For most horse owners, investing in the first set of equestrian equipment can come with serious sticker shock, with new saddles possibly costing more than the horse itself. For those who are not riding in high-level horse shows, it’s not necessary to invest in top-of-the-line tack. However, spending money on poor quality equestrian equipment is a waste of money in the long run and can also be downright dangerous.
The saddle is usually the most expensive item a horse owner will ever need to buy. It’s worth avoiding the mass-produced, bargain-priced saddles for several reasons. First, the saddle trees are not durable and don’t have the same balance or twist as a quality saddle. These saddles become uncomfortable very quickly as they put unnecessary strain on the rider’s back, legs and seat, making it difficult to maintain a proper position and painful to ride. These saddle trees are also uncomfortable for the horse. Horses that are in pain will respond by bucking, biting, becoming “cinchy” or saddle-shy, and can develop back problems and lameness from poorly designed saddle trees.
The second reason to avoid cheap saddles is the lack of quality in construction materials. Low-end equipment is made from the weaker and inferior pieces of the cowhide to produce saddles and tack at a very low cost. The leather is then coated with a thick lacquer to cover these flaws. While they appear sturdy and solid looking in the store, the lacquer wears off after several uses, usually on the rider’s clothes. Once the lacquer is gone, the leather underneath does not absorb traditional leather oils and treatments and dries out quickly.
Dry and poor quality leather breaks easily, and a broken girth, rein or stirrup strap can lead to disaster. It may seem like a bargain, but most low-quality tack is not designed by horsemen or skilled saddle-makers. Most of the saddle-making process for these models is performed by machine to save on manufacturing costs, and many components are glued rather than stitched. The stiff, lacquered leather does not break in well, and even small components like bridle nosebands and browbands can chafe a horse’s face.
It’s also important to consider the non-leather elements of equestrian equipment such as bits and buckles. High quality bits are designed for the horse’s comfort and are properly balanced and built to last. A cheap bit that been designed by a non-horseman can pinch the sensitive corners of the mouth and can fit poorly, causing extreme pain when pressure is applied. Buckles, d-rings and snaps need to stay free from corrosion and rust, and must hold up to pressure and repeated use.
Buying quality equestrian equipment is a worthwhile expense with long-term benefits. Not only is it more comfortable for both horse and rider, it is also much safer and rarely needs to be replaced. When properly cared for, a well-designed and well-built saddle or bridle can last a lifetime. The demand for used saddles, bridles and even bits by the top names in tack is evidence that quality tack holds its value. These manufacturers stand behind their products and provide replacement parts and repairs for older equipment such as replacing strap keepers and conchos, restitching horn covers, western re-fleecing or English re-stuffing.
The rule to follow is to buy the best quality tack you can afford. Avoid saddles that are flimsy, assembled with staples (check under the gullet) or that show any evidence of glue (examine seams and trim). Reins should be stiff enough to have that “new leather” feel, but should not be highly glossed or slick. Bits should feel substantial and solid, and should not have a hollow or “tinny” feel. Welds should be smooth and nearly invisible. If the high cost of new tack is a concern, don’t write off a quality used saddle or a discounted model with cosmetic blemishes. These blemishes don’t interfere with the fit or function of the saddle and can provide years of comfortable riding at a reduced cost. In addition, saddles by the top makers will always have a high resale value. This can make trade-ins or selling easier when it’s time to upgrade.