Defining horse jargon: Tack and equipment terms and common misspellings

Eliminate confusing horse jargon by defining commonly used terms related to tack and equipment.

Horse wearing a surcingle while being longed
This horse is wearing a surcingle while being longed at the MSU Horse Teaching & Research Center. Photo by Taylor Fabus, MSU Extension.

In this article series from Michigan State University Extension, we will explore a variety of often confusing horse-related terms. In previous articles, we have covered beginner riding terms and advanced riding terms. In this article, we’ll delve into the complex world of tack and equipment. While we certainly won’t be able to cover all varieties of tack, today’s article will help define many commonly used items you may encounter as a new horse owner or enthusiast. We’ll also cover some common misspellings you may confront in the equine industry.

Tack and equipment terms

Girth and cinch

For the most part, these two terms can be used interchangeably. This essential piece of tack can be described, in layman’s terms, as the belt that holds the saddle snug to the horse’s body. The girth should be securely attached to each side of the saddle and wrap around the horse’s rib cage, right behind the horse’s shoulders. Girths also get their namesake as this area of the horse can be referred to as the girth or heartgirth.

A girth that is too loose can cause a saddle to slip backward or even off to the side and cause a dangerous situation for both horse and rider. On the other hand, a girth can certainly be too tight and cause discomfort for a horse and affect its ability to perform for their rider. Check out this article from theHorse.com, “Girth Strap Tightness.”

Girths, like most horse equipment we’ve discussed, can be made out of a variety of materials that include leather, rayon, mohair, neoprene or even covered in sheepskin for horses with sensitive or thin skin.

Headstall

This one can be especially confusing since it combines two already-common terms into a word that has a very different meaning. A headstall has nothing to do with the stall your horse may sleep in each night, but is instead an important part of any bridle. The headstall is the portion of the bridle that wraps around the horse’s head and to which you attach the bit. You’ll then attach the reins, and potentially the curb strap, to the bit itself.

The term bridle is actually referring to the entire piece of equipment that includes the headstall, bit and reins. It’s important to also know that a bridle needs to be carefully fitted to a horse before it’s used, and you can learn more about that with this MSU Extension article, “Proper fitting of a bridle.”

Shanks

When used as a noun, “shank” is referring to a specific part of a bit. You will only find a shank on a curb or combination bit, and not on a snaffle bit. A shank is the side portion of a bit that does not go into a horse’s mouth. Instead, it affects the leverage that a bit applies on a horse’s mouth. Generally, the longer the shank the more amount of leverage a bit has. The upper portion of the shank is where the headstall will be attached, and the lower portion is where the reins will attach.

Conversely, if the word shank is used as a verb, is it most likely referring to a quick, hard pull that a handler would perform on a horse’s lead rope. This action would most likely be performed in order to gain a horse’s attention and keep their focus on the task at hand, all in an effort to keep both horse and handler safe.

Curb strap

Here we have another part of the bridle when a curb or combination bit is used. The curb strap is attached to the bit itself and runs smoothly under the horse’s jaw. This part of the bridle is crucial for a leverage bit to act correctly and should also be carefully fitted. Curb straps can be chain, leather, nylon or many other similar materials.

Tie down

A tie down, used in some western disciplines, does not tie something in place like its name implies. Instead, a tie down is a piece of equipment that consists of a strap running from the girth to a noseband. This strap gives the horse something to lean and balance on when moving at high rates of speed and changing direction. This is especially useful for a horse competing in a timed event, such as barrel racing.

Common misspellings

Lunge versus lounge versus longe

When referring to exercising a horse in a circle on a long line, the correct spelling is longe.

In context: My horse won the longe line class.

Surcingle versus curcingle

When referring to the strap, often made of leather or nylon, that fastens around a horse’s girth area, the correct spelling is surcingle. This piece of equipment is often used in ground work and is the foundation of a harness.

In context: The horse in the picture is wearing a surcingle while being longed.

Rein, rain, reign

When referring to the piece of equipment attached to the bit and held in a rider’s hands, the correct spelling is rein. The same is true when you’re referring to the class of reining.

In context: I was having trouble steering so my instructor told me to tighten my reins.

Gait versus gate

When referring to the gaits that a horse can perform (walk, trot, canter), the correct spelling is gait.

In context: The announcer called for a change of gait from the trot to the walk.

Bridle versus bridal

When referring to the piece of equipment that we already described above, the correct spelling is bridle.

In context: My horse’s bridle was properly fitted to their head.

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