A Little Lesson in Speaking and Writing Western Horse
(and I do mean western, as in "cowboy western")
by Irish of the Tahoe Ladies

A long time ago, I wandered up to a horse and introduced myself to him by holding my hand out and letting him sniff my hand. His muzzle was soft and warm and the hairs there tickled my hand but I held steady and we became fast friends. I was about four and the horse was at a distant relative's farm. His name was Billy Boy and he was a Shetland pony. That started a love affair I have had for…well longer than I care to admit. Since that meeting, I have ridden and owned a variety of horses and when I came to the western part of the United States, I thought I knew a lot. Then I met some cowboys, real honest-to-God, working in the saddle, eating dust, cow-punching cowboys. I learned a little more and figured out how little I had known! But I put it all together and this what came of it.

This is what I know and have learned listening to those cowboys

Side note: The cowboys I know don't use fancy words and they are rather plainspoken gentlemen. I figured out I had blundered in this section when one of them said "Wal," and drew that one word out into about four syllables. Because we write western cowboy fanfiction, the words I use for the "book words" here are straight from the cowboys' lips.

Body parts: where they are and the not-so-fancy words for them

First of all, a horse has shoulders (those round things right in front of the saddle). The highest point between those shoulders is called the withers. That is where you measure the animal in hands (that equal about four inches if you think of your hand going sideways) from the ground up. A big horse is in the 16 to 17 hands range. (Do the math, if you want a clearer idea). Draft horses, the biggest of the species, rarely reach over 17 to 18.

The flanks of a horse are down the sides. Haunch is an acceptable term for what follows behind you while you are in the saddle as is hip. This is the strongest musculature part on the horse and looking  at the way their legs are situated, if you were going to pull something heavy, the thrust of those muscles needs to be from front to back. That all means that you need to have the horse going forward.

 Let's see what else have I seen screwed in fanfic: a horse does not have knees on the back legs. Those are on the front legs. A horse's ankles are referred to as pasterns or fetlocks. A cowboy calls them fetlocks. That pointed part on the hind legs is called the hock. What a horse puts on the ground is called a hoof (hooves for more than one). Imagine a really heavy fingernail. That is about what a hoof is made of on the outside. Inside is softer and more susceptible to problems: hoof rot if they aren't kept clean (more about that when we talk about a cowboy caring for his horse), and stone bruising if ridden in hard ground to name just a few. That hoof has to be trimmed just like any nail. As for shoeing a horse, this is where reality and TV clash. TV would have us all believe that a cowboy always rode a shod horse. Historically, that may not be true but then TV cowboys always rode the same horse (Joe Cartwright's pintos being the exception but did we notice when they changed from year to year?) while real cowboys shift horses all the time. Some shoe their horses and these tend to be the ones riding over uncertain terrain. I rode the same horse for almost ten years and he never wore shoes and never had a hoof problem. BUT, let's say your cowboy is going to put shoes on his horse. They are going to be nailed (yes nailed) into that hard part of the hoof, the nails will extend most likely through and be cut off and the whole rasped down to be smooth.

If the horse has a different color down on his legs, usually black or white, that come up some on their leg, those are called stockings. Stockings usually come up to where the knee is in the front, petering out into the other color of the horse. Same thing on the back legs. Usually a horse will have paired stockings (2 in front or 2 in back). Some have all four legs so adorned and this is referred to by some as a "four-poster". A horse with three stockings is not uncommon but also you don't see them that often.

Let's head to the business end of a horse, namely his head. Trigger and his look-alike Mr. Ed were smart horses. Not all horses are that smart but I digress. We were talking about anatomy, not mental ability (or instability).

The long stuff coming off his neck to the side is called (and spelled) mane (not main) Up between his ears, which he can rotate around somewhat and lay flat back against his upper neck, that hair is called the forelock. (If you don't know what it is that hangs at the back of the horse, guess!) A horse with a different color mane is NOT necessarily a palomino (saw that once and had to die laughing right there when they called Ben Cartwright's horse a palomino). They are only called palominoes when the mane is lighter in color than the main (oh pun!) part of the horse. That white stripe down a horse's nose is called a blaze. If it is just a little spot between his eyes, it is a star.

