Thursday, May 26, 2016

Vets, Vaccines and Viruses

When I lived out West, I saw strangles ALOT. I also saw tons of sarcoids, equine warts, and other equine diseases and ailments. Perhaps it's because everyone I knew owned several horses. Some people owned whole herds and would refer to their horses in numbers rather than by name. (You know when someone asks how many head of horses you have, chances are they have more than just a few themselves.)

Horses are herd animals and, like people, they spread infectious diseases quite easily because they enjoy living in close proximity to each other. In equine dense states like Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, nose-to-nose contact between barbed wire fences, participation in events like jackpot ropings and rodeos, and other shin digs all increase the likelihood of regional outbreaks. Just the sheer number of horses on one ranch alone can make the numbers seem alarming to those not familiar with horse keeping in that particular region. Many of my own tiny herd have either been exposed to or had an equine infectious disease at one point or another. This is true because, like some other horses in Oklahoma, they were pulled off a range where they lived with many other horses before I bought them. Here they were exposed to bovine viruses (which is linked to sarcoids), strangles and other infections.  Once I purchased them, having a health certificate before they traveled was State law and a big part of why I wasn't losing sleep over those nasty infectious diseases.  A licensed vet told me they were good to go. More on this in a minute.

Here, in Maine, we have a growing horse population. And, for the most part, our horses live vastly different lifestyles. In general, we don't have thousands of acres of pasture for big breeding operations, nor do we usually have more than a dozen of horses at one location. We tend to buy from outside sources rather than breed (although that does happen).  Furthermore, most of our horses have been handled and seen by a vet before the age of two. Outbreaks, when they do happen, seem a bit more isolated but, that also means the source of the disease may be a bit harder to nail down. While that in of itself seems like a scary thing, knowing that we're not helpless to mitigate the risks with information can give us peace of mind.

First, seek information about vaccinations and equine infectious diseases whether your an expert horseman or woman, or a total green-horn.  Things change, science is cool like that, and keeping up to date on the latest research is fun. Think of it as cowboy or cowgirl street cred.  We try to revist the issue early Spring before vaccination time.  As tack store owners, we're lucky because we get bulletins from suppliers, supplement companies and industry publications. But, there are at least 3 really great sources we always rely on who are more than willing to share their knowledge and help everyone out in this regard.

1) First, and foremost, the best source of information is your veterinarian. Vets are the people in the trenches going on farm calls dealing with running noses, temperatures, and general equine malaise.  They are obligated to report equine infectious diseases to the State for a variety of reasons.  Suffice it to say, these people will have the skinny on what's a concern and what's not and they can rule out ailments like the dreaded, OMG I'm a Worry Wart Virus which my horse Star seems to contract at least once a year.

2) If you want to read about equine infectious diseases that are indigenous or invasive to your particular area, there's no better source than your local University Extension Office. Here's a link to UMaine's Extension Office Publications Catalog. There's a whole lot of reading material there.  This is also a great site for any other agricultural issue you might want more information about. And, it's all free! How cool is that? 

As an example, this is the type of information the University Extension Office offers to the public.  (We've pulled out Strangles because that's been a topic of concern this week.) 

Bulletin #1009, Facts on Strangles (Streptococcus Equi) Infections in Horses.  

This means there's probably 1008 other publications for you to peruse in your free time, too. In each bulletin is important information in easy to read format, like this.  "Strangles is a reportable disease in Maine, your veterinarian is obligated to report any confirmed cases to the state veterinarian" (UMaine, Bulletin #1009). So, this tells us, if you're really worried, you pick up the phone and call your local vet's office to have your horse seen. Those sniffles could be nothing.  But, he or she is in the best position to help you out and if it is something, they'll be reporting it to the proper authorities to ensure it doesn't get out of hand. 

3) And, lastly, there are plenty of great sources on the internet if you know where to look. (Just be sure they are trusted sites and not a message board or blog...ahem.) This particular link is great because "[t]he communication system is designed to seek and report real time information about disease outbreaks similar to how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts the human population about diseases in people" (EDCC, web).  Incidentally, this site also lists your State Veterinary Office. (Just click on your state to get the info!)  Click on the "diseases" page to get links to all the possible equine diseases that are tracked there.

Northern Tack wanted to know how horse owners in Washington County could mitigate the risks of equine infectious diseases and be prepared for outbreaks and so we reached out to Maine's State Veterinarian, Michele Walsh.  One of the things she stressed was how important it was to use the resources we already have available (outlined above) especially your vet. "There are good vaccines available that will protect your horses from infectious diseases.  Your vet can administer them now ahead of the higher risk mosquito season".  She explained how vaccinating early was one of the best prevention methods available. She went to say that it could mean the difference between a sick horse and a healthy one when diseases find themselves tracking north to our neck of the woods. Many of these things are completely preventable! 

She also explained the process of reporting infectious diseases to the State.  Here's a link to the types of diseases that, by law, must be reported.

There are two types of reporting--immediate and monthly--under the equine section.  Diseases like Strangles fall under the monthly reporting.

