This is the part about tack for the horse:
IT NEEDS TO FIT.
Technically, after that sentence, I should be able power my computer off and go watch a movie with my family. The rest of this section will just be details and variations on that single sentence.
Dang. We were gonna watch Pirates of the Caribbean, part ten-thousand. They could film Johnny Depp reading the phone book in pirate garb, and I’d still watch it. You too? Ah, well.
There really is no substitute for tack that fits. You can buy space-age materials, ultra-light designs, color-coordinated everything in the latest styles, or copy the tack selections of your favorite equestrian hero who has won every ride you’ve ever heard about for the last five years, but it will still be inferior to tack that fits.
The problem with tack that fits is that, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “you can never ride the same horse twice.” Over months or years of training in long-distance trail work, your horse will change shape dramatically. Your horse changes shape slightly every day, depending on the amount and quality of his feed, the type and duration of his daily training, the amount of time he spends on pasture, and even the seasonal changes in his haircoat.
The good news about this constant change is that everybody else experiences it too…so, theoretically, we could all have a gigantic “Mad Tea Party” tack trade two or three times a year, and everyone could just swap gear until they found stuff to fit.
The real world is, alas, a bit more expensive than that.
So what can a real person in the real world do? My advice: do the best you can.
Saddle fit is most crucial. If you ride your horse in a saddle that pinches his shoulders or rubs his back, the horse won’t fall over dead…but he may travel for a long time with his back hollowed or his hips angled strangely, or any one of a million different ways that horses do their best not to show pain. If you don’t notice the contortions for a long time, he may eventually show up as “lame”, which is just a visible symptom of a need for extensive work and chiropractic treatment to move his body back into alignment again.
If you have access to a professional saddle fitter with a computer sensor pad, by all means, take advantage of it! Most of us don’t have that kind of expertise at hand, however. Here are some work-arounds:
Evaluate your saddle fit by running the flat of your hand under it when your horse is standing squarely with the saddle on his back but not cinched tightly. Your hand will ideally fit uniformly under the saddle without getting “caught” by a tight spot or being “freed” by an empty spot. Ask a friend to repeat this evaluation when you are sitting in the saddle. Remember: your weight makes a difference!
If your horse were entered in a “standing still with a saddle and a rider” competition, you would now be finished with your fitting exercises. However, endurance is a sport of motion, and you need to evaluate the fit of your saddle on a moving horse.
You can easily pay a bunch of money for a re-useable “cookie dough” pads online; these pads are infinitely re-usable, so if you are trying to fit tack for a bunch of horses, or if you have a bunch of friends who want to fit tack, it may be a good investment. Place the cookie dough pad between your saddle and the horse and go for a ride. When you return, carefully remove the saddle and examine the pad. The flexible clay filling inside a pad will have squeezed thin where your saddle is tight, and it will be thick where your saddle bridges. The cookie dough pad gives you immediate insight into the fit of that saddle with that rider over that terrain. If there are no dramatic thin or thick spots, you will know that your saddle fits adequately.
A cheaper version of the cookie dough pad can be made with ordinary office-supply bubble wrap. Get some spray adhesive and stick a sheet of bubble wrap (big bubbles work best) to a thin saddle pad. Saddle up, and go for a ride. Burst or stretched-thin bubbles (you can feel the texture with your fingers after removing the saddle) will indicate locations where your saddle is too tight.
Don’t give up. Borrow saddles from friends, use the “free trials” available at tack stores, experiment with saddle pads. Unfortunately, even mass-produced saddles have a huge amount of variation, so finding a saddle that fits and then ordering a cheap version online won’t work. If you find a saddle that fits, ride in that saddle.
Yes, it’s frustrating. The only upside to hunting for a saddle is that everyone else has to do it too. Sorry. Anybody who tells you differently is probably selling something (most likely, they're selling a saddle that they will claim is a permanent, perfect fit for your horse!)
The good news is that, as a beginner, you need not feel obligated to drop Big Bucks on a saddle, because your horse will change shape as he grows into the sport. It takes two or three years for a horse’s body to grow into “fit” shape, so don’t blow your budget in the first six months.
Did you notice that I don't recommend a particular brand or style of saddle? English, Western, Aussie, or any one of a hundred variations on them are all perfectly permissible for the sport of endurance, as long as the horse and rider are comfortable.
Remember: you’re going to be spending a lot of time with that saddle next to a very, ahem, important location on your own body. When you’ve found a saddle that fits your horse adequately, make sure it’s comfortable for the rider, too! Some riders prefer a narrow twist; others prefer a wider, flatter seat. Some riders won’t leave home without a saddle horn; others want English-style stirrup leathers that swing freely. Test-ride in as many saddles as you can, and choose the style that suits you best. As always, if you already own something that has worked well for you in the past, try that first.
Bridles, cruppers, breast-collars, and other tack can be found in infinite variety. If you spend a lot of time training in inclement weather, consider synthetic tack as an alternative to the traditional leather. Nylon tack has been available for many years, and it is inexpensive and lasts a long time without tearing, stretching, or breaking.
Many endurance riders prefer bridles and other tack pieces made from biothane or beta biothane, which is a synthetic polyvinyl-coated polyester webbing. Biothane is more expensive than nylon, but it doesn’t stretch, tear, break, or wear out even with years of heavy use in horrible weather. Beta biothane feels like good-quality leather and requires very little care to keep it looking nice. I wash mine on the top rack of the dishwasher, but you can also just toss biothane tack into a bucket of soapy water and then rise it off when you remember where you left it. The additional appeal of biothane is that it is available in a wide variety of colors: in addition to traditional brown or black, you can have a bridle that is bright red, neon or forest green, shiny white, sparkling blue, or matte lilac.
I recommend using only the tack you need to use. If your horse doesn't need interference boots, leave them at home. If he has withers like a dorsal fin, you might be able to work without a crupper. If you don't do a lot of hill work, think about not using a breast collar. The same goes for martingales and other gadgetry: use what you need, and don't bother with anything else.
Saddle packs, like everything else, are infinitely variable, and subject to rider preference. Of course, I advocate using what you already own before deciding that you absolutely must spend money on the shiny stuff in the tack catalog. Endurance tack is often specifically engineered to minimize “bounce”, but the same performance can often be achieved with computer-cable ties and adjustable dog-collars wrapped around packs.
I do recommend that a pack be weatherproof if possible, and have enough room within to carry sufficient water for the rider for the day, plus a little extra room for a carrot or two for your equine friend.
Beyond that, I leave experimentation as an exercise for the student.
Coming soon: dressing the rider for endurance.