Riding Horses : In the early days of our country there were riding….

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S owners are so possessed over the subject they no longer have fun with their mules; instead they spend their time worrying over saddle fit.

Adding to this problem are untold number of saddle fitting gurus, telling the mule riding public that if their saddle doesn’t perfectly fit their mule partner, untold damage will be done to the mule and if they just buy their whiz bang mule saddle fitting widget, all of their saddle fit problems will be solved and they can go down the trail basking forever in perfect saddle fitting fairy dust.

From what I see, saddle fitting today has evolved into an incredible boiling pot of conflicting information.

It is being fed by a number of people who don’t know a cantle from a seat jockey, some alleged trainers blame every bad habit a mule develops on poor saddle fit, a number of unknowing, misleading or misinformed, saddle makers and dealers promising perfect saddle fit, private owners who base their very vocal opinions on one magazine article they have read; add a mix of blind belief in saddle fitting voodoo, and the not so perfect art of saddle fitting becomes one great big three ring circus.

Standing quietly on the sidelines, are a few knowledgeable people, who it seems at times, are being out shouted by the self-proclaimed all knowing.

There are an untold number of people making a living out of teaching others how to fit a saddle to an equine.

These saddle fit gurus are an interesting lot.

First there is the Starched Shirt Saddle Fit Guru.

He always has a new expensive felt hat and a perfectly creased, solid color shirt with a logo of some kind embroidered on the front.

Armed with a big bag of trick looking tack he claims is needed for a proper fitting saddle, and if purchased at his clinic, is alleged to be a true bargain.

Next is the Beautiful Young Reining Queen, Saddle Fit Guru.

Mandatory is a big silver trophy buckle, blond curls, and starched jeans, demonstrating saddle fit on a big bloomy quarter horse that has never been out of the arena. Then we have the Saddle or Tree Company Rep Saddle Fit Guru.

He is usually partnered with a known trainer who is endorsing the saddle or tree of the reps employer, it’s called paid to say nice things about the product.

Based on the trainer’s endorsement you are to believe that perfect saddle fit can be obtained by just believing his message, smilingly approved by the factory rep.

One of the most interesting is the Old Waddy Saddle Fit Guru, who presents himself with a mouth full of chaw, a slough hat, watery eyes, and some wore out tack.

He spins a yarn or two about what has always worked for him in all his years riding the range, and if you do the same you can’t go wrong, and “here is my long time secret to perfect saddle fit you can buy with confidence.” A real puzzler is the Mysterious Saddle Fit Guru who just kind of appears out of the mist.

His western duds are new and don’t quite fit, and he starts out telling you his personal story how he worked for years as a resident crash dummy for a bowling ball company and this naturally lead to his interest in mules and saddle fitting…..???? Lastly, is The Young Clean Cut Cowboy Saddle Fit Guru.

He is immaculately dressed in high heeled boots, chinks, flowered western shirt, silk scarf, slightly worn, five-inch brim, palm straw hat, and a five o’clock shadow beard, and they always have a name like Rocky, or Dusty, or Rowdy.

He will tell us all about his vast saddle fit knowledge gleaned from packing mules for thousands of miles in the rugged mountains of Colorado, punching thousands of head of cattle in the Texas panhandle, riding thousands of bucking horses, roping thousands of head of cattle, and riding thousands of miles of lonely trails in all kinds of weather, and in the process, riding thousands of equines of all kinds, type and color.

This guy is among the most interesting, because he is only 30 years old and hasn’t lived long enough to do even a small part of what he claims.

This list can go on ad-nausium.

The summer I turned seventeen I went to work as a wrangler at the Blue Jay Stables in Blue Jay California in the San Bernardino Mountains, where Don and Scotty Mauk ran over a hundred head of dude horses.

Scotty employed four wranglers and each wrangler had his personal horse to ride.

I took my paint mare Penny with me, and a guide rode anywhere from four to six hours a day, on the same horse, six days a week, with his personal saddle.