Monthly Reporting
Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis
Potomac Horse Fever

Immediate Reporting
Contagious Equine Metritis
Eastern/Western Equine Encephalitis
Equine Herpes Myeloencephalitis
Equine Infectious Anemia
Equine Piroplasmosis
Equine Viral Arteritis
Vesicular Stomatitis
West Nile Virus

This alone should make you feel a little better because one of the State Veterinarian's missions is to "prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious and parasitic disease among poultry and livestock, especially those diseases transmitted to humans, directly or indirectly" ( By monitoring the diseases and working collaboratively with our local vets, they're able to keep a watchful eye on the current state of illnesses and future or potential outbreaks, too.   So, your local vet really has access to all this information and knows what's going on and they'll be the one that lets you know if you need to quarantine your horse. 

She also emphasized the importance of knowing your animal's health history before you bring it home.  "When you purchase a new horse, you should know your horse's history and request a health certificate".   

This makes perfect sense. When we bought our horses, we insisted on it.  We wouldn't think of buying one without a current health certificate.  This ensures that a licensed veterinarian has thoroughly checked out our lifelong commitment.  In fact, depending on why you're buying a horse, Northern Tack would also recommend leg x-rays if you plan on riding.  It's important to understand that unfortunately some horses are sold at auction due to illness and injury and they find their way into the domestic horse market.  This means a horse can be sound looking without actually being sound (or safe) to ride.  Leg x-rays will tip you off to old injuries that can be problematic in the future or reiterate what a great deal you've just come across!  Horses can also be carriers or have compromised immune systems due to underlying health issues.  Health certificates work to minimize the chances you'll be dealing with that.  Some vets refer to this as a "pre-purchase exam". Ask your vet about it, you'll be really glad you did. 

And, because we know you like reading, this is a great source for questions to ask before you buy your next horse from our friends at University of Connecticut's Extension Office. Again, notice the part about vaccines?

Lastly, when we brought our new horses home, we kept them in a separate round pen away from the other horses for 30 days. Even with health certificates, we recognized there might be something that hasn't reared it's ugly head yet. (Excuse the bad pun).  By doing this, we limited exposure of the potential ailment to the rest of the gang.  Being mindful of potential issues, is one reason that I wouldn't be in a big hurry to rush my new purchase out to an event where other horses are congregating either.  This is why most organizations require health certificates and/or coggins papers and/or vaccination records in order for horses to participate.  This is a good thing for the protection of all the horses in the area.  And, again, you can get the low down (and paperwork) from your vet.

So, the bottom line is to call your vet, especially if your horse is showing symptoms. But, if not, call him or her anyway to schedule a time to get vaccinated.  And, if you're buying a new one, be sure to get a health certificate FIRST no matter where you get it from.  Quarantining them for a period of time is a good idea, too. Don't be afraid to reach out to others who are more experienced for additional information and, did we mention to call your vet?  Take a look at ours.  Now, who wouldn't want this guy to showing up with sharp pointy objects?  (Yes, this is Dr. Ron Miles from Foxcroft Veterinary Services.)

Friday, January 29, 2016

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hackamore or Bosal? And What’s the Difference Anyway?

I’ll Take Bits & Rigs for $500, Alex.  

What is a Hackamore

Geography and custom and other outside influences play a significant roll in the nomenclature of tack or equipment. For the purpose of this post, we’re not going to use the word nomenclature again, besides, most of us just want to know what to call it. Instead we’re going to focus on Western Tack. But, we’re sure the English riding world has it’s share of anomalies as well and would love for someone to share with us what some of those are.

We’ve spoken about the history of tack before on our blog. And, we know that much of the common Western tack of today has evolved out of, or derived from the Spanish Conquistadors and the early Vaqueros of the 1700’s and 1800’s. I hesitate to use the word “evolved” simply because some of today’s tack is just a shadow of it’s former self and it’s not always changing for the better. Of course, there are exceptions, and it’s not going out on a limb to say that “they just don’t make ‘em like they use to”.

As for the topic at hand. These are some examples of equine equipment that were born out of necessity (working cattle) years and years ago and the common names used today.

Espuela is Spanish for “spur”. The word spur isn’t exactly English. The early cowboy crowd “co-opted” the word and shortened it. It’s simply “slang” for Espuela. Same thing with the word Cincha. (I still say Cincha. I like being the odd man out). Most people say cinch or girth. (Girth is actually a different piece of equipment. It’s English).

Here’s a cute 5 minute video that will help clarify the difference between a cinch and a girth.

RiƱones is Spanish for reins. Even the word tack has roots in the Spanish word tachuela.

Here’s a few more.
Brida = Bridle 
Silla de montar = Saddle
Latigo = Latigo 
Estribo = Stirrup
Vaquero = Buckaroo
Jaquima = Hackamore

Freno = Bit This one deserving of a blog of it’s very own. Look for that one soon. wink*

Now, the reason we bring all this up is because there’s always confusion about what terms to use and what particular pieces of tack are referred to. Just like there is confusion when someone calls a young horse under the age four, regardless of it’s gender, a colt. (If it’s a female, it’s a filly. After 4 years of age, it’s a mare.) You have a horse “by" a Stallion and “out" of a mare, not the reverse. There’s no such thing as an “own” grand daughter. It’s simply a grand daughter. Now, there are “own” sons and daughters. Grulla and grullo are the same color. They are just feminine and masculine versions of the word...again, Spanish in origin. Some refer to breast collars as breastplates (breastplate is English, breast collar is Western.). A bridle is a headstall and a bit together. Not just a headstall alone. Regardless, you get the idea. It’s more convoluted than The Matrix.

