When many of us go for a trail ride, we think nothing of using a "sport-specific" saddle-the one we use for western pleasure events, roping or barrel racing. Why not? A saddle is a saddle, is a saddle. That may seem true for the first hour or two, but what if you want to stay out longer? How do you know what your horse is really feeling-until he turns up tired and sore and cranky the next day?
And what about your own body? What is it telling you?
Hitting the trail for long hours in a saddle designed for an entirely different job may not be the best plan, points out Wayne Steele, who owns Custom Tree and Saddle Company in Ashland City, Tennessee.
"It's kind of like if you were going to walk a couple hundred miles. You probably wouldn't do it in your cowboy boots or high heels. You're going to have special shoes, clothes and equipment."
A Saddle for Every Body
A good trail saddle is engineered to provide comfort and stability over the long haul, for both horse and rider. In addition, it should offer convenient features that make it practical to carry water, take your lunch and tote essential gear, so you're ready for whatever forces of nature you encounter on the trail.
Saddle Savvy for the Trail
• Pounds add up, so make sure your sad-dle isn't any heavier than it needs to be.
• Put the saddle on your own horse's back to check for fit. Make sure it distributes the load evenly.
• If your saddle shop will agree to it, take the saddle out for a test ride.
• Consider terrain requirements when choosing a seat design and accessories, such as breast collar and crupper.
• Look at attachment points. Are there enough rings and strings to secure saddle bags, breast collar, crupper and poncho?
Well-designed trail saddles enable riders to stay balanced over their feet, says clinician and author Jessica Jahiel. They also permit riders to ride comfortably in a half-seat when that can help their horses-such as when going up and down steep hills, for example. A good saddle should keep riders in a natural position, which means less stiffness when the ride is over. When you step down, you should still be able to walk.
Many specialty trail saddles resemble western saddles in that they have horns, deep seats, high cantles and plenty of rigging. However, good trail saddles can also be found with English features. Such saddles may also be called "plantation" saddles, because they've been modeled after the tack that southern plantation owners used for their long days on horseback.
Trail saddles are often the most comfortable option for large riders, says Steele. Many heavy people are finding the joy and freedom that trail riding provides and are using draft and draft crosses to carry their weight. "We sold a saddle to a lady who weighed 350 pounds and rode a big Belgian horse that was 17 hands and weighed 1,800 pounds," notes Steele. Making sure the saddle fits the horse and rider correctly is extremely important, and a saddle designed for the typical stock horse frame would likely not work.
Dave DiPietra, who owns Synergist Saddles in Cheyenne, Wyoming, adds that lighter-weight riders might not have a problem using a competition saddle for trail riding, but "the heavier the weight of the rider, the more you have to start thinking about getting the right tool for the job."
If you're used to riding in an English saddle, a trail saddle may take some getting used to. "The overwhelming majority of trail saddles are built on western-style trees, so they are closer to true western saddles than English," says DiPietra. They'll be wider through the seat than an equivalent size English saddle.
4 Questions to Ask When Saddle Shopping
Dave DiPietra with Synergist Saddles in Cheyenne, Wyoming, reminds us that our horse's welfare is at stake when we go saddle shopping. Although a saddle may look and feel great when it's sitting on the stand in the shop, your horse is going to have to live with your decision on the trail. And even at its most economical best, a saddle is no minor investment.
"Let the buyer beware!" DePietra says. "Most tack shops and quite a few custom saddlemakers will sell a saddle to folks without so much as a picture of the horse, let alone some kind of physical measurements."
That's the wrong approach, he cautions. This horseman says there are four questions you should ask the shop owner or saddlemaker before buying or commissioning a saddle.
1. How do you fit the saddle to the horse?
2. Can adjustments be made?
3. How long is the trial period?
4. What is your return policy?
To accommodate riders who prefer the feel of a narrower English seat, Synergist makes a modified English trail riding saddle. The panels have about 20% more surface area than an arena saddle in the same seat size, which disperses the rider's weight more efficiently, so it's easier on the horse.
Another term you may encounter in your shopping is an Australian saddle, or Australian stock saddle. They look like true hybrids, incorporating many of the best features of English and western saddles. Some have horns, some don't, but they often have free-swinging English-style stirrups, knee rolls, and a longer skirt, more akin to a dressage saddle. Australian saddles have long been used as trail saddles because they're relatively lightweight and provide a high level of comfort.
