When it comes to outfitting our horses, there is a big difference between “working tack” and “show tack”. In completing our daily schooling routines, the choice of what tack to use is based almost solely on function over style. In fact, I have some of the same plain leather headstalls, reins and martingales in my arsenal today as I had back when I began this journey at ten years old. A good cleaning and some oil has kept my collection of working tack going strong for years, and I imagine will for years to come.
Show tack, on the other hand, is more expensive and styles tend to come in and out of fashion. Ten years ago, “dark oil” was all the rage, and those few who showed up with “medium oil” or “light oil” saddles and bridles were considered rebels (and sometimes even looked down upon). Silver was less pervasive, and the overall picture was one of slightly embellished class. Times have changed… Saddle skirts are often butterfly or severely square shaped, colors range from dark and light all the way to the occasional black. All of these changes have come with a lofty price; stepping into any saddlery and sidling up to the latest model western show saddle or headstall is enough to give most of us heart palpitations. However, with a few smart decisions and some creative thinking, you can dress your horse for success without spending your last dime.
Think of your show tack as you would think of a good business suit. It’s something that isn’t going to be used on a daily basis, but when it is in use, it makes a statement. There are a lot of products out there that are simply not of good quality. When you purchase something that isn’t good quality, you may get a price break in the beginning, but in the long run you are setting yourself up for repetitive replacement. When looking at silver, for instance, if you purchase some of the less expensive, electroplated items, instead of something that is sterling overlay or the equivalent, you will find that it won’t be long before no amount of polishing will bring out the initial luster, and the surface material will begin to crack, show lines, etc. This is the same for leather…I have several headstalls and reins from “Champion Turf” that are still as soft as they were the day that I purchased them over ten years ago. Some of the brands that I like to keep an eye open for are Broken Horn, Bob’s Custom, Martin, Dale Chavez, Victor, (older) Circle Y, etc. So, don’t get sucked in to those great ads that promise tack dripping with silver at rock bottom prices, because quality tack simply does not come cheap.
Show tack, like a vehicle, loses a certain amount of value the moment that it leaves the saddlery. Luckily, the market for used show tack is extremely competitive and quite vast. So long as you know what brands to look for, and what size tack that you need (especially important for saddles), you can save yourself a lot of money by picking up something that someone else has already taken the initial hit on. For instance, when I was looking for a new reining saddle, I knew that I wanted something from Bob’s Custom, but new saddles cost anywhere from $2500 to over $5000. I took some time and found a saddle in Oregon that was exactly what I wanted for $1600, and a small $25 shipping charge later I had my show saddle. So, keep your eyes open on www.craigslist.org, www.ebay.com, www.tacktrader.com and put out feelers at any local tack shops that take in consignment merchandise. Always remember to exercise caution with any online sale; be smart, ask questions, and request lots of pictures. I have never had a problem purchasing anything using the above methods on the above websites.
Something worth noting… When it comes to show tack, I have found that sometimes the older more “vintage” items that have been well cared for are actually of better quality than new tack of the same brand; Circle Y is a great example of this. Don’t be afraid to buy something that is labeled as “vintage” or that has some mileage on it, because if it was good quality to begin with and has been well cared for, you won’t go wrong. Again, my reining saddle was 9 years old when I purchased it 4 years ago and it still shines like a new penny in the show pen.
Let’s face it, the thing that makes western show tack really pop is the silver. Unfortunately, this is also the thing that makes it expensive. The best tip that I can impart upon you is the idea of purchasing something plain and adding the silver later; you will cut your costs by more than half. Find yourself a good quality saddle without silver that really fits your horse, and then look online for a set of “saddle silver”, that will include corner pieces, conchos, a cantle piece and horn cap, and apply yourself. The same goes for breastcollars and headstalls; find something that is good quality, plain leather and then change out the buckles and conchos and add silver bars to the cheeks and you have something that is show ring ready.
Keep your eyes open on www.ebay.com for “vintage silver” to add to your tack, because the older stuff is usually much better quality and has a higher silver content. Aside from solid sterling silver (which is insanely expensive) the best that you can find is “sterling overlay”; the pieces will be stamped on the back, so makes sure to ask the seller for pictures of these stamps to avoid being sold something that is not as advertised. I try to avoid things that are “electroplated” unless they are extremely high quality, because they won’t take the constant polishing required for the show ring as well as the other options out there.
In the end, just like your show ring wardrobe, your show tack doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg to get you in the ribbons. Always keep time on your side by not making rash or impulsive purchases, and follow the above tips, and your “horse budget” will thank you.