Back to Hackamores

For hundreds of years now, a hackamore or jaquima has as always represented a rig that consists of a thicker bosal i.e 5/8”, a hanger or headstall, and a mecate (Spanish for rope--usually made out of horse hair). The entire set-up is referred to as the hackamore. The word Bosal is Spanish for only the noseband portion thereof. This in turn, is not to be confused with the Bosalito which references the pencil thin braided rawhide noseband that is worn under the bridle in the two-rein set up. When “most” people see a traditional “hackamore” to avoid confusion, they refer to it as a bosal. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The bosal is the rawhide band that has a heel knot where the mecates are connected.

Now, what difference does the name make? Sometimes preserving tradition is important. but more important still, is understanding the origins of the equipment because that pertains to its proper usage.

If we think of the hackamore as merely the bosal, we lose in that translation, the fact that the hackamore has many parts that work together for a purpose. All it’s pieces working together represent the idea that control is not simply garnered from yanking on that one piece of braided rawhide (bosal) but, rather, control is established with a combination of things that all work together (hackamore) to ensure softness and lightness for that partnership you’re establishing with your young horse.

Hackamore aka jaquima on a young horseIn simplest terms, it’s a means of communication. A responsive system for imparting the riders intentions to the horse with a minimum of cues, ideally. The lighter the cues, the more the rider is rewarded with the animal’s attention and willingness to participate free of the distraction of being annoyed or experiencing pain.

Here’s a great quote from Gwynn Turnbull Weaver describing the process of training the hackamore horse.

“The most valuable contribution the hackamore makes in the training process is the deficiencies it reveals in the rider. Few know or understand this principle. When using the hackamore it is essential that the rider set up his maneuvers correctly and fully support the cues he gives his mount. The rider’s body positioning, weight placement, timing and sensitivity must be correct in order for the hackamore horse to translate those cues.”

The hackamore is the WHOLE setup AND an integral part of that is the system in which it’s used. The bosal is just one piece of equipment needed to achieve that goal within a system.

Now, what of the mechanical hackamore?

The mechanical hackamore has been around since the early 1900’s. Relatively modern when compared to the true hackamore of centuries earlier. The mechanical hackamore is more akin to a bit when we compare the two. The mechanical hackamore does not work with the weight or balance of the reins, but with leverage created across the nose from the length of the shanks. It also creates secondary pressure across the jaw with the use of the curb strap, and on the poll. Obviously, the longer the shanks, the more leverage that is felt across the bridge of the horse’s nose.

Mechanical Hackamore with Short Shanks
The mechanical hackamore has huge stopping power and is the choice of many riders who ride horses that, for one reason or another, cannot be bitted i.e. tongue or mouth deformities, etc. It’s also a choice of many riders who feel the mechanical hackamore is a more gentle alternative to riding with a bit.  While it is bitless, it often can be harsh in the wrong hands.

With most issues of bitting and riding, there are pros and cons to each piece of equipment. You can probably sense my trepidation with mechanical hackamores. With that said, I have seen horses ridden in them that look happy and very well-adjusted. But, things like direct reining and intricate training exercises are not translated easily to a young horse with a mechanical hackamore. I’ll leave it at that.

If this topic has interested you, we suggest you read the book Hackamore Reinsman by Ed Connell. His book is one that every horse owner should read at least once and every horseman should refer to time and time again when they want to go back to the basics. Or just learn a little bit about the history of Western Riding and the more traditional methods of bridle horse training. And, if you’re ever on the game show Jeopardy, you’re sure to answer the Spanish translation category correctly, too!

One of our favorite Ian Tyson songs about the Bridle Horse and the Vaquero Tradition.  Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kibbles & Bits & Bits and Really Good Bits

If you go on, you’ll find out that Kibbles & Bits is a really inadequate choice for your canine bestie’s diet.  It’s a colorful, highly recognizable dog food with tons of commercial air time and great advertising.  It’s full of colorful kibbles but, if you know what’s good for the health of your furry little buddy, you wouldn’t feed him that at all.   

Metal burrs under a microscope
Although horses aren’t eating bits per se,  we ARE putting them in their mouths and they’re a vital part of their well-being when ridden.  Granted, we aren’t talking about a horse foundering from one, but, we are talking about a horse “faltering” through over-bitting, poor bit selecting, bad training, and in some cases, constant pain while being ridden due to substandard design and materials.  Just like a dog’s health would suffer from the long term effects of the artificial colors and flavors of Kibbles & Bits over time, a horse’s well being would suffer from the use of a bad bit as well. Yea, we know the adage, “a bit is only as harsh as the hands that use them”. No argument on that front; however, there is so much more to bitting and horses that must be taken into account when discussing bits that one blanket statement doesn’t quite cover it.  While we don’t possibly have time to cover all the intricacies in this blog post, we can hit on some obvious points that can and do make a difference in your horse’s response and well being when choosing a new bit. 

