Saddle Accessories – Stirrups, Girths & Numnahs

Stirrup leathers

Some people make the mistake of buying a really good quality saddle, whether new or used, and think they are economising by then buying less-than-top quality stirrup leathers, irons and girth. This is not just false economy, it is undoubtedly a potentially dangerous practice because your life could well depend on the reliability and strength of these accessories: all of them play a major part in keeping you and your horse together.

Certainly, it is possible to ride without irons or girth at all – I have seen more than one impressive display of High School riding where the saddles had neither, and did not budge an inch because of the riders’ exemplary seats and techniques; but most of us feel happier with them!

Stirrup leathers come in various types of leather and synthetic materials, and in different lengths and widths, for small children starting at about 5 /8in, up to 1 1/4in for large gentlemen (note that in all areas of saddlery metric measurements are also now used). The leather may be buffalo-hide, rawhide or oak-bark-tanned ox-hide; and synthetics come in plastics, nylon web and occasionally other materials, too.

Red buffalo-hide leathers are so strong that they are often sold as unbreakable and it is, indeed, hard to imagine a normal riding circumstance when they would break. All leathers have a smooth (grain) side and a rougher (flesh) side, although in top-quality leathers the flesh side should not really be noticeably rough. Leathers made of ox-hide and rawhide are made with the flesh side outwards so that the considerable wear they receive from the eye of the stirrup is borne on the tougher, grain side; but with buffalo-hide leathers the reverse is the case because they are so strong that this point is insignificant. New buffalo-hide leathers do, however, stretch more than others. Oar-hide leathers stretch least; rawhide leathers (less easy to find) come somewhere between the two.

Buckles: The buckles on leathers and girths should be of strong stainless steel, with a firmly located tongue and a little groove on the top bar of the buckle for the tongue to lodge in. Nickel buckles should be illegal in my view as they wear, crack and break alarmingly easily, as do nickel bits and stirrups; in fact nickel items should only be used by those who like living dangerously! The term ‘solid nickel’ (as opposed to, presumably, ‘nickel-plated’ like cheap cutlery) gives the impression that they are strong and reliable, though nothing could be further from the truth. If the all-important consumer market refused to accept nickel it would soon go out of common usage, and the sooner the better; surprisingly, some otherwise good quality items have nickel buckles. Maybe you could make the point, by refusing to buy unless the shop supplies ‘the real McCoy’ stainless steel ones. So, look for a good item and insist on stainless steel buckles. As with so much else when riding, your life is at stake here.

Good quality leathers will have evenly-punched holes in them (and if they are not even, you will always be riding lopsided, of course!) and these will be numbered; so if your leathers are on the same number you are more likely to be riding ‘even’, even though you may not feel like it! (If they continue to feel unlevel, either the saddle is unevenly stuffed or is twisted, or your horse is very unequally muscled-up, or your riding is at fault.) Some people have one leg significantly shorter than the other, a surprisingly common feature, and they will adjust their leathers accordingly; also, jockeys usually adjust the stirrup on the inside of the course they are riding to a hole or so shorter this makes riding the turns at speed with short stirrups easier: for a left-handed course the left leather will be shorter, and vice versa.

As all new hide leathers stretch initially, they should really be changed round every time the saddle is cleaned or every time you ride (which, following the counsel of perfection, should be one and the same thing, really). Moreover, if you habitually mount from the ground, the leather on the near-side is constantly being subjected to considerably more weight and stress than the offside leather and will stretch accordingly if they are not changed round regularly. Of course, you could follow the excellent advice of mounting alternately on the near- and off-sides.

Once the leathers have stretched to their full extent, you may use one hole more than the others for much of your riding, and a crease will probably develop where the leather passes through the eye of the stirrup; should this start to show significant signs of wear, it is a good idea to get ox-hide and rawhide leathers shortened from the buckle. With buffalo-hide leathers this is much less important.

Extending stirrup leathers are available for those who have to mount from the ground for example, arthritis sufferers, or for those who, quite simply, are not as agile as they once were. These are a boon for such riders if they have to dismount (or are dismounted by their horse!) when out, and have no access to any sort of mounting block or bank.

