Long Rider Saddles
Questions & Answers
The famous cavalry saddle owned by Swiss Long Rider, Captain Otto Schwarz. It was made in 1916 and saw service during both World Wars, after which Captain Schwarz used it to ride 48,000 kilometers on five continents.
North American Long Rider Len Brown is uniquely qualified to comment on how saddles influence equestrian travel. In 1982 Len set off with Lisa Stewart on what was to become a life-changing equestrian journey. The young couple spent nearly eight months making a 3,000 mile ride through the United States, during which time they had to overcome the problem of ill-fitting riding and pack saddles.
After completing a 3000 mile journey, North American Long Riders Len Brown and Lisa Stewart launched the Ortho Flex saddle company, which led to a revolution in modern saddle construction.
Armed with this valuable experience, upon the completion of their trip they formed the Ortho Flex Saddle company. Under Len’s direction the flexible saddle was successfully used by all types of riders around the world. Equestrian exploration was no exception, as North American Long Rider Louis Bruhnke (left) and Russian Long Rider Vladimir Fissenko and used Len’s saddles during their epic 19,000 mile journey from the tip of Patagonia to the top of Alaska.
Long Riders Louis Bruhnke and Vladimir Fissenko used Len’s Ortho Flex saddles during their 19,000 mile journey from the bottom of Patagonia to the top of Alaska.
“I have nothing that drives me like the field of saddling and horses. It was the trip that changed my life and gave me direction,” Len recalled.
Though Len created a remarkable saddle, this enthusiastic inventor has continued his research into how to help horse and rider. After selling the Ortho Flex saddle company, Len perfected a remarkable new type of girth and reworked traditional stirrups. He also created a noteworthy new type of saddle pad known as the Corrector. Armed with his extensive knowledge of equine anatomy and flexible saddles, Len’s new saddle pad is designed to reduce injuries, decrease swelling and provide a more effective protective system to the horse’s back. North American Long Riders Richard and Jeanette McGrath are currently using Len’s Corrector saddle pads on their “ocean to ocean” ride across the United States.
Len Brown continues to improve conditions for horse and rider. His newest contribution is the Corrector saddle pad.
Yet Len Brown has done a great deal more than just tinker with tools and saddle trees. This Long Rider has always been a rich source of wisdom regarding the history of saddles, how they cause injuries, how a rider might reduce such accidents, etc. Though Len has given countless public speeches and held private clinics, this is the first exclusive interview he has granted wherein he focuses specifically on questions relating to the saddle problems encountered by Long Riders.
Len has also created a special “never tight cinch.”
The following questions are based upon email correspondence between the Long Riders’ Guild and equestrian travellers who are about to depart on a journey, Long Riders who encountered saddle problems while travelling and Long Riders who are curious about the mechanics of saddle fitting.
Steven O’Connor is an Irish Long Rider who journeyed from Spain to England. He is now preparing to make the first modern ride around the perimeter of Eire.
Question: I used a traditional Spanish vaquero saddle during my first ride. Not only did the saddle's high cantle provide me with an excellent seat, its wide tree did an excellent job distributing my weight across the horse's back. Man has been making long journeys on horseback for thousands of years, yet today's modern saddles don't seem to be able to guarantee the same sort of comfort and support which my traditional vaquero saddle provided. What is your opinion of today's modern saddle industry and how could it be improved to help Long Riders?
The difference between today's saddles and those of old, and what can be done to improve today's saddles? I go into this subject on my site under Saddle-Fitting Myths. Today the saddle is designed with sales in mind. The improvements to saddles are based on “Simple Logic” that gives an answer to problems the customer can understand. It has little to do with really fixing the problem under saddle as perceived by the customer.
Problem No. 1 - The manufacturers have honed in on Bridging as the culprit to many problems.
The term "Bridging" of the saddle is saying it's primary contact is in the front and rear. The saddlers point out the gap at the low part of the back when the tree or saddle is placed on the relaxed horse's back with no pad.
