Here's another "Guest Blogger" entry - this time, from my co-worker, Nancy Okun. In addition to her saddle fitting work here at the shop, she's also an endurance and competitive trail rider. If she's not actually competing at a ride, you can bet she'll be volunteering or crewing for a friend who is competing ... so she has plenty of personal experience in the realm of saddles that works for a horse and rider over the long haul. She's helped literally hundreds of our customers find the right trail saddle, and shares some interesting insights into the saddle needs of the competitive trail / endurance horse and rider.
In my 30's (I'm shocked to say this but that was decades ago) I ran marathons. I was a serious runner and competitor and actually attended Running Camp. Yes, there is such a thing where lanky runners talk about (what else) running, race results, diet, fartleks, hill work, weekly mileage, shoes … you get the picture. It's no wonder I wound up an endurance rider. It was at one of those running camps that I heard a world class runner say that he could easily run a mile or so in his loafers because he was conditioned, but would never think about running distance in anything but a quality pair of good fitting running shoes. I took that to heart and bought new shoes, as suggested, every 500 miles or so even if they looked fine to the eye. It was the unseen interior support system that broke down with miles of pounding. I must say that I never encountered a serious running injury in the 12 years I ran distance. That philosophy stayed with me and it can certainly be applied to saddle fit for the endurance horse.
I am in no way saying that horses in other disciplines are not athletes and that good fitting saddles are not essential for great performance. What I am saying is that a saddle that is not 100% perfect may do no harm for an easy lesson in the ring, or a short trail ride. Use that same saddle for 50 miles and you'll have a horse with a very sore back, galls and very possibly a lameness issue.
A well-fitting saddle makes the difference between finishing with a happy healthy horse or possibly having to pull due to back issues. Trust me, if your horse is not comfortable … you won't be either. If you talk to endurance riders about saddles you'll get dozens of opinions about what type of saddle to use. The bottom line is any saddle that fits your horse and allows you to be in balance is the right saddle to buy.
Weight distribution is the key. The rider's weight should be spread over the largest possible area of the horse's back. Feather weight riders have less of a problem with this, but heavy weight riders may need a saddle with more surface area, both in the seat and the panels. There are many saddles on the market today with endurance riders in mind. Some have Western designs, others English and some on the McClellan type tree. It's great if you have an opportunity to try all three on your horse to find what matches best with their body type and yours. Many riders opt for a treeless saddle with great success, but again it will depend on the rider's weight, balance and horse's body type.
One important issue is the length of the horse's back. Many - make that most - endurance riders have Arabians or Arab Crosses. Arabs have one less vertebrae than other breeds so finding that 18th thoracic vertebrae is very important. Larger riders need to take this into consideration if they are most comfortable in an 18" or larger seat. A saddle that long just may not work for a short-backed Arabian.
If you are a novice at saddle fitting it would benefit you in the long run to enlist the help of a knowledgeable saddle fitter or at least an experienced distance rider with a good eye for saddle fit. Make sure your saddle fitter understands the kind of riding you do. A saddle must not only fit the static horse but the horse in full motion over uneven terrain. You must be able to test ride the saddle for at least a week of training rides. You should know after one long ride if you can be comfortable in the seat for hour after hour. You know your horse well. Is his stride shortened? Is he reluctant to pick up a trot or canter? Is he unhappy going downhill? Has he turned to you and given you a dirty look or possibly bitten your foot? Are you feeling pitched forward or backward? Are there changes in his heart rate and recoveries? Or … are you smiling and tinking, "Wow, he's never moved better and I've never felt more balanced"?
Endurance riders send me the greatest photos of sweat patterns! They ride enough miles to make the sweat patterns mean something! If your horse is really wet from a long ride and there is a glaring dry spot or ruffled hairs…those are red flags for sure.
The help of a good saddle fitter is essential. Endurance riders need their saddles flocked more than most riders due to compression mile after mile. A good saddle pad with shimming capabilities is essential if you compete your horse hard all season. A fit horse can lose a considerable percentage of water weight during a single day 50 or 100 mile ride. I've seen many riders assess fit at holds and insert a shim where needed to keep the saddle balanced. And, what looks like a perfect fit at the first ride of the spring will look very different on that fire-eating, super-fit Arabian in the late fall!
Endurance riders are great at listening to their horses so I trust them implicitly when I send them a saddle and they report back to me. Almost always what I see in their saddle assessment photos concur with what they told me on the phone about their ride experience.
Lastly … the money issue. Money is always tight especially for riders with a full season of events planned. My strong advice is to spend the very most you can on a good quality saddle. I'm not saying it has to be a $3000 saddle ... but a saddle, and shoeing, are not the places to skimp in this sport. It's the difference between running a marathon in a pair of Wal-Mart Keds vs. a pair of expensive Nike running shoes!