Think Outside the Box with Trailwise Saddles

Lately I’ve had the pleasure of working with a dauntless, intrepid saddle customer who is a new mom, high level career woman, and an avid NATRC competitor working towards her first National Championship.  Her future plans include AERC and Tevis competitions.  I will refer to this superwoman as Melissa.

Like most horse people in the distance competition category, Melissa is determined, hard working, and thinks outside the box.  In the past, she primarily rode in treeless saddles and things seemed fine until after she had her first child.  Since then, she began to notice extreme discomfort in her seat area and began to search for another saddle.  She found that almost every saddle she tried hurt her bottom, specifically her seat bones.  She was about the same weight prior to child birth (between 140-150 lbs.), but something intrinsic had changed in her pelvic area which was translating to extreme saddle discomfort for her in the seat.


Melissa’s mare, Dot.  The Trailwise Elite she is demoing is a 6.75 Flat Bar Vee Tree with the Trailwise Adjustable Saddle Liner fit system attached to the bars of the tree.












Initial wither tracing for Dot to determine tree width......

Initial wither tracing for Dot to determine tree width……





Alarmingly, this unease began to translate into back issues for her horse, as well.  After several intense consecutive weekend competitions of over sixty miles each, Melissa’s mare suddenly developed blisters along her spine, with the end result being that entire strips of skin peeled off where the saddle pressure had been too great.  Melissa was using high quality all wool and sheepskin saddle pads, in addition to other synthetic options, none of which seemed to make a difference for her horse in regards to pressure and sores.




Melissa has tried saddle after saddle–FreeNEasy, Sensation, Ghost, and others–and she just couldn’t seem to get comfortable or find something that worked for both her and her horse.  She’s always preferred treeless saddles because they are typically softer in the seat area, but now even those were uncomfortable.  In addition, it was obvious that the treeless option was not working for her horse.  That’s when she approached us at Trailwise Saddles for a demo of our Elite model.

She wanted to try the Elite because it was so much like an English saddle, which was her preference, and because it was lightweight and minimal but still had everything needed for long distance trail competition, including over 13 attachment areas and more seat security than a typical English saddle.

Melissa has had about a week in her Elite demo and things are going very well, with the end result being that she is planning to order her own Trailwise Elite.  But like so many other saddle brands, she did notice a certain discomfort in the seat area with the Trailwise, as well.  However, because the Elite model has an interchangeable seat, Melissa was able to remove the seat and see the exposed tree area and pin point the exact area of discomfort.

Is the Trailwise saddle shop able to take away some of the edge in that area that is causing the problem? Melissa wanted to know.  And the answer is a resounding YES!  Because we make all our own trees at our shop in Fort Collins, Colorado, and are a full-scale custom saddle shop with over 40 years of experience, this is something that we already do for many of our local customers.  Our trees are made of high-density polyurethane and are poured into molds for a perfectly replicated size and style every time–no warping, cracking or breaking like you have with wood trees.  In addition, the material is able to be rasped and worked for custom shapes and sizes.  Finally, every Trailwise tree comes with a lifetime warranty.

Melissa was able to pin point the area on the tree that was contributing to her seat discomfort.  The Trailwise saddl shop can easily modify this area for improved fit and comfort for the rider.

Melissa was able to pin point the area on the tree that was contributing to her seat discomfort. The Trailwise saddle shop can easily modify this area for improved fit and comfort for the rider.

This is what is so ideal about using the Trailwise Saddles Demo Program and working with our custom saddle shop.  As you already know, there is typically no “one size fits all” with saddles.  Saddle solutions are so personal, so variable–like a your favorite pair of jeans or your go-to bra that fits just right…… So when you try a Trailwise Saddle, rest assured that we are all on board with helping you find the very best solution for both you and your horse….and we are ready and willing to “think outside the box” with you.

Happy trails and may the Horse be with you!

–Michelle Smith, April 19, 2016




Michelle Smith is the owner of Trailwise Saddles and a Certified Saddle Fitter for western treed saddles.  She lives with her family in Loveland, Colorado and is an AERC competitor and horse lover.


Michelle and “Juliette” at Shamrock Endurance Rides in Wheatland, WY



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Adjustable Cable Rigging for Trailwise Saddles

Like most innovations, our Adjustable Cable Rigging for Trailwise Saddles looks different.  And like all innovations, “different” should be better than what you’re used to………otherwise it wouldn’t be, well……innovative!