Often times the rider sees a dry mid-back when removing the saddle after a short ride and thinks, “I must have no contact where it is dry, my saddle must be Bridging and not touching my horses back in the low part.”
The rider assumes bridging when the dry area is at thoracic vertebrae 7 and 8 lifting to the saddle. There is no side to side movement at T-7 thru T-8 because that is the center of movement in the back and the area of most up and down movement. Movement side to side increases as you move away from this center. Add shoulder and loin movement at the ends of the saddle and you see why pads are always dirtiest there. Yet saddle-fitting articles claim this is an indication of Bridging; or no contact at the clean center area.
It is all similar to the blind men feeling the elephant and describing him so incorrectly but each to their limited perception.
Manufacturers have produced saddles with extra curve to reach down into the dropped back of a standing horse. If you can't get there you can get "specialized" saddle shims or a pad with center shims for reaching into the dropped back.
Problem is: the horse's back comes up as you mount. It comes up even more as you ride. Put a pan of feed on the ground and look at your horse's back when he's all the way down with his head. It's at least that straight when you ride. The back is up and down at the trot. Any increase in speed lifts the back more as the hindquarters reach further forward and under. Older saddles had straighter bars. They knew the saddle couldn't be too straight.
Problem No. 2 – The saddle is too narrow and that's why it pinches the withers.
In this case manufacturers say, “We have a wider saddle to fix your problem!”
The increased width they are offering is attained by turning the bars of the tree out on each side. Then the flattened angle gives a wider measurement at the foot of the bars. Seldom do they actually widen the whole tree & saddle. It is the quick easy fix used in English and Western saddles to "fit" the wide or sore horse.
This is done without changing any tree patterns or leather patterns for the finished saddle. It unfortunately creates more rock in the tree front to rear. (But that fixes their No. 1 problem too?) Most saddle fitters are singing the song: Wider tree and/or prevent Bridging. Now you have more curve and rock in today's saddle and they just keep on selling their simple logic.
The bigger problems come from the flattened angles in today's wide saddles. They have customers using these saddles up over the shoulders. There is no contact at the foot of the bars when the tree is placed just back of the shoulders. It is all pinch on the withers from the upper half of bars / panels in today's saddles.
Older saddles had a narrower gullet with a steeper angle, and sometimes enough bar twist to have primary contact at the foot of the bars onto the upper ribcage. That means with the saddle placed just back of the shoulders, it was supported in front without the severe pinching at withers and infringement upon the rotating shoulders. But then there's the problems of downhill and gravity.
Cruppers can be used for downhill riding but not a downhill horse. To decrease pressure at the front of the saddle; you must narrow the tree while maintaining the contact at the ribcage ! That translates into more twist in the bar as it; opens the gullet while narrowing the spread at the foot. That is how saddles today can be improved. It is not based on tapping in to the customers "simple logic", but on real physics or simple geometry.
There are many other improvements to be done in both the old and new saddles. A few are: comfortable seats that place the rider well back, stirrup straps with protection for the horse designed in them and no bumps under the tree or extra width in seat for rider, rigging that eliminates bumps to be rubbed by the stirrups straps thus galling the side of the horse.
Many of these improvements are needed in all saddles.
Saddle and rider weight is not a problem in saddling, it's how you carry the weight! The horse is stronger than you think. If weight is carried over a large area well back on the horse and the saddle, plus the rider are balanced; you will have a much better saddling situation. Balance of the rider is a necessity or you are continually fighting gravity and gravity always wins. A little brain teaser; you can only fight gravity with leverage. I use that with great success.
Good luck on your new trip and I hope your new or old saddle works as well for your horse as well as the vaquero one did. Please notice, I said work and not fit.
Bonnie Folkins is a Canadian Long Rider who has journeyed across Mongolia with native Mongolians and across Kazakhstan with Mongol Kazakh eagle hunters.
