Big Horn Saddle: From Barrel to Endurance

In my last post, I touched briefly on the topic of my old Big Horn barrel saddle, and how I’m pretty convinced it’s the one saddle I can never actually get rid of…because after not touching it for several years, it’s suddenly the saddle that’s working best for me.

This is one of my last holdovers from my show days. I got the saddle back around 2000, shortly after I upgraded my western show saddle, and didn’t want to use my “nice” saddle for almost-daily riding/lessons. In addition, the nice (heavy) western saddle wasn’t all that conducive for being used as a gymkhana saddle, either.

So I saved my pennies and bought the Big Horn — it was my first saddle I bought for myself completely on my own, that also didn’t require selling another saddle in order to get it. I don’t remember the exact model number, but it’s their Cordura Barrel Saddle with Full QH bars.

When I started taking Mimi out and trying our hand (hoof?) at trail riding, it was my go-to saddle. No way was I going to put “desert pin-striping” on my show saddle…and there was no way I was going to brave the trails in my English saddle. (Famous last words, as English saddles are now my go-to preference.)

That Big Horn saw us through a year+ of conditioning and to our first NATRC ride in the spring of 2001. Despite jigging for 90% of the ride, Mimi finished with no back soreness, and we came away with 1st place in both Horse and Horsemanship for the Novice Junior division, then repeated the performance two months later at our second ride.

However, I was less than enamored of the horn on there, after hooking my NATRC number bib on it a couple times, and my knees were also calling in their complaints over the western fenders. (And given the fact I was 16 at the time, I thought that was a little unfair for my body to already be finding something to bitch about.)

Since we had survived two NATRC rides and I had determined that I actually had a really good trail horse pony in Mimi, I decided to be brave and try an English saddle. Got a Wintec Endurance saddle, and spent a couple of years with it before Mimi’s ever-broadening frame outgrew it.

By this time, I had already been to Tevis to crew and been bitten by the endurance bug. The Wintec wasn’t working, and I was hemming and hawing over what to do for the next saddle. In the meantime, the Big Horn was still patiently sitting there.

And since it was just sitting there being a dust-catcher, my dad suggested I try sawing the horn off — what did I have to lose if it was just going to sit there anyway? So out came the hacksaw, and off came the horn. A couple of wraps of some leather scraps around the pommel and from a distance, it looks like a regular endurance pommel.

(It was over 10 years ago this act of saddle butchery was committed, so I’m a little hazy on the details. I just know I got dad to do the actual sawing part, since I was afraid I was saw my saddle in half or something. Plus there was a part of my show ring upbringing that was a bit horrified about the idea of sawing apart my saddle.)

A bonus to this was the saddle had always been pommel-heavy on the balance, so sawing off the all-metal horn actually lightened up the front end of it a bit.

I had also done some internet perusing and found 2″ wide, super thin and flexible biothane fenders to replace the bulky Cordura fenders, as well as converter straps to turn western latigo rigging into an English billet set-up.

I trained all summer in this set-up, and was very pleased with how it felt. An added bonus was the extra security I felt in it compared to the English-style Wintec, and since Mimi and I were venturing out for our first solo training miles, it was a little extra reassurance for me. (Not that I actually needed it…she’s just as bold and non-spooky by herself or with company.)

We did 3 LDs, plus another 4 NATRC rides in this set-up, overall quite successfully. The only time she ever had any soreness was when I deviated from using the tried-and-true purple Skito pad and experimented with an Equipedic.

Along the way, I also added some extra rings to the pommel, and a crupper bar to the back.

Unfortunately, the saddle wasn’t all that comfortable for me. It has a pretty wide twist to it, and I would generally finish rides feeling worse for the wear. When the idea of 50s started looming, I decided I could not handle 50 miles in that saddle, which is when I ended up getting the Duett Companion Trail that I’ve done the vast majority of my endurance miles in.

The Big Horn has lived down at the barn as my back-up saddle, or for the days that I just want to grab a quick ride and don’t want to pull the Duett out, haul it out to the vehicle, lug it around the barn, and then reverse the process to come home. (It weighs like 22 pounds without any fittings, so it’s not exactly a featherweight thing to heft around.)

