Sometimes a saddle just doesn’t want to sit still, sliding either too far backward or forward in response to the type of riding you’re doing or your horse’s conformation. Luckily, two handy pieces of tack can help – breastplates and cruppers.
“A breastplate will stop the saddle from sliding backwards down toward their bum and then, the reverse situation, a crupper will stop it from sliding forward onto their neck,” said Tracey Atherfold of Diamond H Tack, a Kelowna, B.C. shop serving English and western riders since 1995.
Breastplates and cruppers shouldn’t be used to remedy an ill-fitting saddle and they’re meant to only engage when needed. If constantly in play, pressure from either can cause serious rubs, pain and may restrict movement. That’s why it’s important to understand how breastplates and cruppers work and fit.
A breastplate, also breast collar or, less frequently, breast girth, is an arrangement of straps that span the horse’s chest and attach in various ways to the saddle. Preventing the saddle from slipping back, a breastplate is especially helpful in activities involving climbing steep hills and sports with speed and sharp movements, such as roping, cutting, polo, eventing and show jumping. Horses with conformation issues such as big shoulders or a flat barrel that can pitch a saddle backward may also benefit from wearing a breastplate.
Peek at any tack supply catalogue or website and you’ll find a vast array of English and western breastplates. Most are leather, but they can be constructed of nylon, neoprene and other synthetics as well as wool, mohair and cotton. Frequently, straps are fully or partly elastic.
“Some riders like breastplates because they look nice,” said Atherfold. “It’s kind of a cosmetic thing.” This is especially true in the western world where many breastplates are stunningly designed with crystals, beading, fancy stitching, fringes and tooling.
There are two basic versions:
Straight – runs across the upper chest and attaches to the saddle either on D-rings or to the girth.
Y-front – consisting of a yoke at the chest (which usually includes a ring to which you can attach training items such as tie-downs, martingales and draw reins), from which run straps that attach to the saddle in various configurations.
Their adjustability allows a customized fit. From these two fundamental designs, you can break down breastplates into several different styles.
Three-point (hunting) breastplate – The most-common English breastplate used, it consists a front yoke with straps that attach between the front legs at the girth and to the saddle’s front D-rings. Some, but not all, have a strap that crosses the withers that “stops the breastplate from slipping down and putting pressure on the shoulder blade,” explained Atherfold. “It keeps the breastplate up onto the horse’s neck and keeps it in the appropriate spot.”
Five-point breastplate – Mainly seen on eventers and jumpers, the five-point connects the same way as its three-point cousin, but also attaches to the saddle billets on both sides (for five points of contact). It provides extra pressure distribution, better saddle stability sideways and backwards, improved security and greater shoulder freedom. Contact points usually feature sheepskin or fleece for comfort.
Polo or racing breastplate – The least complicated of the bunch, this straight style runs straight across the chest above the shoulder, attaching to the first billet on both sides. Some feature a neck strap, which can also be purchased separately, that keeps the breastplate in place.
In the western vernacular, a breastplate is usually called a breast collar. Depending on usage, it’s often larger than its English counterparts, sometimes up to 13 centimetres in width, to accommodate for bulkier, heavier saddles by distributing more pressure across the chest.
Traditional – Although it may look quite different, the traditional western breast collar is similar to an English three-point, with a centre-ring yoke, a strap that attaches to the cinch and shoulder pieces that fasten to the cinch rings or D-rings on the skirt.
Pulling collar – Many riders like this style because it buckles around the swells of the saddle and clears many horses’ shoulders better than traditional breast collars. They also offer improved stability when roping, pulling and doing ranch work.
Tripping collar – This heavy-duty collar is intended to help distribute weight when roping cattle. Thick and straight, it crosses the chest and connects to both the saddle’s lower D-rings and the cinch ring. A ring at the bottom can also accommodate a cinch strap.
A breastplate should never be used to lock a saddle into place, as this can put constant pressure on the chest and shoulder and may pull the front of the saddle down, creating discomfort and restricting movement. A pre-ride lunging or leading session will give your horse a chance to acclimatize to a breastplate while helping you assess fit and function.
While breastplates don’t necessarily consist of the same parts and pieces, there are a few key areas of fit to consider on all of them.
Shoulders: Shoulder straps should rest above the point of the shoulder where the shoulders tie into the neck to avoid interfering with movement or causing chafing and pain. You should be able to snugly fit a fist underneath.
“You don’t want it so tight that it’s restricting their shoulders, but you also don’t want it so loose that the saddle can move around, because that’s going to be sore and irritating to the horse as well,” Atherfold said.
Chest: To avoid affecting the horse’s breathing, it’s critical the front of the breastplate doesn’t press on the windpipe. A straight style should sit above the point of the shoulder, while a Y-front’s yoke is placed just above the centre of the chest. A fist-width between the breastplate and horse will provide comfort and free movement. With elastic straps, although they fit a little more snugly, you shouldn’t see any stretch when the horse is standing still. “They will give where there’s pressure, but again, you don’t want it so loose it will move around,” said Atherfold.
Wither and Neck Straps: You should be able to fit “a couple of fingers” between the horse and strap,” she added. “It’s not digging into the horse, but can still move and it’s not so loose that it’s going to be slipping around on him.”
Girth Attachments: Most breastplates attach to the girth under the belly, either by running the girth through a loop in the breastplate itself or by clipping it to a D-ring on the girth or a separate girth attachment.
“There shouldn’t be a ton of slack at the bottom because then the horse could get the strap caught on something,” said Atherfold. “Generally speaking, it should just follow the contour of their body. There should be a little bit of a loop depending on whether the breastplate is engaged at the top or not.” Again, a fist between the horse and girth strap is about right.
A crupper is useful when a horse is going down a lot of steep hills on trail rides or endurance riding, for example. It can also help when the animal’s conformation tends to bump the saddle toward the withers and neck, like big-bellied ponies with virtually no shoulders that like to pull their riders forward or horses with low, flat withers.
The crupper is generally made of two parts (but can also be a single piece). A loop, usually made of leather, nylon or neoprene stuffed with flaxseed to keep the leather supple, fits under the horse’s tail at the dock. The loop is attached by snaps or buckles to a long, adjustable strap, which runs from the tail, over the croup and connects to the back of the saddle. Crupper straps come in two styles:
Single – attaches either to a D-ring at the cantle or to a metal or leather T-block/brace that slips into the gullet.
Double (or fork) – attaches to D-rings on either side of the cantle or to the rear rigging rings of western saddles.
Place the crupper loop under the tail and slide it up toward the upper dock, making sure to pull out any hairs underneath. Buckle or snap it to the strap and adjust so the crupper is snug, but not so tight it could cause chafing or sores on the delicate skin on the underside of the dock or, even, with extended use, pain into the hindquarters and back. Too loose can also be problematic, as the crupper won’t help stabilize the saddle and may cause pain and abrasions. Two stacked fingers between rump and strap is a good gauge for proper fit.
“You’ve got to make sure it’s comfortable,” said Atherfold, who also suggested riders ensure the crupper material is smooth, without cracks that could “cause a pinch or rub or irritation.”
It’s also important the horse has a chance to become accustomed to a crupper. “You can’t just get on and ride them. Some horses do react; they don’t like the feel of the bulge under their tail.”
As with a breastplate, lunge, free-lunge or walk the horse before mounting, even a few times, to make sure they’re okay with the set up.
A little confused if your crupper or breastplate fits and is working as it should? “For anybody who’s not sure, it’s best to ask their coach or trainer to make sure they’re using it properly,” Atherfold suggested. “If you don’t use them properly, you can have a problem or get yourself hurt, so it’s always nice to ask somebody.”