I'm doing a twofer in this installment, because I think it's difficult to talk about the saddle without the pad and vice-versa. Obviously both are crucial on a long ride because of the sheer amount of time spent in the saddle. An ill-fitting saddle or a poor quality pad will end a long ride quicker than anything else, and long riders should ensure their horse(s) comfort comes first from the moment they hit the trail until the moment they reach the end of the trail. It's important to know though -- there is no such thing as the perfect saddle or the perfect pad, especially on a long ride. They will all have their shortcomings eventually. Your goal is to find the right product for you and your horse that minimizes the problems of long distance riding.
Our saddle is a Cheyenne Frontier Trail Saddle from Tucker Saddlery. I chose this saddle, in part, because it is the same saddle used by Bernice Ende, the famous Lady Long Rider who has racked up more than 20,000 miles in her saddle. I cannot think of better proof of a saddle's quality than that! And indeed, on our journey of more than 1,100 miles, this saddle proved to be worth every penny.
My first consideration was weight. Some traditional western saddles can weigh 40 pounds or more! But, when you are light-packing and riding on one horse, every pound counts. My preference for maximum weight limit on a long ride is 200 pounds -- that includes the rider, saddle, and gear. This saddle weighs about 29 pounds, which is more than the saddle I used on my first ride, but still within the acceptable range to keep everything under 200 pounds.
The saddle fit Sage well, at least initially. About 500 miles into the ride, Sage's body shape began to change and the saddle began to fit differently. This isn't the fault of the saddle, but merely the inevitable result of such a dramatic increase in physical activity. As Sage became more toned, his topline narrowed and saddle became too wide. I inspected Sage twice daily for any signs of saddle sores, but we never had any problems, even with the changes in body shape. Long riders need to pay attention for changes in saddle fit and make adjustments as necessary. What I particularly liked about this saddle, was the freedom of movement it allowed Sage's shoulders. Too many people use saddles that restrict the movement of their horse's shoulder blades. (That can also just be a result of putting the saddle on too far forward.) I also like the deep gullet of this saddle, which meant there was never any direct pressure on Sage's withers or spine - even when he changed shape.
This saddle was also extremely comfortable for me to ride in. A lot of people we met on the trail jokingly asked if my butt hurt after riding for so many miles, but honestly, it never did! Tucker's patented Gel-Cush seat is shock-absorbing and kept my butt comfy for 6-10 hours of riding a day. I also never once had knee pain. I have degenerative joint disease in both knees, which in the past with other saddles, has caused pain after only a few hours of riding. I was very glad that I opted for the Ergo-Balance Trail Glide stirrups when I ordered this saddle. This saddle also has plenty of saddle strings and rings for attaching saddle bags, bed rolls, or other gear.
Tucker Saddles are fairly customizable; you choose the color, tooling, rigging, skirt, hardware, fenders, and stirrups. Before I purchased the saddle, I sent tracings and measurements of Sage's back to the company and they suggested the proper tree width. One more note -- I have been very happy with Tucker's customer service. When I initially received my saddle the horn leather was slightly damaged. Tucker immediately offered to take the saddle back after our ride and make repairs at no cost to me.
What goes under your saddle is also very important. We used a pad from 5 Star Equine Products, specifically the All Around 30" x 30" in a 1 inch thickness. These pads are 100% virgin wool, which is excellent for absorption of moisture. The tensile strength of wool also prevents compression.
Overall I was very happy with this pad during the ride. It fit the saddle well, has a nice contoured shape, and held up to rigorous daily use. Even in the most strenuous trail conditions it was breathable. However, when Sage's body shape began to change we did experience some slippage with the pad. Eventually I had to rig a strap through the wither hole and tighten it to the saddle horn to keep the pad with the saddle. Again, this wasn't necessarily the fault of the pad, but the changing fit of the saddle over time. The saddle pad was easy to clean each week in camp. It comes with a little sponge-like cleaning thing, but a curry comb worked too.
Toward the end of the ride, I did notice something strange. The pad itself began to develop creases or kinks in the wool - which caused creasing in Sage's hair, almost like a finger wave hairstyle. The creasing has not come out, despite regular brushing. I do not know what caused the creasing in the pad -- perhaps it was too much use, too much movement when the saddle starting fitting differently, or perhaps I did not clean it well enough. I reached out to 5 Star for their opinion and they recommended a new pad. My concern would be that over time the friction from the creases would cause rub marks. I was happy that our ride ended before I could find out.