Note the Cable Rigging loop, a very different innovative feature of Trailwise Saddles.

I can remember visually reacting to the cable rigging when I was interviewing the saddle shop for my line of Trailwise Saddles, which I had designed to offer an innovative, versatile fit system.  The rigging looked so weird, I thought.  Would it work?  Is it comfortable to the horse?  Would I like it?

I chuckle now as I recall that reaction.  This took place during my first meeting with Mark Howes, a 40-year saddle making veteran and riding clinician who has ridden just about every discipline there is and specializes in building high-end roping saddles for working cowboys.  Needless to say, his trees, which are constructed on location in Fort Collins, Colorado, are built like the proverbial “Mac Truck.”  Mark is the original creator of his unique Cable Rigging System, and in the 20+ years of designing and using his trees in the field, his trees have never experienced a failure.  And I’m talking steers here.  You know, cows.  Big, heavy recalcitrant animals roped, against their will, to a cowboy’s saddle.  They ain’t happy about it, either.  And never a rigging failure.  The reason is fairly simple:  Cable made of high-tensile aircraft tether cable is set into the mold of the tree in one continuously looped cable line.  That’s why all Trailwise Saddles offer a lifetime warranty on the tree–although I doubt most Trailwise customers are planning to rope steers on their next trail ride……The point being:  our trees are strong and last a lifetime and more.


The legendary Mark Howes, working in his saddle shop in Fort Collins, CO.

I quickly discovered it didn’t take long to get used to the look of the adjustable Cable Rigging, and once you start using it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.  Here are three reasons why:


Take a look at the cable and you’ll notice how it starts at the front and goes into the tree material…..and then emerges again at the back.  This clever placement gives the rigging a nice, even pull on the tree in front and back, holding it evenly and in alignment with your horse’s back.  This creates a better overall saddle fit.  Add to that our unique Adjustable Saddle Liners that is a standard feature of all Trailwise Saddles, and you and your horse can realize the best saddle fit ever.



Now take a look at the Buckle near the front of the saddle (pommel area)….it holds a nylon “lock collar” that attaches securely to the front of the tree and the cable rigging.  By pulling this nylon strap, you can guide the placement of the rigging to the spot you want it…..front, middle, or back–and then buckle it into place.  This allows you many rigging placement options: full front, 7/8, 3/4 or Centerfire.  Unlike standard saddles, which usually have the rigging sewn into the skirting of the saddle and therefore unmovable, our unique cable rigging system allows you to move the girth/cinch where it works best on each individual horse.  So awesome!









One more thing which is pretty cool.  Ever looked at a saddle you really like but then realized, “Oh darn!  It has Western rigging and I prefer English”……or, “Oh darn!  It has English rigging and all I have are cinches…..”  This will never happen to you with a Trailwise Saddle.  Our cable rigging allows the user to swap out rigging styles…..go from English to Western in a snap.  Simply unknot the nylon piece at the top, remove, and then add the other style of rigging.  This is great if you change your mind about English vs. Western, and also if you decide to sell your saddle down the road.  You are no longer limited by a rigging style and your future potential buyer will appreciate that feature.

BilletStraps3 WesternBillet



Bottomline is that rigging placement really affects overall saddle fit and should not be overlooked.  A nice, even pull through your tree and a girth or cinch placed optimally will help to make your saddle fit better.


In addition to a high quality tree that comes in many widths and bar styles and has this unique cable rigging, remember that all Trailwise Saddles come with a unique, proprietary Versatile Fit System by way of our Adjustable Saddle Liners. 


For the month of March, get $100 off your Trailwise Saddle order or a free Advantage Pad.

