1. Check saddle design. The way your saddle fits your horse is the key to his comfort and soundness on the trail. The bars ? the part of the saddle tree that lie on either side of your horse's spine ? should lie along the back muscles without touching the spine itself. The saddle's front arch should be high enough to leave your horse's withers free. The saddle fit should also be wide enough and angled so that his shoulders can slide back and forth freely.
2. Watch for shape-changing. Horses can change shape for any number of reasons, including weight gain or loss, muscle gain or loss, or simply due to the aging process. A saddle that was perfect for last year's trail rides might not be perfect this year.
3. Select the right cinch. If your saddle doesn't fit, don't count on the cinch to put things right. Over-tightening the front cinch will only make your horse uncomfortable and will not make the saddle fit correctly. If your saddle is double-rigged to accommodate a back cinch, use both cinches, and don't forget your connector strap for security. Select a cinch that's easy to clean, won't pick up trail detritus, and won't rub or pinch your horse. Mohair cinches are tops, but neoprene cinches are a close second. (Caveat: Unlike mohair, a neoprene cinch doesn't breathe and can be overtightened.) Avoid fleece and faux-fleece, which are burr magnets.
4. Consider a back cinch. Consider a back cinch if your trails are steep, or if you're not entirely secure in the saddle. A back cinch stabilizes a saddle, which leads to rider stability, as well. (Tip: Before you hit the trail in a back cinch for the first time, saddle your horse and longe or lead him, so he gets used to the feel. Check for any rubbing.)
5. Consider a breast collar and crupper. These saddle add-ons provide security ? and will help reduce saddle-sore risk ? especially on hills. A breastcollar will help prevent your saddle from sliding toward your horse's rump going uphill, while a crupper ? which runs from the back of the saddle under your horse's tail ? will help prevent the saddle from sliding forward while going downhill.
6. Add tie rings and saddle strings. If your best, most comfortable trail saddle needs more points of attachment for your on-trail needs, take it to a tack shop or saddlemaker, and have them added on.
7. Check seat fit. Your saddle's seat should be comfortable. Check fit before the first trail ride of the year. You should be able to stand in your stirrups and sit down again without moving your lower legs or feeling as though you're going to fall forward onto your horse's neck.
8. Invest in wide stirrups. Wide, flat stirrups will give you maximum support over the ball of your foot. Consider investing in special trail stirrups with extra-wide treads. Also look for shock-absorbing pads, which can enhance foot and joint comfort.
9. Don't fight the stirrup. If you ride in a Western saddle, and are plagued with sore ankles and knees, you might be trying to keep your feet pointing forward in stirrups whose natural position is sideways! Add a "stirrup straight" device to each stirrup.
10. Go light. Consider investing in a lightweight trail saddle. Saddles made specifically for trail riding tend to weigh less than those made for roping and other Western events. (bug)
Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.jessicajahiel.com), is an internationally recognized clinician and lecturer, and an award-winning author of books on horses, riding, and training. Her e-mail newsletter (www.horse-sense.org) is a popular worldwide resource.