Getting a leather through the stirrup the right way up can sometimes perplex the inexperienced, so here are step-by-step instructions: take your leather with the buckle towards you and the pointed end away with the smooth side upwards (if of ox-hide or rawhide, the reverse for buffalo hide), with the tongue of the buckle downwards, and thread the pointed end away from you through the eye on top of the stirrup. Bring it up and back towards you and through the top bar of the buckle, putting the tongue through one of the holes.

Now, attaching a leather to the saddle: push or slide it over the bar (really hard, if necessary; some bars are most unco-operative unless their ends are slightly angled outwards, and this is a rare feature) and, by pulling down firmly on the piece of leather lying next to the saddle flap, pull the buckle right up to the stirrup bar where it is less likely to dig into your thigh, particularly if the saddle is not too well designed. Also available are leathers which fasten in various ways down by the stirrup (a military idea), thus avoiding altogether any possible discomfort; this feature is popular with dressage riders.

The spare end of leather should be passed back on top of the two looped pieces to lie behind your leg, preferably in the little leather ‘safe’ set diagonally for this purpose on the back edge of the flap of any good saddle. Don’t double it under the rest of the leathers first, as this will create an uncomfortable lump under your thigh. Some horses get really irritated by a loose end which is in the safe but is long enough to flap about or touch their side, so in such cases don’t use the safe – the leather is less annoying if it hangs down straight.

Stirrup irons

These are no longer made of iron, of course, but should be of high quality stainless steel; and never nickel, for the reasons already given. It is easier to find a good, heavy iron with your toe should you ‘lose’ one when riding, especially if you have ‘trained’ your leathers to hang at the correct angle, something which can be done quite simply: leave the irons down when the saddle is put away, twist the left leather twice round to the left and the right one twice round to the right, and tie them in that position under the saddle with a piece of string. Gradually, you’ll find that when you are mounted but with your feet out of the stirrups, the latter are hanging at right angles to your horse’s sides, with the leathers turning naturally flat against your shins; like this you can very easily find a stirrup and slip the toe in without having to fumble inwards with the foot.

Various irons are shown and explained in the captions to the accompanying drawings. There are all sorts of irons aimed at helping you keep your foot in the ‘right’ position, and they will have various effects depending on your individual physical qualities: they can be a real advantage, can stiffen you up, cause pins and needles, make your feet and ankles numb. or even, as in my case, cause almost excruciating pain in the ankles because they force your feet into what is, for you, an unnatural position. I walk very slightly splay-footed, and any stirrup iron designed to make me keep my toes to the front and the outside of my sole slightly lower than the inside (both of which old-fashioned instructors still exhort their pupils to do) is absolute torture and, of course, totally mitigates against relaxed, harmonious riding.

The various safety irons on the market are an excellent idea, and are all designed to help you free your foot should it become jammed in the iron in a fall. In fact if you make sure the treads (bottoms) of your stirrups are just one inch wider than the widest part of the sole of your riding boots or shoes (measured from the inside of the stirrup branches), your foot will be unable to slip through and will be most unlikely to get stuck. And even though modern riding trainers are now available, it is still advisable to use stout footwear with a proper heel which will help prevent the foot slipping through. Rubber stirrup treads which slot into the base of the stirrups are almost universal these days and certainly help you keep your stirrups as well as being marginally warmer in winter.

Probably the most common safety iron is the Peacock Safety Iron; this has a thick rubber band instead of an outer branch, hooked to the top of the stirrup near the eye, the idea being that when pressure is put on the band it will become unhooked and will free the foot. Although the idea is basically sound, the stirrup seems to ‘miss’ the strength of its metal outer branch and in time does bend slightly, even if stainless steel, causing the tread to slope a little downwards and inevitably affecting the foot position.

The Australian Simplex stirrup is designed with an outward and forward loop on the outer branch and so does not have this failing the extra room the loop provides on the branch prevents the foot becoming stuck. However, it would seem to be rather more likely that the foot might go right through the iron.