Most bits you see advertised in droves today are made in either Pakistan, Taiwan, China or other country outside of the USA & Canada .  These bits typically sell in the $20 to $100 range.  Showman, Partrade and Metalab are immediate names that come to mind. They’re worth much less than half of that wholesale.  Most of the price you pay comes from a few main areas:  marketing, advertising and shipping. Even some well branded and respected bit companies like Myler have a handmade division and a division in which they mass produce bits outside the US under the name Production Series Myler.  That’s not to say all factory made bits are bad or Myler bits are a bad choice, but we do think that every good horseman and horsewoman should consider a few things before buying a new bit for their horse and we hope they do.

Today’s most common styles of Western style bits originated from the Vaquero tradition of the old West and many of these bits have remained relatively unchanged.  In fact, when speaking of bit history, there are European bits that are a thousand years old or more that are still considered well designed and could be used today if you were lucky enough to own one of these historic pieces.

The fact is many of today’s bits are mere shadows of their former selves.  While bit mouthpieces haven’t changed significantly over the years in design and function, the alloys and processes used to mass produce them have.  There are only so many areas of pressure that can be affected on a horse such as:  corners of the mouth, palate or roof of the mouth, tongue, bars, and chin & lower jaw (with use of a curb strap), and bridge of the nose in the case of some combo bits.  Where the ball gets dropped most of the time in mass produced bits is in the materials and craftsmanship itself.  Handmade Bit Makers ensure balance and symmetry down to a few thousandth of an inch when making bits by hand.  Factory machined bits can be off by significantly more than that and the differences can go unnoticed by everyone but the horse.  Using substandard materials are far less expensive but, by doing so, these companies can trade quality for larger profits. 

In cheap factory made bits, typically the parts of the bits are cast (in whatever the metal of choice is) and then the parts are assembled (sometimes by hand) like you would see in a piece work plant during the industrial age. In handmade bits, each piece of the bit is made from scratch, heated, polished, refined, and constantly checked for weight, balance, symmetry, etc. Then each individual piece is welded together to ensure a balanced bit that is built specifically for the horse, rider, discipline, etc.  Something to keep in mind is a bit that is only a fraction off a inch off affects how the horse works, feels and responds. 
Factory reproduced bits can lack balance, density, vary in thickness, and the alloys used in production are generally not the top of the line. Sometimes factory machined versions of today’s bits have metal burrs that we can barely feel with our hands. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a big deal but, try rubbing that same bit for an hour or two over the sensitive gums in your own mouth and they’d stick out like sore thumbs over time. When we think about the lack of quality and craftsmanship, we wonder why cheap reproduction bits are sold to any discerning horse owner at all.  We reckon it’s like most things, it’s the advertising, endorsements, and colorful marketing that sells products and not the actual product itself that’s worthy of the price tag and promotion. Let’s just say, we’d rather have one or two great bits than a tack trunk filled with cheaper or useless gimmicky bits that may hurt our horses over the long haul. 


Independent bit and spur makers don’t have an issue with burrs because they’re made 100% by hand rather than by a machining process with lots of moving parts that cause the burrs in the first place.  Here’s a great video by Tom Balding demonstrating just a few of the many steps he takes in making a bit by hand.  Take just a moment and see this craftsman in action. 
To compete in the successful and lucrative production marketplace, overseas bit (and tack) companies have to manufacture and sell thousands of bits every year to stay in business.  And because the costs to manufacture are significantly less than what real bit and spur makers spend, they have more to spend on marketing.  Outside of celebrity endorsements and great advertisements, they go so far as to highlight the potentially negative aspects of some bits as a good reason to buy them.  They do things like tout “lightweight”  as a benefit, even though most horsemen and women will tell you that a good bit should be substantial and well, be sort of on the heavier side.  The bit is a communication device, meant to telegraph signal--in the case of some equine sports--the slightest of signals.  This simply cannot be done with a flimsy piece of metal that bounces around from just the weight of the reins at a trot. They’ll also claim that their particular bit is made from the “finest materials”.  At the end of the day, the finest of a cheap metal alloy is still a cheap metal alloy.  Sadly, they don’t have to qualify these statements unless you ask. Even then, they’ll tap dance around the issue and claim their bits are just great.  We learned alot about this song and dance routine when we started shopping for bits to carry in our store.  One of the things we were adamant about was the quality of the bits we were carrying.  Sales reps acted shocked each and every time we asked these simple questions.  Where was the bit made?  What is the bit made out of? What guarantees do you carry on your products? Most company reps had to put us on hold to find out, and what that tells us, is that alot of tack stores aren’t even asking these questions.

We know it sounds complicated but the honest to goodness bit makers will look at their designs and see where the bit seeks gravity and if it’s consistent with what type of signal the rider is hoping to achieve.  This is where the disbursement of weight, over the particular pressure point, is vital to construction.  In replicas, this is not even a small consideration.  It can look like the original and not be anywhere near the original in terms of construction and performance. Think about how that would affect your horse and if you would know why your horse wasn’t responding in the manner you had hoped for.  Form & function.  

