Thursday, September 25, 2014

Saddle Demo: Wintec Pro Endurance Saddle

I know that you're probably thinking, "Didn't she just get a new saddle?  Why would she be demo-ing another saddle?"  Here's what happened...

As you may recall, the first saddle that I ordered for a test ride was the Wintec Pro Endurance Saddle.  I ordered the saddle through SmartPak's test ride program, but I was told that there would be a fairly long wait before I could get the demo saddle.  In the meantime, I had ordered and subsequently purchased a Specialized Eurolight.  It occurred to me after I bought the Eurolight that I should call SmartPak and cancel my order, but I figured I had time because at the time I bought the Eurolight, there was almost a month before the Wintec would ship and Smartpak's customer service had told me they'd call before they shipped because of the long wait time.  So I did what I often do and I procrastinated for a few days...And then I got the e-mail from SmartPak that the saddle had shipped.

I admit to being a bit frustrated.  If they had just called me ahead of time, I could have cancelled the order.  Admittedly, the shipping was free both to me and to return the saddle, but it still meant I'd have to drag the box down to the UPS store to ship it back.  So the saddle showed up on my doorstep about 3 days later.  I dragged it in the house, put it in the spare bedroom to protect it from the dog and the child, and planned to take it to UPS in a day or two.

But then I got to thinking, "I could just take the saddle out and look at it.  I mean, there's no harm in looking, right?  I have to open the box anyway to get the return label anyway."  So I opened the box and unwrapped the saddle and then I set it on my saddle stand (yes, I keep a saddle stand in the family room - it makes a great place to store all my clean saddle pads, which are totally acceptable as charming and cozy decorations at my house...).  Honestly, I hadn't really expected to like the saddle.  I'd ordered it primarily because it was relatively inexpensive, but because SmartPak's demo program would only ship a 17" seat, I figured I wouldn't fit very well in the saddle because I normally ride in an 18" saddle.  And there were these funky thigh blocks on the back of the saddle flap that I thought would be annoyingly restrictive.  But it was on the saddle stand, so I figured the least I could do was sit in it.  And...it wasn't too bad.  The back thigh blocks were not nearly as invasive as they looked in the picture (I think they stuck up maybe an inch from the saddle at their highest point).  The seat didn't feel too small.  And the fabric was nice and grippy.  So then I thought, "I've already got the thing on trial, why don't I just swap out the gullet to the wide width and put it on my horse?"
Wintec Pro Endurance - Black
Source:  http://www.wintec.net.au/product/wintec-pro-endurance/



And that's when I ran into trouble.  When I unpacked the saddle, I realized the gullet change kit wasn't included with the saddle.  When I called customer service about it, they told me that they didn't have the test ride gullet change kit back in yet, so they'd ship it later.  I could keep the demo saddle until the gullet change kit could be shipped to me, which would be another 2 weeks.  What???  Why would you separate the gullet kit from the saddle?  Unless your horse happens to be a medium, which is what the saddle comes with, a test ride is useless for assessing fit on your horse.  SmartPak's customer service rep was very nice about the whole thing, but if I'd been desperate to try that saddle, I'd have been pretty upset over the delay.  And of course, you're probably wondering why I didn't ship the saddle back at this point and tell SmartPak not to bother with the gullet kit.

Here's why:  After riding in my Eurolight, going back to my dressage saddle was a no-go, even for short schooling sessions.  I found that I didn't like the way it felt when I sat in it anymore and it didn't fit Nimo well either and he clearly told me that by fussing when I tried to put it back on him.  We had gotten used to a much improved fit and I didn't want to go back.  But.  I still wanted to continue with dressage.  And I absolutely could do my dressage work in the Eurolight.  It wasn't quite like a dressage saddle, but it worked pretty well and my instructor could care less what type of saddle I rode in.  However, this little thought niggled at me that I couldn't show in the Eurolight.  Yes, that's right.  The United States Equestrian Foundation, which regulates dressage up through 4th Level (above 4th Level is the FEI), has emphatically stated that you may not compete in dressage shows in an endurance saddle.  It's absolutely stupid (do you hear me USEF?) because dressage is supposed to be the foundation of all other types of riding.  You can show in an all-purpose English saddle through at least the lower levels, and it makes no sense that you can't use an endurance saddle, especially with the new-found popularity of western dressage.  (This stupidity is one of the bazillion reasons I stopped competing at dressage shows in the first place.)  And I didn't want to show anyway, so who cares?  But what if I did?  And what if I decided that I didn't want to do endurance anymore?  I knew I would always want to do dressage schooling, if nothing else, so the thought occurred to me that I'd need to replace my dressage saddle.  And while the Wintec is called an endurance saddle, it is built on a dressage-style saddle.  It even has repositionable thigh blocks, so it could easily pass for a dressage saddle.  And the grippy fabric would be a real bonus when I was learning sitting trot.  Sooooo, I'd kind of decided that I might really like to actually test this saddle.  For which I really needed the wide gullet from the gullet kit.  (It is endlessly amusing to me in a mentally ill sort of way that I found a wide gullet in my garage while cleaning up my horse crap just a few days after I needed it.)

