Like many horse owners, I have owned a lot of saddles and tack in my life. I have also done a LOT of window shopping in various tack stores and online. Hey, who doesn't? Over the past few years, with the advent of shopping venues like eBay and Amazon, there has been an ever-increasing influx of low quality tack. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a piece of tack off of eBay, heck I have done it myself numerous times. The problem is, how do you know what quality it will be? I have had good and bad experiences, gotten things cheaply that were complete pieces of crap and also things that were of good quality for next to nothing.
There are several things to watch for. First and foremost, if you are looking at a piece of tack in person, feel the leather. Flex it, look at the underside, study the grain, stitching, dye, the holes, the tree and the rigging.
Does it feel nice and supple, or like cardboard?
Good leather will be flexible and feel smooth and supple. A lot of the tack available cheaply is made in India or Asia from cheap painted (pigmented) leather that is poorly tanned and will not accept the oil. As a result, the saddle leather gets much drier over time. As it dries out it tears fairly easily, creating a serious safety issue for the rider. The lowest grade Asian leather is easy to spot. It is chemical tanned with strong tanning agent and often smells of these agents.
Is the grain even and smooth?
You've probably heard the phrase 'fine grain leather'. Good quality has a fine grain--the pores are small--poorer leather has open coarse pores. The back of the work is often slightly rough, where the grain is damaged by the tan process. It is often heavily oiled with a greasy feel in order to disguise poor tanning.
If you tug on a strap or bend a piece of leather, does the finish crack, scratch or flake off?
Poor quality tack may also be covered in a finish that will easily crack, flake, or scratch off. In the very cheapest examples, the dye color is 'painted' on - and often 'bleeds' heavily onto clothes and hands if subjected to rain
Is the stitching neat and even?
In low quality tack, the stitching may be uneven or of poor quality.
Are the holes punched completely and evenly?
Often, the holes in straps are unevenly spaced, not completely punched, or seem too small for the buckle tongue.
Will the saddle fit the horse, is the tree even and straight and is it rigged correctly?
It is difficult to find one of these saddles that will fit correctly, the trees are often very narrow or very wide. They are also frequently uneven or slightly twisted. This can cause major issues not only for the rider, but mainly for the horse.
Many of these saddles are not rigged correctly, and are difficult if not almost impossible to tighten the girth enough to stop the saddle slipping on the horse.
So, all this being said, what if you are shopping online and cannot personally handle the saddle?
When buying online on a budget, it is far better in the long run to look for a used, good quality, name brand item than to buy a cheap imported item. Some things to watch for in these auctions are; lack of a name brand, no mention of where it was manufactured, a stock photo only, and a very low price. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. ALWAYS check the seller’s feedback. Often, people will report tack failures to the seller in an attempt to get a refund. The seller will often deny responsibility, another red flag, a good seller, with quality items will usually try to work with a buyer.
Let’s look at some photos from online auctions. Both of these saddles are available on eBay for $100 or so, with free shipping. Sound good? Well let’s look closer…
Here we have an All Purpose English saddle. Notice the stiff, shiny look to the leather. See how the dye looks kind of “opaque” for lack of a better word? Also notice how large the pores in the grain look. See the wrinkles in the knee roll? These are signs of a low quality saddle.
This is a Dressage saddle. Again, notice the stiff, shiny looking leather. Also notice the stirrup leathers. See how the holes are lighter on the inside? This means that the leather is not actually dyed, rather, it looks painted on. Also notice the numerous wrinkles in the knee rolls and near the seat. Also not a good choice.
Here is a Western saddle. Notice the stiff looking, shiny leather. See how the skirts are already curling? This saddle and accessories are under $200. Also the seller had probably 30 or 40 identical ones for sale at the same price. Another too good to be true deal. Can you imagine this saddle’s latigo strap just ripping apart while you are riding up a mountain? It has happened.
This is another Western saddle. Advertised as a show saddle, it has a bit of silver and some tooling to dress it up. But look past that. Notice the odd angle of the swells and horn? See the curling skirts and jockeys? Notice the stiff-looking tie strap? Also notice the attachment for the fenders to the stirrup leathers, you should not be able to see that.
I hope that this is helpful. I have tried to cover all the basics. Please, make sure that the tack you are purchasing is of good quality and strong. I want everyone to be safe on their horses and not have an accident caused by catastrophic failure of a piece of tack.