Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Fitting Room: Endurance Tack

As I surf the web and local libraries for information about endurance racing, I am frequently reminded that endurance riders are nothing if not singleminded in their pursuit of ideal equipment. "Ideal" has little to do with appearance, however. Spending up to twenty straight hours in the saddle seems a strong motivator that sends fashion out the window in favor of comfort for horse and rider.

Aaruba and I are early in our journey -- our first 15-mile conditioning ride is scheduled for next Sunday -- but already we've embarked on a quest for the perfect tack. Let me begin by saying that I'm a borderline minimalist. I think it was two-time Tevis Cup winner Potato Richardson who said something to the effect of, "If you can't ride fifty miles without ten pounds of gear in your pack, you're in the wrong sport." All the same, I'm gradually compiling a list of items that work well for me and Aaruba, even if they do earn me a lot of strage looks from passing pleasure riders.

The saddle: Right now, I'm using a Stonewall endurance saddle I picked up at a local garage sale. The centerfire rigging took some getting used to, but I like the extra stability and Aaruba hasn't had a single rub from his neoprene cinch.

The saddle fits me perfectly, but I'm becoming concerned that it doesn't quite fit Aaruba. When I untack after a ride, there's ruffled hair just behind his withers, particularly on the near side. This tells me the saddle isn't quite as stable as it ought to be. Also, after about seven miles, Aaruba tends to start head-tossing at the trot -- a sign of possible back pain. On our next ride, I'm going to see if I can place the saddle slightly further forward to get a better fit without interfering with his shoulders. If that doesn't work, I'll try him in my Wintec aussie instead.

The stirrups: I got a pair of E-Z Ride Nylon Stirrups with Cage for Christmas. They're very lightweight, and the 4-inch width makes miles of posting much easier on my feet. Because I ride in low-heeled, soft leather workboots, I feel safer with the cage to prevent my foot slipping through the stirrup. Many endurance riders hit the trails in tennis shoes, so caged stirrups are a popular choice.

The pad: Before ordering this red 5 Star wool saddle pad, I asked whether it would turn my horse pink. The tack store owner assured me it would not, and he was right...until our first long, sweaty ride of the season. Other than that, however, I've been quite pleased with this product.

The breastcollar: We're currently using a plain, nylon, Y-style breastcollar. I'd like to find red fleece tubes to cover the straps. I know they exist -- I've seen them. Just not for sale. Anywhere.

The bridle: Aaruba's prior owner, while a kind trainer in general, did a poor job of introducing the bit. As a result, Aaruba much prefers to go bitless. I might have chosen that option anyway, considering it's very convenient to simply loosten the noseband of my Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle so Aaruba can graze on the trail. (Beware: the site is nauseatingly sales-pitchy.) I ride with a 6-foot, very lightweight lead rope snapped to one of the side rings on the bridle. This is handy when I get off to lead Aaruba past fields of terrifying, fanged cows from Planet Horseflesh. I bought my non-split, soft cotton rope reins from a local tack shop.

The boots: Aaruba has never worn steel shoes, and I hope he never will. However, the miles on gravel are adding up, and the time has come for us to experiment with hoof boots. Last weekend, we tested a pair of old-style (50% off!) Easyboot Bares on his front hooves. They were a bit difficult to get on and off -- Travis had to do it for me -- but didn't seem to bother Aaruba at all. He went sound and confident on all surfaces, though he did slip just a little when we descended a steep hill on grass. Even at high speeds and on uneven terrain, the boots never threatened to come off.

After two rides totaling eighteen miles, the gaiters had rubbed a bit of hair off the back of Aaruba's pasterns. Though the instructions say to tighten the gaiters as much as possible, other reviewers say they've eliminated similar rubbing by loostening the gaiter straps. I'll let Aaruba's hair grow back, then give that a try. I'm not nearly as worried about solving a gaiter-rubbing problem as I would be if the boots had rubbed his heel bulbs, but today's minor rub can become tomorrow's nasty sore, so the situation bears careful monitoring.

Miscellaneous: With hot weather coming on, complete with pocket-less tank tops and breeches, I've purchased a neoprene cell phone holster. It's comfortable to wear on the back of my calf, where I hope it won't cause a massive bruise in the event of an unscheduled departure from the saddle.

Another piece of equipment I refuse to ride without is my Tipperary Sportage riding helmet. It's not high fashion, but it's comfortable. I figure that if I'm going to race through unknown territory aboard a high-strung prey animal, the least I can do is put an extra layer of padding between my brain and the nearest boulder.
I've discovered that a thin, knit cap from Target fits under my helmet to protect my ears from the cold. Windproof fleece, fleece riding gloves, and Patagonia long johns also help get me through these chilly spring rides.

The only other item I take along on rides is a hoof pick, which I thread through a strap on Aaruba's breastcollar. With hot weather coming on, however, I'm in the market for a good cantle bag with water bottle holders. I'll also add a few extras like a sponge-on-a-string for lowering into creeks, then squeezing out over Aaruba's forequarters to assist with cooling.

I gather from more experienced riders that this quest for perfect equipment will be endless. If you have favorite items, feel free to comment. Meanwhile, I'll keep you posted.

Follow this link for a tack update!

Related Posts

Back in the Fitting Room: Endurance Tack and Rider Gear

The Stocking Trick (Or, Aaruba Dresses in Drag)

Tack Test: Indian Bosal

New Duds: Interference Boots for a Barefoot Endurance Horse

Upward in the Night


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ell said...

Just ordered the bitless from the link you posted. I got the soft rubber reins. I'm excited! So, you chose the bares over the epics with gators. I'm having trouble deciding. Are you still pleased with the bares even though you needed help getting them on? I have to be able to do this myself--so suddenly I'm leaning toward the epics.

Anonymous said...

Is your Stonewall like the other ones I have seen, that the rigging is adjustable? Worth a look, if it's working for you....

Stephanie (old lady farrier)

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hi Stephanie, and welcome! The rigging is adjustable so the front and back billet straps (for lack of a better term) can be set to different lengths. You might be able to see it a little better by enlarging the first photo in my May 5, 2008 post. Be warned, the Stonewall tree is very narrow, so choose a narrow horse. ;-) Let me know if you'd like closeup photos of the rigging.

Jackie said...

Just found your blog and am enjoying reading through it.

I'm glad you find the Stonewall saddle comfortable for you, and I was glad to see you are using a wool felt pad and checking the saddle placement on your horses back. You may want to try a very thin or no-pad during your fit assessments. Also, cinch the saddle loosely and have your horse turn some tight circles in both directions to help the saddle find its sweet spot. Then snug the cinch and ride.

If you do eventually conclude that this used garage sale saddle doesn't fit your horse, maybe you would consider a new Stonewall built for your horse. We have various tree sizes to fit a wide variety of horses and also custom fit as necessary.

Best Regards & Happy Trails
Jackie Fenaroli
Stonewall Saddle Company