I'm pretty blasé about many things - I'll eat food that's been left out of the fridge for hours, or stop if I see someone with apparent car problems - but I've always been a real zealot about safety around horses. In spite of this, I've been bitten, thrown, fallen on, launched, kicked, pounded, mashed, battered, folded, spindled and damn near mutilated - but never because of a "tack malfunction." Before every ride, I check my saddle, girth, pads and bridle - it's so ingraned that it's no longer a conscious thing. If there's a "maybe" on anything, it's repaired or replaced before I mount. It's probably why I'm still walking around (albeit with some "gait abnormalities") with what passes - at least in middle age - for a sound mind.
All kidding aside, taking good care and paying attention to the condition of your tack is incredibly important. Here are 3 stories, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to illustrate.
Just recently, I found a saddle on my bench on which a rear billet had given out while the saddle was in use. Fortunately, the horse was just strolling sedately along the trail, and the rider was able to stop and dismount before the girth came completely undone, and no one was injured. The billets were all in sorry shape - cracked, stretched and dry as a cork leg - and the billet that gave out had actually ripped in two at one of the holes (I should have taken a photo of that one - it was impressive). When the repair was done and the owner was picking up the saddle, I asked, "Those billets were in really terrible shape. Didn't you notice?"
"Oh," the owner replied, "they've been like that for a long time. This was the first problem I've had with them."
So, along with those 4 new billets, the owner got - free of charge - a fairly strict lecture on the importance of checking your equipment and replacing or repairing any questionable parts. What if the billet had let go on a steep hill, or at a gallop, or on a squirrelly green horse? One doesn't often get that lucky twice ...
Not all safety issues are quite so obvious. I recently had another saddle come in for a safety inspection because the owner noticed that the saddle was suddenly "falling down on everyone's withers" and making her horses uncomfortable. When I asked her when she'd first noticed it, she answered, "Just this morning. I tried it on three different horses, and as soon as I mounted, it dropped right down on the withers every time. So I wanted to have you check it."
Initial flexions didn't reveal any red flags, but when we put the saddle on the buck and the owner mounted, it did drop down considerably. When I dropped the panels and peeled back the gullet cover, this is what I found (this is sort of a "Where's Waldo?" exercise):
Can't see it? It took me a couple minutes and repeated flexing before I did. Here's another shot:
It's tough to flex the plate and take photos at the same time, so I had to employ some local muscle:Pretty darn subtle, isn't it? Just a hairline crack, but the rider caught it immediately because she was paying attention. We're not sure what happened - the saddle could have been dropped or knocked off the rack, or - given that the saddle is about 20 years old and has been in constant use - the plate just succumbed to metal fatigue.
I'm presently working on re-billeting a saddle for a local polo player. These are the billets I took off the saddle:
When I saw the condition of the billets, I was surprised. Sure, they've seen some wear, but they're not really in bad shape - and I said so to the polo player.
"I just don't feel safe with them - don't like the quality at all," he told me. "And I'd really prefer not to have them let go at a full gallop, you know?"
Is this guy being paranoid? Not really. The billets were a wee bit stretched, but given the stress the billets on a polo saddle undergo - not only from a pony that can turn on a dime and go from a standstill to a full gallop in three jumps, but from a 170 lb. rider reaching and leaning to get a stick on the ball - his concern is perfectly understandable. So I'm putting on new billets with a thread that's a bit heavier gauge than what I usually use ... just for good measure.
So please, folks: pay attention, make note, be aware. A crack, a loose thread, a funny noise, a saddle that sits differently might not seem like a cause for concern ... but think about what might happen if it was a cause for concern. Think about who you might wind up leaving behind.