Probably the most suitable iron is still the English Hunting Iron, as also the heavy dressage iron which originates in Germany. If the irons are the right size, and the rider’s boots or shoes also, they are probably as safe and suitable as anything else available. When buying irons make sure that the eye on the top will allow your chosen width of leather to run easily through it, without causing either annoyance to you or wear to the edges of the leather.

Breastplates

A breastplate or breastgirth is sometimes needed when a horse has a particularly well developed shoulder or a good front but little behind the saddle perhaps due to natural leanness, lack of condition, or peak fitness to keep the saddle from slipping back. There are ‘collar’ type breastplates called ‘hunting pattern’ breastplates, and the sort which fit round the chest as a horizontal strap attached to the girth on each side, and supported by a thinner strap which passes over the withers. The collar type have a strap passing round the base of the neck like the neckline of a rug, with two short straps attached at the top, one each side of the withers, which go back to fasten to the metal dees or loops on the front arch of the saddle (to stop everything sliding up the horse’s neck), as well as a strap attached at the bottom which passes down between the forelegs and loops round the girth, this strap being adjustable. It is possible for this type of breastplate to have a running or a standing martingale attachment.

The other type of breastplate is sometimes padded with sheepskin or synthetic fleece to lessen friction. It is important with this type that it is fitted high enough so as not to interfere with the movement of the shoulder, but low enough to avoid pressure on the Windpipe which could interfere with the horse’s breathing. On each side a short strap continues from the end of the chest strap, and fastens round one of the girth straps.

Neckstraps for novice riders (children or adults) are an item of equipment not used as much as they very well could be. They follow the collar-type breastplate design with usually only the two short straps fastening to the front dees, but both purposes would be served with the girth strap attached too. A neckstrap is a real boon to a novice, not to mention the horses and ponies whose riders might otherwise try to keep their balance by hanging on to the reins and jabbing the mouth most painfully for the animal.

Girths and surcingles

The girth could well receive more attention than it does as far as type, length and width is concerned, not to mention the stuff of which it is made. Leather girths are traditional and still in use, although the three-fold baghide girth seems to be hard to obtain, probably because it is now very expensive. If you have a good saddler, he may make one up for you. It is fitted with the closed edge behind the elbow and the open side of the girth towards the rear. Inside a piece of oiled fabric is placed between the layers, which effectively keeps the leather supple. Leather is used for almost any pattern of girth, but it has very little ‘give’ in it and is hardly absorbent at all. However, although leather girths may compromise a horse’s comfort, particularly when he is breathing hard, it has to be said that a clean, soft leather girth will not normally cause galling unless there is stitching lying next to the horse which is coarse or coming undone.

I feel a girth should be either absorbent or permeable (of one of the ‘breatheable’ textiles) so that sweat which softens and therefore weakens the skin is soaked up as much as possible or is transmitted away from the skin. Weak skin is obviously more prone to galling, and the practice of hardening up the skin by the application of surgical spirit to the saddle and girth areas seems to have been abandoned in most yards these days. Salt water can be used instead, to good effect.

The old-fashioned type of nylon girth was completely non-absorbent from a practical point of view, and had the propensity to be very rough on the skin, but it seems to be out of fashion now, thank goodness. Nylon string girths positively caused soreness and galling, and despite the intermittent crossbands built in to keep the strings in place, they often narrowed in use and so offered a similarly narrow area of pressure concentrated round the girth area. A girth should be comfortably broad enough to spread pressure without being over-restrictive.

If a horse has a somewhat upright shoulder and perhaps an insignificant girth groove, not to mention a large belly or croup-high conformation, there is every likelihood that the girth will dig in behind the elbows and cause galling. For such horses in particular the Balding and Atherstone pattern girths are to be recommended. These are narrower in shape behind the elbows so as to present less material (whatever it is) to this constantly moving and thin-skinned area.