A few weeks ago, I had one of those days where I wasn’t committed to the idea of riding…until I got down to the barn and decided that I did want to ride. Hopped into the Big Horn…and hold on, when did this saddle become this comfortable? I’ve been paying a lot of attention to riding position and form over the past year, and when I sat in the Big Horn, I didn’t have to fight to find my position. I felt very balanced, and nothing felt forced.

This past weekend, I did two days back-to-back in it. My seatbones were a little sore, but I think it’s because it’s a slightly harder seat, even with a fleece cover, and wider than the English saddles. But not uncomfortably so. The “too wide” twist that had bothered me previously now feels really good.

Over the years, I’ve messed around with the different fittings on the saddle to end up with its current iteration:

I’m really satisfied with how I’ve got it set up. JMS Deluxe Western seat cover, JMS covers over 1″ Zilco leathers to replace the fenders, and biothane English billet straps have all been the major contributing factors for ease of use and comfort.

And I’m getting a chuckle out of the fact that 17 years later, this saddle has once again become my go-to saddle.

saddle time

Since I’ve got the Tevis Educational Ride coming up in a week and half, I figured it would probably be a good time to remind the riding muscles they have a function beyond just meandering a few circles in the arena.

Running the Renegade Hoof Boots trade show booth at The Mane Event last month and Western States Horse Expo earlier this month was a really good boost to my mental state. Not only was it a good confidence booster both personally and professionally, but that kind of immersive horse experience got me excited about riding again.

With as hot as it is (we got a blessed reprieve through the first part of June with a somewhat delayed summer, but we’re into it now…commence heat training), I’ve really backed off on how much trail running I’m doing, choosing instead to walk with the dogs or put in the treadmill time at the gym.

The flip side of not running as much means time to ride. And this weekend, I managed to get down to the barn both days, which is an almost-unheard of phenomenon for the last several years. Used to be par for the course, but more recently, between travel, work stuff, dead-truck-for-a-time, family stuff, running, and just plain old can’t-be-bothered-to-make-the-drive…it’s been a while since I’ve had both weekend days free, and felt sufficiently motivated to do something with it.

Doesn’t hurt I got a couple new toys to play with, either.

IMG_8919

Taylored Tack “Zuni” Bridle and an original handmade Myler kimberwick

At the Western States Horse Expo, we were right next to the Western States Trail Foundation booth — aka “the Tevis store.” And my wallet ended up making some contributions to the trail. ;) They had this gorgeous Taylored Tack bridle hanging up…right next to me…after a day and half of being taunted (they also had the same bridle at the AERC Convention earlier in the year) I finally gave in and it found a new home.

Who says retired ponies don’t deserve nice things? By now, that pony probably deserves a gold-plated tack set, but that would be harder to clean, and probably not as flexible or easy to fit as beta-biothane.

And the Myler was an eBay find. Original handmade, not one of their production line. Sweet iron mouthpiece, which you can only get on English-style bits by custom order. And interesting hooks on the kimberwick cheeks. They’re half loops versus the fully-connected loops, so the reins end up with a bit more slide to them, especially on the bottom loop. I have no idea what the purpose of it is; I’ve never found any published info out there from Myler as to this style versus closed loops. But Mimi loves this thing. Like, grabs it out of my hands, and I have to practically pry it out of her mouth at the end. It’s the MB33 mouthpiece, which she really likes, but I think in this case, the sweet iron is what’s got her so nuts for it. This is the absolute softest I’ve ever seen her with a bit. No fuss, no fidget, no weird jaw crossing.

Sleepy side-eye when we were done. We wrapped up before it cracked triple digits, but it was still warm. Windy, too. But she knows she looks good. She knows when she gets new tack.

IMG_8918

Have realized I can never get rid of this saddle

Irony is: When you have three saddles, and the one that currently fits the pony the best and is the most comfortable/favorable riding position is not the fancy dressage saddle, or even the saddle that did probably thousands of ride-and-training miles…no, it’s the old gymkhana-saddle-turned-endurance-saddle.

