FAQ Gear Riding

What is it called when you put a saddle on a horse?

dressage saddle with flowers
Written by Horse Rookie

What it means to saddle up a horse for riding

If you’re new to the horse world, you might feel as though you’re wandering around a city where everyone else is speaking a foreign language. With a little time and practice, though, you’ll be able to speak “fluent equestrian” with the best of them. 

One of the most common things you’ll hear riders talk about is putting a saddle on—though it can be phrased a few different ways, such as tacking up or saddling up. 

What is tacking up a horse?

When it comes to preparing for a ride, the phrases “tack up” and “saddle up” are interchangeable.

The word “tack” is a broad term that describes all of the equipment you might put on your horse to ride or do groundwork. Typically, it refers to the saddle, saddle pad, girth/cinch, bridle, and bit — but even items like horse boots, breast collars, or lunging equipment are often called “tack.”

When someone says they’re going to tack up, it means they’re going to prepare a horse for riding by putting on basic equipment — including the saddle. 

“Saddling” or “saddling up” is a more specific way to describe putting the saddle onto the horse and securing it with a girth or cinch. 

Tacking up English-style

Source: Canva

What is the proper way to saddle a horse English style?

Saddles come in lots of shapes and sizes, depending on the type of activity you’re going to do with your horse. Generally, though, saddles are classified as English or Western. 

English saddles are used for disciplines like jumping, dressage, and three-day eventing. They are usually lighter weight and less bulky than their Western counterparts.

To tack up, you will:

  1. Groom your horse.
  2. Put on the saddle pad(s). 
  3. Place the saddle on top.
  4. Affix the velcro “keepers” that help keep your pad and saddle together (if your pad has them).
  5. Attach the breast collar or martingale, if you use one.
  6. Secure the saddle with a girth, slowly tightening it over the course of several minutes (and checking that it’s still tight before you mount).
  7. Add horse boots, if you use them.
  8. Put on the bridle.

This instructional video shows how to saddle up English style:

What is the proper way to saddle a horse Western style?

Western saddles are used for disciplines like reining, cow work, ranch riding, and barrel racing. They are usually heavier, have a horn in the front, and can have ornately decorated leather and hardware.

To tack up, you will:

  1. Groom your horse.
  2. Put on the saddle pad(s). 
  3. Place the saddle on top.
  4. Attach the breast collar, if you use one.
  5. Secure the saddle with a cinch, slowly tightening it over the course of several minutes (and checking that it’s still tight before you mount). If your saddle also has a back cinch (i.e. second cinch further back), also attach this.
  6. Add horse boots, if you use them.
  7. Put on the bridle (e.g. headstall).

This instructional video shows how to saddle up Western style:

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do you put a saddle on a horse?

Every horse is shaped differently, but they all have something called “withers.” Withers are the sloping area where the base of the neck meets the horse’s back. 

Saddles are designed to be placed slightly behind the withers (~2 inches), which helps ensure your girth or cinch rests slightly behind your horse’s front legs. 

Not sure how to position your saddle or whether it fits properly? Check with your trainer, or schedule a saddle fitting session at your local tack shop.

This video walks through the correct saddle position for English-style riding:

This video walks through saddle position for Western-style riding:

Q: When can you start putting a saddle on a horse?

Most horses are “started under saddle” as two or three-year-olds. By this time, the horse is more physically and mentally mature and able to handle mounted training

Many equestrians will desensitize younger horses (e.g. yearlings) to the saddle by letting them see and smell it.

They might also place the saddle on the horse’s back for short periods of time (without using a girth or riding). This way, the horse is more familiar with this core piece of tack once it’s time to begin “real” training as a two or three-year-old. 

Q: What should you do if your horse is girthy?

First, make sure that all of your tack fits properly. If the saddle is too narrow or too wide, tightening the girth can cause discomfort or pain and girthy-ness.

Consider switching to a different type of girth. Many horses are more sensitive in the girth area and would benefit from a fleece or sheepskin girth. These girths absorb sweat and are a bit more flexible than other options.

Finally, call out your vet to rule out internal sources of pain, like spine problems or ulcers. Both of these can make being girthed up painful.

Tightening a Cinch

Source: Canva

Q: What problems may occur when tacking up?

Lots of things can go awry while you tack up, ranging from tack mishaps like a stirrup breaking or a rein snapping to issues with your horse’s behavior.

Some common behaviors include tail swishing, chomping on the bit, fidgeting, and head tossing. These can be indicators of poor tack fit, back soreness, or lameness, so don’t just write them off as your horse being fussy.

There’s a chance your horse may get away from you while you’re tacking up, so make sure they’re firmly secured.

Before you bridle, make sure to tighten the girth. You don’t want the horse to get loose and have the saddle flop around or slip onto his hindquarters.

Q: How long should it take to tack up a horse?

If you’re comfortable with your horse and your equipment, it should only take about 10 to 15 minutes to put on the saddle, saddle pad, and bridle. If you’re using more complicated equipment, like martingales, breastplates, and boots, it could take a bit longer, especially if it’s your first time using any of these items. 

Never rush the tacking-up process. Ill-fitting tack can cause your horse discomfort and can be potentially dangerous.

Q: Where should a cinch sit on a horse?

The cinch (i.e. girth) should sit comfortably behind the horse’s front legs — usually about two inches back from the “elbow” area. It’s important to choose a cinch or girth your horse finds comfortable.

Many English riders now use anatomically-shaped girths that give the horses more range of motion in the shoulder area. Western riders may opt for fleece-lined cinches for additional comfort.

shoulder relief girth

Check out shoulder relief girths at Amazon

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About the author

From the tender age of six, I embarked on a journey that would weave horses into the very fabric of my existence. Over 35 years have passed since I first mounted a horse, and my love for equestrian sports is stronger than ever before.