Question: Though I take my own saddle with me when I ride overseas, many first-time travellers may not realize how uncomfortable some native saddles are for the rider and how injurious they can be for the horse. For example, the Mongolian saddle seen in this photo has extremely short stirrups and a cramped uncomfortable seat. What are the basic qualities a Long Rider needs in a saddle?
A good and broad question you have. I can tell you what I made as my first cross country trip saddle. It has many of the requirements that make for a successful trip living in the saddle. Unlike many Long Riders, I never got out of the saddle and walked. I rode and enjoyed the scenery, visiting with my partner, and dreaming about life and what was around the next mountain. My horse carried a load of 300 lbs for 3000 miles in seven and a half months with no white hairs on this black 16 hand horse. Here are my requirements in a good saddle to travel with.
The Tree is everything. No Tree, no Saddle!
I spent days on this saddle shaping the ground seat for my seat bones and pelvis. I'd ride the tree for a few hours and shape the seat and ride again. Later, over many years of saddle making I found shapes that suit most every rider and incorporated them into my saddletrees via the bar shape and ground seat made integral with the saddletree.
A man can ride a narrower seat than a woman can. Both are comfortable with a wide flat seat at the rear with a gentle concave rise at it moves forward to the fork. All saddles should have a good flat spot in the center of the seat for a balanced riding position. A deep cutout or hourglass shape in the front of the seat is necessary for sitting with relaxed thighs and close contact. A woman's seat bones can wear right through a heavy skirting leather hard seat after many miles. The two depressions are 2.5" wider in the full width than a man's. That is the reason for a wide flat seat and the seams of the seat jockeys (or seat skirts) should never be under the seat bones. I like to have at least a 1/4" to 3/8" of good foam rubber under the seat leather to cushion those seat bones. Not everyone can make a depression under them as I did through hours of saddle making labor in-between test rides. (My trip saddle had a hard leather seat.)
Now about the general tree shape to accommodate a variety of horses, or, from fat to skinny and muscled, on the same horse over the trip. Keep the tree as short as possible still maintaining room for the rider. A thinner cross section fork and cantle will help keep a short overall bar length. The tree should have bars that are angled only about 7 to 10 degrees in the rear. That angle must change to 46 to 49 degrees at the fork. Small changes here are acceptable but when put on a variety of horses you want primary contact at of the foot of the bars in front onto the upper ribcage.
As you look down the bar from the front, it should not contact the withers at the upper edge or gullet. A finger of space here is the optimum for a withered horse. It can be much more on the low withered animal. A short flare of the bars is good. An inch and a half to two inches is acceptable. Just enough to allow the horse to turn without extreme bite from those bars in front. Very few saddletree bars are made this way.
When I made the Ortho-Flex trees I did this to allow angle change in the flex panels. The first flex panels were molded to a general horse shape with twist and all. They were my first patent and worked wonderfully. After a year I had to start replacing the panels in over 150 saddles due to failure. Compound curves in any flexible panel will fracture at the mountings when attached to a saddletree and bent repeatedly by the horse. I then went to flat panels and more complex designs to prevent fatigue and to try to get the ability of shaping to the horse as good as the original. It was never as good.
This bit of history is to caution about flex panel saddles. If done right they are worthwhile for the horse. If copied to make a quick buck they can sore many horses severely. They have a limited life due to the wear at the mountings. I recently had a man send me his Ortho-Flex to have the panels removed to use the Corrector. He has 22,500 documented miles on this saddle used over a fifteen year period. Not many last that long without fatigue and wear.
Back to the basic tree requirements. Stirrup strap slots should be full depth on the bottom of the bars. Bumps from stirrup straps through the skirts will sore every horse you put the saddle on. Many saddles have them. English saddles must have the rear flap and sweat flap attachment leather tabs Castle cut so as not to make a bump above the stuffed panels. No production English saddles are made in this manner. The extra hour of work is too much to ask of these saddle companies.
