The Tack

Friday, March 6, 2015

With another snowfall midweek, Friday came with some fresh snow, sunny skies and mild (for winter) temps in the 20s and because I wasn’t sure how the footing would be I decided to ride Faygo alone. If I’m dragging “the anchor” Khaleesi along it’s harder to maintain good balance in case we had any questionable sections of trail.

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Riding Faygo with trail dogs Linus & Peggy Sue on a gorgeous sunny afternoon.

My concerns were unfounded, it was absolutely beautiful and the footing was fine. It also occurs to me that I started this blog because I want to journal my path to a 100 mile endurance ride with Khaleesi, and for the moment she has taken the back seat to Faygo who is more of a “step one” on the journey– helping me get an introduction into the sport with a horse I know is solid. As for my green horse: our obstacle course is under a tarp and 2 feet of snow, I haven’t been able to get anyone to come up the freezing ice roads with recent snowstorms to ride Faygo so I can get on Khaleesi- so if you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten her… she’s just on hold until we have a better environment for working her!

This post is centered on the tack… horse gear… I ordered a new saddle for Faygo.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with for over a year now since we had a kind of meltdown Fall of 2013. She became increasingly irritable and almost out of control on rides. After months of trying to sort out what was wrong, I learned that A: her saddle at the time that I’d been riding her in for a few years was now hurting her pretty severely, and B: she had contracted Lymes disease and was not herself. These things were likely related- but I haven’t spend a ton of time sorting out the chicken/egg issues with the saddle and her topline [equine speak translation: her back will change shape depending on her muscle development, how she’s using her muscles, how much and what kind of work she’s doing etc etc. The topline is what we talk about when we are looking at the shape and muscular development of her back where the saddle needs to sit].

I had to sell her (my) saddle and try to find one that wouldn’t hurt her while we worked on her overall health. We treated the Lymes with antibiotics (made an improvement) and got her some body work and I looked for saddles to borrow short term that wouldn’t cause pressure/pain. Her topline would eventually change again as she felt better, grew stronger again, moved better and used her body properly.

Saddle fit and rider position is a labyrinth of “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” kind. There is a saying that if you ask 10 horse people about it you are bound to get 12 different opinions. I am going to clarify here that I’ve had to decide what I believe and what works for Faygo- so I don’t think my answers are necessarily THE answers for everyone.

Faygo, her back and muscling looking pretty good this winter
Faygo, her back and muscling looking pretty good this winter. She is still slightly wide-backed for her size.

We’ve gone through two temporary saddles this year as she’s changed. Now she is doing really well and her back is muscling back up. The saddle I am using now isn’t causing pressure points, but it isn’t as stable as I’d like. Our mountainous terrain is unforgiving with less than perfect tack, and when I’d take the saddle & pad off I would find “kinky” hairs which meant it was rubbing and moving too much. I tried a few different pads I had on hand, none made a significant difference, and bought her a better girth from Total Saddle Fit (LOVE THAT GIRTH!). This helped, but still, I knew we’d outgrown this saddle. I felt we had come to the time to really find the right saddle for her long-term.

The entire year I have been looking around, researching, talking to people, borrowing saddles I could try out and I kept coming back to the concepts of Gaites of Gold which is now Phoenix Rising. My friend rides in one of their saddles and I borrowed it once as a try-out and loved it. Their website has great videos and articles. The video I kept coming back to was about rider position. Their concept is that if you were to ride bareback you would be seated much differently than most saddles put the rider: both in angle and position. If you were riding bareback you have to be in the best center of gravity to balance on the horse properly. Their saddles situate you as close as possible to that bareback “sweet spot” and with your legs slightly in front of you- like you would bareback. The saddle fit video on their website is long- but there is a part in it if you’re interested where they show a bareback rider and then a rider in one of their saddles and they transpose the image back and forth and you can see how the position is almost identical.

Also in the video they have the rider in the “sweet spot” where you can ride as comfortably as possible bareback- then ask the rider to change to a more “upright” seat which is similar to most standard saddles and the horse changes it’s stride. Her ears go back (unhappy) and she stops moving forward and seems uncomfortable. The reason I bring this up is I felt this may have happened to me on our ride- only, the reverse!