Down at the end of his nose is his muzzle. Back up a ways on the side and the horse has cheeks or jaws, depending on what you feel like calling them. A horse's eyes are set to the side of his head so he has trouble looking straight ahead like we do.

While we are at this end of the horse, let's talk about what a horse eats. Once again, TV and historical correctness clash. On TV, the good cowboy feeds his horse oats and hay, right? Modern day cowboys feed their animals a mixed grain diet usually, knowing that the animal needs balance in his diet and a steady feed of oats ain't gonna cut it. Historically, the cowboy was lucky enough to eat the oats himself and let his horse eat all the grass he wanted! Corn often made its way down the horse' gullet (that's cowboy for throat) but that was after agriculture got established enough in the West that made it possible to feed man and horse at the same time without one of them starving. A horse will eat hay, which is basically dried grass. Straw is the stalk of a grain and only a starving horse will try to eat it. He'll sleep in it in his stall but eat it? Not unless he can't get to anything else.

Colors, breeds and whatever else I forgot above:

I'll use the horses seen on Bonanza for demonstration purposes. That's because I know them better than other TV Westerns and after 14 years on TV, if you don't know those horses, well, fake it.

First, sex. (Bet that caught your eye!) A male horse who has all his equipment intact is called a stallion. They are notoriously hard to deal with, especially if there is a female any where in smelling distance, whether she is in heat or not. Real cowboys stayed away from them as riding stock but of course they had to have one for breeding. Then they are referred to as studs (the horses …and okay, sometimes the cowboys too) A female is called a mare. A fixed male is a gelding. Real cowboys prefer geldings for the obvious reasons but I tend to think it is because they don't want competition from a horse. When a mare gives birth, she foals. A young unbred female is called a filly and a male is a colt. If you are talking about a young horse, you can call it a foal as that is the generic name (like lamb is for a little sheep). When referring to the parents, the dad is the sire and the mom is the dam.

Okay, back to the Cartwright horses which were all geldings with the exception of a few seasons worth of Cochises which were mares. (See comments above about competition).

Ben rides a "buckskin" or "dun"; that's the horse's coloring: golden brown with a black mane and tail. As for what breed, I can only guess but from the looks of him a cross between a quarter horse and Tennessee Walker (wide chest and legs set slightly to the outside). Both breeds would have been around in the back half of the 1800's. Quarter horses were bred to work cattle. They are exceptionally smart and quick on their feet. When you ride a trained Quarter horse, be careful how you sit since they get their messages by your body pressing theirs and they are liable to do the damnest maneuvers in the blink of your eye and leave you on the ground! Tennessee Walkers are a joy to ride. They are the only horse breed to naturally possess a gait called a half rack or running walk. (The horse I owned the longest was a Tennessee Walker mix and I know what that feels like---oh bliss!)

 Adam's horse is either a sorrel or a chestnut. (no little white hairs sprinkled through in his coloring so he is not a "roan") Looking at him and trying to put him into 1800's West, you can't do it as he is too fragile legged to be anything other than a Standardbred or Thorobred and they were very uncommon horses then and there as cattle horses. Great racehorses but for working cattle, they really wouldn't do. And if Sport were a Thorobred, that was a large chunk of money for a horse to move cows, etc.

Hoss' horse is a three point black (three white stockings) and the rest of him, black. Looking at the size of the man and the size of the horse, even though the breed didn't exist as a true breed until later in the 1800's, Chubb is a Morgan. In reality, Hoss would have probably ridden several horses, crosses between regular mixed breeds and draft animals.

Cochise is of course a pinto, but then again, we need to decide which Cochise we are talking about. While a "paint" most times refers to a brown and white horse patched up like that in cowboy lingo, they can be any color and the majority of Joe's horses were paints, not pintos. What the determining factor is is how much white the animal has on him and where it is. Breed? Most likely quarter horse with a touch of Arab in him/her. Quarters and Arabs are very quick on their feet and tend to be smaller horses. They are also the wiliest of horses,  picking up tricks (usually bad ones) faster than a hooker on a Friday night. One Arab/Quarter I personally know can lift your wallet out of your hip pocket and has a penchant for stealing the hat off your head if you don't pay attention to him. He will also nibble on your boot toe if he thinks you have made him stand still too long.

