Check out a tack shop on any given Saturday, and you'll find doting horse owners doing what they do best -- worrying and commiserating: "Will this bit help my horse relax yet pay attention to me?" "Will this saddle pad keep my touchy horse from flinging me ass-over-hat into the dirt?" "Will this book written by (insert flavor-of-the-month trainer's name here) be the answer to all the relationship dilemmas faced by me and my horse?" (In the best -- read: least snobbish -- establishments, fellow shoppers will jump in to reassure you that they're sure you're doing fine, that your horse doesn't hate you, that everything's going to be all right.)
St. Louis is home to several good tack stores, each occupying its own geographic niche and catering to a specific group of shoppers. But the best of the bunch, to my thinking, is the Equestrian Playground, now perched -- after spending its first two years of existence in Lake St. Louis -- on the edge of the metropolitan area, out in Wentzville, Mo.
Visiting the Playground is fun because the folks who own and run it -- Mary, Tom and Kelly Durst -- are kindly people to whom no question is too stupid, no bank account too small. (This is not intended as an indictment of the Dursts' willingness to part customers from their money. On a visit to what is considered by many to be St. Louis' premier tack store, I watched as a mother introduced her daughter, who looked to be about 10, and asked whether the saleswoman could impart any wisdom with regard to horse ownership. Said saleswoman -- with only slightly less glee than what one 6-year-old takes in telling another that there's no Santa Claus -- proceeded to reel off a list of horsekeeping expenses so long, and so wildly overinflated, that I could only conclude she had sized this pair up and decided that if you have to ask, you can't afford, and why couldn't these annoying unwashed people just go away?)
People who love horses will find a way to be around them, and the Dursts know this. Whether you're a stranger or you've been in their store 100 times, whether you've owned more horses than you can count or you're keeping your very first horse in the backyard on a shoestring budget, whether you're looking for something specific or you're just having fun poking around, you'll get a warm smile, helpful service and a running commentary on local equestrian life. The Dursts keep smiling even when you drag in a horse blanket reduced to muck-encrusted shreds and announce that you'd like to dress your steed in this very blanket come winter, and can it be cleaned and repaired? (The answer is always yes, although only the reasonable cost keeps me from believing they aren't dragging the thing out back and burning it, then replacing it with a look-alike.) Need something they don't have? They'll order it. Need your saddle repaired? They'll fix it, in a flash. Need reassurance? They'll supply it -- and they won't even bill your HMO.
-- Kerry Bailey