California Riding Magazine • November, 2014

Tack Trends
Comfort and performance enhancement drive trends in slow-to-change world of english tack, except when it comes to bling, bling and more bling!

by Kim F. Miller

KL Select's "threaded" monocrown headstall allows for interchangeable nosebands.

Bridle displays at Mary's Tack & Feed in Del Mar provide a hint at how many choices exist today.

A person re-entering the english equestrian world after a long absence might find that tack looks pretty weird these days. There's headstalls with padding under the crown and curves behind the ears, discreet blinkers that can be affixed to cheek pieces, bridle designs that avoid facial nerves and girths grooved to accommodate shoulder freedom and eliminate rubbing.

And that's not to mention color, embroidery and crystals on everything from browbands to galloping boots, plus an ocean of options when it comes to fit, personal preferences or both. But all are de rigueur these days as even the slow-evolving world of english tack moves along.

"Ergonomic" is the adjective driving trends in performance-oriented tack. It means designing to increase comfort and reduce stress and injury, and it takes into account the horse's anatomy and how bones, muscles and joints move during performance. Ergonomic ideas have driven saddle fit evolution for many years now and that may partly explain consumers' interest in those qualities in the rest of their tack.

Dy'on's Focus blinkers are discreet and they have a big fan in Bright Star Saddlery's Gina Rose.

Olympian Laura Kraut uses space on her horse's ear bonnet to promote sponsor logos.

It's good news for horses because it reflects an increase in thought, technology, testing and knowledge that goes into today's tack design. "The only downside is that it requires a little bit more research on the owner's part," notes Justin Baghai, president of Total Saddle Fit. "There are so many options out there and so many applications to address whatever issues your horse may have." He's speaking about the saddle pads and girths his San Diego company manufactures, but it could easily be said of almost all tack categories. Innovations often arise out of the reality that most tack companies are led or largely staffed by riders. In most cases, "It's people who know horses and are filling the void for something they would want," Justin says.

"The most important trend we see, and it's quite admirable, is toward the comfort of the horse," observes Jill Waterman, general manager of Moorpark-based Dressage Extensions. "With bridles, we are seeing padding on crown pieces and cavesons and ergonomic designs like cutback crown pieces for horses with bigger ears or ears that are set further back."

At Tack Warehouse in the Sacramento area's Woodland, sales consultant Holly Boswell sees the impact of consumers' increasing saddle fit savvy. "People are much better educated about what's going to fit their horses," she reports. Saddles with adjustable trees are increasingly popular, and Tack Warehouse's on-staff, independent saddle fitter is busy. Customers are encouraged to haul their horse to the shop for precise measurements that help them get the best brand, style and size for their horse. Ergonomically shaped girths and saddle pads designed to help improve saddle fit get a lot of interest these days.

Nudging Toward New

At Bright Star Saddlery in the Los Angeles area's Agoura, owner Gina Rose observes that the horse world is generally slow to act on new ideas. She uses the apparel market as an example. "My background is dressage, and for a long time people were talking about brown show coats and bling, but they were still buying the traditional black. It took a long time for people to actually start showing up and buying brown and navy coats." Compared to competitors in the hunter discipline, dressage riders and eventers are positively progressive about adopting new trends. Hunter enthusiasts, Gina notes, "are still very traditional. They want their navy coat, their tan breeches and their Charles Owen – maybe a Sam Shield, helmet, and it's the same with tack."

Dy'on's Difference bridle has a headstall set about four inches back from the poll, for horses who are super sensitive in that area..

Nunn Finer's Figure 8 noseband solves rubbing or chafing issues because it's made of rubber tubing and has no buckles.

From a decorative standpoint, hunter riders still draw the line with fancy embroidered designs on raised brow and nosebands. The dressage set is all in on bejeweled browbands and perhaps a patent leather caveson. And jumpers and eventers are big on matching saddle pads with ear bonnets, or "fly veils," in color, patterns and ascents. In divisions where sponsor logos are allowed, fly veils are the latest space for such branding. 'It's the latest place to decorate, with a product name or a country's flag," says Holly at Tack Warehouse. "Compared to western riders, english riders have so few places to do that."

Carl Gardner of Four Star Brand is not sure how long ear bonnets will stay in vogue in the eventing world his mobile and online shop caters to. An eventer himself, he does not believe in them or carry them. With so few bugs on the West Coast, they are rarely needed for that reason, he says, and he's seen cases where bonnets have contributed to even well-fit bridles coming off at quite inopportune moments.

Carl sees riders prioritizing fit and value. In choosing between ever-growing stock of protective leg boots, riders go with what fits their horse, whether or not it matches their tack. Most importantly, they want to know they're spending money on good quality products, a subject close to his heart. "I got sick of being sold cheap stuff for a high price," says Carl, who is now attempting to do the opposite with his start-up in San Diego County's Solana Beach.

Having A Fit

Despite serving a market that is generally shy toward what's new, Gina at Bright Star is always on the look-out for the latest. She was knocked out by the Dy'on tack displayed at September's Longines Los Angeles Masters Grand Slam. "It's the first company I've seen in a long time that's actually brought something new to the hunter/jumper market."

"Some of their pieces are very ergonomic and very unique," Gina continues. One piece in particular caught her fancy: the modest, horizontal blinker, the Focus, that can be slipped over a cheek piece. Bright Star doesn't yet carry the Dy'on line, but Gina bought the $30 blinker as an example of innovations she hopes to see more of.
Dy'on's Difference bridle has a headstall that sits almost four inches behind the poll, designed for horses that are super sensitive in that area. The Belgian company has been in existence many years, and plans to market its products in the States starting next year. In the category of non-traditional designs that accommodate equine anatomy, Micklem bridles are more common in the U.S., with a design that avoids pressure on facial nerves.

ThinLine's new Game Changer Seat Saver gives riders the same shock absorption found in the company's saddle pads.

Total Saddle Fit's Six Point Saddle Pad, pictured here with optional Wither Freedom Technology. Six shims allow customized fit per horse and saddle needs.

Total Saddle Fit's Shoulder Relief Girth, a great example of trends toward ergonomic design in all types of tack.

Focus on fit across all disciplines puts a premium on size-related customization, say several tack store representatives.
"For many horses, a standard size bridle (oversize, full size or cob) will have parts that just do not fit your individual horse," explains Dorothea Carters, managing partner of KL Select. "A common example, after purchasing a bridle, you find that most of the parts fit, yet the cheekpieces are too long or the browband is not the right length, so you end up with buckles near the horse's eye and a browband that is either too tight or too long. This is neither attractive nor comfortable for the horse." KL Select is one of a few companies to sell bridle parts individually for most of its line of hunter/jumper and dressage bridles.

The Connecticut-based company has also been a pioneer in comfort-driven, anatomically designed tack. "We were the first to offer padded and contoured headstalls, and an anatomic girth in both dressage and hunter styles," Dorothea reports. More recently, KL introduced the threaded, padded (and in some styles, contoured) headstall, which offers the comfort of a padded monocrown but has the significant economical advantages of accommodating easy noseband swaps.

Meanwhile, not tack exactly, but a tack store craze that won't quit are horse treats, Gina relays. They are a perennial favorite at Bright Star, whether it's the impulse buy of a $5 bag at check-out or regular restocking of larger, pricier quantities. Low-sugar A to Z Horse Cookies, German Horse Muffins and Pocket Pony Horse Treats are among the new lines Gina sees as big sellers.