All Dressed Up and Places to Go

cavesson_bvcYes, 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 equineย  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).PatPook_bvc 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. pookabridle_bvc

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, western saddle_bvcis 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).ย  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 the1520warsaddle_bvc 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. SRS saddle II_bvcHere 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.levade_bvc




All Dressed Up and Places to Go — 6 Comments

  1. Another very useful entry, thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I am actually pointing players in my text-based roleplaying game to these since I’ve been too busy to write up any guides on how to portray horses in roleplay. You see some very entertaining horse mistakes in such games too, and some of them no doubt go on to writing later on, taking those mistakes with them.

    Btw, this post wasn’t categorized under Judith Tarr like the rest, so doesn’t show up if someone looks for an overview of all your posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Fixed! Thanks for the heads up. I wondered why it wasn’t getting the usual number of comments.

    These posts are going to be a collection realsoonnow, published by BVC. So people will be able to get the whole lot in electronic format (and we hope eventually print as well). ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Ooh, it’s still very quiet in here. Is this the right place to note that hours of entertainment can be had by failing to tighten the girth properly, and/or by your horse inflating him/herself deliberately to foil you? Also that tack must fit properly or your horse will be unhappy.

    Hang on, I do have a question! Lots of my pony books (British) seem to demand an absolutely obsessive amount of tack-cleaning. Like, every time you ride, you must then clean all your tack absolutely thoroughly. This seems insane and unworkable to me, but am I just lazy? How much tack-cleaning time is appropriate? If you’re riding and camping across the continent and will be back in two months, where does tack-cleaning come in?

  4. Every time if you can–at least wipe the girth and wash the bit, and condition the leather at least once a week.

    In an ideal world. In the real one, er, well. I need barn kids is all I’m saying.

  5. (back from Worldcon, catching breath…)

    Tack cleaning is also an English vs Western thing. While at the hunt seat barns I lessoned at, there was always a bucket of water with sponges and soap handy, such a thing is rather uncommon in a Western barn. A Western saddle may be lucky to see soap once or twice a year (depending on the owner’s show schedule).

  6. In re: tack cleaning. Light soap and a wipe should have more rather than less often. In practice, it doesn’t always. But in the modern era, we also use saddle pads to keep the saddle clean. English saddles were often put directly on the horse, and thus required cleaning every ride, so that dirt didn’t build up and cause saddle sores. Or at least so I recall reading.