Saddle Up! How to Bridle and Saddle a Horse

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 2, 2012 · 29 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors

One of my fondest memories growing up was going to my grandpa’s ranch in Bosque Farms, New Mexico and riding horses. The “grandkids’ horse” was named Sugar. I loved that horse. Because I was just knee high to a grasshopper, Grandpa usually did all the saddling himself. And because Grandpa sold the old ranch while I was still young, I never got to saddle her myself.

Seventeen years later I decided it was time I learn this skill I had missed out on as a lad. Sure, if you’re a city slicker or suburbanite, it’s not exactly a basic life skill, but it’s just one of those things that’s cool to know (like how to throw a knife), and can help you avoid being called “punkin lily,” “young squirt,” “googoo,” “Jane Dandy,” or “dude” the next time you go on a cattle drive with Billy Crystal (those were just some of the names veteran Dakota cowboys called Theodore Roosevelt before he learned the ropes of ranching).

To learn how to saddle up, I visited our favorite cigar-chomping, tomahawk-throwing cowboy, Tom Warren, at Meadow Lake Ranch in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. Here’s what Tom showed me.

Let’s saddle up!

How to Bridle a Horse

Before we actually put the saddle on the horse, we need to put on the bridle. The bridle is the piece of horsetack that allows you to lead and direct the horse. It consists of some leather straps that go around the horse’s muzzle and head and a bit that goes into the horse’s mouth. The reins attach to the bit and you use them to “steer” the horse.

Here’s how you bridle a horse:

Because I was with folks who had never been around horses before, Tom left the horse harness on the horse and tied him to a hitching post for safety purposes. You can remove the harness before bridling a horse if you want. Before Tom starts putting the bridle on the horse, he pets him softly between the eyes to calm him down and let him know that he’s in safe hands. Stroking the horse on its muzzle also causes him to lower his head, making bridling easier.

It’s time to put the bit in the mouth. Before we show Tom putting the bit in the horse’s mouth, we need to know where the bit needs to be placed. Between the horse’s incisors (or canines, if present) and molars, there’s a space where there are no teeth called the interdental space, or “bars.” The bit will be placed in the interdental space as shown above.

Hold the bridle over the horse’s muzzle with your right hand and hold the bit in your left. Place the bit at the horse’s lips. To encourage the horse to open its mouth and accept the bit, place your thumb in the interdental space of the horse’s mouth and wriggle it around. When the horse opens its mouth, guide the bit gently past the horse’s front incisor teeth and towards the interdental space. Be careful not to bump the horse’s teeth with the bit as you’re doing this.

With the bit in place, slide the crown of the bridle over the horse’s ears. Do one ear at a time. Either fold the ears back or forward to get the crown over the ears. Try not to pull the bridle up too much while you’re doing this, as this will pull the bit in the horse’s mouth.

Fasten all the buckles on the bridle. Make it tight enough so that it’s secure, but loose enough that the horse will have room to flex his neck and jaw.

Proper Bit Position

After you’ve bridled the horse, you want to make sure the bit is placed in the interdental space correctly. Traditionally, correct bit placement is determined by using the “wrinkle method,” which involves looking at the horse’s mouth and counting the number of wrinkles it has in the corner of its mouth where the mouth meets the bit. The more wrinkles in the horse’s mouth the more constant pressure the horse experiences from the bit and the more it will feel it when you pull back on the reins. Suffice it to say, you don’t want too many wrinkles in the horse’s mouth or the bit will become painfully unbearable for it.

What number constitutes an appropriate amount of wrinkles will vary from horseman to horseman. Some say just one, while others say two is the right number. And of course, you’ll find other horsemen who say the wrinkle method is a bunch of malarkey and a horse shouldn’t have any wrinkles in its mouth.

The handler at Tom’s ranch was a two-wrinkle man, but was humble enough to admit that his preference wasn’t horse doctrine.

Horse with no wrinkles in corner of the mouth. May mean the bit is sitting too low in its mouth. If the bit is too loose in the mouth, you risk having the bit hitting the horse’s teeth as you ride. Horses don’t like that.

Horse with two wrinkles at the corner of his mouth. Some horsemen think this indicates proper bit placement.

How to Saddle a Horse

Now that you have your horse bridled, it’s time to saddle him up. Here’s how.

