Monday, February 22, 2016

Saddle Shopping at the AERC Convention

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to white-knuckle my way over Donner Pass in bad weather, Thursday evening I headed up to Reno for the annual AERC Convention. It turned out that the storm had passed and the weather had settled compared to Wednesday night (1.5" sheeting rain, hurricane-force winds, multiple trees downed onto overhead lines, power lost, etc...).  The highlight of the trip home from work was coming upon this tree on Andy Wolf in the dark and pouring rain, and having to make the decision on whether or not to squeeze under it as fast as I could and hope like mad that it didn't come all the way down while I was underneath it (it is leaning on the overhead lines).

Made it.

The Convention was bags o' fun, as always. Given that most of my friends either live in other states, or live at the other end of my state, getting us all together in one place, awake, alert, clean, and not needing to [trim/boot/put together a crew bag/mix up elytes/feed horses/muck horses/groom horses/obsess over some minor ailment our horse has developed in the last six hours which may prevent starting the ride] is an event in itself.

My Prime Directive for the Convention was to test-sit every saddle in the building, and come home with either a list of saddles I'd like to demo, or, more ideally, come home with a demo saddle.

Sadly, there weren't nearly as many saddle vendors present as in the past, so there were three things I wasn't able to try:

  • Freeform "happy ass" seat (not sure of the 'real' name, but that's what it is starting to be known as)
  • DP Quantum saddle (recommended to me by Dana at Sensation, sold by Action Rider Tack, who sadly opted to go to PNER Convention this year, not the National one. To date I have never seen this saddle in person, let alone sat in one)
  • 4Flex Pathfinger EFF Saddle (sold by Athletic Equine who were mysteriously absent from the event, despite being listed. Again, never seen one, was intrigued by the literature, might have sold my first born for one had I had the chance to try one out, but "must be present to win").

Wednesday morning before work, I was out in the barn in the wind, making curvy wither tracings of Fergus' back, armed with a large sheet of paper, tape measure, marker pen and bendy ruler. Then at Crysta's sharp suggestion, I was up until 1:30 a.m. that night making cardboard cutouts of said wither tracings.

Armed with my cardboard cut-out horse, I was able to try:

Arabian Saddle Company:
Sierra Trail - this saddle was really lovely and cushy and looked like it would fit based on Cardboard Fitting. However the price tag was sadly somewhat beyond my budget. It would be something to set aside for future consideration if I get really desperate.

Reactor Panels:
Have been riding in two different RP saddles for the last month and Lisa Jordan has kindly spent many hours fiddling around with me on fit (me and Fergus), but there's just something about these saddles that doesn't quite work with my body and Fergus' movement. None of the 3-4 saddles I sat on in their booth felt good to me (despite the fact that the endurance model I've been trialling for the last couple of weeks doesn't feel too bad, which is odd).

Ghost Saddles:
A quick look at these made me realise straight away that they weren't going to work for Fergus because of the lack of Big Gullet®. However, I sat and talked with Marlene Moss* for some time and was impressed with their plans for the future in making adjustments for the better. Saddle makers who "keep thinking" are great, IMO, and I hope things go well for them. A friend in NV bought one on Saturday, so I'll be keeping tabs on how she likes it.

(* I've been reading posts from Marlene Moss for years and had formed a picture in my head as to what she looked like. Well, it turns out she doesn't look *anything* like my head-picture - not that she has an extra head or is 7' tall - it was just a bit of a shock to discover something that you *know* to be true isn't even vaguely. Nice to meet you finally, Marlene).

Saddles in the Tack swap:

Orthoflex and Timberline Flex - astonishingly heavy and I'm just leery of the potential pressure points. All the people I spoke to about these saddles over the last few months said they adored their old one, but the newer ones weren't as good. I asked Connie Creech what she was riding in - she said an Orthoflex - worked fine for her horses but she didn't love it for herself. I didn't love them enough to want to do more than quickly test-sit the pair in the sale, although they are local to me, so again, if I get desperate and the sellers haven't sold them in a few months, I could potentially still try them out.

SR - came highly-recommended as an investment and being incredibly comfortable. I can attest that it was very comfy to sit on, but alas these saddles are built to fit specifically to your horse's back (taken from a cast) and the two I looked at were far too narrow in the gullet to fit Fergus.


  • Elite
  • Pioneer
  • Aussie Lite

Similar in design to Specialized saddles, I was excited to try these since I really liked the concept; liked the look of them; and liked several of the modifications they had made to the design - namely being able to add rise to the seat, the cable attachment for the rigging, and the way you could shim the felt support panels on the underside of the saddle.

Although the saddles they had brought to the convention were 15" and I concluded I probably need a 16", the Elite, particularly, felt very comfy for me to sit in and I had gotten interested enough to want to take a saddle home to demo.

And then I started looking at the underside - the important part for Fergus - and grew leery of how the weight distribution worked. The support panels under the tree weren't nearly as supportive as I first thought, with some of the apparent size being taken up by extraneous non-supporting fabric. My worry was that, in reality, the footprint on these saddles wasn't actually that big and I could see pressure being created from the tree. I might be wrong, but non-being a proven saddle design I couldn't tell, and it was enough that I was scared away.


  • Trailmaster
  • International
  • Eurolight
  • Ultralight

Brenda Benkly who was repping Specialized at the Convention is an old friend who was forever on the hunt for the "perfect saddle". It seemed like every six months the latest Saddle Perfection Incarnate had been thrown out for some reason or another. So the fact that she had not only settled on these saddles, but settled on them enough to want to rep them impressed me. She has been riding endurance for nearly 30 years, has over 10,000 AERC miles, as well as a remarkable 19/21 completions in 100s, so she's 'been around the block' long enough to have formed some common sense when it comes to endurance riding equipment.

My biggest sadness about these saddles is how wide the twist is. Other than that, I like most things about them - they are horse-fit-adjustable; they appear to have excellent weight distribution once properly shimmed*; they are utilitarian - plenty of rings and places to tie things on; they have a nice big scoopy cantle to keep me from getting left behind; they have proven-performance in 100 mile rides; and, most important to me right now, they are inexpensive. They are commonly available, which means I could potentially get a used one relatively quickly, and there are locals around to help me fit them*, namely Brenda and chiro Bill McKean.

* The general consensus seems to be that they are good saddles, but can take up to 8 months to get dialled in - and until you've got them where you want them, they can be super-frustrating. Hence the "locally-available fitters" being an important selling-point to me.

Specialized Ultra Light prototype saddle

As it turns out, Brenda had in her possession a prototype saddle - the Ultra Light - a skirtless lightweight saddle that Specialized had only just come up with. The saddle was obviously a prototype and had been whipped up quickly for the Convention, so was a little rough around the edges and missing some of the more obvious "needs", namely rings to attach a breast collar. But the minimalist aspect of it/lack of skirt meant that it "rode" a little narrower than the other models (at least on the saddle stand) and quite a few people who tried it out liked it. And me liking narrower twists was one of them. It was agreed that, provided Brenda didn't sell it at the Convention, I could bring it home to demo.

...and I did.

Writing this on Monday evening - I was able to try it out quickly this morning for a quickie mile and half. So more soon on this subject.


  1. watching carefully...I have a few thousand miles on my Specialized Euro, but I'll be interested in hearing about the Ultra Light!

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