Talking tack: flourishing with innovation

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With so much modernisation, the tack market is almost unrecognisable in comparison to a decade ago. Discussing the latest trends, materials and designs, Equestrian Business turns to the experts.

The tack market has come a long way from one-size-fits-all simple wooden trees and plain bridles – a very long way! With a greater understanding of how tack can influence performance, horse owners are seeking the very best designs, resulting in manufactures putting more focus on creating products that work in harmony with the horse’s anatomy.

“The last five years have seen increased focus on horse comfort and welfare in all areas of equitation, from stabling and feed all the way to the way we ride and the tack we use,” comments Weatherbeeta Sales Manager, Bea Meitiner. “This is particularly true of the bridle and saddle categories. When it comes to bridles, a better understanding of the anatomy of the horse’s skull and better availability of consumer-friendly information has seen an increased demand for innovation in what was once a very traditional category. The amount of research on the horse’s cranial nerves has resulted in the need and want for ergonomically designed bridles with any new additions to the category focusing on horse comfort being sought.

“The saddle category has also seen a lot of change with the resurgence of leather as a preferred choice for consumers and the division of the market into two key price points: premium and entry level,” Bea continues. “Although the second-hand market continues to thrive, the appearance of high quality but very affordable leather saddles, such as the new Collegiate Range, are of particular appeal to the money conscious shopper.

“Another change that has arisen over the last decade is a shift towards saddles needing to meet not only the requirements of the horse (from a fit perspective) but also those of the riders. Although there is no denying that the All Purpose and VSD saddles remain the bestsellers, there has been a significant increase in riders wanting multiple saddles to best meet different discipline needs. One thing hasn’t changed though – and that is the importance of having a good quality good fitting saddle!”

The beauty of bespoke

With correct fit coming before all else, there has also been a significant rise in the bespoke saddlery market. “At The Ideal Saddle Company, we are increasingly manufacturing bespoke saddles,” explains Business Development Manager James Hitchen. “Consumer knowledge of the importance of the correct fit for their horse has increased considerably and saddles manufactured to a horse’s individual template have now become a norm. We have also seen a notable increase in the shortened designed panel option in recent years, where a horse is short coupled but the seat for the rider needs to allow more room.

“There has been much innovation in saddle tree design and this provides a real USP for us. We own WRS saddle trees as well as Beebee & Beebee saddle trees and now Aulton & Butler saddle trees, so we have arguably more tree shapes, designs and moulds than any saddlery manufacturer in the world. This manufacturing flexibility allows us to create trees specifically tailored for a huge range of different riding disciplines and horse types, so not only are we bespoke manufacturing saddles, we are bespoke manufacturing saddles trees as well.”

As experienced in almost all areas of equestrian wear and care, customisation is a real selling point. “Consumers are increasingly looking for design features that will help make their saddles really stand out,” continues James. “Patent finishes, alligator and sting ray back cantle pieces are now part of normal manufacturing, whereas five years ago they would have been one off specials.”

Material demands

It is not only design that has experienced a multitude of changes in recent times – the materials being used must now also meet the testing wishes of the customer. “Consumer demands have certainly changed in the last five years in relation to materials, for example; leather which is a natural product, will show signs of wear after a while,” comments Hazel Morley, Society of Master Saddlers’ Chief Executive. “The signs of wear include, to a degree, areas of colour loss, such as saddle flaps and also parts of the bridle as they mould to shape during the various weather they are exposed to. However, in many cases consumers expect it to still look in new condition. But of course, they do need to treat the leather with the appropriate leather dressings which in today’s rush do so many extra things it is often omitted. The fashion and demand is for softer Italian type leather, which does not wear as well.”

Keeping clean to maintain condition

Encourage customers clean tack – after all they may direct their annoyance at you if it breaks, photo credit Daydream Equine

Customers are willing to spend well on quality tack, but many seem reluctant to keep it in good condition. “Tack cleaning is never one of the most popular chores, and in the last decade there has been a trend of ‘quick and easy’ products that do the job in the shortest possible time,” explains Rachael Holdsworth, European Marketing Co-ordinator for Absorbine/W F Young Inc. “Formulas have been developed that lift out sweat and grime from the leather, while also conditioning it, and this is ideal for regularly used, everyday tack. The best ingredients are still some of the traditional things such as lanolin for maintaining suppleness.

