My friend and fellow OTTB rescuer, Kimberly Clark, and her beautiful sticky leg!

All photos by Holly

It’s fall, the first crisp day of the season….and wouldn’t you know it, the horses are fresh, and have lights in their eyes and little dancing shoes on!

It must be just about time to go foxhunting, or eventing, or get back out on the trails again after a summer of heat and bugs that kept you at home.

Well, it’s time, then, for a discussion about Proper Vertical Order.

PVO is a term that some adult amateur riders I am acquainted with use frequently.

It means:

1. Earth
2. Horse
3. Saddle pad and saddle, and finally,
4. Human

Now, any deviation from Proper Vertical Order means, usually, some sort of Advil or Tylenol purchase at a drugstore, because if the No. 4 item ends up being the No. 1 item, it sure ain’t the No. 3 item that is going to suffer. More likely stand there and give you the horsey finger for falling off, so it’s pretty important to get a few things organized for crisp autumn riding to keep the PVO in the proper numerical order!

Yes, and Sinead rides with a neck strap!

I like to start with me. I want sticky, grippy reins and gloves, a good old fashioned neck strap to grab onto when the wild turkeys decide to take a jaunt through the field, good full-seat breeches with some stick to them, a good pair of tall leather boots or half-chaps properly fitted, and if half chaps, proper paddock shoes with a heel and good sole against a solid stirrup iron.

I like the cheese-grater type pads on the stirrups, too. That is a matter of preference of course, but if you don’t have the grip you want, make a change — support your local tack shop and find something that works for you.

Don’t suffer a slipping leg because you’re worried about a new pair of $35 stirrup irons. When you stack up the costs of one ER trip, it’s cheap at the price. In fact, a whole new outfit would be less trouble than a few hours’ wait in your local hospital emergency room waiting area. Trust me. I know this for a fact. I have stories. You don’t want to hear them. Back to our sticky story….

The saddle needs to be soft, conditioned, warm, and sticky. Yes, I am talking about your saddle, not the babka at Panera. (Mmmmm!) My trainer took me aside one day and said, “I know you are busy and have a long day at work, but try and keep your saddle cleaned and conditioned, it will be stickier and easier to stay in,” and I heeded her advice and condition it regularly. When traveling to hunts, I keep it in the front seat of the truck with me so it can stay warm, not in the cold horse trailer tackroom. Warm leather will be softer and ‘keep’ your leg.

I use what top event groom Max Corcoran calls, “Equitation in a Can”, a sticky spray that is sold at tack shops that helps your wayward lower leg and bouncy seat keep in the tack. Beware, it’s tough stuff to clean off but it works very well! I use it in three places, as per her recommendation: 1) on the flaps, especially the bottom quarter circle, 2) where my knee might stick in the padded part of the flap, and 3) sometimes on the jockeys, but not usually on the seat (too annoying).

I don’t polish the inside of my boots, and I don’t use the popular showring silicone horse coat sprays, either. Even if you only use it on the tail, they still swat their sides, and the silicone can come off on the barrel just about where your calf needs to be! I have it on good authority that no less a horseman than world champion eventer Bruce Davidson will not allow silicone sprays on his competition horses for that very reason. Since Bruce has more stickability than anyone, I’m listening to advice!

I like to make sure that “staying in the tack” means that the tack is on properly, fits well, is in good shape and can take a hard day’s riding. Even something little like a snap on a breastplate that keeps opening and lets the breastplate sag on one side of the horse can really be annoying as well as unsafe when a loose piece gets caught in a stick along the trail and your horse gets snagged. Whoops. Where did that shoulder go. And we are sitting in the middle of the trail in a mud puddle.

No less a rider than the great William Fox-Pitt uses a neckstrap on all his horses even at the biggest four-star three day events, so it’s good enough for me. I also make sure that if I don’t have the neckstrap I have a breastplate or breastcollar or some kind of thing to grapple with my hands in front of my chin, on my horse’s neck.

When you think that your hands have to hold reins, a crop, and then reach for a piece of mane, there’s not much more you can get into your grip, so a thin but strong piece of leather is much easier to slide a finger underneath. I have small hands, so by the time I’ve organized the whip, two reins, perhaps a bridge or even double bridge, I’ve only got an inch or two of three fingers left to grab something in case of a Teleport Transfer Spook (“we were over there, Mom, I have no idea how we got over here.”)

In the case of full-seat breeches, well, that’s a garment that is totally up to each individual rear end. Suffice it to say the super sticky grippy breeches are often so grippy they scare you that you can actually ride well, so to avoid frightening myself (as well as causing anxiety about getting OUT of the saddle to get to a porta potty in an emergency) I try full-seat breeches that are a bit more traditional but still help me stick in the tack.

There is one last stickiness factor in the Proper Vertical Order equation, and that’s your saddle pad and saddle itself. It goes without saying that you must have something that fits the horse. A narrow tree on a wide horse is like a clothespin on a tennis ball; it does get some traction on the fuzzy side, but eventually it’s going to ping off…and you don’t want to be in the saddle when it does. A saddle that rolls back and forth on a horse is not going to give you a safe ride, even with breastplates to stabilize it. It only takes one unbalanced moment to complete the law of physics and give you a taste of gravity!

The saddle needs to be stuck to the horse as well with a proper pad, one that protects, provides a good wicking surface to the horse’s skin, and on the saddle side has a gripping factor as well. Many pads do not have that extra layer on the top that keeps the saddle from sliding, and I look for that type every time I buy a pad.

Too many pads can be just as troublesome! Big pillowy layers may feel nice but as soon as you have that first good gallop, off they slide to one side or the other….and you’re left to standing in your stirrups, pushing on one, then the other, like a drunken sailor tacking the dinghy to and fro about the yacht club! And don’t ask your horse what he thinks of such nonsense.

And do not forget to tighten your girth. Jack Le Goff told us at a clinic, once, that one should tighten the girth until you cannot get it any tighter. For that reason, I really watch using double-elastic ended girths when out hunting, or when riding for a long time. They tend to get looser as you go. I like to ride with a girth that has at least one end without elastic or stretch so that the girth doesn’t give all the way.

I check all my tack, buckles, ends, lacing and stitching prior to getting in the trailer. While I do a complete check each fall, I make a quick look over all the tack part of my pre-loading routine, and I have spares in the trailer just in case. Make it a habit to be safe.
I don’t blame my horse if there is a loss of PVO….it’s usually my fault! But I try everything I can to keep sticking on no matter what happens on crisp fall days while you’re out galloping together with bugs in your teeth, and smiles on your faces. 🙂 Tally ho!