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. : )