Get to know your saddle. The parts we’ll be working with while saddling a horse are the cinch, cinch ring, latigo, and D-ring.

Locate the horse’s withers. It’s the area between the horse’s crest (neck) and back.

Place the saddle pad high on the horse’s withers.

Slide the pad a bit down on the horse’s back. This ensures that the hair on the horse’s back lies flat beneath the pad and saddle. The front edge of the pad should be right where the horse’s withers begin.

Place the saddle on the horse making sure it’s nice and centered.

It’s time to fasten the front cinch (yellow finger) It’s the big strap that goes underneath the horse. Lace the latigo (red finger) through the front cinch ring just like Tom is doing here.

Bring the end of the latigo back up towards the saddle, tightening the front cinch while you do so. Don’t make it too tight. A horse has to breath, you know.

Pull the end of the latigo through the D-ring on the saddle and back down towards the cinch ring as shown above.  Lace the end of the latigo through the cinch ring again and pull back up towards the saddle.

Almost finished. We’re going to tie off the latigo with a “Texas T” knot, as shown below.

To tie a Texas T knot, pull the end of the latigo through the D-ring from the outside and in. Pull it towards the shoulder of the horse. Then bring the end of the latigo across and towards the rear of the horse. Bring the end of the latigo behind the D-ring and through the ring to the front. You should have a horizontal loop right beneath the D-ring. Pull the end of the latigo through the loop and tighten.

Here’s a video of the Texas T knot getting tied by the folks at 5 Minute Horse Lessons . It’s super easy to follow:

That’s it! You’ve saddled a horse. Let’s ride! Heeyah!


Special thanks to Tom for taking the time to show me how to throw a tomahawk. If you’re ever in Oklahoma, I definitely recommend planning a weekend at Meadowlake Ranch. It’s pretty much a playground for men–tomahawk throwing, long bow shooting, horse riding, fishing, hunting. You name it, you can probably do it at Tom’s ranch. 

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Derik August 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm

A few things– It’s usually better to saddle before you bridle. A horse can stand saddled for hours, but you usually only want to bridle maybe 10-20 minutes before you’re going to ride. Saddling takes considerably longer due to the need for grooming, so if the horse is just standing in a bridle, you either need to have a halter under the bridle so that you can tie the horse or have someone hold onto the horse using the bridle’s reins.

Second, always check the tightness of the girth/cinch after saddling and before riding. People are seriously injured or killed because a saddle slides during mounting and the horse spooks. This is especially dangerous if you’ve got improper riding footwear, because once you’ve got your foot through the stirrup, you’re going for a “ride” until the horse calms down and finds some grass to sooth its worries.

2 Derik August 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm

By the way… I personally wouldn’t chain a horse to a hitching rail. For the sake of safety, one might use a lead rope and tie the horse using a quick-release knot, which makes it possible to release a horse that’s having a fit.

3 Robin August 2, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Agreed. Saddle first! Bridle 2nd.
It’s a good idea to check your cinch down the trail a bit too. And make sure the back cinch is snug as well! Folks riding with a loose back cinch are waiting for a wreck!
And that chain on the hitching rail, on the end to boot! Wow that’s scary! This guy has never had a horse sit back! For QUALITY tack check us out!

4 David August 2, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I was taught to tighten the cinch once, then put on the bridle, then retighten the cinch slightly. As it was told to me, many horses will inhale while they’re being saddled to keep the saddle loose. If you don’t retighten you could slide off when you mount. Of course you don’t want to pull too tight, so you give them a minute to adjust and retighten a bit.

I’m no expert, so take it for what it’s worth.

5 JeffC August 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Great article. The video made all the difference for us visual learners. I think I could actually do this adequately if I had to, and that’s the whole point, isn’t it— you never know when you might have to.

6 Ish August 3, 2012 at 6:34 am

Wow. Bosque Farms? Really? Small world.

7 Jeff August 3, 2012 at 11:10 am

This was one of the skills I learned in the Boy Scouts in Horsemanship merit badge. Even though is been over 30 yrs I still remember how to saddle a horse and who can forget the Texas T knot.

8 Erik August 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Like Derik mentioned, it’s better to saddle before putting on the bridle. The bridle is one of the last steps I do before heading out as a horse really doesn’t want to have it there. I also agree about using a halter and leadrope to secure the horse while saddling, a good quick release knot is tricky to learn but essential for safety.