So I decided to wait for the gullet kit to arrive.  And it less than 2 weeks, I was in business, except for one tiny little thing.  I needed to change the gullet plate.  As an aside, I once had a Collegiate dressage saddle with the Wintec gullet-change system and I liked the saddle a lot.  The leather was nice and the gullet was reasonably easy to swap out, particularly if you only had to do it every once in awhile.  I had to sell it because Nimo outgrew it, but his new svelte figure led me to believe that the wide (or maybe even medium wide) gullet would work for him again.  Anyway, I already knew how to change out the gullets, which basically involves unscrewing 2 screws in the pommel, pulling the original gullet plate out, stuffing a new gullet plate in, and refastening the screws, so I grabbed a Phillips head screwdriver and removed the first screw, which was kind of a pain to get out.  And then I tried the other one and could not budge it.

I decided maybe I should read the directions.  That was when I discovered you are supposed to use a P3 screw head.  I didn't have any idea what that was, but I eventually discovered that the screwdrivers have letters/numbers on them and P3 is a type of Phillips head screwdriver that is as elusive to find as a moose in New York City.  My husband and I are do-it-yourselfers, so we've accumulated quite a few tools over the years, including a set of screwdriver heads that includes over a hundred different variations.  None of them was a P3.  For those of you as clueless as I was, the P3 screw head is like the normal Phillips, only the slots are a bit wider apart and thicker, maybe to give more stability?  But while I had managed to get one of the screws out with a P2 screwdriver, I could tell I was only stripping the head of the screw trying to get the second one out.  So, I grabbed my daughter, loaded her into the car and headed to the nearest home improvement store.

I eventually located a P3 screwdriver and bought one of the interchangeable P3 screwdriver attachments for a power drill as well, just in case.  Equipped with my new tools, I was sure I'd be swapping out the gullet plate in no time.  Ahem.  Not a chance.  That screw was STUCK in there.  I called SmartPak's customer service again.  How should I handle this stuck screw?  Send the whole saddle back for a replacement, only to have some random person at the store easily unscrew the apparently very stuck screw that I had conveniently loosened?  The customer service lady told me to hold on while she checked with a salesperson on the floor of SmartPak's Massachusetts store (I didn't know they even had an actual store...).  This was her response (I swear I am not making this up), "The manufacturer puts adhesive on the screws before it ships them to us, so sometimes putting a little WD-40 on the screw and letting it sit for a few minutes will help loosen the adhesive."  WHY WOULD YOU PUT ADHESIVE ON A REMOVABLE SCREW?????!!!!!!!

I sincerely doubted that putting some oil on the screw would do any good because I couldn't figure out how to get the oil down into the screw because, you know, it's still screwed in.  But I dutifully sprayed the WD-40 on the screw and while it sat, I drove back to the home improvement store to get one of those Grabit tools that is supposed to help you drill out stuck screws.  (By this time my husband was home from work, so he could witness my fairly rapid decline into complete insanity and watch my daughter and protect her from seeing her mother madly muttering under her breath, "Adhesive...they put adhesive on it...")  The saleperson at the store assured me it would work for a P3 screw head...


I would like to note that while I was checking out of the store with my new miracle tool, the area I live in was beset upon by a hurricane.  Literally.  Huge gusts of wind accompanied by driving rain too heavy to see through came out of the gates of Hell while I was waiting to pay my approximately $8.  I ended up getting completely drenched running from the store to my truck and then having to drive 2.7 mph all the way home because I couldn't see and the roads were flooded.

