Whether you’re building a house or riding a horse, using proper tools makes any task easier. You can have the best theories and skills in the world, but without the right equipment you’re not going to get very far.
“I’m a firm believer in the fact that technique and ability are far more important than relying on more equipment. To me, natural horsemanship is using the least equipment necessary to get effective results,” says popular clinician and two-time Road to the Horse Champion Chris Cox. “You need to use the right tools, but the more equipment you have to use, the more you’re getting away from improving your natural horsemanship.”
Bits & Basics
When starting a young horse, Chris always makes the first few rides in the halter and lead rope, and makes sure the horse is responding well before moving on to a fixed D-ring snaffle. Chris specifically designed his signature D-ring snaffle bit so that, unlike most snaffles, the “D” is fixed and won’t swivel. The copper-inlaid mouthpiece is contoured so it will rest correctly in the horse’s mouth without pinching the bars of the mouth. “The contour makes this bit especially effective for lateral work as opposed to a straight bit,” notes Chris. “It also discourages the horse from flipping his nose out and at the same time, encourages him to soften and bend at the poll.” Because of the fixed D-ring, a chin strap is optional with this snaffle. The bit can’t pull through the horse’s mouth the way a traditional snaffle can. When using a regular snaffle without a fixed mouthpiece, it’s important to always use a chin strap to keep the bit in place.
In addition to the fixed D-ring snaffle, which he uses mostly for training, Chris has designed a loose jaw snaffle and two styles of shank curb bits. He finds many riders want to move on to a shank, or leverage, bit too soon. “You shouldn’t do this until you can accomplish everything you want to do in a snaffle,” Chris points out. “Some people mistakenly think that the more bit they put in their horse’s mouth, the more they can do with him.
Results come through hands, knowledge and technique ““ not the bit. If you aren’t getting results with a snaffle, you’re just going to have more trouble if you step up to a stronger bit.”
For working and general riding, Chris uses a simple harness leather headstall with a sliding browband and a throatlatch. When a horse is further along in his training, Chris uses split leather reins, but when training he prefers a single sport rein made of poly cotton blend round rope.
Saddles & Proper Fit
Chris typically rides in an all-around saddle he designed that is custom-made to his specifications by a Texas saddle maker. It is the same signature saddle offered for sale on his website. Everything on the saddle, including the tree, is 100% made in the U.S. “My saddles are made with13- to 15-ounce Herman Oak leather, which makes them less heavy, but more importantly, puts me closer to my horse,” he explains. “I like a close contact, centered smooth leather seat without a lot of buildup. This lets me sit as close to my horse’s back as possible for better communication.” Too many riders overlook the importance of proper saddle fit. Just because the saddle feels good to the rider doesn’t necessarily mean it fits the horse. A saddle that doesn’t fit correctly will lead to trouble and compromise the horse’s performance. It can even cause pain and physical problems, such as muscle atrophy, sore back, lameness issues and more. “Your saddle is built on a tree, which is just like a skeleton. If the bars of the tree don’t properly fit your horse’s back, the saddle isn’t going to fit, no matter how pretty it is on top,” says Chris. “If you have any doubts about your saddle fitting your particular horse, you should consult a saddle maker or saddle fitter.”
– Check for any dry spots on your horse’s back when you unsaddle. The horse’s back should be uniformly sweaty under the saddle. If your saddle doesn’t fit right, too much pressure will be concentrated in certain areas and if used consistently over time this will actually damage nerves (resulting in dry spots) and destroy pigment in those areas. If you see a horse with white saddle marks on his back, this is often the reason why.
Make sure you aren’t making the common mistake of placing your saddle too far forward on the horse’s back. If the saddle is too far forward, the tree will actually sit on top of your horse’s scapula, or shoulder blade. This will sore your horse, limit his front-end movement, shorten his stride and make him stiff. “The saddle should be placed so that it fits just behind the scapula,” notes Chris.
– “When you saddle up, always reach under the gullet of the saddle and pull any mane hairs loose from under the pad. Then pull the front of the pad up into the gullet so you create a “˜tunnel’ that allows air to flow under the saddle.
– Avoid making your horse “cinchy” by not tightening up your girth immediately. Chris adjusts his girth at least three times, gradually tightening it, before mounting.
– “One problem I see is that riders don’t check their equipment often enough,” Chris cautions. “You should look over your tack every time you ride. A lot of wrecks could be avoided if riders checked their equipment each time they saddle up.”
Up Close with Chris Cox Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. Chris offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. In 2008, Western Horseman released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride. Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888- 81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs.