Saddles: constructive, destructive, defensive?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Most people who ride horses at some point or other use a saddle.

For as many people riding horses there are at least as many opinions about Saddles… style, fit strategies, size, weight, placement, tree type (if one at all), then add the question of pads… material, shape, thickness, shim, more, less… and if anyone has been riding horses more than one year it’s likely they’ve held several different very strong opinions as well.

I don’t know a single horse owner who hasn’t struggled with the saddle dilemma in some form. Some are fortunate enough to have a slight issue that gets easily solved.

Most have more serious situation that results in multiple saddles bought and sold to sort out something the horse and rider can live with. Some end up with severe problems that seem to take endless resources and no good answers regardless of how many experts consulted and dollars are spent.

Something I’ve found confounding is watching some of the folks who’ve suffered the most dead ends have gone through custom saddle fitters-makers who have had a saddle made to fit the exact horse. Few people I’ve known who have tried that have been successful with their custom saddle problem-free for very long.

My journey has been somewhere in the middle- I’ve had rubs, pain and white hairs develop in all the horses I’ve owned at some point and needed to change and adjust my program to make the horse more comfortable and have had decent luck finding something that was workable for the horse.

Here are some bullet points I have confidence as truths I’ve learned:

  • The worst place for saddle fit advice is Facebook.
  • Most people who’ve struggled to a breakthrough in a saddle fit dilemma thinks the saddle they found will be the answer to others who are struggling.
  • The answer to any saddle question depends on a lot of variables between both horse and rider and include ability and confidence of rider.
  • A saddle that fits great while a horse is standing still may not be a great saddle after 50 miles of riding in it.
  • A saddle that fits great in June may not fit so great in January.
  • A saddle that fits in 2018 may not fit in 2020.
  • The worst place for saddle fit advice is Facebook. (Yes I know I listed that twice!)

It is a great mystery to me how people used horses for so many miles in transportation all those years ago and somehow didn’t lame, cripple or kill the animals in the process yet having way way fewer options to choose from and probably less resources available.

Since getting khaleesi 4 years ago as an unstarted 4-yr old I’ve used 6 saddles and a bareback pad not including ones I’ve borrowed to try for various periods of time.

Started her with an inexpensive western saddle for stability. It was ok at first but quickly became too narrow at the withers.

Tried out then bought a paragon Granada saddle – supposedly great for gaited horses and a good inexpensive saddle. I loved it for a while and seemed fine for K. But the position was too feet forward for my trotting ‘gaited’ horse. I had a hard time finding my balance to post so I moved on to a used …

Wintec adjustable with the CAIR system. This seemed great for a young horse still developing her body. The saddle could grow with her! Unfortunately I was getting pressure points and sore spots no matter what I did.

In the end I wondered if my unadvanced riding skills were coupled with a minimal surface area to distribute the posting impact on her back and something with a better tree would help. Nothing I tried made the saddle more comfortable for her so I sold it and moved to an endurance style saddle that had been wonderful for Faygo.

Working with the folks at Phoenix Rising was great. I have a good friend who has been riding in their saddles for many years. The saddles hold up well to much trail riding abuse and the horses are happy in them. I borrowed one temporarily from her and found that khaleesi was better in this saddle than the wintec. I bought an endurance style standard tree that fit her topline splendidly.

Life was good and we were off doing 25-30 mile limited distance riding and though it was fine at first, after a few months I began to get rubbing and eventually sore places. Honestly I didn’t want to think about it! I found the right saddle! It fit when I bought it. Was working great… why would that change?

Luckily Faygo had the wide tree model and although when I bought the standard tree the wide had fallen down onto Khaleesi’s spine (confirmation it was the wrong size!) now it seemed to fit beautifully. So saddle #5 was the Phoenix Rising wide tree.

Now all was good enough to begin to move up distance and khaleesi and I began to compete in 50-55 mile endurance rides.

I stumbled upon a riding coach who saw the saddle and had not thought much of it at first. After seeing us ride in it though she said Khaleesi likes it, she moves freely in it- and you guys are good.


Then almost a year later in working with the same coach I asked her how she found khaleesi’s back, topline and saddle fit. I wasn’t having problems but I valued her extensive experience and knowledge and only had access to it a couple times a year. She had an interesting approach.

(2016 was when the standard PR tree began causing problems. Her back had changed and I moved to the wide tree)

(2017 the wide tree PR working fine, but not as good as constructive saddle would)

She told me the saddle was ok and not causing pain. But you can see the beginning of muscle atrophy behind the withers and though I may not have pain or rubbing I would not be able to encourage good topline development with the current saddle I was using.

That is when I began to learn about constructive saddling as opposed to traditional saddle fit.

The company that has the most information and research for this concept is Balance International. I highly recommend doing a little digging into their Information Centre where there are well written articles on constructive saddling, defensive saddling, remedial saddling and how their saddles work.

What I learned was in short form, a saddle tree that fits my horse while she’s standing still will not allow the most freedom to use her back muscles while she’s in motion.

Treeless saddles do somehow work for some people but for most they do not distribute weight, pressure and impact (posting) well enough causing long term problems for the horse. Basically these are usually just barely better than a bareback pad with stirrups.

(Picture from August 2018- you can see how much muscle growth has developed over a year of riding in balance. A traditional ‘V’ shaped saddle would not fit her at all anymore.)

Most horse’s backs look a lot like a traditional saddle. A ‘V’ shape. A healthy and strong back with good topline muscling looks more like a ‘U’ shape. Riders would love their horse to have this kind of topline and spend time and energy forcing a horse into carrying herself with a lowered hind end, lighter on the forehand and asking for ‘collection’ in between (the middle of those horse lifted, rounded, where the rider sits). Doing it the way many riders are taught using force from hand (rein) and leg aids creates a fake, forced way of carriage and movement.

If you set the horse up right (and saddle is a big part of it but not the only part) you can have beautiful unforced self-carriage because the horse will literally push up into the rider, bring her hindquarters lower to engage her engine, and lift in the front.

It is the best way of moving for them once they try it they will begin to do it more on their own – unless you have a traditionally fitted saddle pushing their back muscles down and making them unable to lift up into the saddle. Add to that the fact that most riders have hollowed out backs and sit slightly leaned forward pressing their sit bones right into the spine making it almost impossible for the horse to move freely.

The beautiful thing about Phoenix Rising (PR) saddles is they are constructed so well that it allows a lot of freedom despite being a basically traditional saddle. The materials and design are to enable gaited horses the most movement possible in their topline. (Khaleesi trots and the saddles are great for any horse- don’t let the gaited marketing fool you)

I believe this is why Khaleesi went from the standard tree in 2015 which fit beautifully to a wide tree in 2016 just under a year. I had also been learning how to ride in a way that encouraged self-carriage and she had a saddle that allowed some freedom to do it.

The next step was to make the leap to her 6th saddle which is a Balance saddle.

The balance saddle is basically the widest saddle you can find traditionally then like 3 times wider. It’s shaped like an upside down ‘U’. Her back isn’t quite this shape yet but it will be. So until then I need to add felt padding to give it support. The felt padding has some give so it allows her to move and grow yet give structure to the places she hasn’t grown into yet.

( you can see how the saddle is a wide ‘U’ shape. The panels almost seem like spreading wings to me)

I love this concept and am amazed at how well it works. I can feel my horse lifting in self-carriage more and more often and I can see the shape of her back changing over time. Her back is strong, wider than ever and muscled- her neck is more muscular on the top instead of underneath as can happen when horses move with necks either too high from being inverted or strung out ahead of them.

It doesn’t come free though.

There is a commitment from the rider that has to be in place or the saddle will do more damage than good. Because the saddle doesn’t perch exactly onto a V-shaped back, I have to stay centered or the saddle will move. I also have more influence over how she moves for better or for worse. If I continue to improve my balance, stability, and grace she will continue toward self carriage and a strong back which I want for my long distance riding.

I have committed to this. However it seems the more I learn the more daunting it is!

Changing diagonals to use the weaker side, learning how to sit the trot and use the side-to-side movement instead of only up and down and keeping a quiet seat through all kinds of terrain and situations pose all kinds of challenges for me. Just when I feel like I get better I am humbled by something off kilter!

I’ve been using this saddle a year now with great changes in both her and me- but in the recent few months have been struggling with rub spots, white hairs and very minor sore spots (not where the rubs are).

I have been going through trial and error with shimming my pads, changing my thin base pad, and trying to sort out my riding. Focusing much effort and time on the side-to-side movement of the trot while sitting has been eye opening but also causing some of the rubbing as I’m still getting it slowly. Sometimes I end up with too much side-to-side I think and it takes me time to hone in the subtlety of the movement. Meanwhile I’m moving way too much.

As always it’s the horse that suffers!

But she knows I’m trying. I also know this matters and once I have another option in our riding toolkit to change gears over long miles it will help us both.

Ironically it’s because the system is working that I’m struggling.

The saddle doesn’t fit the same today as it did a year ago!

One switch that began to help was upgrading to a base pad made by balance with wool instead of a thin cotton-polyester all purpose pad.

Finally yesterday I believe I found the current solution. I borrowed a different type of shim pad from a friend who also rides in a balance saddle. The pad I began with was a mattes half pad and I had shims for the front half and back half. When the front shims became too much I removed them… then the issues got worse. I tried adding back shims that made it worse yet.

What I needed was actually something right in the middle like where the saddle was bridging slightly.

I began tacking up with a 1/2″ pad and the mare would have none of it. She glared at me and snarled her teeth then tried to bite me as I tightened the girth.

So I stood back and thanked her for her honesty and began to untack. I decided to at least try the same idea but with a 1/4″ pad and she relaxed and stood quietly for the entire process. Not a cross eye or a fidget.

On the ride it felt great- she was moving very relaxed and easy so I will see how that goes for a while and hope the rubbing and on and off soreness goes away.

I would love to sing to the world that all horse owners should be using these saddles! That this is the answer to horses building topline naturally without force and moving comfortably without pain….

But as amazing as the saddle is and the concepts behind it… it is not for everyone.

They are all-purpose, dressage or jump seats and don’t offer a lot of security for those who need that (green riders or green horses).

They are not so easy to find used- and I believe the company insists you get help from a representative before buying new. They are aware that damage can be done if you don’t understand the whole equation and the company is committed to helping horses not hurting them. So it’s not so easy to just ‘get’ one.

They take paying attention over time to fit and the ability to trouble shoot your changing horse’s build, fitness and weight. Even I struggle with this (as you can see!)

They take a commitment to balancing as a rider without much help from your equipment.

As much good as the saddle can do… it can also do harm if the rider is physically incapable of riding well. Or not interested or unwilling to improve.

Either way I highly recommend doing some reading about the concept of constructive saddle fit. Knowledge is power.

And if you’re not sure you’re ready to jump into the balance world… take a look at Phoenix Rising Saddles. They are a fantastic saddle, well made, reasonable price, great customer support and I can’t speak highly enough of them.

You can take the concept of constructive instead of defensive saddling if you go with the wide tree and add a mattes half pad to add some shimming and watch your horse grow into it!

In fact you can take the concept to a lot of other wide tree saddles and consider shimming and allowing your horse to strengthen. I was told years ago that no pad or shim can make a saddle that doesn’t fit work.

I disagree with that advice now. Wider is better and if you take the time to understand how the back and saddle function and work with your horse you can change from a defensive saddle approach to a constructive one.

The saddle question is one of the most evasive and elusive, shifting one we deal with as riders.

Wherever you are in the cycle of it good luck out there!


Horse Sneakers?

One of the biggest learning curves I’ve had bringing Khaleesi into the endurance world has been her hoof program.

It seems the question I get most often by riders and the general public alike is:

Is your horse wearing sneakers??

And the answer is

Actually, yes. We call them hoof boots

So I dedicate this post to the question of:

What exactly are hoof boots and why do you use them?

Most horses in regular work of any sort need some kind of hoof protection.

Even though hoof material is generally tough, horses can get sore feet due to genetics or improper care; and those who don’t struggle with tenderness can still wear down their hooves over time depending on terrain unless they are in very light work.

For centuries humans have dealt with this issue in domesticated equines by using metal horseshoes. Most people are aware of horse shoes even if they’ve never owned a horse. So once they see my horse does not have metal shoes they are curious as to why not.

My personal experience with Khaleesi who came to me as an unstarted 4 year old barefoot and roaming with a semi-feral herd on a massive farm in varied terrain, was that she would slow over any hard or rocky terrain which made it obvious to me her feet were sensitive even when ponied without a rider.

When I began to ride her more, I had to protect her feet that were sensitive to rocky terrain. I liked the idea of staying barefoot so I began to experiment with hoof boots.

Hoof boots are removable just like your own gym shoes so she could live barefoot in the field most of the time and for the few hours I rode her she would have her feet protected. It seemed like a perfect situation.

As horse owners are learning about the negative affects of metal horse shoes hoof boots are becoming more common and there are more hoof boots on the market today than ever before. I tried a couple different styles and no matter what I did with sizing and fitting and tweaking advice from the representatives they would not stay on reliably so at the time I gave up.

My farrier assured me that once I went with metal shoes like the majority of horse owners, my horse would move better and I would have less problems- so out of frustration and impatience I had him put on a set of metal shoes and began to compete in endurance riding.

At first she seemed to do better- but she was still sensitive on rocky ground, my farrier recommended adding pads to the shoes.

This also helped at first, and then when she was still struggling in shoes and pads- and had a serious abscess just before a 50 mile event I began to question if this was truly the best route.

It was our first 100 mile entry just over a year ago that we lost a shoe on mile 4 which really tore up her (now weakened) hoof. Though I could have had the ride farrier recreate her hoof with synthetic materials and put on a new metal shoe I knew in my gut that was only continuing to go the wrong direction for my horse so I decided to option out of the ride and go back to the drawing board. I knew that the metal shoes were weakening the hooves over time. I could see it.

Khaleesi’s feet recently after pulling all shoes, July 2017

Hind feet a couple months after pulling shoes.

Most recent photo I have of her feet from April 2017. Today almost 4 months later they are even more improved.

Hind feet April 2018

The more I searched, the evidence became clear and fell in line with my personal experience, for the most part metal are an easy quick answer for most but over the life of the horse do more harm than good. I believe now that many horses are successful in spite of metal shoes, not necessarily because of them.

There was a time when no other options were available and nailing on metal shoes were the only possibility. Yet technology has come so far in our world it seemed unlikely to me that we couldn’t do better than thousand-year-old hoof technology.

The hoof and frog play a part in pushing blood back up through the horse’s legs and when a metal shoe and metal nails stop the ability for the hoof and frog to expand and contract like a pump as they walk, the blood flow decreases, which will over time diminish the strength and health of the hoof as well as the legs.

Frog and sole right after removing shoes and pads June 2017

Healthier frog and sole January 2018

There are other issues such as the ability of the horse to feel varied terrain and learn to move through it with less injury. Shoes and pads can allow the horse run through rocky terrain but at what cost? Over time there is less blood flow, less feeling, less acute proprioceptiveness, and poorer hoof quality. This can lead to injury from stone bruises, abscesses and tendon damage as the horse has less ability to navigate the footing naturally. I saw this happen in my horse and those around me in the endurance world.

Other advantages I’ve found using boots vs. when we had metal shoes are:

  • I don’t have to wait an entire trim cycle to do small adjustments to her feet. This is better for the horse than waiting 4-6 weeks and making big adjustments.
  • Better blood flow through the legs and hoof over a year have led to better hoof quality
  • If I have a boot issue I can quickly adjust and fix myself- even on trail, if I lost a shoe in the past I needed a farrier visit.
  • My boots have so far lasted me over a year, this is much less expensive than new metal shoes every cycle were.
  • My horse did not like much of the shoeing process and I know from talking to others she’s not alone. Khaleesi hated the heat seal process my farrier insisted on to ensure a reliable set. I forced that on her even though she never got comfortable with it. A friend’s horse has to be sedated for the nailing and they’ve never found a physical pain-explaination. Many have to be in cross ties and though horses are able to be trained to comply (in some cases shut down)- that doesn’t mean they are comfortable. Barefoot trimming is something I can do much of myself and I am able to work with my horse as I go. I had a wonderful trimmer who used the reaction of the horse she trimmed to help her know if the changes were positive to the horse and I’ve been amazed at what the horse will tell you if you work with them!

By the time I was serious about going barefoot because I was finally out other of options, I’d found Scoot Boots and had success with them on the off season. I began to read more information on their website and blog about how to help build a healthier foot. I parted ways with my farrier (who I really liked and still do!) and found a barefoot trimmer who taught me the basics of how to begin taking care of my own trimming. I took more seriously the nutrition aspect and changed my feeding program.