To learn more, go to or call Michelle at 970-231-3299 or email

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Choosing the Right Tree for Your Horse’s Back Profile

Hi Michelle, Thank you for giving me my horse back!!  I have been struggling with saddles for a couple of years, nothing worked quite right and some were downright detrimental.  I explored with QUALITY saddles, not inexpensive.  After an absolute disaster with a saddle that caused a downward spiral with my horse I listened to several people who recommended Trailwise.  I contacted you and your expertise and knowledge assured me I had made the right decision.  In addition knowing that you rode endurance made feel comfortable that you knew exactly what I needed.  I LOVE my saddle.  It is gorgeous to look at, but more importantly it is perfect for my horse and fits me like a glove.  From the first ride it was comfortable, for me it felt like an old friend and my horse  moved beautifully.  This saddle allows the rider to be nimble and athletic, to ride centered and be intuitive with the horse.  The last few years my horse has struggled with a forward working trot, not anymore with the Trailwise.  We trotted miles yesterday in a lovely working trot, he collected and extended, he was soft in his poll and completely enjoyed himself.  We bushwhacked through some steep technical arroyos and canyons on the way home and the saddle never moved (even though my girth was loose, the way I like it!).  We even did some ranch sorting with cows last week, I was secure and my horse was having fun.  This is an outstanding saddle, I could not be happier.  I have my horse healthy and I can sleep soundly at night knowing that I made a great investment for my horse's well being as well as helping me to become a better rider.  People should never under estimate the profound positive effect a well made, quality saddle can have. My Trailwise has been a terrific investment that has given me peace of mind.  In addition your customer service and knowledge have been fabulous.  You have been available for questions and very supportive through every step.  Thank you,  Maggie McNally Michelle, I hope this is not gushing too much but seriously, you have saved my passion and joy. This saddle has been a miracle!

Hi Michelle, Thank you for giving me my horse back!! I have been struggling with saddles for a couple of years, nothing worked quite right and some were downright detrimental. I explored with QUALITY saddles, not inexpensive. After an absolute disaster with a saddle that caused a downward spiral with my horse I listened to several people who recommended Trailwise. I contacted you and your expertise and knowledge assured me I had made the right decision. In addition knowing that you rode endurance made feel comfortable that you knew exactly what I needed. I LOVE my saddle. It is gorgeous to look at, but more importantly it is perfect for my horse and fits me like a glove. From the first ride it was comfortable, for me it felt like an old friend and my horse moved beautifully. This saddle allows the rider to be nimble and athletic, to ride centered and be intuitive with the horse. The last few years my horse has struggled with a forward working trot, not anymore with the Trailwise. We trotted miles yesterday in a lovely working trot, he collected and extended, he was soft in his poll and completely enjoyed himself. We bushwhacked through some steep technical arroyos and canyons on the way home and the saddle never moved (even though my girth was loose, the way I like it!). We even did some ranch sorting with cows last week, I was secure and my horse was having fun. This is an outstanding saddle, I could not be happier. I have my horse healthy and I can sleep soundly at night knowing that I made a great investment for my horse’s well being as well as helping me to become a better rider. People should never under estimate the profound positive effect a well made, quality saddle can have. My Trailwise has been a terrific investment that has given me peace of mind. In addition your customer service and knowledge have been fabulous. You have been available for questions and very supportive through every step.
Thank you,
Maggie McNally
(Michelle, I hope this is not gushing too much but seriously, you have saved my passion and joy. This saddle has been a miracle!)

Above:  Maggie McNally’s gelding “Skhy”, with his new Trailwise Pioneer Endurance saddle.


As most of you know, Trailwise Saddles offers a versatile fit system unlike any other that allows you to “fine tune” the fit of the saddle to your horse within about a hundred pounds of difference, give or take. That unique feature, combined with impeccable quality and craftsmaship makes a Trailwise Saddle a smart, long-term investment because it allows you to accommodate weight fluctuations, aging changes, and conditioning changes in your horse through the seasons and throughout its life.  It also allows you to use the same saddle on different horses, within reason, as long as the horses have similar Back Profiles.

Just as important, if not more so, is the importance we place on correct tree selection for your particular type of horse. This is what we affectionately call the “Back Profile.”  Even though our saddles are adjustable, matching the right shape of tree to the shape of your horse’s back is absolutely the most ideal way to proceed.  There are two critical areas of the tree to be aware of in terms of fit–the width of the front of the tree through the bars–and the shape of the bars (whether flat or arched).  Trailwise trees come in a number of widths and bar bar styles: 6.25″, 6.5″, 6.75″, 7″ and Cowboy Bars, Flat Bars, or Modified Bars.  After the correct tree style is selected–much like you choosing the right size of shoe for yourself–then the Adjustable Saddle Liners are used to fine tune the fit of the tree, if necessary, to the main three areas of the horse’s back:  front, middle and loin.  This can also be compared to you choosing an orthotic insert for your shoe.  Just as you wouldn’t use only one size of shoe for everyone, and then try to use inserts or orthotics to correct the fit, you also shouldn’t ever try to use only one size of tree to fit all kinds of horses.

PioneerTreevsWadeTreeAs you’ve probably already noticed, horses come in many shapes and sizes, even within a given breed. Some Arabians, though short and petite to the eye, can have surprisingly wide shoulders when measured. Likewise, Quarter horses can come with barrel shaped, low-withered body types…..or more high-withered slab-sided thoroughbred types. When you get around enough horses for a long enough time, it quickly becomes clear that there is no “standard” or “normal” body type for a horse, even within breed categories.  As such, we need different sizes and shapes of trees-in addition to adjustable fit systems (“orthotics”)–to ideally fit a saddle to a horse.

(1) Back Profile: Trailwise Modified Cowboy Bar

This is a newly developed tree that was inspired by a customer in Fort Collins that owned a gorgeous, incredibly wide-table-backed Tennessee Walking horse.  The Modified Cowboy Bar tree is first cast into a mold, and then hand tooled, and is perfect on horses with meaty, no-pocket, wide shoulders.  This tree comes in several widths, 6.5, 6.75 and 7 and has a slight upcharge due to the labor involved to make it.  It’s Special, it’s Different, and it’s perfect for those Baroque styles horses like Andalusians, Fresians, Luisitanos–or just thick, wide bodied, and sometimes downright FAT horses!  (No offense!)

For example:  The other day I was doing a saddle fitting consultation for a customer near Conifer, Colorado. Her mare was a sweet 12 year old, 14.2 H Appy cross — with a draft-horse wide back.  Only a bit of wither attached to meaty, laid back shoulders with no sign of a “pocket” behind them, a crease down her back where the spine was somewhere underneath, and all of this wide enough to eat lunch off! When I did the front wither tracing, she measured 14″ from point to point! Even with the extra weight on her, this mare was WIDE. She also had some rock in her back behind the shoulder, which is another body type consideration that greatly affects one’s choice of tree.  Below is a picture of this horse and her Back Profile which can be suitably matched to our Modified Cowboy Bar Tree:

This Back Profile is suitable matched to the Trailwise Modified Cowboy Bar in our extra wide model (7")

CreaseinbackAs shown above, another example of the type of Back Profile that is suitable for our Trailwise Modified Cowboy Bar.

(2) Back Profile: Trailwise Flat Bar

On the opposite side of this spectrum, I have a very fit 6 year old endurance horse I ride regularly that I use a 6.75″ Flat Bar tree on.  Now, the Flat Bar tree is one I don’t use as often as the Cowboy Bar.  This is because the twist or angle of the bar in the Flat Bar tree is straighter and points downward, rather than spreading out and flaring away from, and as such, does not open up as much in the shoulder as I like.  However, this mare is fairly narrow, and built like a greyhound, medium withers, somewhat slab-sided (narrow), and with a severely straight back (hardly any rock).  As such, I find that the 6.75 Flat Bar works well for her — it is actually a bit too wide without the Adjustable Saddle Liner system, but this is done on purpose to allow for extra room in the shoulders and easy enough to fix elsewhere (middle and loin areas) by adding some felted inserts to make the tree fit more narrowly on her back so it doesn’t bottom out on the spine or bump the hip.  And, because it’s a bit too wide, it has plenty of room in the shoulder so that during shoulder rotation, her scapula slides under the tree, without discomfort.  As such, this tree, with these modifications, are a perfect fit for this horse and I’ve been riding her for many months with this set up and training for the Big Horn 100 with no ill effects (picture of her Back Profile below–notice how straight she is starting behind the wither and into the loin):


(3) Back Profile: Cowboy Bar

Our third bar style is our most popular….meaning, it tends to be the tree style that fits 80% of the horses out there.  This is a perfect bar style for horses with normal to high withers, pocketing behind the scapula and with some arch in their back from behind the wither and up into the croup.  You can get this tree in 4 different widths –6.25 (which is very narrow and hardly ever used); 6.5, which I would call a “medium” width; 6.75, which I define as a “wide” width and also the most common width used; and 7″, which is thus far our widest width, and which we have successfully fit to draft horses and other types with extremely wide shoulders and wide, bench-like backs.  This is a great bar style, and our “go-to” tree is the 6.75 Cowboy Bar and one that works well for most horses and trainers out in the field.  A very good, all-around tree model.  Below is a picture of the type of Back Profile that generally works for this tree style:




When deciding on your Trailwise Saddle, pay careful attention to the tree style you pick and remember that we had three:  (1) The Cowboy Bar, (2) the Flat Bar and (3) the Modified Cowboy Bar.  In addition, each tree comes in four widths:  6.25/Narrow (very narrow, rarely used); 6.5/Medium (a good choice for the horse pictured above); 6.75/Wide, a good choice for the horse pictured above, but wider and heavier; and 7/Extra Wide (very wide, good for heavy, larger types like draft crosses, Andalusians, Gypsy Vannerjs, Drums, larger Gaited types.)

And it’s never a bad idea to send us your Wither Tracings……take a look at our quick video, wither tracings are easy to do, so don’t be intimidated.  (Click here for video)

In addition, we would like to see emailed photos of your horse, standing on level ground, from the left, the right, and right behind the butt looking down the shoulders.  Email pictures to and we will help you determine which tree will work best for your horse or horses.  And don’t hesitate to call for an impromtu fit consultation–we love to talk about saddles and how to get a better fit:  970-231-3299.

Happy trails,

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith, Owner and Designer of Trailwise Saddles, avid Endurance Rider and General Horse Lover

Michelle Smith, Owner and Designer of Trailwise Saddles, avid Endurance Rider and General Horse Lover

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Wish I Knew This Stuff When I Started Endurance…..!

End101roadsignShopwithcarsThe Endurance 101 Clinic, held by the Mountain Region Endurance Riders organization on May 16, 2015 was heralded by a postcard-perfect Colorado morning and a sold out attendance.

Susan Garlinghouse, DVM, veteran endurance competitor, AERC Board Member, and freshly off the plane from California, was our main speaker. She was dynamic, thorough,  informative and welcoming. Susan

Susan Garlinghouse, DVM and main presenter for Endurance 101, explains a few things at the mock-up Vet Check

Susan Garlinghouse, DVM and main presenter for Endurance 101, explains a few things at the mock-up Vet Check

Schomburg, MRER President, organized the event and as usual, her hyper energy and efficient organization made work for the rest of us easy. Linda Browneller, certified Farrier Extraordinaire, was there to speak about hoof care for the endurance horse. And I donated my facility and presented on the importance of good saddle fit for the equine athlete.  In addition, Linda Price, MRER Treasurer, made the drive up to help out with registration and various odds and ends.  As they say, it takes a village, and I was impressed by the level of energy and knowledge that all presenters exhibited to create a clinic worth attending.

We began at 10 am with a 3-hour power point presentation by Dr. Garlinghouse, followed by questions and answers from the audience. Around 1 pm we broke for lunch, a

Susie Schomburg introduces Susan Garlinghouse as the power point presentation gets underway

Susie Schomburg introduces Susan Garlinghouse as the power point presentation gets underway

wonderful feast prepared by Susie Schomburg. After lunch we went out to the arena to do a mock-up vet check and trot out. This was hands-ons and hugely informative, and it made me remember how lost I felt as a new endurance rider first starting out…..where to go, what to do, and WHY were we doing these things.  We discussed  P&Rs, CRIs, Horse Presentation to the vet, safety at the vet check, the difference between a good trot-out and a bad trot-out, among other things.  My daughter, Jackie, brought out her Big Horn 100 horse, Pixiedust, and both performed like seasoned champs and made it all look easy.  (This year they both go to Tevis!)

Mock-up Vet Check in the arena

Mock-up Vet Check in the arena

Jackie Smith and Pixiedust show everyone how it's done at the Vet Check....

Jackie Smith and Pixiedust show everyone how it’s done at the Vet Check….

After the Vet Check mock-up, everyone broke into groups and rotated from Susan Garlinghouse, who spoke more about preparation for one’s first endurance ride; Linda Browneller, who gave specifics on the importance of hoof health and farrier work in the endurance horse; and myself, on the basics of saddle fitting and the importance of good

Linda Browneller presents on hoof health and farrier work for the endurance horse

Linda Browneller presents on hoof health and farrier work for the endurance horse

saddle fit for equine athletes.  Like the other presenters, I had three different group rotations, and each time, Susie Schomburg would “interrupt” to tell me it was time to finish up so the next group could come in…..the time flew, and it wasn’t long enough to say everything that needed to be said about saddle fitting, but I managed to get the most important points across, I think.  I’m guessing the other presenters felt the same way–so much to say, so little time!ShoeTable


Michelle Smith, Certified Saddle Fitter and Owner of Trailwise Saddles, discusses saddle fit….and in particular, how girths affect overall saddle fit

In regards to saddle fitting, I was impressed to see how many folks were actually conscious of the importance of saddle fit.  It does seem that a radical shift has happened over the last ten years or so, and equestrians. especially those from western or recreational backgrounds, are increasingly conscious of the necessity for good saddle fit.  This is good news for horses…and riders!  Interestingly, a couple from England was present at the clinic, and he described growing up in England, riding horses, and being taught at an early age to make sure there was “a clear space and light showing” through the spinal channel when giving an eye to saddle fit.  What a contrast to my own experience growing up with horses–all I knew about saddle fit was that the saddle was either English or Western, and it might be the right size for me, or not.  Never a mention or a thought about whether it would fit my horse. The Englishman, named John, went on to explain that as a child, he started with a pony, then went to a slightly bigger horse, and then finally on to thoroughbreds and warmbloods.  In typical English style, there was a progression, marked by breed changes and body size changes, which necessitated the consciousness of saddle fit.  Somehow, I am not surprised that the English are a bit more advanced in this area, seeing how The Horse has been such an intrinsic part of their culture for such a long time.  Thankfully, American culture is making headway into this area, as well.  There is a saying I’ve heard that goes something like “A horse with saddle marks is a broke horse”, referring to the white spots one will often see on a “dude” or ranch horse.  Back in the day, a cowboy had his “rig”, which was his saddle, and it usually cost three times more than any horse (as it often still does today!), and it was his one and only saddle used on numerous horses throughout his career……but even modern day cowboys have become pretty enlightened about saddle fit, and so that is good news for horses and riders, both.

We are fortunate that the market has evolved to offer a number of “adjustable fit” saddles, especially since good quality, well-made saddles continue to be a notable investment (cost of around $2000 and up).  There are many brand choices on the market today, with my line, Trailwise Saddles, being one of many.  The advantages of a Trailwise Saddles is that it offers several tree styles, an adjustable fit system, adjustable and interchangeable rigging, a light-weight, with exceptional quality, and specifically designed for endurance and trail riding.  Trailwise Saddles also feature a balanced, secure, legs-under seat that makes these saddles work well for dressage and arena exercises, in addition to trail riding.

Michelle Smith with David Mahoney.  David won the Trailwise Saddle Raffle at February's MRER Convention.  He also attended the Endurance 101 Clinic, where he was able to pick up his new Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle.  Congrats, David, you lucky guy!

Michelle Smith with David Mahoney. David won the Trailwise Saddle Raffle at February’s MRER Convention. He also attended the Endurance 101 Clinic, where he was able to pick up his new, custom-made Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle. Congrats, David, you lucky guy!

The clinic broke up around 6pm, and the general feel was that everyone was happy, excited and had learned a lot.  Even after participating in endurance for over 8 years, I still learned a few new things.  I think that’s why I continue to be addicted to Endurance… is always learning more and getting better at the sport, and so growth is always a part of the game, which keeps it fresh.  In addition, there were a lot of helpful reminders that I had kind of “forgotten” about how to prepare and be successful in the sport, so the time spent at the clinic was well worth it.  It made me more motivated than ever to get back on the trail and get to work conditioning for my next ride…..City of Rocks in Almo, Idaho, a 3-day Pioneer Endurance Ride that should have us ready to go for the Shamrock Endurance Rides in early July and the Big Horn 100 in mid-July.  And then it’s off to Tevis…….!

Many happy trails–Michelle Smith

Sunday, May 17, 2015

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The Latest on How to Read Sweat Marks (you may be surprised!)