Textiles for girths, apart from the leather and permeable ones of various types already mentioned, also include soft fabrics such as lampwick and mohair; wool, serge and cotton webbing, though this can be rather harsh and Weak; and fabric string girths of various sorts. The obvious advantages of lampwick and mohair girths are their softness and absorbency, but they are also strong. The idea behind string or stranded girths is that they permit air to circulate between the strands and so keep the horse a little dryer in this area, as well as supposedly providing extra grip; whereas the permeable fabrics now also used for rugs and numnahs – actually claim to take the moisture away from the skin and help it evaporate to the outside, and they do work extremely well in practice.

The design of a girth is equally important. As previously mentioned, the Balding and Atherstone patterns are good, and come in various materials; and the material of which any girth is made should be comfortable to the horse some of the early brushed-nylon types are actually abrasive as well as being non-absorbent. Also, the buckles of a girth and the way they fasten should receive more consideration; the so-called ‘humane’ girth for example, with V-shaped straps on to which the buckles are stitched, would do well to find a wider market: this type of fastening allows the strap to move a little in accordance with the horse’s movements by sliding on its ring, and by accommodating itself a little thus, it also makes the saddle more secure you can therefore girth up a little less tightly with it, to the increased comfort of the horse.

Elastic inserts (at both ends to balance up the girth) are a good idea too, and fully elasticated web girths are also available; these are used mainly in racing where their added grip and give are appreciated by horses at peak effort. However, the rubber content of these girths perishes fairly quickly, so keep an eye on their condition.

Web girths are sold in pairs to provide extra security in the (highly likely) event of one of them breaking, but are not as popular as they used to be. They can come in cotton (very weak) or wool and wool/cotton mixtures, but can harden badly if not kept really clean. However, web is used for the longer surcingles which completely encircle the saddle and girth area of eventers as an extra safety precaution. Web is also used in a narrow, tubular form, often white, which crosses over under the breastbone Where there is a pimple-rubber section aimed at giving extra grip. These are used on show ponies, and the intention (as with most show tack) is to cover up as little of the animal as possible. Some fine-skinned ponies, however, do react to the pimple-rubber section which can cause soreness.

The short belly girths used on some dressage and showing saddles do remove the buckles effectively from under the rider’s leg, but they can look a little clumsy, and create an ungiving lump which in some horses, is rather near the elbow for comfort. In fact it is quite easy to work out just how long a girth you need, which will avoid lumpy fastenings under your leg yet be hidden by the saddle flap and will not interfere with your horse’s action by getting in the way behind his elbow: simply ask a friend to measure carefully from just behind the angle of your knee, under your horse’s belly and up to just behind the angle of your other knee. Most saddles will have girth straps long enough to permit this, but if not, they can easily be replaced by a good saddler.

Numnahs

At one time it was considered very infra dig to use a numnah, despite the fact that both numnahs and saddle cloths have been used for generations by the military and others in ‘high places’. Nowadays, however, numnahs are regarded as a positive advantage provided they are of good style, fit and fabric; and they do protect against sweat, which doesn’t do the leather lining of a saddle any good (hence the recommendation to clean any tack after every use),

The old-fashioned, thick, stiff felt ones are appalling. They remove virtually all ‘feel’ between you and your horse, and positively encourage the saddle to slip out of place. Real, un-sheared sheepskin ones are now washable and easier to care for, but they undoubtedly heat up the back a great deal and make it unacceptably hot and wet; and sheared sheepskin only a little less so. Thick, synthetic fleece (usually acrylic) numnahs may be a little better, and those of cotton fleece and filling are probably the best as they are absorbent, soft (if kept clean) and do not hold the heat.

In a saddle with a leather lining (panel) – as most are today, with the exception of the synthetics – a thin cotton, quilted numnah does absorb sweat and is thin enough to be discreet enough for showing if the shape is chosen to suit the saddle. Some physiotherapists, though, feel the stitching can rub the skin of clipped and sensitive horses, causing soreness. Probably the most significant and helpful advances are the ‘therapeutic’ numnahs with special fillings and of specialised materials which are designed to spread pressure, alleviate friction and carry away sweat. They were largely developed in answer to the needs of endurance riders.

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