Tradition Greets Technology

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Tack for the typical Western rider has come a long way in design, durability and comfort. When you shop for your barn or advise your clients on best buys, you can find affordable, durable gear. Specific product lines aimed at trail and pleasure riders feature technological innovations that are horse-friendly and people-pleasing in fit and style.

Horse-Friendly Saddles

A well-fitted saddle begins with matching the shape of the saddle tree to the horse. “We insist the tree fit before you ever make the saddle,” explains Judy Lang of Big Horn.

Flexible trees conform to horses’ backs, to allow the horse unrestricted freedom of movement. Models are typically built with a rigid swell and cantle of wood, to clear the horse’s spine. Bars of plastic or other synthetic materials flex to fit the shape of the horse.

The Equi-Fit is a wood tree, handwrapped with reinforced fiberglass. Colorado Saddlery builds its new Equalizer saddle on the Equi-Fit tree, with silicon gel inserts lining the bars.

“The gel is sandwiched in between the skirts and the bars in the front,” says Manuel Montoya of Colorado Saddlery. “If the horse has high withers, the gel helps the saddle to fit him just right.” The extra cushion reduces pressure points, especially in the wither and shoulder areas.

You’ll also see form-fitting trees with the bars attached separately for independent movement. Circle Y, the top-selling Western brand, uses Flex Technology, or flexible synthetic bars, in its Flexlite product line.

“The best place to have flex is at the front and the back of the bar,” says Mark Jemelka of Circle Y. “As the horse turns the right bar may go down a bit, and the left go up a little bit.”

Fabtron, a manufacturer of synthetic saddles, markets its Saddle Fitting System with three tree templates—the A form is “multi-fit,” while B is wide and C is medium.

“We use two different flexible trees,” says Stan Hendrick of Fabtron. “One [form A] has a molded set of bars that are to some degree flexible, with a fiberglass-wrapped cantle and swell.” Fabtron dealers use the templates to fit their saddles.

The Flex Tree, designed by Eddie Steele, is molded as a single flexible shape on an elastomer foundation. Steele, a fifth-generation tree builder, has designed trees for different breeds, such as the gaited horse shape along with the usual Quarter Horse, semi-Quarter Horse, and Arabian trees. And Tucker Saddlery builds saddles on an extra-wide tree, made to fit draft horses.

Efficient Riding Gear

You want to spend barn time riding, rather than taking care of saddlery. For sturdy, low-maintenance tack, several manufacturers design saddles of nylon fabric or leather-like synthetics. These styles offer wash-and-wear care.

“We’re the leather and Cordura mix,” says Hendrick of Fabtron. Other Cordura models are made by Big Horn and Abetta.

Saddles of manmade materials are less expensive than traditional leather models, in the $300 to $500 range. They’re also lighter in weight, with one Fabtron Cordura-leather saddle at 19 pounds.

Ozark Leather Company’s new premium Cordura saddle has a leather fork, cantle, and jockeys, with optional tooling on the jockeys and quilting on fenders and skirts. Like other Cordura and leather saddles, this style weighs in the 20-pound range—a definite plus if you’re tired of hoisting a heavy saddle.

In its Flexlite leather saddles, Circle Y layers seat, jockeys and fenders with an underlayer of neoprene foam. “The saddle has body from the neoprene, so we can use thinner leather and the whole saddle is more lightweight—20 to 25 pounds,” explains Jemelka.

Wintec now sells a Western saddle, constructed of the EquiLeather synthetic used in its best-selling English saddles. The material is laminated, with a top layer that mimics the look and feel of skirting leather. EquiLeather resists abrasion and dries quickly. Wintec also uses an Equisuede seat of microfiber.

Bridles have also migrated from leather to synthetics. You can find headstalls and reins of nylon web, Biothane, DuraLeather (another composite synthetic), or EquiLeather.

For easier bit changes, look for snaps on bridle cheekpieces or rein ends. The halter-bridle style simplifies bridling even more. “You just unsnap the snaps to drop the bit, “ says Kelly Bender of Weaver Leather, about their design of vinyl-coated nylon web. “It’s really low maintenance—you just wipe off the straps.” The old West is new again with the popularity of no-hardware fasteners. In leather bridles, water ties or water loop ends fasten with laces. You can also choose a quick-change loop, where a tab threads through the bit ring and then through a keeper on the outside of the cheekpiece or rein end.

“Out West, riders are more used to the water ties. Most riders are used to the Chicago screws on bridles,” Bender says.

To keep those screws in place, she advises, “Use Loctite to be sure they don’t come out. We recommend you check your Chicago screws every time you ride, because they do work their way out.” Look for Loctite’s Threadlocker product for screws you’ll rarely unfasten.

Weaver has designed the Smart Cinch, an improvement in buckles that eases cinching. “It has two roller buckles,” says Bender. “You don’t have to pull really hard when you pull the latigo back through the ring. The roller buckles separate the latigo layers.”

Comfort for Riders

“For all saddles, the growing market is trail riding and pleasure riding,” says Hendrick. Saddlemakers target these riders with comfort for those long hours in the saddle.

Anne Fordyce of Tucker Saddlery says that trail riders 40 and older are defining this market. “They are interested in a good quality product that fits their horse well, and they are really tuned into saddle fit,” she says.

Tucker Saddlery appeals to recreational trail riders with a comfortable suspended ground seat, says Fordyce. Instead of the seat being hard or part of the tree, like a molded plastic tree, it is suspended, almost in a trampoline fashion.”

Tucker adds Gel-Cush, a “nitrogel” cushion to pad the seat even more for mature riders who can no longer sit on firm seats.

You’ll also see some saddles—synthetic or leather—with their skirts lined with closed-cell foam. Adding cushion under the skirts helps absorb shock when the horse jogs or lopes.

Of the Flexlite saddles, Jemelka says, “It’s a two-ply leather that has a broken-in, ready-to-ride feel. That minimizes the strain on the rider’s knees and ankles.”

Saddles also enhance comfort with free movement of stirrup leathers. Forward swing fenders on barrel racing saddles allow the rider to accelerate and turn faster.

Thanks to synthetic gear, flexible designs and creativity, stable operators can buy tack that will not only stand up to years of use, but is easier to take care of and looks great, too.