(If you’re interested, it’s the “Gaited Horse Saddle Fitting and Equitation video”: http://phoenixrisingsaddles.com)

Phoenix Rising "4-beat" pad
Phoenix Rising “4-beat” pad

They were incredibly helpful. I took the pictures they requested of Faygo from different angles and she called me the next day. She told me where she would imagine a standard tree saddle would have put pressure (she was spot on) and said that Faygo is unusually wide-backed for a horse her size (this is what I’ve been struggling with). She said a wide tree should fit her just fine, and if not even though the saddle is custom built for me, they will take it back within 2 weeks if it doesn’t work. They were super easy to work with and she shipped the saddle pad immediately and I had it in one day.

Close up of the pad at the pommel, you can see it is slightly raised and is also thicker with more support than my usual pad.
Close up of the pad at the pommel, you can see it is slightly raised and is also thicker with more support than my usual pad.

The pad is heavy duty, has a thicker material in it, and is constructed in a way that you couldn’t lie it flat out- along the horses spine, the pad is slightly raised. I used it with my current saddle and was immediately impressed! The saddle was more stable and I could move the saddle more forward that I was able to without a substantial pad before. I was closer to that “sweet spot” already, and the pad gave stability to my saddle and helped take some pressure and movement out of the equation.

(As an aside- I will eventually need to figure out the best saddle for Khaleesi long term, but for now I have some options in the barn that are working, and because I haven’t really started working her, I think it’s too soon to know how her topline will look long term. Also- I need to get a feel for how I’ll be riding her, if she gaits and how she gaits so I can best decide what type of saddle we’ll be happy with.)

I noticed immediately that either Faygo was in an unusually good mood, or she felt the difference because we walked right out of the barn with a better stride and more forward motion.

I used the heart rate monitor and we had a fantastic work out! Climbing the mountain in the snow was the thing that put her heart rate up in the 80% range, but I noticed if I slowed her down just a touch we could bring her rate down easily and we started to have more control over how hard she was working. We also worked on gaiting more [Faygo is a MO Foxtrotter, so she has a 4-beat gait that is smooth to ride and faster than a walk. She likes to canter which is ‘easier’ for her, at least for a short stretch and is a 3-beat gait, but she can’t sustain that as long, so I need to get her to start really “gaiting” for longer distances. On the website there’s gaiting advice as well and I read an article about pushing the horse to it’s “breaking point” of gait. That means that I keep her in a walk but as fast as possible without letting her pick up into a canter- then she will ‘break’ into her gait instead, and that seemed to work really well yesterday.] We had some lovely canters in the snow as well. The footing as I mentioned was fine, the snow not too deep and we did our 5.5 mile loop with a significantly faster pace of 4.3mph! Her heart rate was great and was down to 71bpm when I took her saddle off in the barn. Again- we would have an easy time returning to the 60bpm required within 30 minutes.

I could feel her hind working more today as well- the snow can make them engage their hind end for more strength to “plow” through, but I believe the saddle pad and position helped- it’s enabling her to use her body more correctly because my weight and position aren’t interfering. It was a noticeable difference. Also, I have considered her “barn sour” in the past… I have to be careful she doesn’t get out of control when we’re heading home. But this ride we moved equally out and in- and I let her move at the fast pace she prefers, I rarely held her back unless I knew we were not in good terrain and it might be dangerous- but even so, we worked so much better as a team and she didn’t fight me when I asked her to slow. She seemed more happy out there than I can remember in a long time.

Sunday is supposed to be decent weather and I hope to get in a longer ride. Again- what we really need is miles. I’m looking around my maps for a solid 15 miles to see how she does. Of course I’ll keep you all posted! And as the weather breaks I have a few people lined up to come ride Faygo so I can start putting some miles on Khaleesi as well. I think she’s ready to get some more saddle time!

Spring is coming... looking forward to more miles!
Spring is coming… looking forward to more miles!

The saddle I ordered will take about a month to make. I can’t wait to see how it fits and if it helps her going forward. It’s amazing the difference the right gear makes… for me and for her!