by Anna Carner Blangiforti
President and Founder, Leather Therapy Products
OLDWICK, NJ--As you prepare for a competition, you pay close attention to your horse’s health, follow a conditioning program to get him to peak fitness at just the right time, make sure you get your entry in on time and gather all equipment you are going to need at the show grounds. In the thick of all these preparations, it is easy to take your tack for granted.
I recently sat with a group of world-class competitors as they swapped horror stories about tack failures. Listening to them reinforced my belief that keeping tack clean, supple, strong and safe should be a top priority for every rider, whether they compete or not.
Brigid and John Fairman race Arabian horses in England. “Mareb, our fastest horse, was ahead 12 lengths in a flat race at the Towcester Race Course when one of the jockey’s stirrup leathers snapped,” recalled Brigid. “The crowd gasped audibly as the jockey tried to regain his balance and keep the horse from falling. Meanwhile, the horses pounding down the track behind them were tried to avoid running over them.” It not only cost the race, but the jockey was also taken before a formal steward’s inquiry and reprimanded for unsafe equipment.
Rightly so, two-time world champion endurance rider Valerie Kanavy observed. “It’s the rider’s responsibility to check every single aspect of what they’re bringing to a competition to avoid just that type of situation.” The jockey not only endangered himself and his horse, Kanavy pointed out, but also endangered others. “If you’re taking a risk like sky diving where you can only hurt yourself, that’s one thing. Taking an unnecessary chance in a competitive group and getting out of control can be horrendous.”
Even when broken tack poses no danger to others, tack failure at a crucial moment can result in heartbreaking losses. Kanavy recalled an incident at a preliminary ride before the World Championship Endurance Ride held in Dubai in February 1998 where a broken stirrup cost her daughter Danielle a victory. Riding in a 100-mile race, Danielle was only 7 miles away from the finish line when a screw holding her stirrup leather to the saddle broke loose. Danielle managed to keep her seat and keep her horse on his feet. Riding those last miles out of balance, however, put her in third place with a badly bruised and bleeding leg. “There’s nothing worse than hindsight,” Kanavy said. “Now we diligently check and stress our equipment before every competition.”
Donna Snyder-Smith, long time coach and recipient of the American Riding Instructor Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, offered us another perspective on pre-competition equipment checks. "In order to reach his or her full potential, a rider needs to feel confident,” Snyder-Smith told us. A relaxed mind seldom resides in a tense body, she pointed out, and it's the relaxed, focused mind which can catch and correct a small error before it mars an otherwise flawless performance.
“Competitors can be their own worst enemies if they arrive at a clinic or competition with equipment which is disorganized, dirty, in questionable condition, or even missing,” Snyder-Smith said. “Disorder breeds stress, especially in the pressure cooker of the competitive environment, and the difference between winning or losing may be the difference between feeling stressed out or prepared and confident."
Set aside the time for a pre-ride tack safety check before every competition. You need to check every buckle, screw and fastener. Take everything apart and stress leather pieces to make sure they are strong. Bend them, twist them and ask yourself honestly if you want to trust your life to each piece. Look at everything--halters, leads, bridles, saddles, girths, and horse boots.
Take time to thoroughly clean the leather while the tack is in pieces. Now is the time to work at that gunk and debris that collects at the base of buckle tongues, to check whether all the stitching is still strong and to examine the condition of the leather, especially where it bends and wraps around fasteners, bits, stirrup catches and the like.
Well-lubricated, supple leather is strong. If your tack is beginning to feel at all dry or stiff, now is the time to use a penetrating leather condition that the leather fibers can absorb to help keep their bonds strong. Use neutral pH products. Alkaline products can degrade and weaken the leather fibers’ chemical bonds.
The time you take for your pre-competition safety check will pay off handsomely in a confident and safe ride that can give you a competitive edge.