For the record, once I got home, I tried unscrewing the screw, now doused in WD-40, with both a hand-held screwdriver and my power drill.  And I had my husband try too.  We got no results except to basically strip the slots off the screw head, so nothing could get it out.  Thus, declaring war on the screw, I drilled the Grabit into the head of the offending screw and tried to drill it out.  And nada.  That screw was not coming out for anything.

By now I was supremely pissed off.  I rummaged through the garage for what I call the tile saw.  I think it's actually called something else, but I have no idea what.  It's a small hand-held saw with about a 4-inch diameter "diamond" blade that we use for cutting really hard floor tiles.  I intended to use it to create a whole new slot on the screw, so I could use a flat head screwdriver.  And that's what I did.  Tiny shards of metal went everywhere, but when I was done, I had miraculously not damaged the saddle and I had a nice, big slot on the screw.  (Just so you know, all those little metal bits wiped right off the saddle, with no sign they'd ever been there.  I'd have been impressed if I hadn't been so mad.)

The "tile saw"
Now I just needed a nice, big wide flat screwdriver.  And I couldn't find one to save my life.  Amusingly enough (again in a mentally ill sort of way), I found said screwdriver after I drove to the home improvement store for the third time to buy the biggest flat screwdriver that existed (the hurricane was over by this time - it was short and nasty!).  But it didn't matter, I was claiming victory in my head.  I was going to get that screw out and prove my worthiness as a do-it-yourself queen.  I would not be defeated by a stupid screw!

And yes, I was, in fact, defeated by said screw.  It would not come out. No amount of power or torque or swearing or pleading would extricate that screw.  I cried, I yelled, I swore, I vented, I hyperventilated.  And then I accepted that I was not going to be changing that gullet plate.

Offending screw with original slots stripped and new flat slot
So, I dragged the saddle out to the barn anyway.  I thought I could at least put it on Nimo's back.  As it turned out, the medium gullet plate wasn't too bad a fit for Nimo (picture me pretending to shoot myself...).  It was not wide enough, but it was close enough for me to decide to get on and do a short ride.

At first, the extra grippiness of the fabric was a little weird, but not in a chafing, bad way.  The back thigh blocks were virtually unnoticeable instead of restricting, like I thought they might be.  The saddle felt very secure on the horse, despite not being an optimal fit for him, and I felt very secure in the saddle.  I did notice that the stirrups weren't quite right (but hooray for adjustable stirrup bars!).  Otherwise, the saddle felt pretty decent.  Decent enough that I left it out at the barn and planned to ride in it again (I have since concluded that you need a minimum of 3 rides to know for sure if a saddle is going to work).  So the next night, I adjusted the stirrups (so ridiculously easy, by the way) and rode again.  And I really started to like the saddle.  In fact, I liked it pretty much as well as my Eurolight.  It was a different feel, but still very secure.  The only thing that could have improved it was a little more pommel height.  So, even if I hadn't yet gotten the Eurolight yet, I would have given it the edge because of the added pommel height, but for those of you looking for an endurance saddle, I can absolutely recommend the Wintec (except for the screw issue - be very careful to make sure the saddle can be adjusted before you buy it!).  The adjustable gullet, adjustable front thigh blocks, adjustable stirrup bars, and oh, by the way, you can actually insert small shims in the saddle panels (these shims can be used in both the wool-flocked and CAIR panels) that go in between the saddle seat and the flocking, make this saddle one of the most adjustable saddles out there.

Also, a word on the CAIR panels.  The demo saddle that I got did have the CAIR panels, which I think are just regular-looking panels that have a core which is air in some kind of factory-sealed sacks and foam surrounding the core.  The panels are guaranteed for 5 years.  I know there is a vocal contingent of people (which include saddle fitters) who believe that the CAIR panels are very bad.  They have reported a lot of issues with the panels and claim that they are bouncy or hard, and that there is some kind of seam which can cause a pressure point on the horse's back.  CAIR supporters claim that the air allows some additional flexibility in the fit of the panels that can help with minor issues as well as make the fit more dynamic.  One reason I ordered the saddle with CAIR panels was because I wanted to see for myself. 

