Mountaintop Riding

Tuesday, October 26, 2015

The white patches and sore spots on Khaleesi were a nightmare when they were happening, but now I am thankful they pushed me to reevaluate our saddle situation. This is a good time to get on top of that and if our saddle had been working ok, I may not have bothered addressing it until we were in the middle of next season and then it becomes a frantic scramble for anything that works.

Trying the Synergist again
Trying the Synergist again

I rode in the Synergist for the second time on an alone ride last week and though I still loved it, the honeymoon was over and the real test was starting. She was not as naturally forward without buddies to ride with and we went through tougher terrain- through berry briars I had to reach down and cut from in saddle, and my “mountain laurel” trail is beautiful but thick with laurel that I always clip as much as possible on the walk up the mountain. She did great as I climbed around her back like a monkey at times trying to do as much as I could without getting off her. The saddle still held me in place and didn’t move around on her back either.

I mentioned in my last blog that the only thing that concerned me was a slight discomfort in one knee when I got off. As soon as we started out I began to feel that same knee was bothering me. I shifted my weight wondering if I wasn’t riding centered- one leg longer, more weighted than the other. Nothing seemed to quite fix it so I got off and checked. Sure enough one stirrup was longer than the other. Once I corrected this my knee immediately felt better and we were good to go.

I hadn’t ridden in this area since the “run through the jungle” post as you have to cross the clearing that had grown up with briars and that is where we saw the rattlesnake in the summer. Since this is mid-Fall I decided to take a chance: the snakes should have gone away as we’ve had some frosts overnight and the jungle should have died back at least enough to manage.

It was as stunning- the colors are gorgeous and the weather was perfect. Once we climbed to the top of the mountain and got on the ridge trail I asked Khaleesi to move it on out and she chose a collected canter that was really nice.

Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain
Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain

On the way back down the roads are wide and easy to ride but we slowed down due to the downhill incline. There was a mess of downed trees along the path at one point that we couldn’t get through. Of course this is the one spot where the woods were very steep on either side of the road and I got off to see if I could pick our way through and maybe cut a branch or two. No way. It was a thick mess and some of the branches were too high to walk over.

I look up one side.

Way too steep. Big boulders.

Down?

Um… I think that’s do-able. (I hope……..)

This area is rocky, and the rocks are piled on each side of the road. The footing was loose and leaves made it tough to know for sure what we were getting into, but this was the way home.

Definitely safer on the horse than off, so I get back on.

Ok… let’s do this. [point horse down the hill off the road]

Khaleesi: Nope. That is a bad idea. Let’s just turn around here and go back the way we came.

Me: That’s like 10 miles back instead of 4 miles home. We can do this!

Khaleesi: I don’t really want to go down there. It’s steep… Cut the trees with your saw!

Me: We’d be here all night. I KNOW you can do this girl. I believe in you. [kicks harder]

Khaleesi: Ok, but for the record, I don’t agree with this option.

She steps off and we slide down the 4 feet or so on her hind end, my feet could be on the ground if I  let them and she handles it like a champ until we find some decent footing. It’s rocky under the leaves but we can walk it slow and pick our way through along the side of the hill… now getting back up is harder. It’s only about 4 feet up- of loose ground with rocks and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to scale it- but we need to be back up on the road. Before I can think too hard about the best place to try for she makes the call and starts to scramble up. I help her as much as I can staying balanced and holding onto her mane and say a little prayer we don’t slide back down the mountain together and she miraculously gets us up onto the road on solid ground and all I can do is rub her neck and tell her she’s the best mountain horse I could hope for… I make much of her.

She says “alright already- can we get back to going HOME now?

Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead.
Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead- the incline on both sides was steeper there.

I was glad to be in that saddle and not a little english wintec for that detour, but also for the trail clipping and offroading. I like the wintec, but the more I’m trying other saddles the more convinced I am that a more substantial saddle is going to be good for both of us on long rides and off-trail rides.

As for the Synergist- it is still a leading choice. I have been in contact with the owners of the company (CJ) and after a wither tracing she told me the saddle I’ve been borrowing is built on a medium tree and we would be better suited to a wide. This makes sense because the fit is decent, but I thought there were a couple almost dry spots after riding. Not big patches, but enough to think it might not be perfect.

Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport
Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport

The next saddle on the list was an IMUS or Gaits of Gold or Phoenix Rising depending on when you got it and what you call those products. Brenda Imus is the person behind the line of bits and saddles, she has since passed and her daughter Jamie Evan is running the company and it is better than ever. The customer service is phenomenal and the products are high quality. I settled on a Phoenix Rising saddle for Faygo and absolutely love it. But would it work for Khaleesi- totally different horse with totally different movement?

I sent pictures to Jamie and a whither tracing and we decided that the standard tree is most likely the best choice for her. (Faygo has the wide tree- so her saddle wouldn’t fit as well). My friend Carrington is the one who first introduced me to the saddles and she happens to have an extra standard tree that I could ride with her in (it is one of her other horses’ saddles). We met to do a test run… and I do mean run.

We had been talking for a long time about doing a fast/flat ride with her Saddlebred (Ned) who loves to go go go and just hadn’t gotten serious about setting a date and making it happen. In fact- we hadn’t ridden just the two of us in over a year except for an hour or so during a camping trip at the end of a group ride (we went back out after the group ride for a few more miles). So we finally got serious and made a date to meet up at the local airport on top of the mountain and ride across and back, we figured it would be about 20 miles.

Pretty views from another ridge trail
Pretty views from another ridge trail

I brought a saddle of my own just in case, but the older Imus fit her perfectly and we were good to go. I wasn’t sure where the stirrups would be best and the first 2 miles they were too long and I felt uncomfortable and unable to balance. I stopped to shorten them and voila, it was perfect. Funny how stirrup length can make or break your knees, legs, and experience. Once I had myself adjusted the saddle was incredibly comfortable to ride and easy to balance in. The seat was slightly larger than mine, but didn’t bother me at all. The free swinging stirrups could go wherever I needed and posting was no problem.

We kept up an average moving speed close to 6mph and the horses seemed to have a great day. Ned really moves out and if he was in his fast rack Khaleesi does her collected canter to stay with him. She moved great in the saddle and trotted smooth and easy for me.

We tied off the horses for a short break and hiked up to the local look-out gazebo.

Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.
Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.

It has been years since I’d gone up there (used to hike it on foot every summer I visited) and it was as beautiful as ever. When I spent summers playing violin at Garth Newel Music Center, Flag Rock was a special place for me and the last year I came for that program I sat on that rock once and was certain I would never see that view or come back to Warm Springs again. I was at a pivotal place in my life and took me 4 years to return and climb out there once again- in 2007 it was as time a full time resident who doesn’t intend to move away any time soon. It was nice to spend a few minutes there- the first time I’d ridden a horse there.

Flag Rock- I've sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.
Flag Rock- I’ve sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.

On the ride home we found a few places that were just right and let the horses all out canter. One really pretty stretch we raced them and trusty 18 year old Ned pulled away from Khaleesi even as she tucked her head, bared down, and reached for her biggest stride. She was trying, but that Saddlebred kept his lead and we laughed out loud from the fun of a good run.

Khaleesi had a crazy off kilter canter when we first started riding (we don’t canter a lot) and I’ve felt her grow into the stride as we keep riding together. It was never very fast but recently once in a while, especially following Faygo up a little hill, or a pretty stretch heading toward home and she gets excited, I feel another gear engage and her nice collected canter downshifts for some extra speed. At first it was a mix of joy and fear…

hey there, this is new… is she out of control right now, could we stop!?

But she’s never run away with me and when I ask her to back down she always does.

I have been feeling her gaits change and grow as she develops her muscles and tendons and we balance together. I think her canter has taken some time to sort itself out with a rider up there and will continue to develop. I’ve also heard endurance riders talk about her trot gaining speed and efficiency slowly with practice and time. I believe she may eventually have a rack or running walk develop as well, but we are not in a hurry- it takes time to really build those muscles.

on the trail
on the trail

We enjoyed the ride, did almost 20 miles in about 3 1/2 hours and saw some beautiful views.

As for the saddle. I am not certain I will bother with a specialized trial. I have found two great options in Synergist and Imus and still have the Ansur to borrow next week. For now the top two have their pros and cons:

Synergist:

pros– love the customization (not just fitting the horse, but the options I can choose or forego to make it streamlined or build up anything I want), know I can have it refitted if the horse changes- or I change horses someday. Small company. Great customer service. Good potential for used saddles to pop up and good records of each saddle’s specifics- the owners of the company can tell me if it’s a decent fit for me and my horse or not from the serial #. I Like the English style rigging at an angle that pulls from the center of the saddle not just the front. Saddle holds me more in place making the ride easy on me, which is good for my horse. I like their look.

cons– if a used one doesn’t pop up- they are pricey. Saddle holds me in place, that is in both pro and con section because I’m not sure how I feel about it it. I like it but it doesn’t give me much room for my own balance/adjustment. Maybe a larger seat would change that.

