By Jerry Tardif
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When someone initially mentioned an endurance saddle, I would conjure up an image in my mind of a comfortable chair that provided lots of support for the long term.
But as I started exploring endurance saddles, I was disappointed to find that many were just western saddles without a horn.
So I decided to meet and chat with some endurance riders.
Of course, like everything else, there are endurance riders and there are endurance riders.
For some, an endurance ride was going on a ride for longer than one hour, while for others, it was a 100 mile, one day marathon commencing at 5:00 am and ending at midnight that almost kills both horse and rider.
Some spoke of a saddle providing comfort while others spoke of a saddle that holds up under a nuclear attack and could carry everything but the kitchen sink.
But these disparate responses were an epiphany for me.
They made me realize I would have to explicitly define what it is I DESIRED and "the heck" with everyone else's interpretations.
That realization was the defining moment in truly figuring out what I wanted in a saddle.
What Do YOU REALLY Want? It Matters!
I started thinking, really thinking, about my riding and my feelings about it.
I never tire of riding or being with my horse.
Even when returning from a four or six hour ride, I find myself disappointed the ride is ending.
My life has been dominated by an immersion in science and complex technology, and I do like it.
But I also like a break from it all and when entering the barn, I also enter "horse time".
"Horse time" has no schedules.
My horse might be in the barn and quick to access, or I may have to go find and get him from a grazing field.
Sometimes, he needs more grooming than at others, or I need more time to attend to a hoof, ticks, loose tack, or something else.
My riding partner(s) could be running late or there's something with their horse(s), etc.
So when I go to the barn, I leave plenty of time — the whole day on weekends. I have no schedule that says we start to ride at 9:00 am; it could be 9:30 or 10:15.
We start, stop, and eat when it feels natural for the horses and us — it's liberating!
Then I started putting my new awareness together as it affects saddle selection.
I realize I want a deep saddle that provides real support and keeps me in it even if my horse spooks, makes a panic stop, turns on a dime, or shys quickly because a dog has jumped out of the bushes at us (or a surprise from a real turkey, whether he has a beak and feathers or wears a hunting jacket) — good balance is one thing, split-second reflexes another, and we can't pay complete attention all the time — let the saddle help.
I also want the saddle to fit my horse really well, distribute the weight properly, and be gentle on his spine.
For me, I want true comfort for the long rides that I enjoy and gentleness for my spine as well.
I also want the ability to carry all manner of gear based upon the riding I do — long trips further and further away.
That means I want to be able to carry two canteens, a first aid kit for my horse and me, perhaps tie-downs for an overnight roll that I can use to hold a coat for a day ride, and much more.
And that requires lots of connection hardware in places that won't get in the way of riding and keeps heavy items over the horse's center of gravity.
So I started calling saddle manufacturers and asking questions about saddle customization.
That didn't go half as well as I had hoped, but it is grist for the next section.
Customizing a Saddle...Well, My Attempts
Customizing a saddle has appeal to some of us.
After all, it's not any different than decorating a room or selecting the accessories you want on a new car you're buying.
We all have somewhat different tastes, and for those of us who like to ride a lot, making our riding more fun and comfortable has lots of appeal.
Making it all happen, however, is not as easy as you'd think, or more correctly, as I thought it would be (and should be).
Who Do You Think You Are?
As I was solidifying in my mind what I wanted in a saddle and accessories, I started calling tack shops.
Except for one about 20 minutes from where I board, none of the others got involved with customizations.
In fact, I got blank stares with comments, such as, "You want what?
Our customers just buy a saddle and ride their horse!"
The tacit message was clear: "What's the matter with you???"
Needless to say, I was not dissuaded — I'm the quintessential customizer.
I will even build a piece of furniture occasionally so I can have specifically what I want.
The aforementioned tack shop about 20 minutes away is good-size, the owner is quite capable, and he has really impressed me.
He's known as an expert saddle fitter and makes some tack himself.
Last week, I saw a breastplate he recently made and I was very impressed (I'm rarely impressed — he's that good!)
But unfortunately, he doesn't make saddles.
I found a saddle at his store last year made by a well-known manufacturer and loved how comfortable it was.
I had returned from a 5-hour ride and went to the tack shop before returning home.
A saddle that was so comfortable to sit in after that long a ride in another saddle definitely got my attention.
I asked about customizations and was told they had tried before and this manufacturer had always refused, even though they sell a lot of their saddles.
And the store also said they had similar luck (in this case, that means no luck) with other manufacturers.
So I decided to call them myself.
Contacting Manufacturers Directly
I made contact and found they had a saddle designer and his assistant.
He was on travel, so I spoke with his assistant.
She was pleasant enough and asked me to write down my ideas and suggestions and she would forward them to her boss.
I wrote a comprehensive email and sent it her way.
I naively expected to receive an excited email later that day or the following day — nada.
A few more days went by — NADA.
A week went by — MORE NADA.
At the two week mark with nary a word back, I was sure the designer had returned from his business trip, so I called his assistant and she said they'd been VERY busy, but that she would forward my email to him immediately. A week later, I had heard nothing still.
Another call, another promise, and another BIG NADA.
So I called and asked for the saddle designer himself, he was in, and took my call.
He said he didn't know anything about it.
At this point, I wondered if his assistant was spoon-feeding him a bunch of great ideas and taking credit (yes, I know that's mild paranoia, but I was left to my own devices with no explanations — I don't do well as a mushroom in the dark being fed...well, you know).
So, I asked for his email address and forwarded my email full of suggestions to him — and guess what? NADA!!!!!
I decided the tack store was right — this manufacturer couldn't care less about my desires, my ideas, my suggestions, or anything else about me.
And my offer to the assistant of being willing to pay for these customizations evidently had little appeal.
So I called another manufacturer.
They wouldn't even let me talk to their saddle designer and said he was far too busy, that this was highly "irregular", and that a customer had never before asked to speak "directly" to a designer.
(Evidently they operate on a higher plane — another level of existence and we mortals cannot even begin to fathom their importance and levels of expertise.)
This didn't sit well with me and I decided I would not do business with these companies.
My search continued.
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Next to Part 4
Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com.
He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.
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