Endurance and competitive trail saddles lead tough lives. They're consistently drenched with rain, ridden in scorching heat, mounted from the ground, bespattered with trail muck and festooned with sponges, protective hoof boots, heart rate monitors, water bottles and all the other accessories that endurance/CTR riders carry. They also consistantly play second banana to the horse: if you're at a hold and it's hot and you need to get your horse's pulse and respiration down, the saddle WILL get soaked when your horse is sponged down. And if it's a long hold and the vet asks you to take the saddle off, it may wind up sitting unprotected on the ground, maybe propped against something ... or not. These saddles see more use than probably any other "recreational" saddle - literally thousands of miles and hundreds of hours. And sometimes they're literally "rode hard and put away wet".
That sort of use is hard on a saddle. Even if the rider is conscientious about the care their saddle receives, the use will take its toll. I've done strip flocks on trail saddles and found mold and mildew, wet wool in the panels and rust on the spring bars and rivets of the tree ... and given the conditions these saddles are ridden in, there's really no way to avoid that. Additionally, although the wood of the tree is a varnished laminate, water will penetrate, and wet wood is softer and more flexible than dry ...
This past Wed., 8/11, one of my most active endurance / CT customers, Jenny Kimberly, brought me her almost 5 yr. old Black Country Equinox. She and her mare Lyric been doing a 50 mile ride when she noticed that her saddle was squeaking at the pommel when she rose to the trot, so she brought it to me to check. Jenny is one of those riders who may not clean her saddle as often as would be ideal, but I know she's very conscientious about making sure it's taken care of, dried properly and stored properly - and it's a saddle that I've maintained regularly, including one strip flock and a billet replacement. So I knew it was highly unlikely that the saddle had been mishandled. During the initial flex test, I could make the saddle squeak, but there was no detectable movement in the head plate. I dropped the panels, peeled back the gullet cover, and a rusted rivet head dropped onto my bench. When I tucked my fingers between the head plate and gullet cover to fold it back, two more rivet heads slid off. The bottom headplate had two hairline cracks:
There was a crack in the edge of the upper head plate, too (I didn't pull the seat off the saddle, so honestly can't say whether this was real damage or just a nick in the metal). You can also see all three headless rivets, and a loose rivet head peeking out from the front of the head plate:
And here's the rust on the metal reinforcements and spring bars - amazing:
Obviously, this saddle has seen more (and harder) use in under 5 years than many saddles see in a lifetime. When I asked Jenny to give me a rough estimate of how many miles she's put in that saddle, she thought for a moment, and said, "Well, I know it's been at least three thousand competitive miles. And then there's conditioning ... I ride about three or four times a week; I do a lesson or two in the ring each week - those are about an hour, hour and a quarter. I also do a couple conditioning rides - the shorter ones are in the 6 mile range, and the longer ones are 10-15 miles."
Let's do the math. If Jenny rides an average of 20 miles a week for conditioning (and I'm including ring work in that number), that comes to 1040 miles a year. We'll take a few miles off to compensate for recovery from competition, Jenny going on vacation, etc., and call it 850 miles a year. That would mean that in 4 1/2 years, she's ridden 3,825 conditioning miles. Tack the 3000 competition miles onto that, and you're looking 6,825 miles - that's two and a half trips across the continental US - almost a quarter of the way around the world.
Tell me the mere thought of that doesn't make your butt sore. Many riders don't put that many miles and hours in the saddle in 20 years, let alone four and a half, and usually not in the rotten weather that so often seems to accompany competitions (and conditioning rides) in the endurance / CTR world.
Of course, Jenny is entered in the VT 100 Mile Competitive Trail Ride, which takes place Labor Day weekend. She does have another saddle she can use, but she'd really prefer to have her old faithful Equinox (and in all honesty, it's great press for us and for Black Country to have high-level competitors like Jenny riding in our saddles) ... So I e-mailed Nikki Newcombe, Black Country's Sales Manager, and explained the situation. Now, many sales managers would have asked me a bunch of questions: "Has the saddle been in an accident?" "Did the owner drop it, or was she careless with it?" "Did the horse roll on it?" and the like. But not Nikki. She took my word on it, and told me that she would send a replacement as soon as possible ... but since the saddle had been built to template rather than on a stock tree, she'd have to find the template and have the tree sized. And on Monday 8/16 - only three business days later - we had the specially sized tree in hand from the amazing Nikki at Black Country in Walsall, England. We boxed it up, along with the old saddle, and sent it to Patty Barnett at East Crow Saddlery, who will have it reassembled and back to us by late next week. (Amazingly, Patty says it takes about 6 hours to re-tree a saddle. This seems like magic to me; I MUST get down to see her and add to my skill set asap.) So, with luck, Jenny will have Old Faithful back in plenty of time to use it in the VT 100.
So many, many thanks to Nikki Newcombe, Rob Cullen, John Hartley and all the folks at Black Country Saddlery. This is the sort of customer service that raises a company above the run-of-the-mill, cements customer (and retailer) loyalty, and becomes the benchmark for which other companies should strive.