Between You and Your Horse
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
When it comes to personal gear for the trail rider, there is nothing more personal than the saddle. You probably have opinions about what you like to see in a saddle, and if you have been riding for several years, your experience has likely shifted those opinions somewhat. Spending long days in the saddle gives us an understanding and an appreciation for what we find comfortable, what fits the horse, quality of the saddle, and the accessories we find useful.
When I think about saddle comfort I think about my old friend, Dave Bergen. He planned to take his first wilderness ride with us at the tender age of 79. Dave rode and trained horses on Saskatchewan ranches as far back as he could remember, back when a person could make a living by farming. He asked me if he could bring his own saddle and I obliged. Actually, I looked forward to meeting this saddle, likely a quality, custom built, old roper with a history as deep and lined as the wrinkles on Dave’s face. Well, when he pulled the saddle out of his car’s trunk I nearly fell down in the dirt. It was a cheap, black thing, a pleasure saddle with a red seat and a lump at the crotch high enough to make a cowboy sing high notes after a mile’s ride. Sensing my disappointment, he quietly said, “It don’t look like much, but it’s sure comfortable.”
Now, 24 years later, after riding many saddles, including a custom built prize, when I head to the saddle rack to pick out a saddle for a long day’s ride, like Dave, the saddle with the most comfortable seat draws me like a horse to oats. Important considerations such as who made the saddle, the quality of the leather, the quality of the tree, and the colour, suddenly take a back seat to the simple fact that at the end of the day I do not want painfully sore legs and a sore butt.
When choosing comfort you really must sit in a variety of seats to feel what suits you best. A saddle shop is a good place to do this. Be sure the stirrups are properly adjusted; when your legs hang loose your ankles should be even with the bottom of the stirrups.
Consider the size of the seat, measured in inches, from the swell to the cantle. Some riders feel that a saddle should fit snugly, that extra room leads to sloppy riding and too much unnecessary movement. Like many trail riders, I am constantly shifting to get stuff out of saddle bags, putting on and taking off clothing, glassing with binoculars, and getting in and out of the saddle seat from every terrain and position imaginable. For those reasons, and because I have a bum knee that needs shifting regularly, I prefer a slightly larger seat than I really need. For my 33-inch waist size, a 15-inch seat works, but a 16-inch works better.
Riders with a bigger butt often find that a saddle with a wide back section and narrower crotch area fit well. Skinny, long legged types can get away with those high-backed oldtimers with a seat that is wide from front to back.
Padded seats add comfort for many riders. Smooth seats, as opposed to rough-out seats, shed water better and slide better against clothing, creating less friction between your clothing and your skin. Some riders lay a sheepskin on the seat for comfort. Sitting in a sheepskin-lined seat after a long day feels so good it should be illegal, but it does tend to keep you further away from the feel of your horse.
This trail saddle is a great setup: good sized saddle bags, a ring to tie your lead rope to (to keep the bulk off your saddle horn), properly adjusted chest collar, stirrup hoods, and a back cinch to keep sticks from jamming into the horse. Photo: Courtesy of Blue Creek Outfitting
Your saddle needs to fit the horse as well. If it does not fit properly, then the horse can become irritated and uncomfortable, which may affect his disposition and your ride. Poor fit may create rubs and sores. Horses can learn to resent riders because of past experiences with poor fitting saddles. You should know that there are literally more than a 100 designs and shapes of saddle trees.
Take your saddle, and without the pad, place it on your horse’s back in the proper position: the spot where the front cinch is about two inches behind the point of the elbow. It should fit like a glove, with no gaps or pressure points, and with enough room in the gullet so that the inside of the gullet will not press against the withers. If you place the saddle on the horse’s back and it seems to lift off his back as if “perched” on top, then the saddle bars are too narrow. If the saddle is sloppy and loose and slides around, then the bars are likely too flat or wide.
When you consider the variety in the conformation of horses, from swaybacks, to high withers, to flat backs or mutton withers, it is unrealistic to assume that your saddle fits properly without checking to be sure that it fits properly. Saddles need to fit snugly, with both bars engaged, in order to minimize movement, friction, distribute weight evenly, and reduce pressure points. If you find yourself with a swaybacked or high withered horse, you can get by with carving, shaving, and gluing pieces of felt into the hollow areas.
At Blue Creek Outfitting, we need to interchange our many saddles with our many horses, so over the years we have bred and bought horses with sturdy backs and withers of average build, and purchase common Quarter Horse type roping saddles that generally fit very well.
Most trail riders have a personal preference when it comes to the design of the saddle, and the types of forks, swells, cantles, skirts, and fenders they want. In our outfit, we do not use slick fork designs because we like some swell for those rare moments when we might need to butt knees up against the swell to keep the seat, such as when going down a steep hill and losing the stirrups. On the other hand, we do not see the need for large, undercut swells as they are never engaged when riding properly anyhow, and offer little security if you are about to get bucked off.
If you plan to use your riding saddle as a pack saddle once in a while, which is not difficult to do, you will want a saddle with some weight, a sturdy tree (preferably rawhide), and a full skirt.
We avoid saddles with cantles so low that they seem to have little cantle at all. These low-backed seats may be easier to slide into, but they are too easy to slide out of when bouncing over all types of terrain.
