As the role of horses has moved from work to sport and leisure, tack design has shifted dramatically from what horses need to what riders desire. We’ve had a look inside the tackroom to see how much has changed over the years.
Tack was traditionally designed to fulfil a specific role – with little room for personal preference. However, as riders and manufacturers have become more aware of the connection between comfort and performance, ergonomic designs with innovative features are taking the market by storm. Not forgetting the favourite trend of covering everything in bling too!
The humble English saddle took form from the traditional hunting saddle, built from a tree made of laminated layers of high quality wood reinforced with steel. Since the days of 17th Century fox hunting, English saddles have been redesigned and refined, creating saddles tailored for every discipline imaginable; from the standard GP, jump and dressage, to close contact, endurance, show and side saddle.
The biggest area of change over the years has been to the backbone of the saddle – the tree. Many modern trees are made with spring steel running from front to rear between the bars. These trees are somewhat flexible and are known as “spring trees”, with the degree of flexibility varying from saddle to saddle. More recently, saddle manufacturers are using various materials to replace wood and create a synthetic moulded tree.
Adjustable trees are certainly becoming more popular than standard trees, with owners more aware about how much their horse’s shape varies throughout the year. A horse’s shape changes constantly due to training, workload, age and season, so having a saddle that can change with the horse can be a very wise investment for many riders, especially those with young and developing horses.
Saddles with trees made from Carbon Fibre are also growing in popularity due to the difference in weight when compared to wooden tree saddles. While they are much less heavy, they are also incredibly strong and have a degree of flexibility as well as reduced bulk – allowing riders to sit closer to their horse.
It is worth noting that while these variations on traditional saddles may come at a higher cost for riders, the designs are usually based on scientific study. Looking at pressure distribution and horse performance, saddle manufacturers have been able to track range of motion and investigate how saddle fit directly affects a horse. With reliable scientific testing at the core of many newly developed saddles, it is obvious horses welfare is the priority and for those searching for a new saddle, moving away from tradition may prove very rewarding.
Similar to saddles, changes to bridle design are frequently based on genuine research. Bridles are becoming more ergonomic, taking into account pressure points, areas of discomfort and avoiding them at all costs! Built to fit the shape of the horse’s skull, such bridles avoid sensitive areas and usually feature widened sections to distribute pressure more evenly (meaning less pressure is exerted on one area, which can lead to sore spots).
These bridles are designed to give maximum comfort and reduce poll pressure, help horses maintain a consistent contact as well as become more responsive to lighter aids. If you look closely, you will see many top riders branching out from standard bridles, choosing to use an ergonomically fitted version instead, so much so that equestrian governing bodies are making certain models competition legal.
For anyone who has considered changing their horse’s bit recently, no doubt a search returned hundreds of bits, all made from different materials, with different shapes and mouthpieces. What started as basic metal or leather, has developed into sweet iron, copper, titanium, rubber, flavoured rubber, the list goes on! Each has different selling points, but mainly their ability to help the horse salivate is driving the quest to determine the perfect bitting material.
Gadgets and gizmos
Alongside developments made to the main areas of saddlery, no end of change has occurred to the array of accessories that can be found in any modern horse’s wardrobe.
Girths are being contoured to fit the shape of the horse, reducing the amount of pressure applied to the girth area in the hope of eliminating gait asymmetry and improving range of motion. Most girths now come with added cushioning, to distribute pressure, absorb impact as well as prevent rubbing. Some models even have design features that allow the horse to expand and contract his ribcage without restriction during exercise, to add to overall comfort.
Stirrup irons have also had plenty of attention, evolving from the most basic item of tack, to one of the most innovative and exciting! With safety as a core value, most modern stirrups address the problem of rider’s feet becoming trapped during a fall. Some models feature adjustable tops, which can be pre-set to specific angles, or flexible bars that reduce the force on the rider’s cartilage and ligaments. There are even designs with air cushioning to reduce the force on ankle and knee joints. Treads have taken inspiration from the motorcycling world to ensure maximum hold and grip, many of which look similar to cheese graters! Specifically designed for jumping disciplines, many stirrups are now extremely lightweight, built from aluminium and titanium. Stirrup leathers have also had a redesign with many saddlers developing single layer leathers, which prevents any pinching and improves contact for the rider.
Also benefiting from new technologies and a better understanding of horse anatomy are protective boots. Created to be lightweight but strong, shockproof materials such as microfiber leather and high density Kevlar come top of the list for modern riders, with tendon cooling properties (such as vents that allow a constant stream of cold air to pass through the boot) also a favourite feature, completely different from traditional standard leather boots.
It is astounding to see how technologies in the equine tack sector have influenced the humble tackroom, and it is wonderful to realise why these changes are taking place. As our understanding of horse physiology develops and we are more aware of the effects of our chosen disciplines – from overheating tendons to sore backs, poll pressure and fussy mouths – we have become far more educated as horse owners. Our determination to offer our horses the very best has led to manufacturers developing the science behind their products, ever improving their range to fulfil our every desire and keep horse happiness the priority.
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