The Tack Room: An Astonishing Book

By Bonnie Folkins, HRL Guest Author

There is a steady stream of predictable books that cater to the latest fad in the horse world. This book breaks the rules by being the first to explore a vital part of equestrian history that tottering is on the edge of extinction. Dr. Paula Sells spent years documenting the equine equipment used in 27 different activities ranging from the pit ponies confined in the Welsh coal mines to the equestrian explorers roaming the world. Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins interviewed the author and reviews a fascinating book full of historical surprises and museum quality photographs.


I could never have imagined that a book on the subject of horse equipment and accessories would leave me spellbound, but that is what happened when I embraced Dr. Paula Sells’ book The Tack Room.

To hold The Tack Room in your hands is to hold, not a room, but an entire museum. Our curator (the author) presents her compendium, not as a standard narrative, but as many stories told with passion and commitment. Her intense curiosity and readiness to explain artisan skills culminate in an all-embracing historical tour. At times, certain passages read almost like lyrical poetry.

If you love history, you will not be able to put this book down. The book is lavishly illustrated with coloured photographs and intricate line drawings. The author has lovingly studied the creations of skilled workers, many of whom are on the verge of extinction. In harness making, for example, only three horse collar makers remain in England today.

HRL’s editor of Equine Investigations, CuChullaine O’Reilly, observed: “During the course of her life, Sells watched with increasing regret as the magnificent physical heritage and historical artifacts connected to Great Britain’s tack rooms began to disappear. In an extraordinary insight, Sells realized that an effort should be made to document the remaining evidence and interview the survivors whose lives had been intertwined with saddles and harness.”

The late Mark Roberts in his Aladdin’s cave of a work shop. The work of saddle repairers is indispensable to the equestrian community and keeps our tack safe and serviceable. © Photo copyright Pamla Toler.

I wanted to understand what inspired Paula Sells to meet the challenge of presenting this in-depth study of equine disciplines, so I explored the background of this intriguing author.

She was raised, first in North Wales where her mother had once run a riding school, and later in Caithness, Scotland. While a student at Oxford University, she was keen to learn to fly. The first week, she presented herself at the Air Squadron, undiscouraged by the fact that they did not accept females. But she discovered a gliding club nearby and, as the only young woman in the club, gained her solo licence in an open cockpit glider, taught by surviving pilots of the Arnheim campaign* depicted in the WW2 film, A Bridge Too Far).

*Operation Anger (sometimes known as Operation Quick Anger), was a military operation to seize the city of Arnhem(Netherlands) in April 1945, during the closing stages of the Second World War.

She obtained her Ph.D. on the immunology of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease, a form of which can be fatal. A career in tropical medicine at Rockefeller University, New York and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (UK) followed, which included fieldwork in the West Indies, studying rheumatic fever and the development of novel antivenoms for snake bite across the world.

But horses were a constant thread. Starting on ponies rounding up sheep at the age of seven in the mountains of Northern Wales, she went on to the Pony Club, hunting, eventing at a national level, and later, volunteering with Riding for the Disabled. She also taught forestry students the advantages of using horses for woodland management.

Twelve years of commercial forestry working with heavy horses proved to be a revelation in communicating with the horse “from the ground” and developing a close partnership in sympathy with Monty Robert’s “trust-based partnerships” principles*. A Leonardo da Vinci scholarship granted through the British Horse Loggers took her on a working visit to Slovakia, where it opened her eyes to how horses and machines can integrate in sustainable forestry practices. Paula Sells’ love of horses has always led her to integrate their history and their relationship with humankind.

*“No one of us was born with the right to say ‘you must,’ or I’ll hurt you, to any animal or to another human.”

The introduction of The Tack Room speaks directly to our hearts as the author takes us immediately on-site. “The heady smell of leather and saddle soap has the power to evoke memories and to fire the imagination.” Past experiences are re-ignited – we know precisely where we are and are transformed.

Fifield Admiral (Monty), winner of the 2017 Harness Class at the National Shire Horse Show for the fifth year in a succession. Monty’s harness was made by Terry Davis. © Photo copyright Kevin Wright.

I encourage you to approach the 27 disciplines (27 chapters) individually and group them to your preferences. Each category covers an equestrian field and is from six to eight pages long. To fully absorb and process the abundance of information, I suggest you take a separate sitting for each chapter or, better yet, read aloud with a loved one. Entertainment and conversation are guaranteed!

Chapters 4 through 7 explain fundamentals important to both the experienced rider and the serious beginner. One could never have imagined the depth of history and science supporting equipment design created to ease tension on muscle and bone. Dr. Sells describes the importance of listening to the breath or reactionary vocal and movement sounds to better understand what the horse is experiencing.

The saddle and bridle chapters offer a complete understanding of pressure points. You will never sit on a saddle again without an x-ray perception of the consideration that goes into its construction.

