Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Western Saddle Cinching

There are a number of important aspects to take note of when putting a western saddle on a horse and a number of techniques to handle all of theses aspects.

How tight do I tighten my saddle?
The main thing to keep in mind here is that the saddle is not like a car seat... it is not meant to be a piece of equipment to strap you to the horse, but merely a tool to aid you in the balance that you already have while riding. Stirrups in particular are meant to be a tool to reinforce balance at high speeds and fast turns, not a crutch to lean on and rely on. Keeping this in mind helps us figure out just how tight to make our girth.

A number of experts state the following confusing line: the saddle should be tight enough so that the saddle does not move and loose enough so that our horse is comfortable. What does this mean? The saddle should not move on its own or slide side to side on the horse when we tug on it from the ground. It should be tight enough to be secure.But our saddle should never be so tight that it does not allow the horse to move under the saddle, or pinch a nerve. Where is this balance point?

For pleasure riding, when you are in your saddle, you should be able to move the saddle slightly when you put all of your weight on your stirrup and lean. It should allow the horse to move under the saddle but not let the saddle move because of this movement. However, if you are roping, barrel racing, ponying horses, or doing things that will put added movement and could shift the saddle, you should have it tighter.

So now you ask: How do I get on the horse without the saddle moving? How do I ensure the saddle does not move side to side when I'm riding?

When mounting your horse, you should not be relying on the stirrup to get you up on the saddle. You should hold the mane to help you get on, not the horn. The mane will not move and it is a part of the horse. The horn is like a lever to shift your saddle. Additionally, you should not climb up on your horse, but you should mount gracefully using your legs to jump and propel you off of the ground.

When riding you should be a balanced rider. This entails being able to keep track of your own body and maintain balance without the need of tools (stirrups to lean on, horns to hold on to, and heaven forbid you grab the reins for support). When you rely on tools, you are locking down a part of your body that is incredibly useful for communication for your horse. As a balanced rider, you should not be shifting the saddle at all because you will not be putting any pressures or lever actions onto it to cause it to move.

So what does the novice rider do, or perhaps someone operating at top speeds or tying off on their horn? There are a number of additional tools that you can use to reinforce the balance of your saddle without tightening the girth further and causing pain to your horse:
  1. Breastcollars: Breastcollars go around the chest of your horse and provide additional support to the saddle preventing it from sliding backwards on the horse, but also providing resistance for your saddle to slide side to side and therefore more stability.
  2. Crouper: A crouper is a leather loop, passing under a horse's tail, and buckled to the saddle to keep it from slipping forwards.
How fast do I tighten my girth?
A horse should never be thrown into a saddle quickly.

When first putting the girth on it is important to hold the girth up on the horse's stomach. If the girth is continually banging up against the horse as you set, adjust and work with the rigging it will become irritating and your horse will get frustrated and upset. Some horses are particularly irritated by this and will become "cinchy" over time.

Once your rigging is hooked up, leave on the horse loosely. As you continue to tack up your horse and prepare to ride you should incrementally tighten the girth. Tightening your girth in multiple steps will allow your horse to adjust to the girth and prepare for the ride. There should be at least 3 different tightening occurrences and no less. 

Where do I put my cinch?
It is very important that before cinching your saddle, you find the appropriate position for the saddle so that it is square, balanced, and not restricting the shoulder movement of the horse. Saddle pads should also be positioned so that they cannot slip back and are covering the horse appropriately.

The girth should lie across the horse's ribs but should not  be resting in the "armpit" of your horse. When your girth is too far forward it restricts the motion of the horse and can cause pinching.

Behind the horse's elbow there is a plethora of skin to allow the horse to swing its leg fully. When you put your cinch too far forward you are pinching some of this skin that is supposed to move under the girth. Additionally, you are causing the skin to have to fold around the girl as the leg moves backwards.

The girth should be placed behind the point of the elbow a safe distance to allow movement. Depending on the horse it may be 4-6" inches, but each horse is different. To further prevent pinching, after the first tightening (remember there are multiple tightening moments in saddling a horse), stretch your horse's legs to pull the skin out from under the girth.

Using a back cinch on a western saddle:
Some saddles are specifically designed with a single centralized balance point on the saddle to connect to a single girth. These centralized balance points make the saddle balance both in the front and the back of the saddle so that there is no teeter-tottering forward and backwards or twisting from side to side as the horse moves.
Western Saddle with single balance point

Other saddles are not designed this way. They are designed with two balance points: a front one connected to the cinch and a back one for the back cinch. When using a saddle like this it is necessary to support both of the balance points in order to ensure that the saddle does not teeter-totter or twist.
Western Saddle with two balance points

Many people use saddles with a dual balance point and only one girth. Sometimes as the cinch is tightened, it will lift up the back end of the saddle.Because the saddle is no longer balanced, it is also no longer secure on the horse. To compensate this, often people tighten the girth tighter, which ensures that the saddle will not slip, but only furthers the lack of balance and can bother the horse.
Note lifting

To deal with this there are two techniques: using a back cinch, or rigging the saddle to develop a single balance point.

The back cinch and the front cinch should be connected together with rigging and equally tightened. If using a back cinch it is very important to connect the back cinch to the front cinch with rigging to ensure that the back cinch does not slip back under the horse's stomach and become a bucking strap. If there is no rigging it is important that you remove the back cinch or that you hang the back cinch loosely and not use it for support.
Back Cinch Rigging Note that because the cinches are tied together to avoid back cinch from sliding back they are both tight.