Your trail saddle should have a good sized horn, two to three inches across the top, and enough length to allow you to dally your lead rope and the lead rope of the pack horse as well. Avoid high, narrow, post-type horns like the plague. They are dangerous. A saddlemaker from Oliver, BC, once told me that when he was a boy, his dad was killed when his long, skinny, post-type horn jammed into his gut and ruptured his internal organs.
Rigging is the gear that holds the saddle to the horse. It may consist of metal rings, leather straps, and metal brace skirt mounts. Trail saddles get abused; the tougher the trail, the more abuse. They get knocked against trees, scraped, banged, tied with lead ropes, reefed on from pack horses, and even rolled on. It is very important that your rigging is attached to the tree in a durable and secure manner. Compare saddles and talk to saddle makers to understand the security of these attachments. Ply apart the skirts and study the screws, nails, and staples, and see the difference between quality and cheap. Generally, we find it easier to tie up the latigo on rings than in skirt mounts; we have had skirt mounts pull out of the skirts over the years. However, these days some quality saddles are built with solid, easy-to-use, skirt mounts.
This crouper is on a pack saddle but can also be used on your trail saddle to prevent it from sliding forward. Photo: Courtesy of Blue Creek Outfitting
Because trail saddles are often laden with saddle bags, horn packs, cantle packs, axes, gun scabbards, and who knows what, we find it important to stabilize the load with a secure back cinch. Similarly, sturdy saddles with a back cinch help stabilize the sway from large riders and difficult terrain. If you do not keep your back cinch snug then take it off, because it is doing nothing at all except providing a space to jam a stick into your horse’s gut, a very real event that hurts horses, creates wrecks, and hurts people.
You do not need saddle bags or a cantle pack larger than these. Balance the load on your trail saddle. If you place an axe, firearm, or weight in your saddle bag on one side, place similar weight on the other side. Photo: Courtesy of Blue Creek Outfitting
A properly adjusted chest strap (three inches of space when you pull it forward) keeps your saddle from slipping back while riding up hills, especially if your horse does not have a good sized gut. A crouper is a good idea if you find that your saddle tends to easily slip forward when riding down hills. Many heavy riders rely on a crouper.
When riding wilderness trails there are times when walking is necessary, and hiking is often part of the wilderness traveler’s regular day, so riding boots give way to hiking boots. Hiking or walking boots require larger stirrups and they should be changed to match your activity. Never, never, ride with a stirrup that is so snug your boot is held in place by the stirrup. Always practice losing and recovering your stirrup. Train your stirrups to stay at ninety degrees to your saddle. The old method of turning them and sticking a stick or broom handle through them works. Avoid plastic stirrups with no leather coverings as the plastic is extremely slippery.
Stirrup hoods or tapaderos are an excellent idea. They protect your footwear, keep your feet warmer, help prevent your foot from getting stuck, and most important, prevent sticks from getting jammed through the stirrup and into the horse’s gut.
Large cantle packs, saddle bags, or horn packs make mounting and dismounting difficult, a may actually be very dangerous on the trail in situations where getting in and out of your saddle quickly could help you avoid serious injury. Photo: Courtesy of Blue Creek Outfitting
For serious trail riders, saddle bags are a must. They carry many important goods like gloves, hats, lunch, cameras, optics, and whatever you find necessary. Horn packs and cantle packs or rolls are commonly used as well. Our cantle pack consists of rolled up rain gear with a warm jacket inside. Avoid large, bulky packs and rolls as they inhibit your mounting and dismounting and can be dangerous in tight situations. Saddle bags stick out so they take a lot of abuse. Invest in heavy leather bags no more than 10 inches across. Mount them securely with at least four attachment points.
Quality leather is purchased in light, medium, and heavy, so a quality trail saddle does not have to be overly heavy to be good; 30 to 35 pounds is a good weight. Weight does help stabilize the load but a proper saddle fit is more important in stabilizing the load. Quality leather sheds water like a slicker but poor leather soaks it up, which makes for a wetter rider, and makes the leather rot sooner.
We purchase most of our saddles used because we would rather buy a $2,000 saddle used for $900, than a $900 saddle new. When buying used, check for a cracked tree by placing the saddle on its side and pressing down. If it has a hinged feel, the tree is cracked and the saddle is not worth buying. Pull back hard on the horn. There should be no give whatsoever. Look between the skirts and study the tree. Plastic is okay (Rawlide™) but rawhide covered wood is better. We always avoid cloth or leather covered wood. Many of the cheap made saddles have poorly shaped trees, flat bars, and a poor fit. We find that a decent used roper or an association makes a great trail saddle. If your trail riding consists of an hour or two around the farm and you are not a very heavy rider, then a lighter pleasure saddle will be fine.
Any good saddle maker can tell you in a minute what went into making your saddle. Finding a personal saddle that feels right for your horse, and feels right between you and your horse, can be an educational and enjoyable journey. Happy saddle hunting and happy trails!
Main article photo: This riding saddle is being readied for gear bags. Packing your riding saddle opens up new possibilities for the trail rider, allowing you to walk into a remote area to camp, then ride when you get there. Photo courtesy of Blue Creek Outfitting.