Over the millennium, as humankind encouraged horses to work in partnership, we designed their accessories for comfort, softness and durability. Sells details the preparation of leather as a vital commodity by explaining lengthy procedures – even recipes, in the art of tanning. Concoctions using natural ingredients (that would never occur in modern thinking) have become time-honoured and reliable methods for promising flexible products that stand up to rigorous wear. Lovingly made leather goods not only protected our equine companion but ultimately presented the horse itself as an object d’art.

As historians continuously push the domestication of the horse, now, remarkably, believed to be back as long ago as 5,000 years, we are reminded of years of tradition that have been, for the most part, abandoned when the automobile overtook horses as a means of transportation.

To consider the countless ways horses have worked or played beside us, the categories in the book cover many areas. The magnificently decorated harnesses of the Mounted Regiment and the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Mews and Coach and Carriage driving are a start. Sporting themes include dressage, cross country, endurance racing, polo, harness racing, flat racing and therapy riding. There is even a chapter on western saddlery wherein I was fascinated to learn that their design elements were modelled from those of the first conquistadores when they arrived in Mexico in 1519.

My heart ached over recollections of big horses called out in the night to pull lifeboats weighing tons across miles of sand. And there were pit ponies that worked, over time, exhaustively, in underground mines. There were tram, canal, war, standard plough, and cart horses. Being introduced to the particulars of circus and stunt horses trained for the film industry was a delightful surprise. Close to my heart was an endearing chapter about Long Riders*. The author tenderly articulates the intense spiritual union between horse and rider. The reader understands immediately that Dr. Sells has experienced this profound experience firsthand.

*Modern-day equestrian explorers who travel thousands of miles on horseback.

English Long Rider William Reddaway on Strider. In 2013 they completed a 2000 mile journey to thirty cathedrals. © Photo copyright William Reddaway.

But it is Paula Sells’ interest in Shire cross heavy horses and her membership with the British Horse Logging Society that really captured my imagination. I was unaware of the disparity in today’s logging industry because of the working techniques of draught horses compared to motorized equipment. Through subtle movements, Shires can move through vulnerable environments like waterways and delicate ecological areas.

Weighing almost 2500 pounds but capable of carrying nearly 20% of their body weight, they are able to significantly reduce the eco-footprint. Fortunately, British Horse Loggers encourage apprenticeships to ensure that the art survives.

More recently, Dr. Sells and her family took in three thoroughbred rescue mares from a bankrupt racing yard, and after restoring them back to health, they started a small breeding programme. Her syndicate of family and friends supported flat-race training in Newmarket for their resulting foals, and the following years gave her an insightful view of the racing world. In addition, she has gained valuable experience observing the long road to rehabilitation and the welfare of retired racehorses. I believe that if anyone is qualified to write about all corners of the equestrian world –it is this author.

She is looking ahead to working with equine charities, particularly on the “Give a Cob a Job” campaign. The Gypsy Cob, also known as the Irish Cob or Gypsy Vanner, is a breed of domestic horse from Ireland. Since 1850, the Traveller and Romani people began to use this distinct type of horse to pull their vardos – caravans used for living, sleeping and travelling. Training these beautiful, rescued cobs increases their value and gives them purpose. They are incredibly well-suited for logging, garden tilling, vineyard work, and riding, so their future looks promising.

Bill Smith ploughing with Violet and Teazle. The Suffolk Punch Horse Society works to promote and preserve the breed through events such as this ploughing competition. © Photo copyright Rod Blackmore.

Although this captivating book is ideal for adults and teenagers, young children will enjoy the photographs and take their first steps in being consciously aware of the horse in history. Local folklore reveals charming anecdotes like the antics of Sultan, an infamous pit pony that would steal the miner’s sandwiches from their pockets. The same rascal was notorious for snatching tea canisters, opening them with his mouth, upending their contents and consuming them – all the time evading capture!

I believe horses would suffer fewer injuries if every rider held fast to The Tack Room as a companion book because their owners would have thoroughly understood their physical characteristics and abilities. Through knowledge accessible in this book, the magnificent but humble horse, which has devoted itself to our service for thousands of years, will demonstrate the enormous potential of becoming our ultimate soul mate.

All rights to the images of Pamla Toler, Kevin Wright, William Reddaway, Rod Blackmore and Bonnie Folkins are owned by the creators. You may not copy, store in any medium (including in any other website), distribute, transmit, re-transmit, broadcast, modify, or show in public any part of this image without the prior written permission of the creator and owner. You agree not to adapt, alter, or create new work from this image or use it for any other purpose. Any unauthorized copying or editing in whole or in part is strictly prohibited. Any such action establishes liability for a civil action and may give rise to criminal prosecution.

A Long Rider Living Treasure, in 2007 Bonnie Folkins was the first equestrian explorer to venture into the remote Altai Mountains of western Mongolia in search of an ancient tribe of mounted nomads. Folkins discovered the Kazakhs, descendants of nomads who had fled the cultural genocide unleashed in the 1930s by Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. Not only were the Kazakhs still mounted, they had also retained their ancient tribal custom of hunting wolves in winter with the help of specially trained golden eagles.
The renowned photographer created astonishing images which formed a pioneering ethnic collection known as Riding with the Eagles. Subsequently Bonnie made nine equestrian journeys in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

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