In her continuing quest to enlighten us English folk about the mysteries of western riding, Kristen Kovatch offers this explanation.
Or, why my horse is wearing so much gear.
In the age in which everything is instantaneous and easy, I speculate sometimes that my students must grumble a little bit when they tack up my cowhorse for their class or practice. Rather than having just a simple western work saddle, I have a heavy big-horn with a back cinch and breastcollar. The only thing going for the students is the fact that my horse is really short and they don’t have to heave that big heavy saddle much higher than their shoulders. I even gave them a low saddle rack in the tack room. They’ve got it good.
I have to admit, though, that some of that extra gear’s purpose isn’t always evident. For my doubting students and the rest of Horse Nation, a brief guide.
My saddle has a high cantle and a deep seat, which looks deceptively uncomfortable until the students sit in and discover what I call “the pocket,” or that dip in the seat that seems to hold you down in the tack. This is particularly useful since my horse and I tend to make a lot of wild maneuvers like this:
Any extra “stick” I can get goes a long way.
The saddle also includes a big horn, wider and higher than most and wrapped in rawhide. For the eventual day that I start roping off of my horse, this horn will be necessary for dallying the rope and stopping a cow.
While not critical for riding on the rail like most of my classes and practices, the back cinch helps hold the saddle down when working cattle. Anyone who has ever stopped a cow down the fence or roped and stopped a calf will tell you that having an extra cinch to hold the back of the saddle down is absolutely critical. The back cinch ideally should not be as tight as the normal cinch, but not loose enough to allow the horse to sneak a back foot through. However, I know of cowboys who tighten the back cinch more than the front—if you saw how loose these cowboys ride the front cinch, it’s not necessarily saying much, but the reality is that you tighten it as much as you need to. All back cinches should be anchored to the front cinch—otherwise, they are prone to sliding up into the horse’s flanks and turning into what we fondly call a “bucking strap.” As with most western terms, the bucking strap does exactly what it says it does. Hang on, cowboy.
The breastcollar is a useful tool for keeping the saddle straight on the horse’s back, especially in performance events like reining or cowhorse. They’re also useful for trail riding, when you might be going up or down steep hills, to prevent the saddle from sliding either side-to-side or backwards. Given my tendency to ride with a fairly loose cinch, the breastcollar keeps me centered whether I’m just working in the arena or fencing a cow, or wandering the trails in hilly western New York.
My saddle also includes saddle ties, which is a glorified name for some rawhide strips at the swell, concho and cantle. Usually they don’t serve much purpose to me, unless I’m trail riding—then I can tie on a rain coat or attach a set of saddle bags. This weekend I served as the pack horse for my coworkers, my saddle bags filled with bottled water and spare halters on a long trail ride (eventually we also picked up the thrown shoe of a coworker’s horse.) My mare, fortunately, did not mind the swinging and bumping of packed bags as we trotted and cantered along the route. Nor did she seem to mind carrying a few extra pieces of equipment. They’re just tools of the trade.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.