I never saw any of the wrangler’s horses with sores on them.

It was there at the Blue Jay Stables that I got my first real introduction to saddle fitting and it has been one of my major interests ever since.

Wayne Cozart was a farrier who shod all the horses at the stable.

Wayne was a first class farrier, displaced from Arkansas, who was quite a hand.

He not only shod horses, he was good at handling all livestock, both saddle animals and harness animals, floating teeth, and seeing to it that the horses on the dude string weren’t neglected.

He was frequently at the stable and he was not bashful about letting the wranglers know when something wasn’t right.

And, when it wasn’t right, Wayne had a simple rule…..stop and fix it.

Scotty Mauk believed in Wayne’s wisdom and when he said it, it was the rule from then till the end of time.

The only saddle sores I saw were the big gentle horses that carried the smallest riders.

They had pony saddles on them and these were tough on those big horses.

It was because of this problem, that Wayne taught all the wranglers how to use “rocker pads.” I wrote about rocker pads in the August 2012 issue of Western Mule Magazine.

We didn’t have all the high tech equine accessories we have today, so a saddle sore got immediate attention before it took the horse out of the string.

All the adult saddles had high cantles on them to keep the dude riders from sliding out the back on a hill and to prevent them from sitting too far back on the saddle, as a lower cantle would allow.

Every effort was made to spare a horse having to carry overweight riders on a regular basis and Scotty would often times refuse someone a ride because of that issue.

That sometimes caused the sign up desk to be a pretty exciting place at times.

It was not easy to tell a man his ten-year-old son can go, but because the father weighs 350 pounds, he couldn’t go.

However, this provided the enterprising young wranglers the opportunity to jump right in and let the parent know that we would take good care of the boy, or girl, and see to it they had a good time.

Of course the possibility of five dollar tip was a big motivator to a young wrangler.

Horses and mules that are ridden on a regular basis, with properly adjusted tack, result in a conditioning of their muscles, and skin, and are less likely to get saddle sores.

If you are a weekend rider and are going to ride only on weekends, saddle maker Tom Pritchard pretty much ties the knot in the problem with his advice that, to avoid saddle fit issues, “It takes three ten mile rides in a week to condition your mule for a thirty mile ride on the weekends.” The quality of your tack goes a long way to keeping your mules back in good shape.

I had a man show up at my house a couple years back to look at a mule I had for sale.

He was driving a new diesel truck and a 30foot long living quarter’s trailer.

He was looking at the mule for a price of over $2,000.00.

He opened up his rear tack room and I saw two cheap nylon western saddles and a cheap Asian made Australian saddle.

I knew from that moment on that if he bought the mule, it would not be a match made in heaven.

A top hand cowboy friend of mine, Dale Newman, commented years ago, “You can tell a lot about a man by just looking at his outfit.” If you read old books about equine history, fictional or factual, you find little reference to saddle fitting issues.

In the old days, if you want to call it that, a man would often times, only own one saddle that he would use his entire life.

However, he might own many horses or mules.

In the early days of our country, there were riding horses and mules and there were harness horses and mules.

Horses and mules were more or less divided into these categories based on their conformation.

The serious equestrian can usually be seen in old photos riding horses or mules that were fairly slender, with no hay bellies and nowhere close to being overweight.

The other horses and mules were sent to harness duty.

This choice of conformation on the part of riding animals went a long way toward eliminating sore backed saddle animals.

Likewise, the riders were fairly slim.

Working ranches where cowboys had a set number of animals assigned to him, had to use one saddle on all the horses in his care.

He couldn’t afford to own eight separate saddles for each of the eight animals assigned to him.

Cowboys alternated the use of their animals on a regular basis.

If they were being subjected to hard use a cowboy would change mounts in mid-day.

Better ranches had horses that were of a kind that were basically user friendly.

Certain conformation issues were known to cause problems that would make the animal unusable and those animals were avoided.