Here is my evaluation, and it based on 2 rides without being able to adjust the saddle properly for my horse, and it is in no way meant to diminish the experiences of anyone else.  I liked them.  I didn't feel that there was extra bounce or hardness or softness.  They felt pretty much like any other wool or foam flocked saddle I have ridden in.  It may be that my butt is not as discriminating as some, but I didn't notice any issues from 2 short rides.  I also am very attracted to the idea that the panels would not need to be adjusted every 6 months and to be honest, I question the ability of a saddle fitter who makes money off of reflocking saddles to criticize CAIR panels.  There is a flat-out conflict of interest there.  And for those who claim that the panels are only under warranty for 5 years, I say, that's a hell of a lot better than wool flocking, which has to be adjusted up to twice a year at $250 plus a pop.  Also, you can opt to have the panels reflocked with wool at a later date.  Anyway, that's my two-cents.  It is entirely possible that if I rode in the saddle longer, I would have identified concerns with the way it felt to me or Nimo, but my introductory rides were positive.

The reason I'm going into all of this is partly to provide some info to you prospective saddle hunters out there and also to explain what my next step was.  I sent the saddle back and while I can't say that my experience with SmartPak's saddle trial program was very positive, they did refund my money despite the fact that I totally destroyed that screw.  (I will note that every single other experience I have had with SmartPak over the past 10 plus years has been extremely positive, and I think this one was a fluke.)  And while I did find that the saddle seemed like a potentially good fit for dressage work (and even trail work), I was really, really, really bitter about the screw issue.  And I worried that if I bought one of these saddles, I'd have to deal with it.  So, I looked into the other Wintec/Bates saddle models and I found one that I thought would make a good comparison with this saddle.  It is not inexpensive, being a leather model, but I can see it working for a long time.  And it has d-rings that you use to unscrew the gullet adjustment screws instead of a screwdriver, which make me think that I would be much happier with the whole system.  And I'll tell you all about it once it finally emerges from the customs purgatory in which it now resides...:)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Conditioning Milestone: More than 100 miles in a month!

There are a lot of steps on the way to completing a 100 mile endurance ride.  I'm positive that I don't even have a clue about what many of them are yet, but my philosophy is to focus on shorter-term, more achievable goals while still remembering what the end game really is.  One of those shorter-term goals is to get over 100 miles in during one month.  That may not sound like a lot for someone doing longer distances, but considering that it was just over a year ago that I was lamenting about how hard it was to get 5 miles in, I figure riding 100 miles is a pretty big deal:)

Anyway, after battling weather, footing, rain rot, and life for months and beginning to despair that I would ever meet my mileage goal, Nimo and I finally did it in August, with 114 miles.  The miles were a combination of dressage schooling and trail work, with the majority of them being trail miles.  We even got 35 miles in during one week, which means that training for a 50 mile ride someday is not out of the question.

It was a hard goal to meet in the sense that it meant I pretty much gave up every weekend because I had to haul someplace both Saturday and Sunday and put in a good 10-12 miles on at least one of those days.  I also was religious about getting 1-2 rides done during the week, even if they had to be short.  My house is now an unmitigated disaster and coated with dog hair, and my husband finally gave up on the idea that I would cook and so he actually cooked a few times (bonus!), but I feel like I'm finally making real progress on both our conditioning and dressage training.

It's not that we haven't been improving already, but I felt like there was a special focus last month that really helped me do better in terms of planning our rides and making sure every ride served a purpose, whether it was to emphasize lots of trotting, spend a lot of time climbing, or work on strengthening dressage exercises.  The other thing I did was to start combining climbing and trotting in the same ride.  I've had a tendency to keep climbing and faster work separate, primarily because it's hard to find a good place where I can do both.  But my explorations at the Phelps Wildlife Management Area, which is near the barn, has yielded the discovery that I can get a lot of trotting in over moderately rolling hills and include a few really steep, short climbs.  I've also gotten a little braver about asking Nimo to trot steeper hills, both up and down.  I'm not sure that he is particularly fond of that aspect of our training, though:)  I still do longer climbs when I can, because there's nothing like climbing for 3 miles straight to actually prepare you for climbing 3 miles straight, but I feel like our workouts are more well-rounded now.

And finally, we've really been working on canter.  I don't expect to ever use canter much out on the trails because it's just not Nimo's most efficient gait, but I think the aerobic benefits are great.  So, we've been spending more of our dressage schooling sessions on canter and have even started doing canter lengthenings, which is pretty exciting.