Extended riding at a walk or trot will cause dorsiflexsion of the back from this set of knuckles about a 1/2 inch thick and 2" long above your flocked panels right at the beginning of a horse's loins.
The saddletree bars need to be as straight as possible. Too flat an angle in front creates excess curvature from front to rear. The twist needed for the angles I described above makes a bar much straighter for the horse. That allows room for the horse's back to lift as it needs to do when carrying the rider. I just made a tree for a short backed 4.5 year old Shire stud in Tasmania. The owner emailed and was impressed that even on that tabletop flat and wide back, he had space under the bars just behind the stirrup straps. I sent the tree with only stirrups, straps, and rigging for him to ride and check function before he returns it to be finished. It works on his wife's horse too.
If you don't have the space (or bridging) in the center of the bars, you'll have a sore horse in a week or two of riding. Now on to the panels or skirts of the saddle and the center channel.
There should be 4" of space between the bars as they go down the back. Skirts or stuffed panels may reduce this a bit but not enough to pinch the sides of the spine on an A shaped horse. Bar and / or skirt - panel thickness needs to be just enough to keep the underside of the baseseat off the spine. Never should the skirts come together in the center. Not even at the rear behind the cantle. The skirts should run in line with the inside edge of the bars. They should be separated at the rear so they can move with the loins and provide a spinal opening.
Wither clearance will not be a problem if your primary contact is at the foot of the bars on the upper ribcage in front. By the way, for wither clearance, a 1/4" or 1/4" mile; it is all air. There is no importance or relevance to the old two or three fingers clearance above the withers that some writer put in a magazine. Just as there is no reason to worry about keeping the rear of your tree bars in front of the last ribs. Another fallacy created by some creative writer. (The Persians conquered Asia riding on their horse's croups.)
Speaking of skirts and carrying weight at the loins, I extended the skirts on my saddle a full 6 inches behind the bar ends. That is where I carried 60 pounds in my cantle-saddle bag unit. Then the Army slicker was tied on top of that. The skirts were two layers of heavy skirting leather and moved freely with the loins with the generous center channel. The cantle was quite high so my gear was tied up to it as well as riding on the skirts. My horse never had a sore loin. My life was spared at least twice by that 6" cantle. (It is a pain to get on and off a 16H horse with that tall cantle to swing your leg over every time but I'm glad to be alive.)
I prefer a dropped rigging angled forward in a 3/4's position, or front of the western latigo strap inline with the back of the fork. No metal dees, buckles, or knots should be against the horse. Keep the rigging and girth as thin and smooth as possible, both top and bottom. No bumps means no fluid under the horse's skin or rash on the rider. I learned to stop swinging my legs at speed, after they started bleeding only 15 miles into a 100 mile endurance ride. It was the buckles and straps of the center fire rigging of an old McClellan Army saddle. Pain is a wonderful teacher.
The fenders of a Western style saddle are most comfortable for the rider. Stirrup straps should be 2" wide or more. A thin strap creates heat from the excess pressure and movement. This is greatest from the bar's lower edge and down about 6 inches. Many horses get edema from stirrup straps with little protection under them but a thin layer of leather and a pad. English 1" straps are good about doing this on endurance saddles.
I've covered many features of a good trip saddle except the actual weight distributing features designed into it, if any. I used the two heavy layers of skirting to spread the weight out far beyond the tree bars. The skirts were attached by the saddle strings going thru the tree bars and up to the conchos. This let the skirts change angle and move with the horse. You can get even better weight distribution with thinner softer skirts by using the Corrector saddling device I now make. I have covered a lot on basic saddle construction and I hope is helpful to you.
May Lady Luck ride with you,
Howard Wooldridge is a North American Long Rider. Though he went on to ride “ocean to ocean” across the United States in both directions, his first attempt was halted when his mare developed saddle sores.