To convert a saddle to a single balance point, use a long latigo on each side of the saddle to create a "Y" shaped rigging that will connect to a single girth. This will ensure that both the front and back balance points of the saddle are being weighed down. 
Converted Rigging

You can also use English billet straps or stirrup leathers to convert a saddle.
Use of English billets to convert a rigging. Note that the girth is too far forward, close to the elbow in this photo.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Weekend Adventure up the Mountain

Part 1: The Meaning of "Seasonal Use"
So to celebrate Allie's birthday and the fact that she is house-sitting for her friend Krissy, we have joined her in Richford, NY. Unfortunately there were a couple factors that came into play as we made our way over there:
  1. Instead of leaving the house around 3:00pm we wound up leaving the house at 3:51pm
  2. A small yet magnificent snowstorm descended on upstate New York
  3. The directions that Allie gave to us did not translate onto our cellphone map and instead routed us up Brigham Road instead of Barden Road.
  4. There is a lack of cell-phone reception
So here we are hauling 4 horses in a 32' trailer with a ½ ton Dodge pick-up, thankfully 4x4, in the snow. We follow our "directions"  which take us up Brigham Road off of Route 79. We get about ½ a mile up the road when the hill starts to get steep and slick. We slowly grind to a halt and the truck and trailer begins sliding back down the hill. At this point we realize that we have no chance of ascending the mountain. Erika in sheer terror that the truck keeps moving by itself, backs the trailer back down to the base of the hill about ¼ mile off the highway and pulls it onto the shoulder as the sun sets and it starts to get dark.

Parking Spot for Trailer

This is the point that any reasonable person would pack up, turn around and head home, calling Allie on the way.

What does Erika do (Colin in tow)? Unloads the horses, tacks up Kasper and throws his blanket on Scotch. Colin tacks up Tally and helps unload Mack who is dancing all over the trailer. Right as we finished tacking up, packing up and getting our wits about us, the snow plow loudly and brightly emerges from below like alien spacecraft. The plow blazed by us leaving our horses' already fragile psyches in pieces and our own confidence shaken. 

We mount up (Erika on Kasper, ponying Mack; Colin on Tally, ponying Scotch; and Seneca running along in her blaze orange vest and ding-a-ling bell). As we start to ride up the hill the snowplow returns; turns out that this road becomes a seriously seasonal road and he had only plowed a ½ mile beyond us. With the return of the aliens, it was evident that Mack's mothership had landed and he was about to return to his own kind.

We continue on, passing the last house, still thinking that this is the path that Allie had taken mere hours earlier. The road narrows, the trees thicken and the snow deepens. We turn around, thinking that there is no hope and we are distinctly headed down the wrong path. The incredulous owner of that last house happened to be warming up his car. Overcoming his wonder of our sheer stupidity (two riders descending from the hill with four horses in the dark), he reassured us that we were on the right track and that Schoolhouse road was in fact at the top hill and he knew of the farm we were aiming at, but that nobody had come down that road in at least two weeks. 

The road up the hill (obviously taken during daylight)

Onward we rood up the tree and cliff lined seasonal road, slipping and sliding on the ice as we went (or at least Kasper and Mack did, Colin lucked out with the sure-footed horses).

Now before I go any further, let me say this: it was BEAUTIFUL. The snow was gorgeous in forest as we ascended. Our horses are amazing. Note that we have with us our three youngest riding horses and our foreign exchange student, Mack. The four them were so wonderful riding through the weather and the dark on the strange icy trail. If I ever sell any of them their asking price has instantly risen by $500!

About 30 minutes later we had ascended the mile and a half up the hill and saw what we hoped was the farm. With no barn in sight, and between the wind and the snow there was actually no driveway to be seen either, we realized we really had no idea where our destination might be. Luckily, we had regained cell reception, and were able to call Allie. Asking her to flash the lights in the house so we might know if we had indeed found her, we saw a flicker ahead of us and pulled into the driveway.

Horses are tucked in tie-stall style into two stalls, fed, watered, blankets replaced. We descended with the car and picked up the rest of our supplies and the trailer will spend the night at the base of the hill and we will again ride back down in the morning. 

All tucked in

Part 2: A Reasonable Return
After a nice breakfast at the Brooktondale Fire Department Pancake Breakfast, we returned to the farm take a nice trail ride before we had to head back to Painted Bar for evening lessons.  We tack up and head out, and as we turn the corner around the house we were blasted in the face with quite the blustery wind.

Overnight the wind significantly picked up. The snow fell horizontally. But Allie seemed excited that "this wasn't a windy day." The farm was most appropriately named Tailwind Farms because the wind was seriously strong enough to move a house. While the horses were obviously a little more "uppity" than usual because of the cold they all did very well and we completed our short little loop around the fields and returned back to the house to pack up the car to ship our stuff back to the trailer.

Car en route with one of Allie's friends, we saddle up again. Allie on Kasper, Erika on Mack, Colin on Tally and Allie's friend Missy on Scotch. The ride back down the hill was quite pretty but the trail continued to be quite slick with a sheet of ice under the 5 inches of snow. We had some slipping here and there, mostly by Mack who sat down only once, but we safely and calmly descended to our trailer and found our gear waiting for us.

Riding back down the hill

About 15 minutes later horses were on the trailer and Erika backed the trailer back down to Route 79. Allie, showing off Seneca's blaze orange vest, directed traffic on the highway as we backed the trailer into the road and homeward bound we went.