I'm really excited about the improvements over the past several weeks, but I have to admit that I have no intention of maintaining them beyond the end of October, after the OD Fort Valley 25 ride.  It's just too hard to do that much riding and still keep some semblance of a life, so my plan is to wind things down for 2-3 months and then get back into a heavier training schedule in January/February (depending a bit on the weather, of course).  I also think it's good for both Nimo and I to get a break from all the purpose-driven riding and do some fun rides where I don't have to try to maintain a certain pace or achieve a certain number of miles.  Plus, I'm hoping that next year, things will be a bit easier on the fitness level because we'll have already built up a base this year.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Specialized Eurolight Saddle Demo

About three weeks after I placed my order to demo a Specialized Eurolight, I got an e-mail letting me know that my saddle was on the way.  What I didn't know was that UPS had apparently subcontracted its delivery service from California to Virginia to a flock of migratory birds whose motto is, "You'll get it when you get it, dammit!"  So it ended up taking about a week to get the saddle.  I used the extra time to review all the videos on the Specialized website to make sure I understood how the fitting process was supposed to work.  I also gave myself a refresher on saddle fitting by watching the video, Saddle Fitting from A to Z with Dr. Kerry Ridgway, that I bought from the Reactor Panel company.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Specialized saddles, the basic idea is that the saddle is built on a wide-angle, fixed tree in the western style, but no additional padding is added.  Instead, the bottom of the saddle has velcro affixed to the bars and you attach the foam panels and shims (if needed) to customize the fit of the saddle to your horse.  The foam panels and shims seem to be made out of a closed cell foam, so there isn't much compression and they are made to retain their thickness and shape even with the weight of the rider.

The Eurolight model is a pretty simple saddle, with a single skirt.  The material covering the seat of the saddle is completely detachable and replaceable and Specialized makes seats in a variety of colors and materials (smooth leather, suede, sheepskin), so you can swap out the seats for different seasons/types of rides by unscrewing 4 screws.  There is also a trail seat and an endurance seat (the endurance seat has more of a cut-out in the middle - maybe for more air to the horse's back?).  The rigging is technically an in-skirt rigging - the billet strap(s) are attached at the bottom/middle of the skirt.  The rigging can either be English with double billets or western with a single, wide strap.  The stirrups attach directly to the bars of the saddle (which is typical for western-type saddles), but that feature means it is kind of a pain to adjust the stirrups because you have to remove the shims and panels from the saddle bars to adjust the stirrup position.  There are additional options for English style stirrup leathers or western style fenders, tooling patterns, and the leather color of the saddle.

My demo saddle on Nimo
My demo saddle had English billets, a trail seat with smooth leather, and English style stirrup "leathers" made from beta biothane.  The demo package came with three sets of foam panels (1/2 inch, 3/4 inch, and 1 inch thick), a set of smaller foam shims in differing thicknesses and shapes, a saddle pad, and a girth.  The girth that came with the saddle was a western girth, so it was fairly useless for the demo process.  Luckily I already had a County Logic dressage girth that worked really well with the saddle.  This particular girth is designed particularly for cases in which the billets from the saddle come down well behind the girth line on the horse.  Often, a regular girth will tend to pull the saddle forward onto the withers in that situation, so the County Logic girth does a pretty good job of correcting for that problem.  It also worked really well with the Eurolight because the billets were a bit back from Nimo's girth line.  I'm not sure if that would be an issue for all horses, or if it is something more specific to Nimo.

Anyway, the first thing I did was put the saddle on Nimo's back without a saddle pad and without any of the foam panels attached to the saddle bars.  I will note that is not what the Specialized video recommended.  Instead, the manufacturer recommends putting the thinnest panels on first and then adjusting from there by first assessing the angle at the shoulder, then assessing the angle at the back of the saddle and finally correcting any bridging, which is a totally logical process.  (Note: One of the videos suggests that there should be a quarter inch of space between the bottom of the front of the panel and the horse's back so that there is room for the saddle pad.  However, while I admit it's been awhile since my high school physics class, that makes no sense.  To get a quarter inch gap between the saddle and the horse on both sides would essentially mean the saddle must be hovering over the horse.  Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't know how to make a saddle hover...Anyway, I do agree that the saddle pad needs to be taken into account, but a lot of pads actually compress to much less than a quarter of an inch, making their impact on fit negligible, in my opinion.)  But I really was curious about how wide the angle of the tree was compared to Nimo's back.  What I found is that the angle was pretty close to his conformation without any padding at all.