Price vs. value.

These companies copy the styles made popular by famous bits and spur makers like E. Garcia, Al Tietjen, Greg Darnell, Ernie Marsh, Fleming, Field Family Bits and Spurs, just to name a few. And to further confuse the buyer, they name them after the original maker with just a few minor modifications.  Knock-offs are rampant in the tack industry. Hint:  If it has a famous maker’s name on the tag, look at where it’s made.  If it’s not made in that maker’s hometown, we’d be suspect of the quality.Another sales ‘tactic” is the prominent use of flashy low content silver on the shanks as a distraction, claiming “real silver” as an another benefit and selling point.  Real bit and spur makers wouldn’t be caught dead using these materials but, since there aren’t a lot of feet being put to the fire on this by horse tack aficionados, they get away with using machine etched, rough-to-the-touch silver-ish stuff that’s got silver in it somewhere.   Hint:  Real silver bits cost hundreds of dollars.  You cannot buy new real silver bits for $89.99.  

Finally, marketing has mislead an entire population of horse owners into thinking that a good bit is a substitute for good training.  Perhaps our biggest pet peeve against many of today’s bit manufacturers.  Good finished bridle horses that can spin on a dime, supple and collect like a slinky, and respond with the most delicate touch didn’t get that way from just a good bit.  And we don’t care what equine sport you’re involved in, every horse deserves at least a chance of being trained properly with patience and skill so, they can enjoy competing without getting their gums ripped out.  In fact, we cringe every time we see ads by paid celebrities advocating this bit or that bit without stressing the importance of lots and lots of training first--training that has been incremental over the years and without holes. Just for example, if you don’t know how to make your horse counter bend and arc on a circle and perform simple lateral movements or if you don’t know where the pressure is being applied by the bit you have now, you really and truly have no business using a shanked bit at all.  Escalating up in bit severity without the horse understanding what is being asked of it first (or the rider knowing how to use it) can be quite cruel so, we can’t stress the importance of seeking out good trainers before you decide that you need to put a harsher bit in your horse’s mouth. 

Price vs. Value

Handmade bits are pricey.  Make no mistake about that.  Someone’s time is just as valuable as yours and no one is going to spend time fashioning a functional piece of equipment with expensive materials for less than what they have into it.  Handmade bits can go into the thousands of dollars depending on who made it.  In these cases, you’re paying for a piece of history and in most cases a work of art as well.  Even good using bits with age appreciate over time unlike the mass produced bits which aren’t worth a fraction of their cost after you leave the tack store so, like handcrafted saddles, they truly are an excellent value and investment. 

That’s not to say you can’t buy a nice handmade bit for under a few hundred dollars.  You can.  There are also some bit companies who sell production bits that are a step up from the junk ones. We’re not knocking all mass produced bits here.  However, we want you to know they really aren’t in the ball park, in terms of quality, when compared to handmade bits. We carry a few handmade lines and absolutely would not trade them for a bigger profit margin. These quality bits are popular with working cowboys and performance riders alike because they’re well made and yet still affordable for most. You can get decent production bits in the $80 to $150 range--just a mere $20 -$50 more than the mass produced ones from Taiwan and Pakistan. Granted they’re quite plain for that price, but, again, what’s important to you as a horseman or horsewoman? 

Knowing they’re out there and finding either good bits and good information is quite another thing. Good information comes from tack connoisseurs who are willing to advocate on all fronts--horse, rider, and for the livelihoods of the craftspeople who adapt and guide the tradition of horsemanship. These you can find yourself online, in blogs and chatrooms as long as you vet the information you are offered.  We advocate for doing your own research and buying from reputable companies that can assist you in your specific needs.  

Herein lies another problem in that not all tack stores carry all bits, nor are they all educated in either horsemanship, craftsmanship or both.  Many make their retail selections based on brand recognition, marketing or profitability. And that’s ok, too, we just advocate you know the difference.  

We feel comfortable selling fewer brands of bits for these reasons.  This way, we can be sure they are crafted to a standard and the makers will stand behind their product.  We know this will make a difference in how your horse responds to the bit.  We also know that the entire horse-rider experience will be enhanced because if a horse is used to the perturbation of a poorly constructed bit, the design and balance of a hand-crafted one will be evident almost immediately.  We know that the value of these bits will only increase over time and if you needed to sell it, you’ll be able to recoup your money and then some depending on how long you’ve had it and how well you’ve kept it. And if our customers are able to see this for themselves, they’ll be back time and time again.

Another consideration is tack stores that deal directly with the makers, can help you select the mouthpiece, shank and alloy that works best for the type of riding you do. You’ll find that some tack stores will provide this service without batting an eye unlike most big box stores with imported run-of-the mill bits.  And if you want a one-of-a-kind heirloom piece, you won’t have to worry about knock-offs.