Imus/Phoenix Rising 4beat:

pros– love the one I already have. Every time I ride in it I love it more. Small company. Amazing customer service. Comfortable balanced ride without holding me too much in place. I like the design that is not a flex tree but allows for lots of back movement and muscle development. I already have a relationship with the company and owner and they have been fantastic at every turn. Saddles are not cheap, but very reasonable and cost less than other options I’m considering. Might be better suited to her movement if she eventually picks up a rack or other smooth gait.

cons– bulky. The cantle is more substantial that I like and the stirrup fenders are more than I want. Even the light version is not truly lightweight. I’ve contacted the company to ask if there IS any room for adjustment in what they do to streamline it… the good news is there are a few custom things they can do for me to make the saddle closer to what I’m looking for (that might be back to a “pro”). There are almost never used ones for sale… I suppose that can be a pro too- it says people keep them.

As for riding… Training and the rest of it…

Something I’ve noticed that’s changed in my thinking about riding is how I quantify a ride. It used to be hours of a ride… a 3 hour ride… a 4 hour ride… an 8 hour ride… but now I tend to think in terms of miles. I don’t mind a slower ride for a short distance (5-8 miles), but now if I’m going to do 15 or 20 miles I’d prefer to move out and cover some ground.

I am fine to spend 8 hours in the saddle, but if I can cover the same territory and see the same things in 5 hours, and moving out keeps my blood flowing and muscles moving so I’m less tired I find that more fun. In the future if I do 8-10 hours in the saddle I hope that means I’m on a 50 mile ride.

Since this season of our first LD (25-30 miles) rides I’ve noticed I’m less tired and feel better after 30 miles of moving at a faster pace than 15 miles of mostly walking with occasional spurts of trotting/gaiting.

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Carrington’s horses (both Ned and Abaco) are great training partners for Khaleesi. In riding only 2 of us there is less of a group dynamic to sort out and we can just get side-by-side and keep a steady pace which is really helpful for me in training. One thing I want to improve is sticking with a pace longer and getting into a rhythm.

I’ve read a lot about conditioning LSD (Long Slow Distance) but when you get into the specifics, “Slow” means 5-6mph. For my neck of the woods most trail rides are in the 3-4mph range if you’re in a group who will keep along- and they are considered the gaited horse- faster moving riders. The quarter horse folks are under 3mph as they walk along enjoying a stroll (nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it!). I don’t find it hard to enjoy the view at 5mph- and it encourages me to keep my eyes UP as we ride and not worrying the footing (she does great when I let her to it- I am so much better at NOT looking down anymore). It’s harder to get my solo horse to really focus on moving along at 6mph on our own for consistent stretches, but with Ned or Abaco she will perk up her ears and they get to business.

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I don’t worry about this. When I started ponying her last winter I called her the “anchor” and when I started riding her I thought she would fall over from lack inertia she walked so slow. In the spring she would move into the lead horse position and just stop altogether. This weekend she took the lead regularly and trotted along in front of Ned at a good clip as well as riding side-by-side and behind. I think she will continue to develop the discipline of riding longer stretches on her own at a faster pace and we will enjoy a good walk with friends sometimes as well. As winter approaches footing and weather make for slower and shorter riding but hopefully as spring emerges next year we can find a ride with Carrington here and there to help me and Khaleesi get back into stride for starting 50s this year. Who knows… maybe Carrington and Ned (or Abaco) will decide to join us at a ride for fun one day!

Mountain top ridge riding, river valleys, the slow and the fast, with friends and gone solo: enjoy the ride.

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2 thoughts on “Mountaintop Riding

  1. You have one awesome horse!!!!!! And OMG those views are stunning! Really gorgeous. As for saddle fitting…ick..ick…ick…if there is a hell and we all go to our own personal one when we die, my eternity will be spent saddle shopping 😉

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    1. I know about the saddle- but this has been a blessing in disguise because I have two awesome options that are somewhat affordable and it’s a good step for us.
      Yes – Khaleesi is awesome and I love her and I tell her that lots 🙂 thanks for noticing cause it’s fun to do our work and share it.
      Hubby’s horse sounds pretty cool too! (I love me a good mare!)

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