Comfort is Key
No matter what style of trail saddle you choose, the main feature to look for is comfort over long miles of varying terrain. The seat on a trail saddle typically won't have a very high rise from the pocket, or low point, of the seat up to the pommel or swells at the front of the saddle. If you do a fair amount of riding in hilly or mountainous regions, a high rise would be a concern, as the seat would start bumping up against your pubic bone, which would be uncomfortable on long climbs. Many trail riders also forego having a saddle horn, because it can get in the way when ducking under tree branches or riding up steep hills.
Trail Saddle Accessories
Trail riding places some unusual demands on horses, riders and equipment, as you travel up and down hills, cross streams and ravines, and make your way through forests and brush. You'll need to be able to carry extra clothing, food, water and essentials, and keep your saddle in place. Here are some of the accessories that can help with that goal.
Breastcollar: A strap that encircles the horse's chest and attaches to either side of the saddle, generally through the girth rings or dee-rings at the front of the saddle skirt. Breast collars generally include a strap that runs between the horse's front legs and attaches to the girth. The breast collar helps keep the saddle from sliding back on the horse's frame, especially when going up steep trails or embankments.
Cantle bag: Pack that sits behind the rider's seat (cantle), on top of the saddle.
Crupper: Strap that attaches from a dee-ring on the rear of the saddle to a loop around the tail to prevent the saddle from slipping forward.
Pommel bag: Small pack that attaches to the pommel, swells or saddle horn.
Saddlebags: Packs that attach toward the rear of the saddle and fall on each side of the horse's flanks. Scabbards: For hunters, cases that carry rifles on horseback.
How your legs are positioned is another concern. Free swinging fenders on a trail saddle, DiPietra explains, allow the rider to adjust his position in the seat depending on the topography of the ride.
"When riding up steep hills, the horse's back legs do the majority of the work," DiPietra says, "so to take care of your horse, you need to transfer your center of gravity forward over your horse's forehand. Downhill is extremely hard on the forehand, so you need to transfer your weight to the back of your saddle."
Steele says that his company places the fork of the saddle well forward on the tree, which allows him to move the stirrup leathers forward. With many trail riders using gaited horses, such as Tennessee Walkers or Paso Finos, for trail riding, this position allows for more comfort and stability.
Although the subject of stirrups is a story unto itself, stirrups are an extremely important feature of the saddle-especially for trail riders. Everyone has their own idea of what makes a stirrup comfortable. The weight, size and shape of the bell (stirrup opening), the width of the foot platform, and the material used in the construction (some even have built-in shock absorbers), can make an extraordinary difference for riders who spend hours at a time in the saddle. The great thing about stirrups is that they are interchangeable, so if your budget allows, you can experiment, or even swap stirrups with friends, to find what fits and feels good to you.
A well designed trail saddle should also enable you to easily carry gear, a necessary convenience for riders leaving the barn for extended periods. Strategically placed dee-rings and latigo strings should offer ample places to tie belongings onto the saddle. "You can put just about anything on a trail saddle," says Jessica Jahiel.
How all this gear is loaded onto the saddle is an important consideration, Jahiel confirms. "Putting extra weight behind the saddle is hard on the horse's back, and can affect saddle balance and cause an otherwise good-fitting saddle to fit badly. It's not a question of overall weight. It's where the weight is placed. A horse will be more comfortable carrying a 200-pound rider than a 150-pound rider and 25 pounds of gear behind the saddle. You never want to get halfway to your destination and realize that you've made your horse sore and now need to start walking home. If you're on a hunting trip and planning to come back with an elk, or if you're embarking on the sort of multiple-day, long-distance camping trip that involves carrying tents, large quantities of horse and human feed, and other bulky items, you would definitely need a pack horse."
Pommel bags often make loads easier to carry than saddle bags, as horses are more comfortable with additional weight up front, Jahiel says.
Take a Test Ride
Of course, as with any saddle, how a trail saddle fits the horse is all-important. Take advantage of any demonstration saddles the tack store or manufacturer may offer, or measure exactly according to the saddler's instructions if you are buying a custom saddle.
"Consider not only the feel of the saddle for the rider, but carefully determine the fit for the horse," says Anne Fordyce, with Tucker Saddlery, Inc. "Trail horses work for miles of rugged terrain without a break, and a poorly fitting tree can do damage and affect the horse's cooperation."
As more and more riders turn to trail riding as their primary form of horseback exercise, trail saddles are becoming more and more common. And with all the styles, accessories, and gear now available out there, it's no wonder. Whether you are heading out for a wander through the woods or an overnight camping trip, a well-fitting trail saddle will help both you and your horse enjoy every step of your ride.