Photo: Schleese Saddlery

If you are conscious of the importance of saddle fit, then you’ve probably heard an earful  about the relevance of sweat marks…..what they should look like, what they mean, or if they mean anything at all.  And I am guessing that often you feel more confused than ever, because so much of the information on sweat marks is conflicting, depending on which “expert” you ask; and, you probably have sweat marks that run the gamut of full and even to kidney-shaped dry spots….and lots of “in betweens.”

Recently I was exposed to some new information about sweat marks that turned everything I thought I knew on its ear.  What I’d always been told, and what my research had found based on the most popular “expert” opinions and “common” knowledge, was that even sweat marks on both sides of the horse’s spine were the ideal and proved that the saddle fit well.  And if you didn’t achieve that much sought after “even” wet  sweat mark going the full length from front to back, then something was terribly wrong.  It was time for a new saddle, or at least, a new saddle fitter.

The problem I had as a saddle fitter was that, after 8 years of hands-on saddle fitting,

Feeling confused about the relevance of sweat marks--a common problem!

Feeling confused about the relevance of sweat marks–a common problem!

certification courses, reading numerous books, and trading notes with other saddle fitters in the field, I found my own sweat mark “success rate” to be across the board.  And so did my colleagues, or at least those that were willing to be honest with me.  More confusingly, many horses with seemingly less than perfect sweat marks showed no indication of bad saddle fit, had no white marks, or any other signs that indicated poor saddle fit.  And yet, the sweat marks were not the prescribed even wet marks from front to back on both sides, as everyone seemed to believe they should be.

As a saddle fitter, I found this very troubling.  It kept me up at night.

Gotta look into this sweat mark thing's really bugging me!

Gotta look into this sweat mark thing more….it’s really bugging me!

In addition, the more I learned about sweat marks–and what can affect the results–the more I began to realize that the whole idea of using sweat marks as a barometer of good saddle fit was even more questionable than I originally suspected.  For example, I have been told that horses lose the ability to sweat if the tissue has been traumatized or damaged enough.  Therefore, a horse subjected to poor saddle fit long enough will not sweat at all in certain places under the saddle due to tissue trauma.  This certainly makes it difficult to know, based on sweat marks alone, whether a horse that had past saddle fit problems was now doing better in the new saddle.

Another problem I discovered through my years of hands-on saddle fitting that also clouded the issue of sweat marks, was that the type of saddle pad used under the saddle greatly affects the look of sweat marks.  For example, a

I WILL get to the bottom of this sweat mark thing....I don't give up easily!

I WILL get to the bottom of this sweat mark thing….I don’t give up easily!

cotton pad or a wool pad will tend to absorb so much of the sweat, that quite often there is no sweat at all, especially if the riding was not too strenuous.  Ironically, synthetic materials seemed to give the “best” sweat marks–delivering that magical full panel of wet sweat that most of us have been taught to strive for.  The logical conclusion is that synthetics don’t absorb much at all, and so sweat pools under the saddle and gives us those hoped-for, magical marks that we are all busy looking for.  But if that’s the case, then this is not an accurate picture, either.

And, ride a horse long enough and hard enough–say, in a hot 50 mile endurance race–and you’ll have more sweat than you know what to do with (and therefore those “wonderful” full sweat marks, once again–and again, not an honest picture of what’s really going on.)

You see the problem.  Basing good saddle fit on sweat marks alone should not be considered an accurate barometer of saddle fit success.  Rather, reading sweat marks should be only one of many tools used to assess overall saddle fit.  There are many other things to look for when gauging saddle fit:  How the horse horse moves under saddle; What the saddle looks like on the horse; What the saddle looks like when the rider is sitting on it; Whether the horse seems happy and productive or irritable and uncomfortable; What condition and health the horse and rider are both in; and, finally, some time.  A few practice rides in a newly fitted saddle, keeping padding, terrain, and rider style in mind, will give you the most valuable information you need to assess your saddle fit.  It’s good to get this figured out before dreaded white marks appear, obviously, so some due diligence and general “playing around” with the variables affecting saddle fit are in order.


