Monday, February 29, 2016

The Specialized UltraLight Goes on Its Maiden Voyage

It's not often in life you get to be first to do something, but this last week I was the first person ever to ride in the prototype Specialized UltraLight saddle, which was pretty cool.

Brenda Benkly brought this saddle to the AERC Convention, having only just received it and not having had a chance to really find out much about it. Many people sat in it during the event and lots of them liked it, but I was the lucky girl who got first dibs on bringing it home and trying it out.

Because I couldn't stand it, I actually took it on its maiden voyage first thing last Monday for a whole mile (limited time before work). I did a quick-n-dirty job of shimming it in the front and did a quick out and back to the mailboxes. Was able to trot a little ways in it and get a feel for what needed to be tweaked to make it work for us both.

The maiden voyage. I look a little "chair seat" in this picture, likely a product of swimming in the seat and having not adjusted my stirrups quite where I wanted them yet.

This is probably closer to the position it put me in 

First of all, I had to rig up some way to attach a breast collar. As a prototype, this saddle has no rings on it (the real thing, they assure me, will have two rings either side in front, two rings either side in back, as well as a crupper ring), so I had to get creative on attaching things. And it turned out it was pretty easy - I just slipped my breast collar loops over the front billets up as high as they'd go, and they were in the perfect position.

Attaching a breast collar to the ring-less prototype proved less of a challenge than expected

Once riding, my initial impression was the 16" seat was huge and I was swimming around in it. Don't forget, I'm used to my snug Sensation with the high cantle and pommel and the shortie stirrups attached to the flap that keeps you from going anywhere much. But this was like skating around in a large bathtub.

But apart from that, it felt pretty good. I was able to trot easily in it and didn't get the impression I was going to fall off, or that I was incapable of riding - both plusses.

Starting up the driveway...

The saddle is light enough to carry one-handed (a huge bonus) and minimalist enough that it's easy to pick up and handle. I wasn't sure I'd like something this basic, but I actually really like how minimalist it is.

This was after our maiden voyage - think my breast collar loops were a little too loose and the saddle ended up a little further back than it was supposed to be (my driveway is steep)

How the saddle is rigged (with the stirrup flipped out of the way).
This seemed to settle in a little better on the second ride and I was less concerned about how the billets banana-ed.

* * *

This Saturday I was finally able to give it a proper ride - 12 miles at Cool.

Zig-zagging around Cool

I finessed the shims a little - still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but a little better than my first effort.

This was actually my third shimming job, after we got back from our ride (shown without the pad).
At this point, not wanting to cut up the shims, I've just stuffed them in place hanging off the edge, just to give me an idea of how it'll fit when I do it properly. During our ride, I had the largest wedge shims in the front, and if anything they were too much, making the area under the pommel too tight. These flat spacer shims will probably be a better fit.

Quick-n-dirty, stuff some medium wedge shims in the back without any attempt to trim them to size and shape, just to fill in the gap caused by the tree being curved and Fergus' back not.

A nice big gullet that can be narrowed and widened at will. This area on the edge of the gullet is what I'm most concerned about and will require the most attention to shimming - which I'm going to leave to the experts when I get my own saddle and do it properly. 

Like the Specialized Eurolight, the seat on the UltraLight velcros on to the base-tree of the saddle - a bonus in my opinion. I have a leftover "cantle bolster" from my Sensation*, so I popped that under the seat at the back to snug up the swimming-size a little.

The half moon-shaped Sensation cantle bolster stuffed under the Specialized seat.

(* Funny how you don't miss something until you don't have it. Some people like their equipment to work right out of the box - they don't want to mess with it, to personalize the shape and size of it. They just want it to "be".

I, OTOH, really like being able to tweak the set up. And this is why I like this type of saddle - as with the Sensation, you set it up one way for a while and as your body adjusts and you grow different muscles, your needs change. So adjustability is excellent. Not to mention the biggest bonus - being able to adjust the fit for Fergus as he changes shape and (hopefully) muscles up.

In the case of the Sensation, I rode for a while with the cantle bolster, and then after a while I just didn't need it any more. At which point, you just pull the back part of the seat away from its velcro, yank out the cantle bolster, and five seconds later the seat is a completely different size).

Then I fetched my old full-length sheepskin. On the Sensation, the elastic slips under the seat; then it was tied on to the crupper ring (to stop me flipping the back up when I got on and off); and the legs were tied to the rings behind my calf. Finally, it was secured to the stirrups.

Well, with no rings on this prototype, I ended up tying the back of the legs to the rear billet straps. Wasn't sure about it to start with, but it worked surprisingly well - that rear billet isn't going anywhere. And I was able to slip the elastic between the seat and the base. And poke the stirrups through the nylon "pockets" in the bottom of the legs, and tie the bottom of the legs to the top of the stirrups - which is what holds it all in place and stops it shifting around. I didn't tie it on the front at all - didn't need to.

This all served to keep the stirrup "leathers" (in reality, wide beta-biothane buckle straps - huzzah, no stupid blevins buckles) more stable than their usual free-swing (remember, I'm not used to free-swing), and so stopped my leg from moving around too much - but didn't lock me in quite as much as the shortie Sensation stirrups.