Yep, the old Big Horn has been pressed into service once again. The old Big Horn, circa 1999 (I think?). My former lesson and gymkhana saddle. I guess it’s no wonder I feel so comfortable in it…spent hundreds of hours in it when taking lessons and running gymkhana at shows.

This saddle deserves its own post, especially detailing out all of the alterations its gone through, but long story short: when I started distance riding, I sawed the horn off (if my trainer from show days is reading this, she probably just died a little at that part…) and gradually made changes like swapping fenders for English leathers, and putting girth billets instead of cinch latigos  on it.

It’s not always been the most comfortable saddle for me in the past, though…mainly, too wide of a twist. But I’ve kept it around as a back-up saddle…it lives down at the barn for the days I can’t be bothered to haul one of the saddles from home.

Funny thing…I’ve been playing saddle “Round Robin” for the last several times I’ve ridden…and when I hopped up and settled to the old Big Horn yesterday, it felt wonderful. Of the three saddles, it puts me in the most comfortable position, I don’t feel like I’m fighting it at all, and I feel really secure. And for whatever reason, the twist doesn’t feel too wide.

Mimi’s moving well in it, too. I’ve always had good luck with this saddle on her. We used it for half a dozen NATRC rides, and several AERC LD rides, and the only time she ever had any back soreness was when I used an Equipedic pad instead of the above-pictured purple Skito.

So I guess we’ll just keep on busting out the old Big Horn for now.

IMG_8910

And finally: discovering the sneakers you put on by accident/force-of-habit because you forgot you were riding, not running, actually make for fantastic riding shoes. Still like my Terrains, but not for hiking since they have no tread. I’m not sure how much of the Ed Ride coming up might involve hiking, but since I’d like to be prepared for that eventuality, I’ve been scratching my head and wondering about what shoes to bring. Yesterday’s “happy accident” was further confirmed by deliberately wearing them today, and that settled the matter — these are definitely going on the packing list. Super comfortable, no foot numbness, good tread, and very breathable.

11 days out from Tevis Ed Ride departure day. Counting down!

A Home for Frank

I have a new man in my life. Frank is stable, supportive, looks good, and smells amazing.

I’m talking, of course, about the Frank Baines Reflex dressage saddle I brought home with me after Wickenburg.

;))))))

I have “joint custody” of Frank to love, coddle, and breathe in the smell of new fine leather…and ride, of course.

The hours in the saddle at Wickenburg showed that Frank is obviously a good fit for Liberty…and the fact I could ride 25 miles (and 6 hours in the saddle) and still be walking that afternoon and the next day showed it worked well for me, too. I hated the idea of it sitting around gathering dust, so I offered to bring it home and keep it in my house where it would be climate controlled…and maybe I could try it on Mimi and use it if it worked?

Guess what? It works.

As Mimi has gotten older, her back has gotten more rock in it, and I’m starting to suspect the Duett might be a little bit too flat for her anymore. So I toted Frank down to the barn a couple weekends ago and plopped it on her back.

I love the point billets on this saddle — they actually align with her girt groove, so the saddle doesn’t slide forward.

She moves really well in it, and I really like how this saddle makes me ride. I can’t “ride lazy” in it — but I don’t have to work to engage my core/inner thigh contact.

IMG_5871

And Saturday was the second ride…and I got a solid 45 minutes of really good work out of her. She’s still doing a little bit of hind end tripping, usually coinciding with a deep spot of sand, which means she’s dragging her feet.

But she keeps willingly offering a canter, which is huge, so I think it’s probably mostly mechanical at this point, and it just means I have to ride her with a little more contact and support. Fortunately, this saddle makes that really easy.

IMG_5921

the face of long-suffering when subjected to my “exploded box of Crayolas” color schemes

The shaggy yak is frantically dumping her coat, and she got the First Shampoo Bath of the Year (always an occasion) this weekend.

IMG_5864

two weekends ago; previous photo in the crossties shows this past weekend’s offerings

And Frank has a new home in my bedroom…which makes me feel like I’m living in a tack room, as I now have two saddles hanging on my bedroom walls. At least all the biothane tack lives out in the garage.