Long riding is unlike any other kind of riding. It takes a toll on everything, including tack, so you have to be willing to accept some imperfections and adapt as needed. The most important thing, however, is that you aren't developing saddle sores, rub marks, galling, or any unseen damage to your horse's spine.
Last week I had our equine chiropractor come do a post-ride assessment and adjustment on Sage. After 1,100+ consecutive miles I was sure he probably needed it. But other than a few tweaks for flexibility, Sage didn't need much. In particular, the chiropractor said his back was showing no signs of ill-effects from such a long ride. I absolutely credit that to our choice in saddle and pad.
Hoof protection might be one of the most important things to consider for a long ride. Riding in Nevada is especially tough on the hoof, as the terrain can be incredible challenging. It's amazing how much the footing can change mile to mile -- from decomposed granite to boulders to gravel to dirt to pavement. We saw it all on our recent ride, and that's why I was very careful to make sure Sage's hooves were protected.
I have nothing against traditional metal horse shoes, but Sage has been barefoot his whole life. Instead of shoes, we use boots on tough trails. There are many companies that make hoof boots. I've tried several of them, but ultimately used Easyboots from EasyCare Inc. for my 2013 and 2016 rides.
There are a lot advantages to hoof boots. They're removable. You just put them and take them off each day. They're relatively custom fit, as they come in different sizes. If you send your horse's hoof measurements and photos of each hoof to EasyCare they will recommend which style of boot is best for your horse. Sage wears the Easyboot Epics, which have a semi-aggressive tread - perfect for extreme trail conditions. For our recent ride, I recycled some of my old boots from our 2013 ride and purchased several sets of new boots. Nevada's terrain did not disappoint and the boots were certainly put to the test. Sage wore the boots every single day of our 1,100+ mile ride, in sand, dirt, rocks, mud, snow, water, and more.
Overall I love Easyboots. There is no question that they have protected Sage's hooves on both of our rides. With so many other things to worry about on the trail, it's nice to not have to worry about chipping of the hoof wall, stone bruises, punctures, or any other hoof ailment. People we met on the trail were often shocked we weren't using traditional horse shoes! But they were very intrigued when I showed them the Easyboots.
Despite the name, these boots are not easy to put on - but I suppose that's a good thing since you want them to stay on once you do get them on. They're especially hard to put on when it's below freezing. We lost a few boots early on in the ride, which was a result of me not putting them on properly. We also broke some boots during the ride: snapped cables in extremely rocky terrain, broken buckles, and torn gaiters. We actually wore through the toes of some of the boots! But they're meant to take a beating. Better the boot than your horse's hoof! Easyboots come with repair kits. Snapped cables, broken buckles, even torn gaiters can be repaired, which is great.
Easyboots aren't cheap, especially if you need as many I did for our long ride. Because of the investment, I went to great lengths to not lose them! I had to turn around a few times to retrieve boots that had fallen off. Several times Sage stepped into boggy areas and the suction would pull off a boot -- I went elbow deep in the muck to pull them out! Mud was always a problem to ride in. Even with the good traction on the Easyboots, Sage was slipping and sliding.
But I really credit the Easyboots for getting us through tough country with no problems. If you're interested in trying them out, you can use EasyCare's dealer search online (http://www.easycareinc.com/Search/Dealer.aspx) to find a rep near you. But I also recommend trying other boots from other companies to find the right product for your horse.
I have always been enamored by riding skirts of the past, so when I saw that someone was bringing them back for modern women riders, I just knew I had to have one!
Arctic Horse is a small, women-owned business based in Alaska. They make a variety of skirts for a variety of trail conditions. Prior to my 2016 ride, I ordered a Backcountry Trail Skirt so I could put it to the ultimate test in some of Nevada's harshest terrain. I absolutely fell in love with it on the trail. This is no cheap quality product thrown together. It is made from high quality and durable materials and incredibly well-made. It features snaps that keep the skirt up and open for mounting. The waxed canvas outer layer protected my legs from tall sagebrush and other brush. The lined inner layer kept my legs warm when the temperature dropped. When the rain came, it kept me dry. When I fell on barbed wire the skirt saved my butt - literally. But most of all, you just feel cool wearing it! This skirt is a must-have for the serious trail rider. Forget chaps - bring back skirts!
The Backcountry Trail Skirt retails for $299. Arctic Horse donates a portion of each sale to a non-profit of the buyer's choice. Keep your eye on their Facebook page for occasional sales. It's worth adding that these skirts are not adjustable and cannot be taken in, so be very sure about your sizing.
The latest updates from Samantha on the Nevada Discovery Ride.