The surcingle has been an important equestrian training aid as well as an essential piece of equipment since the 14th century. Simply put, a surcingle is a belt-like device that is fastened around the girth area of a horse, just behind the withers and shoulder area to keep driving, riding or training equipment in place. Long lines are attached to the ring on the bridle, or cavesson, and strung through the D-rings of the surcingle. This gives the handler control of both sides of the horse from head to tail.
Simple straps are also called surcingles. They can connect under their bellies and legs in holding horse blankets and sheets in place. The tight cinch rope used in rodeos to make broncos buck is also called a surcingle. With racehorses, a single strap is used to keep the light saddle in place. Trail riders who transport saddlebags and packs, hold them in place by using a surcingle to strap around the saddle.
Surcingles are used in the training of all disciplines of horsemanship. If a horse does not respect and understand your cues from the ground, he probably is not going to respect them while you are riding or driving him. Therefore, the surcingle allows for safe, clear communication as to what is expected of the horse.
This is also a great aid to teach youngsters or any green horse the feel of mouth and leg aids from the safety of the ground. Ground training, also called long lining, ground driving or side reining, are among the most valuable aids any horse can receive. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna that trains the famous Lipizzans even begins their intense training with the surcingle.
There are several D-rings across the top and sides of the surcingle to loop lines through. If a line is placed on each side of the horse, you can comfortably control the entire horse from head to tail from one side. These D-rings can also double as turrets for securing lines when ground driving or long lining with single or double lines. They also serve many other safety and training options, such as breastplates, martingales, cruppers or overchecks. For horses that are learning to drive a cart, long lines can be attached to teach him the cues of driving a cart from the safety of the ground.
For carts, the surcingle is more sophisticated, as it needs to hold the horse harness in place. In dressage, the surcingle is used to teach a horse impulsion while staying in frame. Weight bags are tied to a surcingle on youngsters as a way to allow them to experience weight before a rider attempts to mount them.
Though all the styles vary, the purpose remains to teach the horse to accept very light contact with the bit. This form of longeing gives the horse reassurance and consistent contact that is difficult to develop from the saddle. While developing proper framing for the head and neck position, the back and neck muscles are strengthened and perfect balance results. It also allows a visual advantage to evaluate the horse’s acceptance of the bit, his frame, bending and gates.
A surcingle is usually made of leather or a leather-like substance. For training youngsters, there are softer materials or breakaway materials so the horse cannot hurt himself. Often these devices are lined with fleece or a soft material so they fit comfortably. A snug fit is important as a surcingle can slip around the belly, which would be traumatic for an untrained horse. Padding rolls on either side of the withers are recommended to prevent rotation.
It is vital to remember that any horse, especially an untrained or young horse, needs to be introduced to a surcingle slowly. Horses by nature are extremely claustrophobic and binding a horse into a tight frame before he understands what is expected of him can be explosive. A horse must first learn to “give to pressure.” Then he can easily understand and become comfortable with your requests.