Tack and Equipment: Gearing Up
- Jun 1, 2009
One wonderful aspect of being a horse owner or enthusiast is the variety of available equipment--generally innovative, cool stuff--to use under saddle or in the stable. Exciting innovations in recent years have lent safety, comfort, and practicality to our horse adventures.
Bev Harrison is a master saddler and owner of The Tack Collection, a full-service equestrian tack store in Lafayette, Colo. She sagely comments, "Whoever wrote the saying, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same,' may well have been describing horse equipment. Given the vast number of years humans have been putting equipment on horses to gain control and provide personal comfort, it's not surprising that many of the 'new' gizmos can be traced back to earlier versions with some minor variations. However, there is a difference --that of a relatively new focus on the comfort and well-being of the horses and also on rider safety ... concern for our horses has prompted physiological and mechanical research using new, superior materials or traditional materials used in new ways."
Blankets and Sheets
Whether used for warmth or cooling, horse blankets and sheets traditionally have been made of cotton, canvas, durable fabrics like Cordura, and/or water-repellent materials, and lined with wool, felt, Polarfleece, or polyester. Harrison notes, "We now expect blankets to be waterproof and breathable with an assortment of choices in denier (a unit of weight expressing the size or coarseness of a natural or synthetic fiber or yarn--so, essentially, a gauge of thickness) of the fabric. There are also more choices of design that fine-tune the fit for different breeds." One example is a blanket designed to accommodate withers of big-shouldered breeds to reduce rubbing.
Harrison is excited about an innovative sheet (Moxie) on the market made from bamboo pulp fibers. She explains, "Bamboo as a fabric source is just entering the market for sports and casual apparel. It is known for its softness, ability to wick away moisture without that 'clammy' feel, perfect for using after a soggy workout. It is also a 'green' material, in that bamboo is a renewable resource."
This same company has developed an ultraviolet (UV)-protection scrim (fly) sheet. Harrison reports, "The scrim not only cuts down the ultraviolet rays, but significantly reduces heat from the sun's rays. It works--I tried it on myself during a toasty 105ï¿½F horse show!"
Jill Talbot is owner of Boulder Horse & Rider, a Colorado-based retail store. She says, "One of the newest hot-selling items in fly sheets (Horseware Ireland and Bucas) and fly masks is impregnated with Buzz Off Insect (Shield), effective at repelling insects for up to 28 washings." There are also masks made to cover the noses of photosensitive horses, and the ears of horses sensitive to flies and gnats. A riding mask (Cashel) is also available, which Talbot explains is lighter than a pasture mask, impairs the horse's vision less, and has softer material over the ears. Many companies also make leg guards of mosquito netting material.
Saddle pads come in a variety of materials, colors, and shapes designed for specific equestrian disciplines. Harrison reports, "The vast number of therapeutic saddle pads range from updated versions of sheepskin, with its undeniable virtues, to high-tech shock-absorbing materials. One company (Professional's Choice) has joined the two materials, with high-quality sheepskin contacting the horse's back and a shock-absorbing layer between sheepskin and saddle."
Another popular pad is made by Supracor, using a shock-dispersing material native to the medical and aerospace industries. The Stimulite Honeycomb material provides proper ventilation and is designed to distribute load uniformly, protecting horses from effects of less-than-perfect saddle fit and rider impact.
Randy and Cheryl Winter, owners of Max Tack Equestrian Products in Longmont, Colo., say that even though the manufacturer reinforced the withers area of the pad recently to counteract saddle impact, durable Supracor, like most other materials does not hold up indefinitely. Check this area periodically for signs of breakdown.
Harrison is well-versed in English saddle fit, certified as a "qualified saddle fitter" by the Society of Master Saddlers in England. She says, "In both English and Western gear, innovations in saddles have included saddles with no trees or underlying 'skeletal structures' or trees with air panels."
She says time will tell whether these features will be successful enough to influence future designs and explains further, "Some English saddles allow the angle of the tree points to be changed so a saddle can be refit to a horse that has undergone changes (width, as with fitness) in its topline, or to refit a saddle to a different horse."
Another manufacturer (Jeffries) has developed a jumping saddle that retains a wood spring tree with an added thin--but dense--layer of the Supracor honeycomb material sandwiched between the tree and the underlying panel, which is designed to mold to the horse's back.
Many of Talbot's clientele focus on recreational and competitive trail pursuits, and she has found that the philosophy of "less is better" is well-suited to saddle purchase. No matter the style, a saddle that is lightweight (less than 22 pounds) relieves some burden for the horse.