We think it’s a good idea to seek out tack stores that will act as an advocate for you and your horse.  Ask questions of your tack store owner regarding where they purchase their bits, what kinds of warranties they carry and if they meet the same standards you’ve come to know is important for your horse’s health.  Heck, these are questions the bit company themselves should be able to easily answer, too. If they can’t, you may want to reconsider them as a choice.

There are lots of businesses that still stand behind what they sell and only want to sell the best the market has to offer.  It’s true, sometimes they are a little pricier choice but, price vs. value should always be your number 1 concern when making sound investments.  And if you find yourself drawn into the cute Kibbles & Bits commercials, enjoy the great advertising, but remember it’s just advertising and there’s always a “bit” of cost associated with that.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Price vs. Value and the Marketing Monster in the Room

Price vs. value.

Most of us aren’t just addicted to spending time with our friends of the equine variety, we’re also addicted to outfitting them (and us) with the latest, greatest in leather goods. From headstalls to saddles, we're always wanting that buttery soft yet durable, and beautiful piece of tack.  Trouble is, all tack isn’t created equal, and well, our pocketbooks often don’t match our taste.  So we rush out and buy things that most closely match what our urges are telling us we need.  We’re junkies, really.  

My first saddle was a black, stamped Made in Mexico (with black ink under the fender) trail saddle.  The epitome of poorly made.  It was fairly plain with just a little basket weave stamping on the skirt and fenders and it was all stapled together with cheap, thin staples. 

The leather, and I use that term “loosely”, was stiff and cardboard-y. I paid $200 for it at a yard sale.  That was the ‘cost’ to me. At the time I was thrilled.  I was also very, very uneducated about saddles.  Looking back, I can’t believe I bought it and, to add insult to injury, I overpaid.  That was the overall ‘value’ I paid my hard to come-by monies for.

I rode in it about three times when the fender fell off.  The entire fender. Because they were nailed on, I couldn’t put the fender back on where it had originally been since the tree was plastic and the holes would no longer accommodate the same size nails.  So I rode like Jerry Lewis until my next fiasco. Which, incidentally, didn’t take long.

Just a couple weeks later, I lost a stirrup while I was riding. This added insult to injury exacerbating my already suffering form in the saddle.  Now I looked like a New England salsa salesman with one leg longer than the other.  Suffice it to say, I wasn’t happy and my mare liked it even less than I did.  I knew better and I bought it anyway because I wanted to ride and $200 was all I had. 

Price vs. value.

The fact that I ignored everything I had learned from a lot from people who truly knew the difference between good saddles and bad--working cattlemen and women, aka “hands” bugged me the most. They had “using” saddles.  A term that meant you could use it daily and it would hold up to the abuse of living in it for 8 hours a day 365 days a year.  

Price vs. value.

They scoffed at saddle manufacturers and admired makers.  A true maker’s mark means something to cowpunchers. It means someone stands behind (is proud of) what they’ve made. Every commercial brand I would run by them, was followed by a either an eruption of laughter or a stern talking to.  But, how in tarnation (another term I learned from the likes of those punchy folks) was I going to find a GOOD hand-crafted saddle that would work for me and my horse that I could afford?

The answer was the same from all of them, “Save your money till you can afford one that’s worth buying...” 

Price vs. value.

So how was I to know if a saddle was worth buying? I listened, I asked a lot of questions and what I learned was the basics of Saddle Making 101.  Something I direly needed.  And this is what I learned. 

 The Tree.
The saddle tree is the foundation on which the saddle is built and a cornerstone of the value of my new saddle for which I intend to spend my said hard-earned cash.  Period. 

“Using" saddles are built with either hand-carved “trees”, or a higher end tree from a reputable saddle tree company as the core.  The craftsman of the tree goes to painstaking detail to ensure that it’s balanced, weighted and carved in such a manner than both the horse and the rider can go all day without worry it would make either sore from use. They can be customized down to the degree of angle on the bars, the twist, or the rock.  And, they’re [using saddle trees] rugged, carved out of southern yellow pine wrapped in either rawhide or fiberglass and coated with shellac to strengthen it further. 

Here’s a great link of a saddle tree being made:

This is an awesome commentary by Ed Steele of Steele Trees (one of my personal favorites) where he discusses the general decline of saddle tree quality over the years and how his family’s philosophy has made them one of the premiere tree companies today.  An excellent read for those of you who want to hear about where a saddle’s value comes from, straight from the horses mouth, so to speak.

The cost of saddles trees vary considerably; however, the information about them is readily available should you choose to seek it out. 

This information is essential when deciding the value of a saddle.  And like anything, the single most important variable to empower a buyer to make a choice that they’ll be happy with is information that informs their understanding of that ever important distinction between what something costs to buy, and it’s actual value.

Price vs. value.
The Costs.
Here are some links so you can see the various kinds and price ranges.

The base price of a hand carved saddle tree is in the $500-$800 range and up. 

Machine made wooden trees and composite (not wood) trees are considerably lower.  $20-$300

The Leather.
The part many lay people focus on, the leather.  Oh boy, the leather...  The leather in a great saddle is cut only from the “prime” areas, like the shoulders, to ensure the same consistency, thickness, and strength throughout.  Specifically, the prime areas are much more costly to use and, therefore, are one measure of cost cutting for the manufacturer.  The lesson here is not all leather is created equally.  Not all leather used is either good quality or the right leather for the job with the end result being poor quality, uneven wear or worse still, downright failure after little use.