IMG_5925

that’s okay, I don’t actually need space in my bedroom or anything…

trial and error

The trial: A Sensation Hybrid that I dragged home with me from Tevis, on loan from a friend to “see how I like it.” (More accurately: To see how the pony likes it.)

After a half-hour workout, in which she kept getting happier
and happier. Workout shortened due to extremely nasty heat
and humidity…and the fact I still had to trim her feet in said
nasty weather.

The error: Oops. Apparently I’m going to need a new saddle, since after about five minutes, the resounding opinion was, “This is delightful.” Just putting this out there for people: Just because your horse is 20 years old, doesn’t mean they don’t stop growing/changing/driving you nuts on saddle fit. And just because we’re not competing anymore doesn’t mean she doesn’t still deserve to be just as comfortable when we do ride.

“I can haz new saddle?!?”

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been noticing a decrease in forward enthusiasm and an increase in bitchy mare face when initially asked for a trot. I’ve seen this before, and it usually involved the need for a new saddle. This time, I kept hoping maybe it was just related to her getting older and crunchier. Apparently not, since she even wanted to canter again today, something she’s been increasingly reluctant to do.

And so begins the great saddle hunt, scouring the internet for a good deal on a used saddle. My preference is for a Sensation, since they’re really well-made saddles, I love the weight-distributing stirrup hang options, and they seem to have quite a bit of “structure” for a treeless. Personally, I would really like either the english trail or dressage trail model.

It looks good on her: Somewhat proportional, versus being
swamped by saddle flaps. (Love my Duett, but the flaps
could be smaller.)

I’ll test the one on loan for a few more weeks, just to make sure we both really like it (although based on Opinionated Pony and how strongly she lets me know whether she likes something or not, I’m thinking she likes this one), and hopefully will be able to find something that fits what I’m looking for.

Because, really, how can you say no to this face?
Thank you for this brief interruption…we will now return to our regularly scheduled Tevis programming, at least for the next few posts.

Saddle Fit: The Rider Edition

(Author’s Note: Wow, this turned into a long post of my ramblings about personal saddle discoveries I’ve made over the years, because I’ve literally been working on it, off and on, all day.  I think there’s a point to it.  It might just be buried somewhere in there.)


So I grew up with the riding school of thought that said it didn’t matter what the saddle was like, you learned to ride through it.  As long as the seat vaguely fit, there was no such thing as taking into account the saddle’s natural balance, leg position, and whether or not it truly fit.

When you end up riding in three different saddles over the course of one show day, and spending a lot of time climbing in and out of those saddle in between classes, it’s easier to adopt that school of thought, and when you subsequently watch videos of yourself riding, just chastise yourself for not spending enough time working on keeping that lower leg still.

Must ride without stirrups more, was a common thought.

Imagine my surprise when I got into distance riding and learned that, Wow, improper saddle fit was making this a lot more uncomfortable than it really has to be.  Also on the “Why Did I Learn This Sooner?” list was the concept that things like rise and twist in a saddle make a huge difference in lower leg stability and the ability to retain one’s position instead of falling forward in a heap every time a certain pony would root her head and yank forward on the reins.

I can stop my horse without completely falling apart, position-wise?


It was a revelation.

Never mind the fact it took several years of distance riding, quite a few hours in the saddle, and going through multiple saddles before all these little revelations finally connected in my brain.

Hey, maybe there’s a reason for the fact I’m constantly fighting for a proper position and balance, other than the fact I might just suck as a rider?


But it’s made for an interesting look back at old ride photos and such.

Not going through my old show photos, mostly because they’re a disorganized mess.  Someday I’ll get them sorted into photo albums.  Today’s not that day.

But I rode in five different saddles when I was showing:

A Circle Y Western Equitation saddle.  After Mimi and I both outgrew the first one, I got pretty much the same saddle, in a larger size and with more silver.  I couldn’t help but have decent equitation in this saddler, especially the second one.  The leather on it was so thick, stiff, and pre-formed, my legs weren’t going anywhere.  It was just a matter of keeping my upper body in roughly the same hemisphere as my legs.