Girths and Cinches
Girths and cinches are made of leather, fleece, mohair, cotton string, and/or neoprene. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The Winters note that neoprene does not collect grit, is easy to clean with water, and, although some are concerned about it trapping heat, this isn't really an issue due to the girth's small surface area.
Talbot notes that wool wicks moisture away and holds up better than many other materials, and synthetic fleece provides cushion and is readily machine washable. Select a girth or cinch material through trial and error, tailoring it to your specific horse's needs, she suggests.
Extra padding, rounded and seamless edges, "anatomical" girths that avoid bruising at the sternum and rubbing at the elbow, and roller buckles are features that are more comfortable for the horse and often extend the life of tack.
Bridles and Bits
Harrison says that many bridle makers are accommodating consumer desires for a padded crown and cavesson: "They have gone that extra step in cutting back the crown of the bridle to eliminate pressure on the back of the horse's ears. While useful for snaffle bridles, this design plays an added important role for bits of increased weight." Cavesons or nosebands are available wider and with more padding, both along the bridge of the nose and also along the jaw, minimizing pressure over the bony structures of the nose.
Biothane bridles are made of a polyurethane-coated (or polyvinyl-coated) polyester webbing or a similar webbed material. These items, which come in a variety of colors, are easily cleaned with a quick dunk in a bucket or in the dishwasher or washing machine. Oiling, disintegration, stiffness, and cracking aren't issues, and the Winters note the material is long-lasting and strong. Snaps allow for quick attachment or release.
Bits range from the inexpensive, general purpose kinds to the expensive, well-designed ones. The latter generally include the newest innovations.
Protective Leg Boots
Discipline-specific horse boots are widely available, with materials chosen depending on function (protection or support). "Some newer designs have linings that can be changed out to accommodate different footings," says Harrison, who mentioned a boot (Prestige of Italy) with interchangeable linings, built-in tendon guards, heavy-duty elastic, and a choice of button closure for quick application or buckles for a more traditional, yet secure, closure.
Harrison comments, "A portion of this new boot contains a material that is impregnated with titanium to protect a horse's leg from impact."
For impact sports (i.e., reining, cutting, roping, barrel racing) or distance riding activities, many criteria factor in when selecting leg protection. Look for boots that don't fall or slouch after going through water as some softer neoprene boots do, and find boots that don't attract grit, seeds, cactus spines, or stickers as horses travel over terrain.
Some of the best boots are customizable by length and circumference. Many brands of rear brush boots also have a hard shell over the fetlock joint to deflect a blow and are tear-resistant.
For post-exercise cooling, there are ample traditional ice boots available. The Winters note that one design (Pro-Kold) uses replaceable cold pack inserts that can be stored in the freezer or portable cooler.
They suggest owners wet horses' legs before using ice boots to facilitate cold transfer through the insulation of fur. Another design (Equi-N-icE) doesn't require a refrigerator or freezer--instead, the reusable wrap uses a chemical reaction that causes evaporative cooling, and you can recharge the wrap with a bottle of coolant.
Other innovations, such as the Game Ready system, combine compression and cold as ice water circulates throughout the interior of specially designed leg wraps or a back wrap.
Any owner with shod horses knows that horses lose shoes, sometimes at the most inopportune of times. A hoof boot can often save the day. Review how you plan to use a boot before choosing a style or brand, because there is no perfect multipurpose boot. Study the shape of your horse's feet, as some brands work better on some shapes of hoof. Also, look into user reviews or ask the tack store personnel how difficult it is to apply the boot you're considering, how well it stays on with activity, and whether or not it chafes or rubs.
Practice using the boot, suggests the Winters; they constantly run into people who are unfamiliar with proper application when an emergency arises.
A variety of manufacturers produce synthetic hoof boots that boast a variety of features. Some affix with Velcro, some with buckles or straps, and a new glue-on boot (by EasyCare Inc.) is in development.
One of the greatest obesity-control mechanisms for pastured horses is the grazing muzzle, which fits over the muzzle to reduce grass intake. Some models affix to a halter, while others are built in to a break-away halter for safety.
A list of horse equipment would not be complete without reference to a few horse "toys." The polyethylene Jolly Ball, which won't deflate and has handles for a horse to grab, can entertain stall-bound or paddock-kept horses alike. You can hang Pony Pops, a treat combining minerals, vitamins, and/or electrolytes, on the wall for easy access.
Harrison says that compiling "a complete list of all that is new in the world of tack is as futile as grasping the world of evolving athletic shoes--the market is ever-changing. What is intended in this discussion is to jump-start the reader into finding even more innovations that enhance the experience of horses and their riders."
About the Author
Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.