Price vs. value.

How supple leather is achieved is by lots of hand rubbing, elbow grease, etc.  Some saddle manufacturers will use any part of the hide hoping the buyer believes leather is leather.  This is NOT good news for a buyer.  If the manufacturers uses, let’s say the belly leathers, you will soon find out that belly leather tends to stretch out of shape more quickly allowing for distortion in the shape or design.  
Not desirable.  

I’ll spare you the thought put into leather quality by the maker  concerning the different types of tanning processes.  But will share with you one example of how the makers choices make a difference in the finished product. 

Leather, like other natural materials, has a natural grain pattern to it.  When selecting patterns out of the hide, the cutter can either use the grain and thickness to bolster the balance, quality and feel of the particular saddle in mind or, the cutter can try to get the most pieces out of the hide. When manufacturers do this they minimize the use of materials keeping expenses down while increasing profitability by lowering the selling price. 

Saddle Maker Dale Harwood

In a good saddle, stitching is recessed so that the wear caused from the horse and rider won’t rub the stitching and cause it to fray or fall out.  The life expectancy of the saddle will be drastically reduced if the stitching fails. 

The rigging is handcrafted of good quality metals, tempered, guaranteed-tensile-strength-tested and fashioned to the saddle with high density rivets.  

The seat, padded with a quality foam or other material, is attached down a perfect center line so the rider’s position and the horse’s comfort is never compromised. The stitching is even, tight, and well done to the point that it stays secure for the life of the saddle.  No movement of leather over the material underneath is the goal.

The tooling is hand done so that it’s deep and remains visible with wear and tear.  On a lower priced saddle the tooling is used, in part, to cover up the imperfections in the leather that you get from low grade hides. 

The underside is covered with sheepskin (that won’t break down) or other materials of similar quality and durability.  And the application is such where you can’t see glue oozing out the edges or uneven thicknesses in the fleece.

"These details matter. Especially when it comes time to resell your saddle."

In a good saddle, the silver is real.  In a bad saddle, the silver is plated or even just colored.  You may think that’s just a decorative thing, but the metal work isn’t just ‘metal work’ and the International Guild of Bit and Spur Makers would be happy to take that up with anyone who disagrees.  Matter of fact, there is sooo much to this topic and the craft of metal work, that we’ve decided it deserves only the mention here. Due to the depth and complexity of the work involved in bit and spur making, as well as conchos and dressing, that it’s a topic we’ll have to come back to in order to fully give credit to these craftsmen/ artisans.

But for the purpose of this article, suffice it to say all of these things lend to the overall value of your saddle. Think about what type of saddle you’d like yours to be 5 years from now and consider the more substantial aspects like how the leather is attached to the tree?  What types of glues are being used?  What types of hardware are being used, etc? There are so many, many ways for manufacturers (and makers) to cut corners.

Ok.  I think we have established that quality over quantity is the way to go for a myriad of reasons.  What we haven’t discussed yet, is how all of this affects you.  

Saddles are investments.  Think of them like cars.  They depreciate and appreciate quickly.  Most lose their value the very second they get put on the horse’s back--just like most cars when they’re driven off the lot unless, the car is a classic in the making, or something just downright special.  In which case, they're financial investments as well.

Just like old saddles, there are some old cars that just aren’t worth keeping, let alone restoring for antiquity's sake.  Face it, a Yugo is no GTO and Detroit would be happy to explain the difference in design and construction involved. 

Price vs. value. 

Now, for example, you decide you want to take the sport of Western Pleasure for a whirl.  If you want to compete, you have to have a saddle specific to the discipline.  So you buy a new but inexpensive factory show saddle for $600.  After about two years, you can expect that the going market price of that saddle is going to be roughly $300-$350 even if you keep it in pristine condition.  If it shows considerable wear and tear, the price is further reduced. After 5 or 6 years, the saddle will have to be replaced because the silver has flaked off, the leather has cracked, the rivets and glue have weakened or have started to come undone, etc. and it’s worth about $100 -$150, if you’re lucky.

Conversely, you could buy an older (but in great condition), used saddle for about $1000.  And after a couple of years, and again if you take care of it, you can expect that the cost at resale of that saddle is going to be roughly $900.  Pretty much what you paid for it, and a considerably cheap “rental” for your foray into Western Pleasure.  After several more years, and if you continue to keep it in "like new to you" condition, you can expect that same saddle to be worth a little more than you paid for it initially. 

Even if a more expensive/hand made saddle shows some wear and tear, it’ll still depreciate at a much slower rate than the inexpensive one. And the reason is, the quality of materials and construction is much better to begin with.  What’s more, the life of the saddle, with proper care, will be generational.  They become family heirlooms. Shocking when the initial investment was roughly $400 more than the lower priced saddle with some footwork.  All things considered, if I had this same information at the time I was succumbing to the impulse of buying my first saddle, I would still have a saddle today that I could ride in and would be happy with.  