The cowboy horse of choice in real life doesn't compare with the flash of Hollywood. Historically, they were a motley bred animal. Mustang, Texas Cuppola, some American Saddle/Standard maybe little Arab some times. A horse was more prized for its workability than its coloring, breeding or showiness. The cowboy actually cared more for his saddle than he did his horse since it takes longer to break in a new saddle than it does a new horse. The Nez Pearce Indians bred a great long-distance animal that slowly became a cowboy's prize: the Appaloosa. These are the horses you see with spotted haunches, the spots on their rears often referred to as blankets. But the Indians were slow to give them up. Slower than the cowboy to part with his saddle.

Today's modern cowboys who work their horses for a living aren't quite so callous about their ponies. While the animals are in no way abused, they are seen as just what they are: a tool. Like one old timer told me: they make sure they are cared for, same way as you take your car in for maintenance, etc. They are fed well and usually garage--oops--barn kept in extremely poor weather. Other than that, they are just tools.

And the modern day cowboy would still rather give up his horse before his saddle. Some things never change.

Lesson Two: Saddles,etc, Western-style

Reality first, Cartwright's second

Every part on a cowboy's saddle was important to him. He took better care of  his saddle most of the time than he did his horse. The reasoning behind this is relatively simple: once you get a western  saddle broke in good, you never want to part with it. First of all, size matters: If your butt is big and kind of wide, your saddle seat needs to be the same. The cantle is the part that would come up behind you and kind of cup you into the whole thing, and it needs to hit you at just the right spot--namely not at all, as it is the forward slope of it that pushes you deeper into the seat, (kind of cradling your butt if you will). The front part of that cradle is the horn (on top and at the level of your belly button) and the fork (the part that splits and goes down over the horse's sides a little bit). There is a hole there under the horn and that was used for a variety of things, namely for securing heavy objects that would hang down the side. Of course you know where your legs go, but the leather under them are the fenders. Under the fenders are the stirrup leathers. These leathers would adjust up and down to suit how long your legs are. It was said that you could tell where a cowboy grew up and learned to ride by how long his leathers were. (I don't recall all of it but I know that they called me a Dakota rider because I like my legs to be relatively straight. Another Tahoe rides with shorter leathers and therefore slightly bent legs. The same guy who called me a Dakota called her a Muck-slinger (someone from the East). Was he pulling our legs? I'll ask him when I get up the nerve again.)

What holds the saddle on the horse is called a cinch. It is basically made of three parts. There are two latigoes (wide supple leather bands) one to a side that run through the large round circles sewn into the end of the center piece, usually cotton or soft hide and called a belly band. I'll get to putting all this on your horse in a bit.

Behind the cantle is the skirt. It was important because you want to put your bedroll and saddlebags against the saddle leather and not the horse (they would stay drier that way and the motion wouldn't wear a hole in the horse's hide) Okay, what do you use to hold the bedroll on? Each saddle had an amazing number of rigging strings referred to mostly as ties or thongs. Two right behind the cantle on either side were usually the longest because they had to go up through the slits on the saddlebag's strap and then around your bedroll or jacket or rain slicker, and have enough that you could tie a half hitch. (never a square knot. If the leather gets wet, it swells and you can't untie the thongs easily)(bad news in a downpour) Closer in to the fenders, the thongs there usually held the butt end of the saddle sheath (or scabbard) for your rifle. The other end of the sheath was held in place usually down on the rings of the bellyband. Up by the fork you had several more sets of thongs for things like canteens, poke bags full of foodstuff, your lariat and other small things that you would want to keep track of.

One other thing about a saddle: On the underneath side of the cantle rim was usually the makers name and date either burned into it or carved into the leather. The saddle skirt might have all sorts of fancy swirls and the like,
the fenders might have fancy silver inlays but what real cowboys looked for was who made the saddle.