However, in our current state of private equine ownership, we take a whole different look at things.

Most mule buyers, especially first time buyers, will seldom give potential saddle fit issues a second thought when considering the purchase of a mule.

Instead, prospective buyers are often more enamored with the mule’s color, and personality.

Mules looking for a new home always seem to have a personality that buyers can’t resist.

Mules aren’t known for being stupid.

Early scholarly efforts to explain saddle fitting, are almost always making reference to English saddles, and much of the early saddle fitting expertise comes from the insight of military veterinarians.

Prior to the World War II era, it was common practice for saddlers to recommend that each horse have a saddle that is made just to fit a particular animal.

In this day and age it is not uncommon for most people to own and ride more than one mule.

In doing so, most owners have mules in their back yard that are a long way from being carbon copies of each other.

I know this from personal experience.

I have four mules and not one of them has a back anywhere similar to any of the others.

At the cost of saddles today, its not economically feasible to own a custom made saddle for each mule.

The economic factor, if no other, presents a challenge to tree and saddle makers to produce a saddle that will fit as many different type mule backs as possible.

This is a big expectation of the part of mule owners and for practical reasons, is not easy to achieve.

In 1964, two years after I graduated from high school, I bought the first book I read on saddle and tack fitting, entitled Saddlery, by E.

Hartley Edwards.

The book was published in 1963 and the comments on saddle fitting are almost word for word, what experts in the field are saying today.

Mr.

Edwards made reference to several points of saddle fit that he felt were necessary to good saddle fit.

They are long in explanation, so for our purposes, I am going to quote highlights of these points, and we will eventually explore all of them. 1.

The saddle must afford complete clearance of the withers and also across the width and along the length of the backbone. 2.

The construction of the saddle must be such that it bears evenly upon the back in its entirety, so that the weight of the rider is evenly distributed over as large an area as the bearing surface on each side of the backbone will allow. 3.

The length of the saddle must correspond to the available length of the back. 4.

The equines back must be conditioned before being subjected to anything but short periods of pressure.

For the most part, until the last two or three decades, the European equestrians, South American equestrians, and endurance riders around the world, were more interested in and much more advanced in their knowledge of saddle fit than most western saddle users, be it on a mule or horse.

A number of years ago I attended the National Endurance Ride Conference in Reno, Nevada.

I was there with a commercial exhibit, but found time to sneak out and attend a few presentations I was interested in.

Among those was saddle fitting and equine conditioning.

These were real eye openers for me.

At first glance I thought all endurance riders were built like whip handles, rode horses conditioned like a Triple Crown candidate, and had perfect fitting saddles for each horse.

The entire conference was filled with a lot of very knowledgeable people, and I re- alized that more than any other equine endeavor, endurance riding had major involvement and input from veterinarians, and physicians, both as advisors and participants.

One thing was for certain; no average pleasure or trail rider was going to the lengths that endurance riders do to make their equine endeavor successful.

In this light, many pleasure and trail riders refuse to acknowledge their responsibility in the saddle fit equation.

Instead, they want to blame the saddle for all their problems, while ignoring their responsibilities as an active partner in the overall issue of proper saddle fit.

I have read a big bag full of articles and books on saddle fitting in the last 40 plus years and coupled with my personal experience, research and lessons learned from some really knowledgeable people, I have learned to sift the wheat from the chafe.

One solid rule is there are four interrelated parts to saddle fit, the mule, the pad, the saddle and the rider.

We are going to talk about this inter-relationship and how saddle fit problems can be solved by understanding this relationship.

Also, we are going to explore some very easy to apply tips to helping you identify good and bad saddle fit.

For the following articles in this series, I want you to keep something in mind, and it was best noted by saddle maker Dusty Johnson who said, “There is no such thing as perfect saddle fit.” To contact Terry Wagner for information on this article or prior articles, email: terry@threebellsmules.com 1/2 page ad

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