I would just like to take this opportunity to say thank you, and to tell you how much I enjoy reading your column every month in Ride! Magazine.
I also have a question for you if I may?
I was just wondering if you've ever written an article on synthetic tack?
There are many horse owners out there just like myself, who would never dream of spending over a thousand dollars for a brand new leather saddle be it english or western.
I do know that a well made leather saddle can last a long time if well cared for, but what are the benefits of owing a synthetic saddle?
Thank you so much for your time!
I'm actually a great fan of good synthetic tack. I love leather, and am always happy to see (and smell) a good-quality leather saddle and bridle, but these days, really good leather tack is becoming madly expensive, and cheap leather tack is not just useless but often downright dangerous. People who want good quality tack that is safe and strong and comfortable for their horses, but who don't have unlimited disposable income, usually need to choose between good-quality USED tack (often available at very acceptable prices), and good-quality synthetic tack (usually available NEW at very acceptable prices.
Much of today's synthetic tack looks and feels like leather, and performs very well: it's strong, comfortable, durable, lightweight, and low-maintenance - and it's available in tree sizes from narrow to extra-wide.
Not only are good synthetic saddles (Thorowgood, Wintec) much better-quality and much safer than cheap, poorly-made leather tack, they make life easier for riders. Cleaning synthetic tack is easy. You can hose it down, wipe it down with soapy water, set it out to dry - none of which you could ever do with leather tack. You can dunk your bridle, as well as your bit, in a bucket for easy and fast cleaning (something else you wouldn't ever want to do with leather tack). And there are other advantages - you don't have to worry about permanent stains if you get caught in the rain, or if your horse is suddenly inspired to roll when you're halfway across a stream. ;-)
Synthetic saddles are accepted by Pony Club, and show riders don't need to worry about judges disapproving of synthetic saddles - I have yet to hear of a judge marking any rider down for using a synthetic instead of a leather saddle.
Good-quality synthetic saddles are wonderful for:
- small children
- short riders with tall horses
- riders with limited range of motion (shoulder or arm problems, rotator cuff injuries, etc.)
- riders who have limited time at the barn and want to spend almost all of it grooming and riding, not cleaning tack - beginners who need inexpensive tack that is well-made and safe - riders who are lucky enough to be able to ride on the beach - riders in lesson programs (instructors are always looking for affordable, comfortable saddles for school horses)
... and you can probably think of others - for instance, many riding programs for the handicapped use synthetic saddles.
Many of the new synthetic saddles offer some degree of flexibility in fitting - interchangeable pommel arches on some Wintecs; "fish" to change the width of the pommel arch on some Thorowgoods. Many of them also offer knee blocks that can be moved around by the rider - making the saddle somewhat customizable to improve the fit for the rider as well as the horse.
One caveat re "adjustable-fit" saddles: For some reason, saddle manufacturers like to refer to the part of the saddle that's adjustable or interchangeable as the "gullet", which is inaccurate and VERY confusing to novices. The saddle's gullet is the channel that runs along the horse's spine, between the panels, and it should NOT touch the horse. The various adjustments that you may be able to make to the pommel arch - the front of the saddle tree that fits just behind the horse's withers and shoulders - will NOT affect the width of the saddle's gullet. The gullet width remains unchanged, so if the actual GULLET of your synthetic saddle is too wide or too narrow for your horse's back, you won't be able to affect it by changing out the pommel arch (misnamed "gullet plate") or by adding or subtracting "fish". If the gullet fits well, so that the saddle's panels rest on the large muscles on either side of the horse's spine (and NOT on the spinous processes), and no part of the saddle is touching the horse's spine, then that's all right, and you can focus on the adjustment of the pommel arch.
I'll say it again, because it's important: If the gullet doesn't fit well, nothing you do to the pommel arch will improve the gullet's fit.
Synthetic strapgoods are a little more complicated, because of safety issues. If you use a synthetic halter for turnout, for example, be sure that it has either a thin leather crownpiece or a breakaway "fuse" so that your horse can't become injured (or worse) if his halter catches on anything. If you're trailering a horse, use the standard leather halter and cotton leadrope, for safety's sake.
Synthetic bridles are improving all the time - biothane and Beta are often virtually indistinguishable from leather, at least to the casual eye - but again, you do have the safety issue to consider. For a riding lesson program and/or arena work, synthetics are fine, but out on the trail you might want the additional safety that leather provides. Many trail riders (and many racehorse trainers) like to use biothane or Beta bridles for their appearance, strength, and ease of cleaning, but use leather reins with them, both because they have a better feel in the hand, and because if something goes wrong, rider and horse part company, and the horse steps through the rein, leather reins will break before the horse becomes injured.
Just about every other piece of tack can be synthetic - girth, stirrup leathers, breastplate or breastcollar - but again, if you're using a synthetic breastplate or girth, get the best quality you can find, and avoid cheap nylon that can cause painful rubs.
There ARE some occasions on which I wouldn't use synthetic tack - it would be dangerous in a trailer, as I've already mentioned, and I wouldn't use it if I were trying to escape a fire... leather would be MUCH safer.
Good synthetic tack is good tack, full stop. I wouldn't hesitate to buy and use good-quality synthetic tack - in fact, this very morning I was giving my young niece a riding lesson in the only saddle I have that fits a wide-barreled pony: a synthetic saddle (specifically, a wide-tree Thorowgood Maxam). ;-)
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