Yes, I know. I promised “How to Kill Your Horse” this week, but I’m a bit colicky myself today, so I’m postponing that one until next week. This week I’ll answer a question from the comments, and tackle another equine subject that is all too frequently misunderstood: namely, tack.
Tack is equipment–stuff on your horse, so to speak. Saddles, bridles, halters and leadropes, all the things the horse wears when he’s ridden, worked, or handled.
The photo up above is a bit more obscure and arcane than the non-horseperson may want to include in a novel, but I like it and it’s rather iconic, so there it is. It’s a Lipizzaner stallion modeling a form of headstall called in Spain a serreta. It’s designed for handling and showing stallions, and the full-bore version may actually have serrated edges on the underside of the part that goes over the nose. In this model, needless to say (because the horse is my own and we don’t Do excessive force here), the nosepiece is a solid metal bar covered with leather padding. It’s firm and quiet and he respects it. We work him in it, and use it for leading him when we need something a little more authoritative than a halter.
A halter, now, you may well need in your novel. This is also called a headcollar in England, and is used for general-purpose leading and handling (the line attached to it for leading will be called a lead or a leadrope). A horse may be turned out loose in a halter, though there are schools of thought as to whether this is advisable (mostly having to do with getting caught in things, or getting a foot caught, or having it broken or ripped off by a pasturemate). Below is a horse in a halter (also a saddle–he was being worked on by a vet at the time, and she was running diagnostics on various things having to do with feet, legs, back, and equipment). Its use here is to show what a halter looks like. See? No bit.
He is also wearing a form of English saddle known as a dressage saddle, for reference. Note that there is no saddle horn, and the iron (actually steel) stirrups are attached to the saddle by thin leather straps. Your dressage rider or your person riding in an English hunt will not be grabbing the saddle horn as a general rule, because the English saddle does not have one.
You will not be haltering and saddling your horse to ride, unless there is a specific reason why your character needs to ride in a halter (soft leather or nylon, rather loosely fitted, no bit). In a Western setting he may ride in a hackamore or a bosal or even a sidepull, all of which are bitless rigs (and can be considerably stronger than a bitted bridle–they work on other parts of the head than the mouth, sometimes quite forcefully), but for the general European or medieval setting, the object on the horse’s head when he is ridden is called a bridle. This piece of equipment, usually made of leather and sometimes highly ornamented, is designed to maintain a metal bit in the mouth and a set of reins that run from the bit to the rider’s hands, with which the rider controls the horse, notably stopping and turning. This is what a bridle looks like–note the bit and reins.
The horse is quite comfortable in it. We aren’t using the bit to rip his tongue to pieces (though your villain may do so). It’s a communications device with a fair amount of fine-tuning available to it, in the hands of a skilled rider.
Different kinds of bits follow different designs, and some are very severe and damaging. Others are very mild. For general purposes, it’s best to slide on by and just mention the bit; if you need to know what specific types of bits are gentler or harsher, you can ask here or consult your local expert.
Saddles, as I’ve noted above, come in different styles and types. The English saddle is the one that will be used in English and European settings–hunts, for example, or excursions in the park. The Western saddle, as seen here, is your cowboy and ranch saddle, and has a horn for dogging the rope around and hanging your canteen from (and grabbing if you’re a greenhorn). This is the working saddle of the West, and it’s popular these days for casual and recreational riders. Note that with an English saddle, the belly strap that holds the saddle on is called a girth, but on a Western saddle it’s called the cinch (and there may be two of them in a working saddle–one in front under the stirrup, and one in the rear). The Western stirrups are much bigger as well, and rather than being called irons are called stirrups; instead of English stirrup leathers you have fenders (that big piece of leather hanging down).
Do take careful note that these two types of saddles came into use from the eighteenth century onward. Prior to the opening of the American West, there was no such thing as a saddle horn. Saddles did not have them–so your medieval knight or your fantasy-medieval lady will not be hanging anything off the saddle horn, or using it for any purpose. Also note that stirrups came into Europe around about the eighth century AD–prior to that, expect everyone except possibly the Scythian tribes to be riding without them.
Between the eighth century and the eighteenth, saddles evolved through various regions and uses, but for the most part expect wooden or iron stirrups, and a high buildup fore and aft, but no horn. (Sidesaddles are a different animal with an intriguing and complex history, and have a somewhat different structure; this tends to be a bit specialized, so again, consult your expert.) To the left is a beautiful example of a war saddle from the 1500s, which is actually quite understated and rather low, but gives you an idea as to how the knight’s saddle was constructed. Stirrups would have hung from leather straps and been most likely made of metal. Saddles like this are still being made and used in Portugal and Spain. Another variation is the bullfighting saddle, a form of which is also still being used in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Here is a beautiful example of a very well-worn and heavily-used saddle, with the old style of stirrup irons (tied up to keep them from flapping against the horse’s sides), such as your eighteenth-century nobleman might have been pleased to ride in, and your Baroque horsemaster would not have found it too terribly odd, either.
I leave you with a classic, and a useful image to study, if you’re working in the eighteenth century–note the shape of the bit and the long curved shanks, and the way the rider is sitting. Very different from what’s done now.