Working at a tack store is fabulous, weird and full of equestrian life lessons.
A few takeaways from my own experience:
1. Horse people are the best people.
I don’t know any other sport/obsession/addiction where the participants are so motivated by love for their partners to learn everything, to ask every question, to read up on every supplement, to want the best they can afford on behalf of their teammate. And working at a tack store afforded me the chance to meet so many of those devoted participants.
2. That Thingamajigger is actually called a Blevins buckle.
Learning the name, purpose and life cycle of thousands of pieces of equipment was one of the most valuable things that ever happened to me against my will. I mean, I have always been a sucker for every piece of obscure horse knowledge, but THIS was on a whole other level. If you want to be a valuable tack store employee, or someday a valuable barn manager or equine event planner or just about ANYTHING else in the horse world, you’ve got to take your work home with you sometimes. And knowing the name and function off 300 bits on the wall wasn’t a bad place to start.
3. Leaving your equine comfort zone will do wonders for your perspective.
While I grew up doing a little 4-H and Pony Club, watching the Triple Crown, and attending the occasional local rodeo, knowing the ins and outs of a wide array of horse sports was way out of my league. By helping small local racehorse owners fit a training saddle and learning how to swing and throw a rope (poorly, SO POORLY) and asking farrier customers questions about sliding plates for reiners, I gained a whole new appreciation for the richness and diversity of the horse world. Some of my best friends at work were barrel racers — BARREL RACERS! And that diversity really made me appreciate the universality of good horsemanship.
4. Repeat after me: “You should ask your vet about that. Soon. Like NOW.”
My tack store had a small basic veterinary section that offered the standard supplies for a little wound care, a little rain rot, and your hypothetical ulcer. But oftentimes, we’d have well-meaning horse owners coming in looking for advice for some scary sounding stuff. While we got pretty good at explaining how stuff works, we were taught from day 1 on the job that the only medical advice you ever give is, “You should ask your vet about that.” Not only because of liability, but also because any horse’s best interest is our best interest. We don’t want you putting blu-kote spray on a wound that’s purulent and swelled to four times its size and still wondering if it’s time for a vet. If you’re asking your local tack store employee’s advice, it probably is.
5. You do and you don’t get what you pay for.
I have seen $400 boots come back with broken zippers a week after they were bought, and I have had customers come in telling me they’re replacing a cinch connector that’s been doing the job since the 1970s. I also talked to folks who said a great saddle saved their life, and who complained that a $200 saddle didn’t fit well. The rule of thumb in our business was this: For the big ticket items (saddles, cowboy boots), invest in the right thing, because the risk of the wrong thing is too high. For everything else, the difference between that item holding up or failing was MAINTENANCE. If you wipe off your equipment after every ride, oil regularly, keep things clean, dry, and off the ground, no matter what it’s made of, it will hold up.
6. You’re never too old for Breyers.
7. Tack stores don’t sell solutions, they sell tools.
Most returned equipment had nothing to do with breaking or defects. More often, people would return a tie-down, a martingale, a nasty bit, or other such training device and say, “It didn’t solve the problem.” What most people desperately needed was professional intervention that they weren’t willing to seek — interventions that often times would cost less in the long run than all that equipment — but there was no arguing with them. We took it back for store credit, and they always went looking for the next fancy thing to solve their problem.
(And OK, IF you’re going to do this, consider borrowing one from a friend before buying! Because there’s a good chance we won’t be able to sell that sweaty tie-down you’re returning for even our cost.)
8. It really, REALLY is the little things in life, sometimes.
The little thing that really made my life magical while I worked at a tack store was coming in at 8:55 every morning, swinging open that big feed door, and instantly smelling the rich leather and a hint of sweet feed five days a week. That. That’s what Heaven smells like.
9. Yes, we tried the butter, and the soap, and the WD-40….
But it’s true. If you put on a stiff new tall boot with no zippers on a hot summer day without socks on, we really will cut it off you, and you really will have to pay for it. The signs that say “please ask before trying on boots”? The sample socks in the basket that we take home and wash regularly? The knowledgeable friendly employee you cut off and barged past because you didn’t need help? All these were put in place to help you not buy $200 boots that we just finished cutting off of your daughter’s leg. So really, I guess the life lesson is that you just have to let some people make their own $200 mistakes.
10. Your local tack store values you and your lifestyle more than you know.
Not just because of catalog competition, and not just because of the recession, but because horses are our life, too. We love sponsoring your 4-H show and giving your non-profit a discount because this horse community we’re all fighting to keep alive in the modern world is important and beautiful. We want your kids to fall in love with rodeo and Pony Club, and we want you to keep chasing your dreams. So keep feeding that cycle when you can, and we’ll all do just fine.