Good tack won’t help poor riding, but poor tack can hinder good riding. Of course, good tack is expensive — very expensive. One way to mitigate the rising price of an already costly sport is to buy secondhand equipment, watching closely for safety and quality.
Saddles are the No. 1 used-tack choice. By buying used, riders can often afford brands that otherwise are out of reach. Also, many riders enjoy the softer feeling of a used saddle over the stiffness of a new one — some even find wear marks a status symbol of sorts.
Used saddles can be found through ads, by word of mouth or even through riding club fund-raising sales. However, a reliable tack shop is probably the most convenient venue.
Tack shops either buy used saddles outright or accept them as trade-ins and then sell them, or they sell the saddles on consignment. When a consignment saddle is sold, the tack store keeps a percentage — typically around 15% — and the balance goes to the saddle consignor. Used tack prices are often negotiable, so don’t be afraid to bargain.
Examine used saddles closely to be sure they are safe. Look at the saddle on a rack from behind. Does it sit straight' Avoid one that doesn’t. The lack of balance could hurt your horse and will affect your riding.
Obviously, avoid any saddle with a bad tree. A broken tree costs more to fix than what you may have saved by buying a used saddle in the first place.
To test the tree, hold the saddle out in front of you with the cantle on your stomach and the pommel in your hand. There should be some amount of give, but if the tree has an excessive amount of flexibility, or appears almost to buckle, it may be broken. If you’re unsure — and you really want that saddle — get a saddle maker to test it, although he may charge you to examine the saddle tree.
Check the seat of the saddle for wear, particularly where “piping” runs along the seat’s outside. Saddlers can fix this, but the repair can be expensive, so consider this in the purchase price. We wouldn’t totally give up on a saddle needing this type of repair — it isn’t as serious as a broken tree — but we would be tempted to keep looking, depending on the cost of the used saddle. A new seat can cost up to $450, depending on the leather.
Western-saddle shoppers should check beneath the rigging for rot and excessive wear. English riders should scrutinize the billets, panels and seamlines. Billets should have secure stitching and holes should not be elongated or torn, since any looseness there compromises the security of your saddle (bear in mind, however, that billets only cost $15 to $30 apiece to replace). Panels should be free of cracked foam or lumpy wool, and the seamline should not be too worn. Stirrup bars should be intact.
Don’t get wrapped up in the excitement and skimp on fit to nab a bargain. Finding a used Kieffer in excellent shape for $500 may seem like a steal — but it’s just a waste of money if your horse needs a narrow tree and it’s wide. And don’t pick it up for future use either, unless you’re sure you’ll use it. As Karla Haynes, who owns Bucks County Saddlery in Buckingham, Pa., said, “Most people do not realize that even when a saddle just sits it gets dry rotted.”
To achieve that optimum fit, consider refitting/reflocking. High-quality saddles with panel flocking can be readjusted to conform to a particular horse. Charlie Tota, who owns Euro-American Saddlery in New Jersey, said that a dressage rider, for instance, might benefit from buying a secondhand Passier saddle and having it refitted to her horse. While this work will add to the purchase price, it can also transform an almost-right used saddle into the perfect piece. This type of repair is usually worth it. A reflocked panel will cost around $115. (Remember: Foam panels cannot be “reflocked.”)
If you can, find out how the saddle was used and what the owner was like. A saddle that was used only for showing will have fewer miles on it than one that belonged to a lesson barn or summer camp. Investigating cosmetic damage can yield valuable information, since a badly scuffed cantle, for instance, may indicate a tree-damaging fall.
Some saddle makers imprint their wares with serial numbers that can reveal age or model on a saddle you are unsure about. Stubben, for example, stamps a number on the off side billet flap, which you can use to contact the company for more information. On a Crosby, look for an “M” or “W” engraved on the stirrup bar to tell you if the tree is medium or wide.
Used tack is also a super way to keep up with the ever-changing trends in Western tack. At this time, Quarter Horse riders currently favor light-colored saddles, while most Arabian riders still prefer darker ones. If you show Quarter Horses and don’t like sticking out with dark tack, buy a used light-color set and keep your dark set well-oiled for when the trend turns around (it will). Like other facets of show-ring turnout, tack should promote a workmanlike and neat appearance, and secondhand equipment can contribute to an overall elegant picture as well as new.
Finally, any reputable store will allow you to try the saddle before you buy it, although they may ask you to put it on your credit card before taking it out of the store. We wouldn’t buy any saddle — new or used — without trying it on our horse for fit first. Follow the store’s rules for keeping the saddle clean and in good shape and return it within the specified time frame.
Be careful with bridles, stirrup leathers and reins, which depend on the strength of straps. Reins and stirrup leathers, especially, take the most wear and are often only given a lick and a promise at cleaning time. Abused leather can lead to accidents when a stirrup leather gives way or reins snap. Also, you may have to look further than the tack store to find used tack other than saddles. Many stores don’t deal in used “strap goods” due to problems discerning quality and low commission.
When looking at your prospective purchase, note carefully every row of stitching. Look for loose, missing or rotting stitches. Finer stitching indicates finer craftsmanship, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate more strength in used tack.
Watch for “stretch marks.” All the leather, especially stirrup leathers, should be uniform in width and thickness. The leather should be pliable. If you bend the leather and see cracks in it, avoid that item. You can’t “bring back” leather that has dried to the point it cracks or splits when you bend it.
Kelly Reed, who owns Tracebridge Farm in Tennessee, notes that the raised browbands and cavessons on some bridles are particularly vulnerable to wear and can demonstrate how much of a beating the leather has taken over the years.
Many Western riders like to buy used bits. This is actually an economical way to increase your inventory of bits, but take care so that the bits are not worn between the mouthpiece and cheekpiece. Deteriorated bits can pinch horses’ mouths.
Sources Of Used Tack
Tack shops, club fundraising sales and word of mouth are the regular ways to find used tack. We’re cautious, however, about shopping for used tack over the Internet, unless you know the company you’re dealing with and know that it has a real base (street address). Plus, you can’t examine the merchandise first.
That said, we are more inclined to look at Internet sites from reputable stores rather than “clearinghouse” sites or bulletin boards for buyers and sellers.
Some tack stores, like The Tack Exchange in Georgia and Charlotte’s in Texas, list their inventory of used tack and even have photographs on the site. Stores like these also have test-ride policies. This can be a big help if you live in an area where used tack i s scarce.
Online auction houses are probably the least secure way of purchasing something on line. Most have “caveat emptor” policies that place the responsibility for any losses on the buyer.
Also, trying to convince someone over e-mail to let you use their saddle for a test ride, when he or she could be simply passing it along to the highest bidder, can be extremely difficult. As with any online auction transaction, buyers must be cautious and may be wise to enlist the help of a third party to control the release of the money until after the purchased product is received and accepted as suitable.
Remember, photographs aren’t always reliable, especially with digital scanning. While a photo may provide candid views of stains and wear, verifying quality can be hard. A broken tree or rotted stitching won’t be visible from a scanned photograph — and even wear marks can be smudged over to blend in when using a good photo software program. Take care to know who you’re buying from and what is promised.