I love looking at old riding photos. I look at photos from my Short Stirrup years with equal parts nostalgia and horror. Nostalgia because I miss the days where the color of the ribbon was not important. Getting around without (a) falling off or (b) going off-course was an accomplishment and a realistic goal. Blue ribbons were a distant dream but something to always work toward. Horror because – ohmigod – WHAT was I wearing?! My pony’s braids were the stuff of nightmares and my hair bows looked like dollar store Christmas wrapping. But in any case, my memories of Short Stirrup are fond ones.
Riding back then was about so much more than horse showing, and for horse shows, my barn rat friends and I adopted the mantra “Tomorrow’s success begins today.” We would spend every waking Saturday hour bathing, braiding, and cleaning our tack. Thirty-seven year old me hasn’t cleaned her saddle in a year. Seven-year-old me was obsessive. I took my bridle apart for every cleaning, and would spend upwards of an hour cleaning my reins after every ride. (Seven-year-old me didn’t get many dates).
I will never forget one of my first horse shows in Short Stirrup. It was a local horse show and the judge was a known local trainer and a real stickler about equitation and turnout. He was old school and took the time to approach each rider in the lineup and critique them. I have since forgotten what he said about my equitation but it could have been along the lines of “Honey, you might want to consider hunters. Or ice skating.” But I remember clearly what he said about my turnout (fortunately nothing about my pathetic hair bows). He firmly took my pony’s nose band, commented on how clean it was, and then tightened and straightened it.
To this day, whether it is me riding, or standing on the ground helping someone else, I am a stickler about nose bands (and bridles, generally). A clean, well-fitting, and properly adjusted bridle is about so much more than just good turnout. Cleanliness goes without saying. Dirty tack can ruin an otherwise pretty picture; Clean tack looks the show ring pat. The fit of a bridle is critical for a number of reasons. A good fit maximizes the efficiency of a bit and of a rider’s overall feel. Incorrect pressure on the nose band or the horse’s poll can have a significant (negative) impact on its rideability, and therefore its way of going.
A bridle should always flatter – and never detract from – the shape of your horse’s (or pony’s) head. For example, an animal with a Roman nose can benefit from a wider nose band that helps camouflage its convex shape. An animal with a tiny head can benefit from a raised nose band with some stitching. This is not much different from what fashion magazines tell you about what the pockets of your jeans can do for your rear end. Reins are largely a matter of personal preference, but the less distracting, of course, the better.
Ask any R rated judge, trainer, or rider, and it’s a universal truth: Tack is a crucial piece of turnout and overall look. Clean, quality tack serves more than just the short-term purpose of looking good in the show ring. Clean tack is well-cared-for tack and well-cared-for tack (if it is quality leather) will last as long as it is cared for. Quality tack is not cheap, but it’s an investment where you get what you pay for and you get out of it what you care for. It could be the endless hours I’ve spent cleaning them, but I’ve had some pairs of reins since the 90’s. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for my hair accessories.