So my first step was to put the 1/2-inch panels on the saddle and put a white saddle pad on, so I could check for fitting issues based on the dirt marks from Nimo's back.  (Some people have to use blue chalk because their horses are clean.  I do not have this problem.)  Because the saddle was new to us and I wasn't sure how it would fit, I definitely didn't intend to ride him hard enough to generate much sweat, so I wasn't expecting any sweat marks to be that useful.  So I tightened the girth and headed out to the arena to mount up.

The very first thing I noticed when I got on was that angels started singing, the sun became beautifully bright, and I was transported to a stunning beach where all my troubles melted away - no wait, that was a feminine hygiene products commercial:)  What actually happened wasn't so bad, though - the saddle felt incredibly stable when I got on.  I hadn't even realized how much my dressage saddle was moving around, even when using a three-step mounting block, until I got into this saddle.  That stability when I mounted translated into a very secure side-to-side feeling when we started moving.

The second thing I noticed is that riding with the wide endurance stirrups is very different than riding with regular English stirrups (even though mine are a little wider than normal and have cheese graters for treads).  It wasn't long before my ankles were crying to be set free from confinement and my little toes were beginning to get rubbed.  But because those issues were related specifically to the stirrups and not the saddle, I decided to ignore them for the time being.

After walking and trotting around the arena for maybe 15 minutes, I took Nimo out on the trails around the farm.  They are very flat, but wind through a nicely forested area.  The footing alternates between good and ankle-turning rocks with mud.  For whatever reason, Nimo has come to love trotting on these trails as fast as I will let him.  I always hold him back a little because I've felt a little insecure in the saddle, especially if he spooks, which he is prone to doing.  This time, I really let him move out because the saddle seemed so secure and I felt a lot more confident.  And that was when I was able to really test the saddle.  After trotting for about 3/4 of a mile at about 12 mph, Nimo came to a screeching halt.  THERE WERE LOGS PILED UP NEXT TO THE TRAIL...IN THE FOREST!  WHY WOULD THERE BE LOGS IN A FOREST????!!!!!  If I had been in my dressage saddle, I absolutely would have flown over his head and landed in those logs.  But because the pommel is built up a little in the Eurolight, my thigh caught it on my way off, and provided enough of an obstacle to keep me in the saddle.

At this point, the stability of the saddle and the extra pommel height were making a pretty convincing argument for getting the saddle.  But, I didn't need my white saddle pad test to know that the front of the saddle bars were not making good contact with Nimo's back.  I could feel that there was something off about the fit, and my saddle pad confirmed it after the ride.  So I added some shims to the front of the saddle and planned to ride again the next day, but this time using my Port Lewis Impression Pad that I got from the Reactor Panel company.  (Note:  Moss Rock Endurance also carries the pad for the same price, but Reactor Panel provides some fitting assistance when you buy the pad from them that Moss Rock doesn't.)

I hadn't used the impression pad before and it turned out to be kind of a pain.  It can only be used when the temperature is below 85 degrees (Reactor Panel recommended below 80) and has to be stored in a temperature-controlled environment (i.e., my house).  Well, if you are familiar with Virginia in July, you know that it doesn't get much below 85 until late at night.  Luckily, we were having a cooler spell and the temperature was 84 when I got out to the barn that night, so I was good to go on a test ride.

The impression pad has two sides that velcro together in the center over the horse's spine (also something I don't really like) and each side has this special dough in it that sort of melts with the horse's body temperature and reveals pressure points caused by a saddle.  You are supposed to ride in the saddle for 25-30 minutes at all gaits and then carefully take the saddle off and hold the pad up to the light (or drape it on the windshield of your car).  If you see places where the thickness of the dough is significantly thinner or even see through it, those are pressure points.  If there aren't any significantly thinner sections of dough, your saddle theoretically fits well, although even the company that makes the pad admits that you need to do more to check for saddle fit than just use this pad.  I realized why after I did the test.

My adjustments gave me a very nice impression on the pad, although you'll have to take my word for it, because it was too dark to get a good picture.  The issue was that the pad was so thick, I felt that it could have disguised minor fit issues because the dough would sort of smooth them out or even distort the fit of the saddle so much that a pressure point that didn't normally exist would be caused.  So I decided to take this initial reading with a grain of salt and I planned to take my horse on a real ride the next day that would be a more typical conditioning ride of about 10 miles.