I always tighten the cinch, then walk the horse around a bit, (perhaps put on the bridle at this point) and then tighten the cinch again. Horses are tricky and love to breath deep while you cinch up the first time to make it looser when they breath normally.

Don’t forget to check stirrup length before heading out. My rule of thumb is you should have an inch or so between the saddle and your crotch when you stand in the stirrups.

9 Sam August 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm

I always saddle first, with the horse still haltered. Saddle, lightly tighten the cinch, and do something else. I like to re-pick feet, especially since that takes effort on the horse’s part, and he has a hard time holding his breath. I always stretch his forelegs out to smooth the skin under the cinch, just to prevent chafing. Re-tighten the cinch, and then bridle. Don’t bang his teeth with the bit, or you’ll sour him on being bridled, and you’d deserve that. After you’ve got him bridled, tighten once more, strap on your helmet (never ride without one, safety’s manly too!), and mount up, and have a good ride!

10 Stuart August 3, 2012 at 10:07 pm

I don’t ride much any longer, but as a younger man I lived out on a property in nth west Queensland. I’ve tried the western saddle and the Aussie stockmans saddle, an I do prefer the stockmans saddle. If I recall correctly it’s loosely based on the English riding saddle, with refinement that make it better for the job of a stockman. Cowboys to the Americans among us.
It goes on similar, though a strike with your knee to the ribs of the horse will get it to release it’s breath to you can cinch up the saddle properly.
Just my observations as an Aussie.

11 patrick August 4, 2012 at 12:17 am

My first thought about the article has been covered several times in the comments so I thought I needn’t bother comment – until I read Stuart’s comment.
All Australians do NOT treat horses with this kind of abuse. Kneeing a horse in the ribs is no way to treat any animal or much less, gain its trust. Horses are incredibly sensitive and the only way they should be treated is with a gentle hand.
The only thing I liked about your comment is that you don’t ride much any longer.

12 Kevin August 4, 2012 at 12:26 am

Perhaps you should make a follow up post with English tack. While English isn’t quite as rough-n-tough outdoorsy, it does have a certain gentlemanly flair; on more than one occasion, women have stopped me on the trail and asked about me riding with an English saddle.

Also, Derik is absolutely right, that chain is a horrible idea, especially with the nylon halter. Leather is a much better material because, if need be, it will break (which protects the horse). Additionally, it would be more safe to wrap the lead line around the horse’s neck. Leaving the halter under the bridle is just stupid and leads to a bad fit.

Just my take as a horseman of almost twenty years.

13 John Jakubczyk August 5, 2012 at 1:09 am

Having gone riding this morning ( very early in Arizona before the heat picks up), I found the article timely and enjoyable. Just ot echo the other riders, one never bridles before saddling. The horse should be haltered to the hitching post during the process. One should check the cinch prior to mounting as horses do tend to bloat during the saddling. Also just prior to putting on the bridle, one normally removes the halter as having them both on is uncomfortable for the horse. sometimes one will leave it on if one intends during the ride to have to make a stop and needs to hitch the horse to a post. Unlike the cowboy movies, we do not hitch to the post using the reins.

14 Joe August 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Something I didn’t see in the post or anyone’s comments, is brushing the horse. Using a good stiff curry brush to get any excess dirt, burrs, or other things that would irritate the horse if they are stuck under the saddle pad. For that matter, don’t forget to check your pad either to make sure it hasn’t picked up anything that would be similarly irritate the horse.

15 Cameron August 9, 2012 at 11:06 am

Can’t believe this got overlooked, I guess it’s the most basic and simple that we all assumed everyone already knows. Try to work, mount and dismount on the horse’s left side whenever possible.

That would be ‘port’ side for the seafaring lot.

16 Mcgregor August 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Stuart, I ride a lot (3 horses of my own) and I prefer the Australian stock saddle over the western saddle. It is lighter, has a more secure seat, and easier range of motion for the legs. However, here in Texas, I do have to endure some disparaging comments. But, usually the word “Australian” brings them to a sense of awe.