When I started, I already had a saddle: a Miller Collegiate Close Contact.  I actually had the saddle long before I had the horse…my parents got it for me the first year I started riding.  So I literally grew up with that saddle.  It worked for Mimi and I for several years, and then my legs finally outgrew that saddle.  (I was very excited about this.  I was really quite short for my age until about halfway through high school.  Now I’m just short-approaching-average.  But I’ve gotten over it, mostly because it means I can still ride ponies.)

That saddle was literally the classic definition of “postage stamp of leather.”  No knee rolls, very flat seat.  No wonder the horse I rode for that first year was able to launch me with such ease.  Short little legs didn’t offer a lot of grip, and virtually nothing by way of saddle security.

I replaced that saddle with a Stubben and finished out my show career in that one.  Mimi eventually outgrew it, though, and by the time we were done showing, it was definitely too narrow for her.  I hung on to that saddle for a number of years, out of sentimental value, and finally just sold it about a year and half ago…to my friend Kaity.  So I know it’s in good hands and being used instead of gathering dust in my bedroom.  And it was a step up from “postage stamp”: tiny knee rolls and a flat seat.  These days, I’ve found that while I still adore and prefer an English-style saddle, I like more security in the form of a deeper seat and substantial knee rolls.

And of course I had my Big Horn Barrel saddle.  I used this for most of my lessons and for running gymkhana at the shows.  When I started distance riding, this was what I started with.  It got me through all of our conditioning up to our first NATRC ride, through the first ride, as well as the next one.  All in all, I probably did distance in that saddle for about a year.

Shall we play several rounds of “What’s Wrong With This Equitation?” with some of my old ride pics?  (I apologize for the quality…I should have scanned the pics before I stuck them all in an album.  Actually, I did have them scanned.  And then the computer ate/wiped the flash drive they were on.  Nice.)

photo by Jane Gray Impressions

Awww, our first NATRC ride, First of Spring, April 2002, El Cajon, CA.  Gotta say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the pony have that much knee action.  Sooo, the rider.  This one does a really good job of illustrating the faults I tend to make: I lean too far forward., and my legs swing too far back.  Back then, I was also still in my “jockey-esque stirrup” phase left over from many years of huntseat riding, in which I equated shorter stirrups with great security.  Not always the case…but that one took me a long time to figure out.

The main problem with the Big Horn is it has an extremely wide twist.  Everything else is good…but man, it’s really hard to get your legs on the horse and keep them under you.  Which further exacerbates my natural tendency to lean too far forward.
The leaning forward thing: It’s my security blanket.  Even though it’s gotten me dumped while jumping more times that I can count, and tumbled over the horse’s shoulder, and made me eat mane on a frequent basis, I have a hard time giving it up.  To me, sitting back too far makes me feel too vulnerable to sudden forward bursts of speed, or to the possibility of being somersaulted off over the butt ends, which is a far more traumatic happening than a front-ways dumping.  Done both, and there’s nothing I hate worse than the backward-flip sensation of the horse shooting out from under you.
But all of this is a compounding thing.  If I can’t get my legs under me, I have a hard time sitting deep.  If I can’t sit deep, I can’t take up on the reins and resist the pulling.  Her pulling on the reins in turn pulls me forward, moreso than I’m already inclined to be.
This was a pretty habitual thing, so you can see why I just chalked it up to “Some people are just more naturally gifted than me and I just suck at this whole ‘stable position’ thing.”
Exhibit B:
photo by Jane Gray Impressions

First of Spring NATRC, April 2003, Warner Springs, CA.  New saddle!  Well, next saddle after the Big Horn.  After surviving two NATRC rides without the pony having a meltdown, I felt more comfortable exploring saddle options that didn’t include the pseudo-security blanket of a Western saddle.  One of my knees was also occupying the Complaint Department on a regular basis, so I wanted the flexibility of English leathers again.  Plus, I started riding English…riding an English saddle and the accompanying equitation is as natural to me as breathing.

