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?"
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"|
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|
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...:)