17 Frank August 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm

As a horse owner (A 3-time AHA Regional Champion, a Top 10 winner, and a Reserve National Champion (Different mare…)…) I also find this a great article. They’re saying it right when they say saddle first, bridle just before you ride. Lots of great advice to people being given by the other riders/owners. Cameron, if you ride, you know that one by heart. By the way, there’s a historical reason for mounting from the left…know what it is?

18 Don T Forget August 17, 2012 at 12:35 am

John and Charles Wesley would be proud of this post. Of course, then they would promptly saddle up their horse and ride across the American frontier, telling country folks about the Gospel (the Wesleys founded Methodism and wrote a ton of hymns). Speaking of the Gospel, here’s another manly skill: how to share the Gospel with kids:

19 Michael October 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Leave the stoggie down for safety. If a high strung young horse gets a whiff he could go into flight mode.

20 Isaac October 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Since i started riding some 10-11 years ago, we always used two layers under the saddle. A navajo and a pad. Was also taught to push both up into the gullet of the saddle after doing up the cinch, leaving a pocket there.

21 Jonas October 24, 2012 at 12:28 am

You forgott to lift the pad at the withers into the gullet after putting the saddle on the back. This prevents the pad pressing on the withers when you get in the saddle (and therefore increase the weight). If you want to do it absolutely right, you also lift the backside of the pad a bit, before you tighten the latigo.

I agree that to tie a horse with a chain to some wielded can be a very dangerous idea.

Folks, always work with horsemanship.

Ride safe


22 Henriette November 25, 2012 at 2:57 am

I’m missing something, besides saddle first. Let someone else check it out, untill you have done it a lot. An impropably placed saddle can cause serious injury to either the rider (falling of) or the horse (pressure wounds from standing up hair), even if you are confident you did everything right, a little mistake happens to the best of them.

23 J January 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

I think you mean “halter” not “harness.” And as another person said, it is definitely safer to saddle before you bridle.

24 Judy alias know it all February 19, 2013 at 8:31 am

Um, nice try. But …
1. Saddle goes on first
2. Never chain a horse to anything, use breakable material in case it spooks
3. better off putting the halter around neck to hold horse while bridling rather than leaving it on. then remove it and attach it to saddle for later use.
4. Saddling instructions look fine, but after you get on check girth again. Loose girth = nasty ass fall.


25 Veganbeast February 22, 2013 at 9:54 am

I prefer bareback.

26 Cheyanne February 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm

About the bridle, everyone does it there own way, but yes, it is safer to put it on after the saddling. The halter may also be called a harness- I’ve heard it both ways, by novice and experienced alike. This IS, though, a very manly skill.

27 Tyler March 7, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Step by step procedure for tacking up a horse:

1. Catch and halter your mount. I put the lead rope around the horse’s neck to hold them still and then put the halter on.
2. Tie lead rope off to a stable object like a fence post using a quick-release knot. The quick-release knot is an In Case of Emergency measure- if your horse starts bucking and rearing, you don’t want it tied. The nature of the knot allows you to undo the knot in an ICE situation, minimizing the potential for damage to your horse and yourself.
3. Groom the horse. Using rough to soft brush and a shedding comb if it’s spring or fall for their coat, and a hoof pick to take out any debris that may cause discomfort while riding. If your horse doesn’t have a bridle path cut in their mane, make sure it’s knot-free with a normal hairbrush.
4. Saddle pad. Make sure it isn’t sitting too far back or too high on the withers, and that it’s sitting even.
5. Saddle. Same as saddle pad. Front cinch first, then back cinch. Test for tightness, and if your horse seems to be blowing out (puffing their chest), distract them a bit and then tighten the cinch.
6. Bridle. Don’t bash their teeth, wait for them to take it. If it’s cold, remember to thaw the bit with your hand. If you don’t thaw the bit then your pony’s tongue sticks to the frozen metal. Not a fun time. You can bridle over top of the halter, just tie the lead rope off to your saddle.
7. Lead them around, make sure there’s no pinching with the cinches, and check again for tightness before mounting.

28 Sandy Henry August 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Really great article! It is awesome to read something practical with a personal touch! It was really well laid out and the pictures are very helpful for first time horse riders. If only we all learned so carefully the first time, right? If we did, I’d have a hand full of nickels and not so many bruises from loose saddles!

29 grace March 20, 2014 at 7:29 am

An excellent article and a very good job.Everything about horse saddles is discussed clearly and in a very personal way.

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