The saddle I chose was a Wintec Endurance.  I liked the changeable gullet option, since my pony kept broadening out.  Riding in the Big Horn had me spoiled to the whole synthetic saddle/lack of leather cleaning thing.  (I’ve since ditched that notion again.  I love nothing more than high-quality leather, and I actually find saddle cleaning to be soothing.)
Too bad that new saddle didn’t take care of any of the above-mentioned problems.  In the Wintec’s case, the twist was too narrow.  I didn’t have a good base of support, so I tended to be all over the place, again.  Legs too far back, leaning too far forward, pulling pony making the whole thing worse. 
We’re not going to go into training, bits, horse misbehavior, rider error in this post.  I’ve since figured out what I did wrong, what I didn’t know back then, what I’ve since changed, et cetera.  I’m strictly looking at how saddle fit for the rider can affect riding position and efficacy.
Moving on.
Fast forward a few years and I got a Free ‘N’ Easy Trekker.  It was a saddle I really liked, especially the option of the movable stirrup bars.  I didn’t connect all the dots at the time, but I definitely felt like I was riding better.
Unfortunately, I only ever did one ride in it, and the one ride pic I have doesn’t show a good enough angle to actually see if my memory is as good as the reality was.  I ended up selling that saddle when Mimi (again!) outgrew it.  It was marginal on width to begin with…hindsight being what it is, I probably should have exchanged it right off the bat for a wider tree.
Ah, hindsight.
So I went back to the Big Horn.  By this time, I had sawed the horn off (no more jabbing me in the ribs) and replaced the stock courdura fenders with much thinner, more flexible biothane ones.  Ah, much better.  At least on the knees.  It still didn’t solve the whole “this twist is way too wide” problem.
I did several LDs in that saddle, and I could manage 25 miles.  But then I started eyeballing the possibility of moving up to 50s, and could not see myself riding 50 miles in that saddle and still being able to walk at the end.
Enter my current saddle.
It’s a Duett Companion Trail.  It fits Mimi perfectly, and I feel like I can actually ride in it.  I’ve had the saddle for five years now, and I’m thrilled with it.  It was the saddle that finally connected the dots for me: proper stirrup position and balance in the saddle makes for a secure lower leg, and a more secure body position.

Still leaning a bit forward…it’s a chronic problem.  But I’ve actually got my leg on the horse and in a good position.  Because I’m not fighting the saddle and fighting for security, it also means less fighting with the pony.

And that right there is about as good as it gets for me.  Good leg position, fairly upright.
But of late, I’ve noticed that I’ve been feeling a little floppy, for lack of a better term, in this saddle.  Really reaching for my stirrups, lower leg starting to do its “errant waving in the breeze” thing.  Huh???
Okay, so, here’s the deal: The Duett is a 19″ seat.  I’ve typically ridden English saddles anywhere from 17″ to 18″.  The Duett is sized on the small side, and when I got it, I waffled between the 18″ and 19″.  The 18″ felt just right…but I figured that by the time I added a sheepskin cover and rear cantle packs, that would fill in the extra space.
Which worked really well for the past few years…until recently.  This past fall, I embarked on a pretty significant lifestyle/dietary change.  Nothing drastic or extreme, just cutting portions and eating very balanced, sensible, real foods, combined with walking every day and gym workout and/or at-home routines with stretch bands.  It’s working: I’ve dropped 25 pounds since the fall, as well as extra waist and thigh inches.
My saddle is a bit too big for me now.
I solved the problem by shortening my stirrups up a hole.  Ah, that’s better.  I’ve got my base of support and good leg contact back.  And everything else about the saddle still works: good leg position and support, good knee block placement…I’ve got got a little extra room back by the cantle packs now.
But all of my saddle trials and errors have really shown me the importance of a good trial with a saddle before committing to buying one: It’s really hard to know if something’s going to work without trying it.
And I’ve decided that having a saddle that works for me the rider is just as important as finding one that works for the horse.  Because if I’m not riding well, that’s going to negatively impact the horse, no matter how well the saddle fits them.
The next round of saddle shopping (whenever that happens) is gonna be so much fun…