Walking into a tack store can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many choices. This can be good because you can choose exactly the equipment that’s right for you and your horse. But, too many choices can leave you wondering if you made the right decisions and if you’ve made a mistake when you leave with your purchase.
The two major pieces of tack you’ll be choosing when you get your first horse are the saddle and bridle. These also represent the largest outlay of money and the most important gear in terms of safety. Chances are, you want to get the most for the least—the safest, longest-lasting, most effective and most comfortable for the least amount of dollars.
As you look around, you’ll probably notice that tack is made of either synthetic or leather. Bridles come in many materials, and you’ll likely have lots of color options. Saddles too can be made of synthetic or leather, and you might even find some that are colors other than the traditional browns, grays or blacks.
Generally speaking, leather tack costs more than synthetic. Poorer quality leathers will cost around the same as synthetic items. Tack made of cardboardy, stiff leather should be avoided. These items won’t last as long as good quality leather and they may be more prone to breakage. If cost is a major factor in your decision, you may be better off with good quality synthetic tack, than poorer quality leather. Good leather tack is an investment, that will hold its value better if you decide to resell it. Buying used is an affordable way to buy good quality leather bridles and saddles.
Identifying Leather Quality
Poor quality leathers will feel stiff and cold. The edges may be different colored than the surface because the surface dye and/or tanning don’t go all the way through. This is sometimes masked by tinting the edges to match the surface after the pieces used to construct the saddle are cut. The underside may be fibrous looking. The surface may be stamped with a ‘skin texture’ and the leather may be more chemical-smelling than leathery. Cheap dyes can seep out of the leather and discolor your riding pants after a rain.
Good quality saddle leather will be smooth and supple, There may be the odd tiny imperfection. This is visible because the surface has not been sanded down and refinished. This means the leather will actually be stronger, and will not discolor badly over time. Saddlers generally work around these imperfections in whole hides used to make saddles, but small scars, nicks, and other naturally occurring marks may still appear even though they strive to use top quality, blemish-free vegetable-dyed leather. There is no need to dye or paint the edges on good leather, because the finish goes through, although there may be a final finish put over the whole saddle, because the leather used may come from different hides, and even different types of leathers may be used. Billet straps made of top quality leather will not feel as elastic as cheaper leathers. Good quality leather reins will feel supple in your hand, and not plastic or cardboard-like, as poorly tanned leather is.
Buying a saddle made by a well-known manufacturer of quality goods is the easiest way to avoid cheap leather that will break and discolor over time. Visit a saddler, or examine carefully the higher end saddles and bridles tacks shops sometimes carry to educate yourself further.
It’s hard to see the tree of the saddle, but it is easy to check the metal fittings. Good saddles will not have light steel or nickel-plated rings and buckles. On western saddles, the fleece should be real sheepskin that is thick and even. Girth straps on western saddles should be thick and strong, without much give. Rigging and rivets should be made of good quality metals that won’t rust. And, and decoration on western saddles should be minimal and made of good quality materials.
A good quality leather saddle will last a lifetime with the proper care. That’s not always a goal, especially with a horse we know we won’t be keeping for a long time. Leather English saddles can be re-stuffed and refitted to fit many different horses, but there is a limit to how much a saddle can be altered. So if your first horse is an Arabian, and your next is a Clyde cross, you may need a different saddle. Yes, the resale value on a good leather saddle is better than a synthetic. But, if low cost alone is an important factor, you may be better off with synthetic for short term use. A good quality leather bridle will fit many different horses, and is a good investment over the long term, although making the Arabian to Clydesdale transition may still send you looking for a bigger bridle.
Leather English saddles are much easier to re-stuff and fit to different horses. There are limitations, however, so a leather saddle will not fit every horse that comes along. Synthetics are harder to fit and as the materials break down, the saddle may lose some of its shape.
Good Quality Tack Manufacturers
Here are just a few well-known manufacturers of top quality English leather saddles:
Common Synthetic Saddle Makers
Good Quality Western Tack Manufacturers
- Circle Y
- Billy Cook
- Big Horn