Question: Because of the rigours of equestrian travel, it’s normal for a road horse to lose weight and change shape during the course of an extended journey. How do you avoid pressure points from the saddle, especially when the horse has lost weight?
The tree that is not tight in the gullet when a horse is fat will have even more room at the withers when they are thinner. A saddletree that rests on the upper ribs just back of the scapula will not change basic fit as the horse looses weight. The ribs are still there and the muscles underneath may tighten but it's not a big loss or change in saddle balance. Your balance is what changes as the horse does drop weight.
From 50 to 75 lbs in a single 100 mile endurance ride is not unusual. Simple 1/4" balance shims on top of the Corrector's front protective shields will lift your saddle 3/8 to 1/2 inch. You can use up to three that are terraced so as to not develop a tight spot at the upper bars to the wither. That is how you can use a single saddle with a fat thick withered horse or a withered narrow horse. But there are limitations when the bar angles are too flat and primary bar contact is at the upper wither instead of down the bar on the upper rib cage. Having a shorter bars and a flatter bars front to rear will make your saddling easier when a horse changes.
Rule of thumb is; the shorter the saddle, the easier it is to fit to any horse.
Jeanette McGrath is a North American Long Rider who is currently riding across the United States. She and her husband, Richard, have experienced trouble with saddle sores during their journey.
Question: How do you keep your road horse comfortable under a saddle tree that does not change width during the journey?
Your question is answered in part with the answer above to Howard. As far as adjustable trees? Just as few trees are made truly wide in the gullet but are flattened and called wide, the adjustable trees only change angle not width, just as the fixed saddles you buy. Only the steeper angle with increased width is good for a horse.
So long as you the customer keep buying this wide saddle song and dance they will keep making the same. The customers are almost as much to blame as the people taking advantage of them. Hopefully this discourse will make for educated riders that refuse to be used in such a fashion. To change angle (width) and say their saddle will now work on the wide or round horse is like selling saddle anti-gravity pills to the buyer. You are the buyer? 1400 years of recorded history says differently.
Mefo Phillips is an English Long Rider who rode from Canterbury to Rome. During that journey she had the chance to ride two different types of saddles, an English style saddle which had padded knee rolls and a western style saddle which had no knee support.
Question: After a long day in the western saddle, I found that riding without knee rolls caused me a great deal of pain in my knees. It’s well known that knee rolls help a Long Rider maintain a secure seat but do they also reduce pain and swelling in a rider’s knees?
This is a good question that if attended to in advance can make a trip much more enjoyable for the rider.
A distance rider is going to swing her legs and the knee rolls can stop some of that. That is their only positive other than security. Two things are working to cause pain at the knee and just plain fatigue in the legs.
Number one: excessive swing of a relaxed leg is the fatigue portion.
Number two: a stiff fender and or stirrup strap causes a continual inward twist to the foot and knee. This is the primary problem of aching knees.
The western fenders and straps are most often made way too heavy and stiff. The straps going over the tree bars add to this as it's hard to even move them for adjusting fender position and stirrup length. A too long fender, not leaving at least 5" or more between the stirrup and the bottom of the fender, adds to the problem.
As I made my own saddle I never had these problems. My stirrup straps were 2" wide, not the 3 inches found on most western saddles. It's rather obvious as to how to build the western saddle to be more comfortable just correcting the above problems.
A big mistake; don't ride with heavy stirrups or tapaderos !
I made my bull nose tapaderos for my trip saddle and after 500 miles traded them for a plain pair of wooden stirrups. The weight wore me out with excessive leg swing from the pendulum action of the heavy stirrups. Keep your stirrups light, straps free to swing, and fenders light enough to twist; you will have no knee pain or leg fatigue. If your saddle is low in front and tilts you forward, the foot pain will get to you from your continual pushing yourself back into the comfortable portion of the saddle's seat. If the saddle has a flat spot in the seat and it is balanced for the rider, foot and knee problems as well as rider fatigue are primarily avoided. Saddle fender and stirrup strap construction takes care of the rest.
