I recently lost a favorite pair of web reins when my mother’s horse, Coffee, managed to step on them. Web reins have been a favorite since my early days Eventing. I like the weight and pliability in my hand. That was not only my favorite pair, it happened to be my only pair of web reins. I have a stiff old plain leather pair, some lovely leather with stops (my usual if we ride at the same time) and two laced pair that came with bridles – my least favorite type of rein. So, with only one really good pair it was time to shop. It’s usually rare that I have to shop for tack, with all that I have accumulated through the decades, so I am often surprised by the trends I come across – and, quite honestly it is usually not a good surprise.
It was about twenty years ago when I needed a new bridle. I cannot remember exactly why, as I have always had quite a collection on hand – but I think at the time we had more horses than functional bridles, so I went shopping. At that point I had not looked in a riding equipment catalog for several years. I’d collected so much over the years and was generally more than equipped enough. The previous time I’d shopped for bridles was already a struggle, as flash nosebands had become so ubiquitous that it was difficult to find a bridle with a plain cavesson, outside of those designed for the Hunter ring. I found no use for them and was frustrated at having to cut off the lower piece in some cases. With that in mind, you can well imagine my shock in coming across something called a “crank noseband”!
In my opinion, there is no place for anything called a “crank” when dealing with horses! I just couldn’t wrap my mind around why you needed that extra leverage in order to tighten a noseband that should be loose enough to fit two full fingers between it and the horse’s head (against the nose bone or jaw bone, not the soft sides or between the jaw bones). How wrong had the sport of Dressage gone, I wondered, if they are now having as a standard acceptable piece of equipment anything with the word “crank” in it?! After all, when I was learning to ride “crank” was something a bad rider did to their horse’s head to get them “on the bit” without doing the work.
My suspicions about the real purpose of the “crank” noseband, which is to force the horse’s mouth shut, was confirmed the day I watched a groom take a full 30 seconds to wrestle with one at the end of a medal winning Olympic Dressage ride in order to loosen it for the horse. This was a fit six-foot plus young man who had to work hard just to get the thing unbuckled. I was left wondering just how much effort had gone into making the noseband that tight!
Trends that have caused head-shaking since then have been rather much more harmless. Glitter has shown up on helmet, boots, spurs, and basically anywhere they can find to put it. I remember the derision from other sports as Western riding went from attractive but workmanlike gear to silver and glitter. Yet, now those same sports that once took pride in tailored, attractive simplicity have fallen for the same glitz and glamor. I have no problem with a little fun. I always enjoyed matching clothes to tack in cross-country. But when it gets to be the focus, rather than the horse and its comfort, then I think we’ve got a problem.
In my recent search for reins I ran into another trend that started a while ago but seems to have gone to a disturbing extreme – everything is sticky! Back when I was showing hunters, and saddles were flat with little padding, you could buy sticks that when rubbed on your saddle helped you stick. Most people looked a bit down upon those who used such things.
In more recent years I’ve noticed breeches and gloves getting the “sticky” treatment. I’ve struggled to find decent gloves that don’t have the “sticky” treatment. Even when I was Eventing, we had little trouble keeping a grip on reins wet from a water jump with plain leather gloves. What does it say about someone’s riding if they need extra grip to hang on to reins under more normal circumstances? A rider needs to be able to easily adjust their reins – sometimes letting them slide with no friction, to save the horse’s mouth or just to do a correct exercise on a long rein. And don’t get me started on the problems the friction causes in lunging and other groundwork!
I also find the idea of “sticky” breeches perplexing. The rider needs to be able to subtly shift their seat – forward, backward, or to one side. This is all part of the development of subtle communication. How can you do that with the friction caused by silicone seats and knees? “Sticking” to the saddle is about balance and allowing your draped legs and gravity to keep you in the seat – not maintaining a static position. (Of course, this is also my complaint about most modern saddles that work more like child’s car seats.) For my part I ride in athletic leggings – no sticky seat, not even knee patches – and have no problems with sliding too much.
The trend that I encountered in this latest round of shopping was “sticky” reins. Rubber reins have been around for as long as I’ve been riding. Often a favorite on cross-country, back in the “old days” to help with the sweat and water hazard wetness. But now there is silicone on every type of rein! Searching through the online catalogs I saw rein after rein touting its sticky or tacky quality. I went to a local tack store and there was literally no set of reins – plain, laced, woven, web – without the extra tacky quality. The nightmare it must be to ride with sticky gloves on sticky reins! My mind boggles!
At the only other local tack store left in our area, I was finally able to find some lovely web reins with no tackiness. I brought the subject up to the manager, an old friend, and she said that it’s almost impossible to find Dressage reins that don’t have the added silicone. The Old Masters must be rolling over in their graves! In the sport meant to create the lightest possible feel between horse and rider, how can you possibly need sticky reins?
You can dismiss this as the rantings of a cranky old lady. You have that right. But before you write it off so simply, do take the time to ask why so much tacky stuff exists. What does it say about the quality of riding today that we need all of this “help”. Riders of the past not only lacked all of this modern tackiness, but they also rode in very simple saddle with little to no padding and nearly flat seats – and accomplished amazing things!
The worst part is not that this is somehow a way of “cheating”. Horses are big and move fast, so none of this sticky tack will actually help you save yourself – centrifugal force will win over a bit of silicone – and it certainly won’t make you ride better. In fact, that is the main point – all of this sticky stuff actually hinders your ability to become a better rider. Quality riding is a very fluid endeavor – shifts of weight (front to back, side to side), changes of angle in your seat, quickly adjusting rein length, etc. The more stasis you create with tacky surfaces (not to mention extra padding) the more tension in your own body you create, which has a direct affect on the tension in your horse.
Clearly the tacky tack (and attire) is here to stay. It wouldn’t have expanded so much if it didn’t sell well. If you have fallen for these products, please consider trying non-sticky products the next time you shop. Who knows, maybe we can encourage manufacturing of less sticky stuff. For my part, I grabbed an extra pair of the reins I found to save myself another frustrating search in the near future. I can’t imagine what crazy trend I’ll encounter the next time I have to shop for tack!
Be good to your horses!