So my third ride was out at one of my favorite conditioning locations - the Shenandoah River State Park.  I like it because the trails are always well-maintained, there are at least a few hikers and other riders out so that if I got into real trouble, someone would eventually find me (there is no cell phone service to call for help), but not so many to be irritating, and the terrain varies from rolling to short, steep climbs.  I took Nimo out for a full 10 miles and while I didn't ask for his best effort, we did do quite a bit of climbing and some trotting as well, so I could make sure he worked up a good sweat.  What I found after the ride was that there were a couple of narrow, slightly irregular strips of dry areas under the pad under the front half of the saddle.  They weren't large areas that caused me great concern, and based on the shape and size, I suspected they might have been areas of mild atrophy caused by my current saddle.  Thus, I thought it might actually be a good thing if the saddle didn't put any pressure on those areas, because it might allow them to regenerate a little.  On the other hand, it could have been that my shims needed to be adjusted slightly, so I decided to keep an eye on it, but leave the shims alone for the time being.

By this point in my demo process, I was starting to really like the saddle, except for one thing.  I was experiencing a sharp, stabbing pain at the very top of the inside of my thigh when I first got on.  After riding for a few minutes, the pain would fade, and eventually go away.  The first time I noticed it, I was sure that there was some sharp protrusion under the saddle seat, but there wasn't.  I eventually came to suspect that the pain was caused by the wider twist on the saddle as compared to my dressage saddle (dressage saddles tend to have more narrow twists).  It was at that point I remembered one of the Specialized videos saying that ladies just love the Eurolight because of the seat and I have heard some rumors that women like wider twists.  For the record, I have only ever heard men say this and while I can't speak for all women, I can emphatically assert that I do not prefer a wider twist.  Just because my body was designed to give birth to a large-headed baby doesn't mean I want to ride for 6 hours with my legs spread out over a wide stool.  That said, as I continued to ride in the saddle, my body did adjust to the change in the seat and the sharp pain I felt at the beginning of the ride eventually went away, although I could still tell the saddle felt wider than what I was used to.

The day after my conditioning ride, I took the saddle to my dressage lesson.  This may sound strange to people who do not routinely take dressage lessons, but I have found that, on average, my dressage lessons are more difficult than any conditioning rides I do.  The conditioning rides usually last longer and for that reason can be a little rough sometimes, but in terms of sheer physical effort, nothing tops a dressage lesson with a competent instructor, in my experience.  So I knew that if the saddle worked in the lesson, that was going to be important information for my decision.

Well, my instructor noticed right away how much more stable in the saddle I was and how much my leg and heel position had improved.  I do want to point out that part of that stability and position improvement was due to the endurance stirrups and not the saddle.  Having a wider base for my foot definitely helped me feel more secure.  The lesson went really well except that neither of my little toes had any skin on them after my ride.  They were rubbing against the stirrup because the stirrup leathers hadn't really broken in yet and instead of buying moleskin or putting band-aids on my little toes, I just suffered through it.  Please don't ask me to explain that because it makes no sense to me...

By this point in the trial, I was really starting to feel comfortable in the saddle and I started to wonder if I even needed to try another saddle.  But, I did want to use the full time allotted to me (10 days) to get as much information as I could.  So I put the saddle through another probably three rides that week before I made my decision.  I played around with the panel thicknesses and shims a bit more and I eventually ended up using the thickest panel (1-inch) with some shimming on the back of the saddle and a shim to correct bridging on one side of the saddle only.  The most amazing thing about this process was that I discovered Nimo has some asymmetry in his back that I didn't realize he had.  I think that much like when I decided to start trimming Nimo's feet myself and learned that they weren't as perfect as I thought, paying so much attention to fitting the saddle allowed me to see things I just hadn't noticed before.

In the end, I decided to buy the demo saddle.  The adjustability afforded by the panel and shim system was just too fantastic to pass up, especially now that I knew about the asymmetry in Nimo's back.  The saddle felt so stable on his back and as the stirrup leathers started to break in, I could tell the toe rubbing and ankle soreness would be fading.  I loved the light weight of the saddle (12-13 pounds), the ability to switch out the seat to a different material, and all the fabulous d-rings for attaching an assortment of saddle bags, water bottles, sponges, and who knows what else.  I also liked the design of the rigging - there was no bulk under my leg and it worked perfectly with a girth I already had, plus I think it added to the stability of the saddle by being placed closer to the middle and at an angle.  There were just two things I wanted to change - I really wanted a suede seat instead of smooth leather.  (Why would anyone want smooth leather on a saddle seat?  It is my opinion that all saddle seats should be suede as long as the objective is to stay in the saddle.)  I also really wanted to swap out the conchos for the same design (Horse Shoe Brand) as my bridle has.  So I contacted Specialized to see if I could do those things and they said yes.  They would ship me a new seat and conchos so I could swap them out and in the meantime, I could keep riding in the saddle, which I thought was a pretty good deal.