Now the other little stuff on a horse: it is called a bridle (not bridal) and is made up of a headstall (the leather parts that go along side the horse's jaw and behind his ears) and headband (goes in front of his ears). If it has a bit (the metal part that would go into the horse's mouth) there is also a chinstrap. Not all bridles have bits. These are called hackamores but you better have a horse you trust because without the bit, control becomes a big issue. And of course the reins (not "reigns" and not "rains"). Reins come in basically three fashions: split reins (two pieces of leather in your hand each one coming off each side of the bit), looped reins (one long strip that is permanently joined to the bit on one side, goes around so you can hold it and then down to snap on the other side of the bit) or what is called a killdeer (phonetic spelling here) (don't ask me where the name comes from. I don't know everything!) A killdeer is basically what the Indians would use: one rein on one side of the horse's neck.

A bit is the metal piece that goes in the horse's mouth. Does it hurt them? Depends on two things. First, how soft the horse's mouth is and second, how hard the rider is on the reins. The soft mouth on a horse usually stems from one of two things: his age (younger equals softer here) or his physical condition. A horse in poor shape is going to have a mouth that is tender. Bad teeth are usually the main cause but other things (like what he has been eating ie rough forage makes for tender mouths). A horse with a tender mouth usually will respond better to a hackamore or a snaffle bit (straight across with a small hump in the middle). For a tough mouthed horse, the hump in the middle will be more pronounced. Young horses lots of times have a little dangle on the bit so that his mouth stays wet. If you really want a hard bit (say on a horse that is very hard to control), use a star bit. Just looking at the monstrosity hurts me!

The second thing I mentioned about hurting a horse's mouth: the rider hauling on the reins. Think about if that were you with that metal in your mouth. How hard would you want someone pulling it around? Going easy on the reins for most horses is a good idea. For cowponies, most of the time, you barely need to pull back (and you pull straight back towards your belly, not up into the air, please) and the horse will come to a stop. On horses that aren't trained otherwise, you tell him to go right or left by laying the rein on that side of his neck against it and tugging just a little. This is called neck-reining.  Cowponies get the signal from your body weight in the saddle. Little fellow I like, you barely lean that way and he is making a ninety degree turn! Lean back in the saddle and he is dragging his butt on the ground to stop. Lean forward and he is off like the proverbial rocket.

Needless to say, he is not one to go joyriding on if you have had one too many beers. Trust me, I know.

Something else I want to mention here is something that you must train a horse to do: ground tying. That is when you drop the reins to the ground on dismounting and the horse stays put. Not all horses do this (Sport in particular) and some will stand there until Hell freezes over while others will take the opportunity to graze a while if there is grass available. From what I have seen of the Cartwrights and their horses, not a one of them were true ground-tiers. They all wanted to graze while the actors did their lines. While Sport didn't care and had to be tied to something to keep him from wandering off and making Adam go hunt him up, Buck was pretty bad as well. Watch next time when Ben drops the rein to the dirt. Buck is looking for munchables and there is usually something close at hand thanks to a thoughtful stagehand surely. The only horse that comes half way to making the grade is Chubb but there again, he may just be tired of lugging someone the size of Hoss around.

Okay now to Cartwright your knowledge: Simple, they all rode double-cinched rigs (two cinches: one under the stirrup area and the other under the cantle area).Why makes no sense. Double cinch set-ups were more for when you were roping and not once did I ever see a Cartwright lasso anything! Also the style saddles they rode on were Denvers (1870's era) or Californias (1880's). So much for reality and TV!

Saddling Up

Now, because we are going to presume that you don't have someone like the Cartwrights had to get their horses ready in the morning and to care for them at night, you need to get saddle, bridle and horse all together before you ride. This is referred to by cowboys as "saddling up". What you do at night is "unsaddle" (not tack or untack. One cowboy I approached with that comment dryly asked why I had the horse nailed up to the wall).

The first thing you do is make sure that the horse is groomed. This isn't to say that you have to make that nag shine like new penny. Most of the working stock I see don't shine like that but they had to for TV (think color tv sets and you know why). You use a curry comb (metal circles or bands that have broad triangular teeth) and a brush, one in each hand. Most of the time, the place to start is on his neck and work you way back, following the flow of the hair. This knocks out the grit, bedding and anything that the horse managed to get into. If you are a mind to, comb out his mane and tail. But one thing you had better not miss is his feet. If he is barn kept especially! For this you need a hoof pick (metal handle with a curved metal blade that isn't sharp). While standing at his shoulder, grasp his front leg just below the knee. If he is a good horse, he will lift that leg and you can cradle that hoof between your knees and clean out the hoof. (Warning: this is where and when most people get bitten - or at least nibbled) To do his rear legs, you do the same. Lots of folks I know prefer to clean the hooves while the horse is eating because then he is paying attention to his chow, not what is happening to his feet.