Bottom line is some good saddles actually appreciate over time! Anyone who spends any time perusing used saddles and new saddle prices will see which makers and manufacturers saddles maintain their value and which do not.  Sometimes it’s down to quality, sometimes rarity, and other times it's simply demand for a particular style or design. A fad.  But keep in mind, when it comes to salability, fads do fade and camo or worn zebra may not be desirable 10, or even 5 years from now.

The above is just a sample value comparison on the “cost” of the saddle itself.  Don’t rush to judgement and think I’m trying to push selling super expensive saddles or just used saddles. That is simply not the case.  What we advocate is the old adage that you get what you pay for and sometimes a good quality used saddle is better than a new one that isn’t worth a hill of beans when you’re on a limited budget.  Another course of action, that makes perfect sense, is to wait till you can afford the “right" new saddle. Which brings me to the next buyer beware tidbit--hidden costs. 

Hidden Costs.
Outside of quick depreciation, what other costs would you have to worry about? Like my $200 Mexican Made lesson, I lost more than the initial two Benjamins.  I lost riding time, I didn’t have anything left to sell when it was all said and done, and the biggest drawback was that I could have hurt my horse or worse yet, me in the process. I’ll let you chew on that last one for a while. 

Chances are good that an inexpensive factory saddle is made on a tree that sores the horse over time.  Equine chiropractors make a living correcting alignment issues caused by ill-fitting saddles.  What’s a good equine chiropractor run these days? That’s not to say that a more expensive saddle can’t also cause saddle fit issues; however, it’s much more prevalent in cases where the rider has purchased a lesser quality saddle without doing due diligence. In fact, many corporate retailers purchase factory “seconds” and offer them at too-good-to-be-true prices to the end user.  Major online retailers rely on these sorts of “specials” when people are price comparison shopping. These seconds may appear sound on the outside, but on the inside that “foundation” is twisted or off a few degrees on one side.  Unfortunately, there isn’t an agency out there monitoring this deceptive practice and the industry suffers as a whole.  

Even smaller tack stores can fall prey to profit margins. Reputable tack stores will ask lots of questions of the consumer, help point them in the direction of sound investments and will often try to dissuade customers from purchasing lower quality saddles and tack. The best profits come from the cheapest tack, it can be a very difficult choice for some. With higher end saddles especially, more of your hard earned money goes towards the actual product, where with a more commercial lower end product, profits gets eaten up with middlemen. (More on this in the next blog.)

Finally, good trainers will be quick to say that poor saddle fit is one of the primary reasons for behavioral issues under saddle. The uninformed horse owner struggles with spending countless time , energy and monies trying to correct what they just can’t put their finger on. Remember time is money as well, especially to a horse trainer that charges by the hour. If you find training for less than $500 a month.  Run. (Again, another blog!)

On the extreme end, some frustrated owners resort to buying a new horse because they truly believe it’s the horse and not the saddle causing their headaches.  How much does a new horse cost? 

Price vs. value. 

If you’re reading this and are feeling a little guilty for not doing more research before your last saddle purchase, don’t fret. It’s not entirely your fault.  You’ve been bombarded with compelling advertising, flashy tooling, awesome “specials” and ringing endorsements by paid big name trainers and celebrity horsemen. 

Furthermore, manufactures have co opted the styles, appearance and even the language of the Makers in describing their craft and the pride they take in their decades (and in some cases centuries) of craftsmanship, but without any of that pesky quality construction that cuts deep into corporate profits and sales. 

They’ve bought out the makers’ names, brand, and style yet, don’t always have a deep pride in the product they produce.  That’s why, as a tack store owner, we often hear of people swearing by certain brands as they come saddle shopping.  These good intentioned shoppers aren’t realizing that over time, those brands are nothing more than a name’s sake.  The industry changes quickly and what was once an awesome saddle can now be merely a shadow of it’s former self.  

More surprising still, is that if you scour the saddle maker world, you will even come across certain Mom & Pop saddle makers capitalizing on the “handmade” mantra and, like the big corporations that have cut costs, have gone on to using cheaper trees, cheaper hides, etc. in order to increase their profit margin.  Just when you though buying a saddle couldn’t get any riskier... There you have it!  Although it is less likely here.

In our next installment, we’ll expound more on Price vs. value by further discussing saddle making costs vs. marketing costs and hopefully help you navigate the complex world of saddle sales before you buy that next saddle.  After all there’s a big difference between a $200 Made in Mexico saddle and a Vintage 20th-Century Mexican Charro saddle, or even YOUR next saddle.  :)  

20th-Century Mexican Charro Saddle

APPRAISED VALUE: $6,000 to $8,000

To Be Continued. 

Ta da!
 Feel free to share with your friends, too. 
Don’t say we never did anything for you. ;) 
Happy New Year’s and while we’re at it.... Never slap a man who’s chewing tobacco, don’t drink upstream from the herd, don’t drive black cattle in the dark, and don’t squat with your spurs on.
You get the picture.  

Visit our online store to learn more about Saddles and to check out our custom HAND MADE bear trap barrel saddles. 

Happy New Year’s!  Now off to hit the Kansas Sheep Dip. : )