This is the point at which I ran into some trouble.  It took several weeks to get the seat and conchos.  And it turned out that when I got the seat, it was the wrong one.  That was partly my fault because when the customer service lady asked me which seat I wanted, I realized I couldn't remember whether the saddle had the trail or endurance seat.  (You would think they would have known which saddle they shipped to me, though.)  Anyway, when I asked how I would know the difference, the lady said that there would be an opening at the front of the saddle for the endurance seat.  It turns out that there is an opening for both seat styles, but it is bigger for the endurance seat.  So, I mistakenly ordered the endurance seat when I should have ordered the trail seat.  As for the conchos, well, apparently swapping out conchos is a real bitch and I had no idea how to do it.  Apparently, even experienced saddlers have trouble getting the existing conchos out because I couldn't find a single YouTube video of the process or anything other than the occasional comment in a forum.  I ended up messing around with the darn things over a couple of days and did finally figure out how to swap them, but two conchos still aren't screwed in as tight as they should be because my hands needed a rest from all the twisting.  I think I'll eventually be able to get them in, but the process was a bit frustrating.  Anyway, now I'm waiting on getting the right suede seat, and while that has been a time-consuming process, it is pretty cool that the manufacturer is letting me keep the original seat until I get one that I like.

To sum up my feelings about the saddle demo process and the saddle itself:  The customer service for the demo option was pretty good.  I was able to order through the manufacturer's website without a hitch and the saddle they shipped me was a great fit for what I was looking for.  It was an almost brand new saddle, with only a couple of very slight marks on the billet straps, so it had probably only been ridden in a couple of times.  There was the issue of the wrong girth being sent, but I feel comfortable saying that if that had delayed my ability to test the saddle, the manufacturer would have given me extra time.  The other great thing about buying the demo package was that I was able to buy the saddle pad they included for the test ride for a reduced price and I was also able to keep all the shims and panels for a reduced price.  Normally, the saddle includes one pair of 3/4-inch panels and a set of 6 shims.  I was able to buy the 1/2-inch and 1-inch panels for half price, so I had a full set of panels and shims to work with.  I love having the extra panels, so I can play around with the fit if I need to.  The information that came with the saddle was also really clear in terms of how to fit the saddle and how the demo process worked (when the saddle needed to be returned, how it should be returned, etc.)

The saddle seems like it is well-made, although the underside probably looks a bit rough if you're used to well-finished saddles.  The roughness is really necessary, though, both to keep the weight down and to allow the most adjustability.  I did see some comments in forums where people weren't happy with the lack of finishing touches or even the leather quality, but I think the saddle seems durable and well-made.  I can't speak for how many years it will last, but my guess is that if it is taken care of, there is no reason why it wouldn't last as many years as you wanted to ride in it.  The panels and shims would definitely need to be replaced after a few years of hard use, I would expect, but the prices are pretty reasonable for replacements (I think it's less than $100 for new panels, and maybe $40 for shims) - certainly less than a single reflocking appointment would be in my area.  My only complaint about it is that the billet straps are maybe 3 inches shorter than I would prefer.  I use the fourth hole from the bottom on each side, and it just fits into a slot on my girth and barely stays tucked in.  I guess I could buy another girth that is a little longer, but I really like being able to use the same one for both of my saddles.

I've been riding in the saddle for probably at least 6 weeks now, maybe a little longer, and even my dressage instructor has noticed how much my position in the saddle has improved.  And I don't think it's a coincidence that Nimo's canter transitions and the quality of his canter have improved as well.  I feel so much more secure in the saddle and I have been able to get my legs under me and connect with Nimo's sides in a way I never could in my old dressage saddle (this is why it was so important to me to have adjustable stirrup positions).

But for those of you who might be disappointed because I haven't written about the other saddles on my short list, you needn't be.  It turns out that there is more to my saddle search after all...