The saddle rigged with the big cantle bolster and my old sheep.
(I have a brand new sheep fleece in a box at home, waiting to be butchered into new legs for my sheepskin cover).

We were good to go. And we went out and had fun.

We trotted along narrow twisties, ducking under trees and around corners and I felt perfectly secure. It puts my legs in a nice position without being too constraining, and feels nice and close contact. He moved well in it (but to be fair, he's moved well in most things I've tried him in - he's so good-natured - much to his own detriment). The saddle was super-secure on the horse too - absolutely no side to side slipping.

You're supposed to fasten the stirrups to the tree once you've decided where you want them (there are three possible positions), but both Brenda and another friend with a Specialized said they never bothered - that the stirrups stayed in place because they are sandwiched between the tree and the velcro panel. Unfortunately, because I'm still messing with the panels, they haven't velcro-ed on rigid yet, so the stirrups were able to move back and forth a little. No matter, I could reach in under my leg and adjust them back to where they needed to be. I can see that once you're set up, however, they won't move much once everything has settled into position.

Limbo-ing through the tight bushes through the creek - which were even tighter than usual because a tree had fallen on another tree, pushing it down over the trail. The saddle was nice and secure for this type of manuever.

I didn't fall off in this creek either.

Looking nice and relaxed after trotting down a narrow twisty singletrack, dodging trees with my kneecaps.
Dionne rode with us and funnily enough was also trying out her new saddle. 

Once we were done with the ride, and I could see how the saddle sat on Fergus "after action", I fiddled some more with the shimming. Still not perfect (I need an expert to get it there), but better than the set up I rode in.

The three "problems" I have at this point are:

  1. The pommel is actually a little high. I carry my phone in a pouch around my waist in the front, on the basis that, to date, I have never belly-flopped off a horse (of course, there's always a first time). When leaning down at one point to duck under a tree branch (something I find myself having to do a lot on Fergus), I ended up digging the pommel into the phone. So that will need a little adjusting on my part.
  2. I have to say, I still miss those thigh rolls on the RP Endurance for downhills. :)  But the Specialized can come equipped with bucking rolls that screw onto the saddle (and can be removed if you don't want them later on - adjustability! Yay!). I'd like to try riding in a Specialized that has these bucking rolls, just to see if I really need them or (as occurred to me later), if all my pommel bags on the front will serve a similar purpose. So something to try later, hopefully.  My gut feeling is they would be overkill in the long run.
  3. And finally, my biggest problem - the wide twist, which is what has made me the most leery of these saddles.

    With my bolster and sheepskin, of course now the seat was a little too small. The size actually felt good, but the bolster and sheep was pushing me forwards and putting me right on top of the wide-bulgy bits on the tree - right about where I want the twist to be narrow. This was precisely why I didn't want to go with a 15" seat because it did the same thing. Not being blessed with wide child-bearing hips, and tending to ride with a long stirrup putting my legs straight down, I really like a narrow twist. On a less lofty horse, you could probably ride with a shorter stirrup and then your thighs would be more parallel to the ground and it would be less of a problem.

    Haven't experimented yet, but suspect that I can probably figure out some sort of pommel bolster (same as I use in the Sensation) to stash under the seat to prop me up a little and get my thighs off those "frame rails". That might mean I can do away with the cantle bolster, putting me further back in the seat to a narrower area.

    Another consideration is that the saddle wants to sit behind Fergus' slightly atrophied shoulders in the hollows there - putting it very slightly lower at the front than I'd like. Once he beefs up more, it'll lift the front of the saddle and put me in a slightly different position. And in the meantime, I can possibly shim the saddle more in the front - temporarily until he builds up again.

    And lastly, I want to try riding in a EuroLight (and ideally a EuroLight with a "trail seat", that is built up a little more in front). The interesting thing about the UltraLight was with no flap, there's nowhere really to put your thighs when you rotate them inwards to support your weight - there's nothing there.  I have a theory that the flaps on the EuroLight may put your leg in a slightly different position - giving you something to roll inwards on to, and this may, in turn, affect how your leg lies on the tree.

    All things to experiment with. 
Itchy face after the ride.

But for now, I think we have a winner, saddle-wise. But before I give my final answer, I still have to try:

  • a EuroLight - to see if the flap works better for me  
  • the trail seat (more built up in front) - to see if that puts me in a better position
  • bucking rolls - to see if I need them, or if I can adapt sufficiently that they are an unnecessary extra.

We're getting closer! <big grin>


  1. Still watching closely--I'd lend my Eurolight if I didn't live three states away!

  2. How much does the UltraLight weigh? Just wondering how much weight savings it offers over my Eurolight and International saddles.

  3. I have no idea. I will weigh it and report back.

  4. Weighed it this morning and, the saddle, together with stirrups (standard Specialized stirrups), "leathers" (standard wide beta biothane Specialized straps), 3/4" underside pads, and my full-length sheepskin - the saddle came to 15 lbs 2 oz.

    That didn't include the saddle pad.

    Now I want to know what your Eurolight weighs in at. :)