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.

IMG_3606

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.

IMG_3583

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.

IMG_3591

The Search for a Saddle

Week of October 19th

…. continued saga of finding the right saddle….

I took a lovely ride with friends along the Jackson River borrowing my friend’s Synergist endurance saddle [this one not for sale]. Synergist saddles are all about the custom fit- for the person and the horse. They even will send you a mold and do their best to get their panels to fit as exactly as possible your horses’ back. They are specific about the angles and distances in a woman’s vs a man’s seat (it seems like overkill to me at first glance) and try to put you as the rider in the most balanced position possible on the horse.

pretty fall ride along the Jackson River
pretty fall ride along the Jackson River

I had ridden in this saddle before on a different horse and felt very uncomfortable in it. The horse was gaited and to me there is a difference in the position you use to encourage a nice gait vs. the position I use to post a trot. I had a hard time getting the horse a year ago to gait nicely in the saddle- and my own position was different from riding mostly gaited horses. My hips and knees bothered me once I got off. However this time- on Khaleesi I loved it.

From hopping into the saddle I felt like I was comfortably poised in exactly the right position without being stiff. Of course this also meant I felt like it was easy to sit balanced without having to work so hard at it. (is that cheating?) We moved together with ease and it really felt nice.

As for Khaleesi- she seemed to move great underneath me. I had no trouble communicating with her and she had a great trot and canter for the ride which was at least 15 miles. She also seemed happy and foreword and didn’t exhibit any signs of pain or stress. Her ears were forward and we went in all positions of the ride, front, middle and back without much fuss.

Synergist
Synergist

I got down to feel a little stiff in one knee, but basically great. The saddle isn’t (of course) custom made for Khalees or me, but the fit was ‘decent’ enough to try a ride or two. She had a pretty good sweat pattern with two spots that were a little dry but it wasn’t bad. It was enough for me to contact the company with a few questions of what I might look for in a used saddle if we decided to go that route. I am going to do a quick measurement or two and give them my friend’s saddle number to see how close that saddle would be to fitting her and me, and then the company can help steer me toward used saddles that are the closest fit off the rack- we may not have to go the whole mold-fitted routine.

Our next trial was to ride in a borrowed ortho-flex [this one is for sale]. I love the idea of the orthoflex tree and considering it is a saddle my friend would like to sell, it would be great if it was a match for us. Basically ortho-flex makes a saddle on panels that have the ability to give and flex with the movement of the horse’s back. Also, the rider is slightly suspended above the panels and the seat is connected at 4 points in front and back of the seat/panels which means not directly underneath the rider’s seat. This concept is great as it distributes the pressure along a large surface area. Basic physics dictates that the larger the surface area to distribute the pressure the less pressure in any one place there will be.

IMG_3413

I put it on and the fit seemed pretty good when it came to how it sat on her back. My concern was that the panels extend more forward at front than I liked to see for her. She has a lot of movement and though I realize the panels DO have the ability to flex, they were still there on her shoulders and are pretty stiff/hard- also the rear of the panels sat down on her back and I wondered if they would push in behind me at the place the seat is attached. But the concept of them being flexible was in my mind as we headed out to see how it worked for us.

The first thing I noticed was it was harder to get my leg cues in, either to move forward or side- I had a hard time getting my foot to her actual side past the english flaps and the sheepskin pad. To ask her to move I really had to give her a good kick. Next, I felt all my communication that we’d been getting so much better at was working through a filter. I was sitting off her back which I believe was probably good for not creating pressure points- but at the same time it was also taking away the contact altogether.

I felt like we were off in general but we kept going as I thought “Maybe we just need to get used to how this feels?”

Unfortunately in our case, I don’t think she felt great in the saddle either. Her stride was shorter in everything from walk to trot to canter. Her back legs didn’t seem to get underneath her like I’m used to and she tripped or slipped on her back feet more than usual.

She tried to turn me around as well (lately she’s been pretty good about going out happily with me- so though I can chalk part of that up to not wanting to leave her friends…) it was notable that at least once she REALLY tried to convince me to turn home. I didn’t let her and though we did cut the ride a little shorter than I’d planned, I wanted to get a decent amount of time in the saddle.

When I did turn her home at first she happily trotted off but though I was ready for her to try to push me home, she would trot a few steps then return to a walk. A couple of times I asked her to canter, one time she really decided to push with a fast pace up a hill, it was a short stride bunny hop feeling canter that just went really fast. As we neared home I tried to really put my finger on how we felt that day and the description I came up with was robotic- I felt slightly jerky and off kilter. I had a hard time keeping my feet underneath me but I chose the middle stirrup setting and probably would have been better with the one most under my seat.

After about 8 miles we returned the the barn and my final feel for the ortho-flex was that I love it in concept, it’s a lovely saddle, and I’ve known riders who really swear by them. I just don’t think it’s the right saddle for us. [If anyone out there is searching for an older ortho-flex in great condition, let me know and I’ll connect you to its owner!]

One thing that is for certain as I’m on this saddle choosing exploration- between reading other people’s thoughts and the saddles I’ve ridden in myself- it is an incredibly personal and individual journey. I have looked up posts and blogs and just about every saddle has people who sear by them as the only reasonable option and people who say they are terrible and no horse should ever be ridden in one.

I have already been quite amazed at the different feel for myself and for her depending on the saddle. I assumed saddles would make a difference- but I’m even surprised myself at how big of a difference in both of us it can make. Just the few I’ve started with have convinced me that this process is worthwhile to find the feel that I want on the long miles of trail of an endurance rider, and the saddle that helps Khaleesi move and feel her best as well. I am much more determined to beg, borrow and take on trial until we really find the right match- and hope that a couple of miles will give us the data we need to really know what will work long term.

what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.
what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.

I still have a few local options to borrow- then I may consider doing a loan-order from a couple reputable companies as well before making any real decision. I have a friend who swears by her Ansur saddle and has agreed to loan it to me for a ride. Honestly I hope I we don’t love that one because they cost a fortune! I love the Phoenix Rising (IMUS) saddle I chose for Faygo. Every time I ride her in it- it feels like “home”.  In talking to the company it appears Khaleesi is more likely a standard tree (Faygo is wide) so I plan to ride with a friend who has an extra hubby saddle the right fit to see how she does in that one. I have also heard lots of great reviews about Specialized so if I can’t borrow one I plan to do a loaner saddle in that brand just to see. I like the lighter weight of their Eurolight model. Once I get narrowed down to a couple top choices, I suppose that will be the time to visit some saddle fitting contacts and see what the pressure pad and the professionals think.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the difference between an all-purpose english style saddle that we’ve been working in up till now and saddle more designed for long trails. I believe I’d like to always have something like my Wintec (hoping I can get the flocking or CAIR system fixed) for working on our balance, training (mine and hers!) and communication, then something built on a trail/endurance tree for our longer distances. I believe that the panels on most of the saddles I’m considering are slightly wider (meaning surface area, not a wider tree) and will distribute weight better for many hours in the saddle, and if a saddle helps me stay more balanced (cheating?) I think for long rides that could be good for both she and I as long as it doesn’t inhibit communication by being rigid.

I am starting to think that having a streamlined saddle for learning and a trail saddle for long rides might be a good choice for us.

Meanwhile, we’re still getting some nice fall rides in!

IMG_3346