“Riders increasingly have more than one saddle or bridle for their horse, especially if they are competing in more than one discipline. Show tack needs special attention and recent introductions, such as Absorbine’s Leather Therapy leather care system, includes wash and restorer products to keep leather in best condition and inhibit mould and mildew, especially if tack is stored for a while.”

Talking trends

Considering the trends predicted to lead the saddlery market, Hazel comments, “There has been a trend towards the mono flap close contact saddles – dressage as well as jumping – that is set to continue to develop. Also noticed, General Purpose saddles are receiving far less sales today, with customers instead choosing saddles specifically designed for dressage and jumping. As with many saddles now having a system for adjustment of fitting to accommodate various horse shapes, it seems this will become the norm. However, do remind customers that these adjustments do require the knowledge of a Qualified Saddle Fitter to select the correct fitting for the horse.”

Relieving pressure has also become an increasingly sought-after feature, as Hazel continues, “There is a trend of bridles with many designs creating less pressure on the vulnerable areas of the head. The latest innovation with proven research is a new design of breastplate to alleviate pressure points and allow less restriction on movement. Pressure mapping is part of the development as with saddles. On the horizon this year, with science playing an even more important part regarding pressure and biomechanics, we are gaining vital information and many new ways for the rider to gain more knowledge of their horses and tack fitting.”

No exceptions

The Synchronicity System marks an exciting shift in equestrian technology, photo credit Neue Schule

With riders more clued-up than ever, careful considerations are being made to every area of tack design – bitting being no exception. “The equine industry is fast joining the ranks of its sporting counterparts with leaps forward in technology,” describes Megan Geddis, Product Specialist at Neue Schule Ltd. “No longer are we left to rely on common misconceptions and old wives’ tales, we have the facts, the research and the determination to create an all new enlightened era in equestrianism. Many thought that riders did not need or would not be receptive to technology, however they were mistaken.”

Riders are embracing technology more than ever and to meet that demand, Neue Schule Group company Avansce has created the Synchronicity System. Designed to provide riders with a tool to monitor performance, progression and training from an app, these lightweight rein sensors mark an exciting change in the industry, allowing industry professionals such as saddle fitters, physiotherapists and trainers to unlock vital areas within their profession.

Training tools

Just as the items worn by the horse are changed, the methods through which they are trained are also embracing innovation. Dr Hilary Bentley, Managing Director at EquiAmi Ltd explains, “Ten years ago people were less well informed and did things the way they did them, simply because that was the way they had always done them. With more science-based evidence in the media about biomechanics, back health and core strength riders, trainers and owners are more aware of the need to do gymnastic, strengthening work with their equine athletes for improved performance and greater physical prowess in both the sort and long term.”

Training aids with reputable endorsements will be vastly more popular

When selecting which training aids to stock, Hilary provides some important considerations: “Consumers look for ease of use and endorsed results from a training aid. Many are advised by their veterinary surgeon or physiotherapist to purchase an aid to help in recovery and rehabilitation from back surgery or other issues. Some are advised by their instructors that an aid will help in achieving the outcome they seek or bring more acceptance and softness in their horse. We avoid the term ‘quick fix’ as this has no place in training or therapy. We do, however, recommend that regular use of an appropriate aid can bring about long-term and often life-changing results providing it is not fixed or restrictive.”

Embracing new technologies

In order to stay relevant with your customer base, don’t fear the opportunities that come with accepting modern technology. However, ensure you do adequate background reading before putting it any new product your shelves – your customers will want to hear it! Georgia Keegan, UK Sales Manager of Back on Track explains, “We are now seeing a surge of owner interest in scientific research and development of products truly focused on horse wellbeing and performance. Due to this, I foresee increased interest in therapy related products, design and associated research into the potential benefits they can provide. Owners these days are researching more and more into which products and brands are a good option for their budget – the proof is always in the pudding.”

Products that claim any form of benefit to wellbeing or performance ought to have some form of research or scientific basis – without this you are putting your reputation at risk. Be savvy when it comes to tack: allow the trends to guide you but remember quality comes first!