Over the year of rebuilding a better hoof, I learned patience in allowing both the hoof to regrow stronger and to gradually but purposefully condition the hoof to varied terrain. Thankfully the Scoot Boots now were working for my horse where the past other boots had not stayed on. They stay on for about 90% of my riding with most training rides (often up to 20 miles) having no issues at all. Last Fall I completed a rocky 50 mile endurance ride with my Scoot Boots and they worked brilliantly!

Even more exciting to me was my last 50 that has little rocky terrain but miles of muddy trails. I did the majority of that ride completely barefoot coming up sound at the end and would have never imagined that possible a year ago!

Basically before I ride, I pick up my horses’s foot, pick out any dirt and rocks as usual, then slide on the hoof boot. Once the foot is back on the ground I secure two rubber toe straps and a pastern strap over a metal knob hook. It’s that simple.

The things I appreciate most about Scoot Boots that I find unique from the boots I tried previously are:

  • They are the easiest to get on and off.
  • No velcro! (Velcro wears out over time, it also can get dirt or snow packed into it making it less effective to keeping the boot in place)
  • No cloth parts attached that can tear away from the boot.
  • No wires or cables to break or have to be adjusted.
  • Very easy to clean off.
  • Easy to clip a spare on the saddle with just a carabiner and saddle ring. (No need for a hoof boot sack)
  • They have a great breakover for natural movement which makes them ideal for endurance riding for me.
  • The design allows for good drainage so in wet conditions they don’t accumulate water weight or debris.
  • They are flexible and allow the horse more proprioceptiveness and flexibility on varied terrain in the hoof itself like barefoot natural movement would.
  • The straps come in highly visible colors so I can see if they are still on in a quick glance (some other boots have taken this into account now as well).

As of now I don’t foresee using metal shoes again but I also know enough to never say never. Putting on a set of shoes for a ride and removing them within a week or so would not do enough damage to preclude the possibility in the future- especially for a 100 and also with the interesting options for non-metal shoes (NGs, epona or easyshoes).

For now my trimming learning curve appears to be working for my mare, the Scoot Boots are staying on reliably enough to complete 50 mile rides and I’m able to feel better about not forcing my horse to go along with a process she tried to tell me was not good for her for a couple of years and that matters a lot to me!

A few misc extra notes about hoof boots I’ve picked up in the past year:

  • They have a learning curve for you and your horse. Fit matters, and the first couple rides you may find them to twist or come off and it’s possible in a few rides your horse will learn to move in a way that encourages the boots to stay on and not twist.
  • Generally if you’re getting a farrier trim to enable you to get back into shoes after an off season without shoes, you will have a harder time keeping the boots on. I did not believe it- and my farrier told me it wasn’t true… but a barefoot and balanced trim IS different and boots are meant to fit in this foot trimmed this way. My boots stayed on much better when I found a true barefoot trimmer immediately.
  • Different boots work for different horses and people. I love Scoot Boots but they are not the only good boot. I know plenty of people who love their gloves and renegades too- you may have to try a few different kinds and that can take time and money. Try the hoof boot exchange on Facebook to buy and sell used to help!
  • Many boots have some modifications available either through the manufacturer or ideas of inventive people- there are studs, pads, shims, and many more. If you’re curious do a search about duct tape modifications, athletic tape modifications, vetwrap modifications, using sikaflex and who knows what else!! Be creative and consider problem solving yourself.

After months of using Scoot Boots successfully, competing in them and corresponding directly with the company regarding fit, use, modifications and other accessories, Scoot Boot became a sponsor of greento100 and my endurance riding. They send me products to try and give feedback and now supply Khaleesi’s boots.

The nuts and bolts

Saturday, July 7, 2018

On the road to the single day 100 it has become more clear the journey has developed into two major categories: the mental, relational and personal story; and the nuts and bolts details of saddles, hoof care, electrolytes, nutrition, fitness etc et al.

This offshoot blog will cover less of the reflective material and more of the tack reviews and questions about the informative details I ask or get asked about.

I hope this offshoot can be helpful when riders are curious about how tack is holding up over time and the process of how I’ve sorted out questions of care and management and ride days.