Once you have him cleaned up as much as he is going to, you need to put his bridle on him. This is the very first piece of gear to go on him and the last to come off (think control and you will know why). On a cold morning, warm the metal bit in your hand before trying to slip it (without mixing your fingers into the mess) into the horse's mouth. Once the bit is in, slip the headstall over his ears and buckle the strap. If your horse has hair between his ears (forelock!) be nice and position it so that it looks comfortable to you but preferably under the headstall. (Quick side story: One half broke nag I know very well had a problem tossing his head as he was ridden. Trying to figure it all out we finally discovered that his forelock was too long and he was tossing his head to get it out of his eyes. We trimmed it and he quit tossing his head as much)

Next comes a saddle blanket on his back. Saddle blankets are generally today more like pads but back in the old west, they could be anything from the cowboy's own sleeping blanket folded over several times, to a sheep's skin since what was solely needed was protection from the saddle rubbing directly on the horse's hide.

And finally we put the saddle on him. Lifting the saddle from its rack, fling the right stirrup, bellyband and basically anything that is on the right side of the saddle over the seat of it. This is so when you hoist it over his back, you don't get it caught under the saddle. If you are on the short side and your horse is on the tall side, this can be a stretch and a western saddle weighs 35 to 40 pounds fully rigged. If you ride a lot, you will develop the technique of flinging the sucker in one smooth move (called from "dirt to hide") so that it lands square on the horse's back, more towards where his mane starts on his shoulders. Once it is up there, clear the stuff off the seat and wiggle it into place ("settling leather"), flop the left stirrup into the seat, reach under the horse and grab the bellyband. The wide leather under the left stirrup fender loops once through the ring then back up to where it is attached on the saddle, making a half hitch there. Pull it snug then wait a couple of heartbeats. Any horse worth riding as taken a deep breath when he feels that saddle go up on his back and then held it while you tightened the cinch. If you went to swing into the saddle now, you would wind up in the dirt since your saddle wasn't tight enough and the horse would be laughing at you. How do you make sure you have the last laugh? Once you have waited a little, knee him in the ribs. Hear the air whoosh out of him? Tighten that cinch before he can puff up again!

If you are Adam or a later season Joe, you have one other piece of gear to put on before you go riding off. This is a combination of two items really: a chest strap and a martingale. The chest strap is just what the name implies: it goes across the horse's chest from one side of the saddle to the other. The original use of the chest strap was to keep the saddle from sliding backward during the course of roping, etc. Why Adam had it on Sport I have no idea other than what of other non-ropers I know: it looks good on some horses. The martingale is that piece of leather going from the chinstrap of the bridle to either the chest strap or the bellyband. It holds the horse's head down and keeps him from tossing his head back into yours. Sport could have used one and a later season Cochise did wear one (the first time Michael Landon rode the horse, the horse's head and his butted hard and Landon refused to ride the horse unless something was done about it. Guess he learned something from Pernell Roberts' experience on the show after all!). But there again, this something that you may want your horse to wear just because you think it looks cool. (Side note: one cowboy I talked to about it said it also showed that you didn't have good command over your horse. I went home and took the martingale off my horse.)

Now you are ready to swing into the saddle. Go to his left side, turn your right side to him, hoist your left foot up high enough to put it into the stirrup. Now hop a little on your right leg, grabbing a hold of the horn and swing your right leg over his back. They make it look so easy on tv, don't they? Especially Joe when he makes that swing vault into the saddle! Real cowboys eschew that sort of mounting style as it is hard on three things. One is the horse's back and the other two are of a slightly more personal nature to the cowboy. For those of us who are shorter than our horses, (like me) hunt out a fence railing, or loading dock or handy stump to get up high enough.

Now aren't you sorry you asked?

Irish, Tahoe Lady
With help from Pidgeon and Laredo and thanks to Rusty.

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