While I grew up riding western, I’ve ridded in many parts of the world on various types of saddles ranging from Australian stock saddles, to racing, endurance, dressage, and gaucho saddles.
In this day and age us riders typically ride for a few hours at a time and handling one basic task at that i.e. jumping, trail rides, reining, a ride with friends around the pasture… When it came down to choosing a saddle that would hold steady over rough terrain, had proper placements for my gear, and wouldn’t kill either my or my horse’s back, I had no idea where to even begin to look.
Why not bareback?
Isn’t riding bareback the most natural form of riding horses?
The main issue with this is that when you plant yourself atop your horse’s back without a saddle or pad, your weight is directly pushed down onto two very small points on either side of your horse’s spine. This might be okay for a short ride, but on longer rides will kill your horse’s back and could cause a lot of damage.
Properly built saddles are designed to help disperse a person’s weight across a horse’s back without pressing down on the withers or kidneys.
Many people logically assumed that I’d be using a traditional gaucho saddle (recado) for the Patagone journey seeing as I’m living in Argentina.
There are two main types of saddle that you find here in Patagonia. One of them is the tipo chilena (Chilean type) which was more commonly known in Patagonia for riding in the mountains as it is supported with a saddle tree. See below:
The tipo chilena saddle was used by gauchos and local people in Patagonia until the northern gauchos introduced the saddle from the pampas (chaqueno or ricado). These are a flat type of saddle (as seen below) constructed with two tubes (bastos) stuffed with horse hair. This sits on either side of the horse’s spine and doesn’t offer much support for long-term rides. Then the top is made with various throws of leather and sheepskin for added comfort. The gauchos used these saddles in the pampas as they’re comfortable for the rider and are often doubled as a bed.
Typically, a gaucho working on an estancia will have several horses to pick and choose from for their day to day rides, unlike my ride where I will need to care for the same two horses for the duration of the 3-4 month ride. Therefore, finding a saddle that will preserve a horse’s back over a long period of time is a must. While the gaucho saddles are both comfortable and useful, my search would eventually lead me to something a bit lighter and equally as comfortable for my horse.
A Good Long-Distance Saddle
Thanks to CuChullaine from The Long Rider’s Guild, I came to meet another long rider by the name of Lisa D. Stewart, who at age 22 rode over 3,000 miles across The United States. On this journey she and her former husband designed a saddle that was more suited for horse’s backs on long rides and later patented the saddle, Ortho-Flex.
While Ortho-Flex isn’t currently making saddles anymore, there are many still out there being sold through sites like Ebay or Craigslist. Timberline Saddles are also very similar and use the same system as Ortho-Flex to build their saddles.
Photo: Thor Heyerdahl from The Kon-Tiki and Russian Long Rider Vladimir Fissenko in an Ortho-Flex saddle. Image courtesy of Vladimir Fissenko, who has ridden over 19,000 miles from Ushuaia, Argentina to Alaska.
This is particularly important for both horse and rider, especially for longer trips. Whatever kind of saddle you decide to trail ride in, whether it’s an english saddle, western, etc. it must fit well as to not cause any physical damage to both you and your horse.
“The cause of these problems may be so simple it is complicated. It lies between the rider’s seat and the horse’s back—the saddle. Very few people ever question whether their saddle truly is designed to safely transfer hundreds of pounds of concussion over a large enough area of the horse’s back to prevent bruising. It is as if the saddle were invisible.
The vast majority of riders will confidently state, “My horse has never had a sore back. My saddle fits him well.” How do they know this? Do they know how to detect edema (fluid) under the skin from the early stages of a bruise? Do they know the correct procedure for detecting soreness caused by friction? Can they palpate the correct muscles with the right amount of pressure in the right way to determine if there is deep muscle soreness?“ -Lisa D. Stewart in her article Saddling for the 21st Century
For Your Horse
The saddle placement on your horse should still allow its shoulders to freely move when walking. The front of the saddle tree should be resting about 2 fingers’ width behind your horse’s should blades. Try to lift the blankets and saddle up off the withers to allow plenty of air flow. This can be one of the most sensitive areas on their back. Your saddle should disperse the weight from behind your horse’s shoulder blades to the end of the rib cage, the strongest area of your horse’s back. The loin and kidney regions are weak points as you should be careful not to put weight on these areas.
If your horse is acting extra agitated or aggressive while saddling, it could be that he’s in pain. Look for any small patches of white hair which indicate that you have a pressure point.
Saddle Fit for You
One highlight of the Ortho-Flex saddle is that it flexes more than many others, preventing hip and lower back pain. The biggest mistake that riders make is purchasing a saddle that is far too big for them. The saddle should support you atop the horse. There are many measuring guides online that can help fit you to the type of saddle you’re looking at purchasing.
I’m using a sheepskin saddle cushion on my ride. The wool keeps you cooler in summer, warmer in winter, and adds that extra cushion that many saddles don’t offer. Check for any buckles or clips that might rub you over time and take them off or tape them over.
Nice wide stirrups with shock-absorbing bottoms are helpful for both your knees and ankles. Riding Warehouse has solid options for endurance, western, and english riders: http://www.ridingwarehouse.com/searchresults.html?search=products&searchtext=stirrups The fenders of the saddle should have a lot of bend and flex as to help with knee pain.
Photo: The first time I test-rode Bandido last December before he became a permanent part of the Patagone team. A traditional gaucho saddle (as seen above).
I learned the hard way that saddles are much like boots… break them in slowly. Don’t take a brand new saddle out for an all day ride or you’ll go home with legs full of bruises.
Finding your perfect saddle takes time and energy, but when you do find the right fit you’ll be set for endless miles of smiles.
Thank you to our principal sponsor: Guayaki Yerba Mate to the associate sponsors: Simply Native Foods, Woolrich, Adventure Medical Kits, Granite Gear, Ruffwear, Riding Warehouse, Hilleberg, and Custom PackRigging.