The snap on the lead rope can break when the horse pulls back, or other hardware can break on the halter. When the pressure suddenly stops, the horse can lose his footing.

Even worse is the situation in which the halter does not break, and the horse's struggles can lead to death. Prevent such accidents by using a halter with a crownpiece that will break free in an emergency. A halter with a leather safety crown, or a short breakaway strap of leather at one end of the crown, will break if the horse catches the halter on a solid object and pulls back.

In stall or field, blanket straps keep clothing in place. If a blanket slips, it can entangle the horse's legs. Straps shouldn't unfasten when the horse rolls or lies down. However, you want the fasteners to release if the horse snags the clothing on an object like a fence post or rail, or if he somehow catches a leg in a blanket strap.

Leg wraps should stay in position. A stable bandage can unwind during hauling and the loose wrap entangle the horse. Under extreme stress of jumping or on wet ground, buckles or hook and loop straps can unfasten on galloping or bell boots.

Hook and loop fasteners differ in their connective capacity. A higher quality will fasten and unfasten for a minimum of 1,000 cycles, and the hook will remain secured to the loop without ripping the loop fabric. If your horse's boots tend to unfasten, secure them by wrapping duct tape over the straps. Double-locking hook and loop tabs add more security.

When riding, you don't want your bridle's straps or hardware to break or unfasten. Harness must remain in place when driving the horse to a vehicle. The surprise of the release of pressure can cause the horse to bolt out of control, endangering you as well as himself.

As the horse gallops, turns, or jumps, the expansion and contraction of his body exert pressure on the girth or cinch. Your shifting weight also strains the girth. A girth of neoprene or leather, partially cracked from age or weathering, could break under this stress. Prevent a dangerous situation by checking the condition of your girth during regular cleaning. Some eventing riders use an overgirth, an extra strap that fits over the saddle and girth, as a precaution against the girth failure during the cross-country phase.

On a running martingale, one of the rings could slide forward and catch on the hook stud connection on the rein end. Prevent this hazard by fitting the reins with rein stops of leather or rubber. The ring can't slide any farther forward than the stop.

Before you place any article of tack on your horse, evaluate its value and its dangers. Tomlinson shared his rule of thumb about tack: "If it is not needed, get it off your horse. Tack holds in heat, and it has a potential to rub. If you don't need it, don't put it on the horse."

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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