Finally, a question from the Long Riders’ Guild.
Previous equestrian developments are routinely “rediscovered” and then touted as being a startling breakthrough. One such current fad is the treeless saddle, the history and physical limitations of which are well known to equestrian historians.
|For example, the 20th century German cavalry had six different sizes of saddles, five of which relied on a tree. Only the largest draught animals were occasionally fitted to a treeless saddle, because of their immense size. Thus the German cavalry, who invaded Russia during the Second World War with the largest equestrian force in modern history, had two saddle choices. Either they could mount their thousands of riders on a light, weight-distributing saddle, or they could place them atop the treeless saddle. They chose the traditional saddle because it worked.|
When Austrian Long Rider Horst Hausleitner recently tried to cross the African continent with a new version of the treeless saddle. The horse ended up with severe wounds and the expensive treeless saddle had to be replaced before the journey could continue. Horst wrote, "I would not recommend it for a journey like ours, as it caused bad saddle sores along the whole backbone.”
The saddletree protects the spine by distributing the rider’s weight over the horse’s ribs and body. A treeless saddle encourages that weight to be concentrated in small, specific points directly above the sensitive spine. Yet a mixture of clever marketing, and an increasing degeneration of global equestrian knowledge, have encouraged confusion regarding the engineering purpose of the saddletree. The result is that many well-meaning horse owners no longer understand the basic principles of why the saddletree is important and why, when properly fitted, it works to preserve the safety of the horse and the stability of the rider.
Question: For marketing purposes, treeless saddle advocates are quick to tout the rider’s comfort. They neglect to explain that the rider’s ease is gained at the expense of the horse’s safety. Can you explain how using a treeless saddle on an equestrian journey may cause injuries?
Hello to the Guild,
As I have told riders for years, the American Indians made a better treeless saddle than what's on the market today. They also had a riding style that was used with it.
Back to treeless saddles of today and today’s riders. I have sold the Corrector saddling device with treeless shims to help but not completely cure the inadequacies of a treeless saddle. First the rear protective shields have to be under the riders seat bones. There are many treeless trail riders that have white hair on their horse's backs under the seat bones. Second the shims in front have to resist the pommel wanting to fold back toward the rider from stirrup strap pressure on the webbing that runs side to side across the center of the back. The riders weight plus pressure from these straps are quite localized in a treeless saddle. The reinforcing stirrup straps are laminated inside all treeless saddles so as to hide them from view.
Another problem with Treeless Saddles is keeping the rider in the middle of the horse's back. Treeless saddles slide forward as well as side to side. I have pictures of a gaited horse with a full white roaning in an arch down the side of the horse and under the riders legs just at the back of the shoulders. This is just from trail riding.
Many treeless are advertised as being “Made in Germany, or “Made in Italy.” In fact they are made in Pakistan or India. I've taken them apart and they can look the same on the outside and be totally different on the inside. Some are better than others, they all fold up in the center. The points of the cantle and rear edge of the pommel can be very severe to the horse from this bending action. This is not counting the pressure from the internal stirrup strap going across the center of the back.
Movement of these saddles side to side is another problem waiting to add fluid under the skin of the horse. Mounting is made difficult on a round backed horse and spineous processes are rubbed raw on the A shaped horse. Continual fluid bumps will pop up on the spine waiting to break open if you continue riding once seeing this signal.
It costs $60.00 US to make the leather version
but you will pay well over a $1000 for it. That's why everybody sings their
praises and wants you to buy them. I have three of the better ones made in
Pakistan that were sent direct to me. Even the fork and cantle are dense
flexible foam. They are only good for occasional short jaunts around home.
Good Journeys to all the Long Riders,
For more information about Len Brown’s work with saddles, or to learn more about his new Corrector saddle pad, please contact him via his website - http://thecorrector.net/
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