“Don’t think we can ask for a better fit! We both did awesome tonight….Not sure how I ever rode without it…..”–Leah Drach, new Trailwise Saddle owner

Better yet, it’s ideal to have a tree built for your horse’s specific Back Profile–like we do here at Trailwise Saddles.  In addition to the correct tree selected for your horse’s individual Back Profile, our Adjustable Saddle Liners allow you to fine tune the fit and accommodate weight, conditioning, and aging fluctuations in your horse’s back.  A good, knowledgeable, thorough saddle fitter can definitely put you on the right track with this, but effort on the part of the rider is also required.  Often, good saddle fit is not the easy slam-dunk we all hope for; rather, it can involve some trial and error, and trying different things.  This is normal when considering the many, many variables that affect overall saddle fit.  The important thing is to be diligent, put in the effort, and don’t give up.  Establishing a partnership based on trust, mutual respect, and working in tandem with your saddle fitter is a must, if you decide to use one.

Meanwhile, the latest info that I learned about sweat marks answered a lot of questions for me and I hope it will unravel a few questions that may have been in your mind, too.  Recently, while reading Suffering in Silence by Jochen Schleese, I stumbled across his theory on what constitutes “good” sweat marks (he calls them “dust marks.”)  Jochen Schleese has been building English saddles for over 20 years, is a Certified Master Saddle Fitter from Germany, currently designs and builds saddles, and was on the short list for the German Olympic team in jumping when he was younger.  He now lives in Canada, owns Schleese saddlery, and is married to a high-level dressage competitor.

SaddlePadsNote his picture demonstrating “good saddle fit” on the left.  The pad shown is Schleese’s example of “good sweat marks.”  When I first saw this, all I could think of was how many horse people I knew that would find these sweat marks quite depressing.  A Failure.  A sign of Bad Saddle Fit.  And yet here was an expert in the field claiming just the opposite.

Here’s the deal, according to Schleese:  The majority of your sweat marks will come in the front and the back because those areas are most exposed to air, dirt, and friction.  As the horse moves, his shoulders rotate and cause air to circulate under the front of the saddle; in the back, a similar thing happens as the hind legs step under the back, the spine moves, and the back of the saddle lifts and moves, once again causing air to circulate under the back end of the saddle.  THIS IS AS IT SHOULD BE!

Meanwhile, the saddle moves the least under the point of balance of the horse, which is behind and at the base of the withers.  This middle section of the saddle is the strongest area of the horse’s back and the area which should be carrying the majority of the rider’s weight–30% in front at the withers, 40% in the middle, and another 30% towards the loin area is the magic equation.  Because the majority of weight is centered in the middle right behind the withers, again, this is the area of the saddle that moves the least–which means no air circulation–which means less of a mark….or as some would exclaim with horror–a dry mark.  However, it is only dry because no air can get there.  Keep in mind what the sides of your horse look like under the side panels or flap of your saddle after a ride (often called “sweat flaps”)…..they’re wet, dirty, and sweaty.  That’s because “Sweat marks occur in areas where there is friction and air circulation.”

The horse will be able to sweat under areas where air circulation and friction are present.

Michelle Smith, Saddle Fitter and Owner of Trailwise Saddles at the Shamrock Endurance Rides

Michelle Smith, Saddle Fitter and Owner of Trailwise Saddles at the Shamrock Endurance Rides

However, no sweat will form in the areas that are in constant contact, without movement, under the horse’s back.  Ideally, there should be no movement under the stirrup bars or behind the withers, so this is the area where the horse will sweat least and last.  According to Schleese, “Large kidney-shaped (6 to 8 inches long) dry spots are acceptable under the stirrup bar, but dry spots found on the saddle support area that have a circumference of around an inch could indicate points of concentrated pressure.”

So, the next time you get busy checking your sweat marks–which I believe is a valid tool among many others to use–keep the above information in mind.  It could explain a lot and give you some peace of mind, too.

–Michelle Smith, May 15, 2015

Suffering in Silence, Jochen Schleese, Published in English in 2013 by Trafalgar Square Publishing

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Trailwise Saddles Collaborates with JenXEquine for Superior Saddle Fit

TrailwiseJenXLogoComboTrailwise Saddles Exclusive:  Trailwise is excited to announce a collaborative product integration with JenX Equine–industry specific foam created for the unique demands of extreme equestrian performance which virtually eliminates concussion and soft tissue trauma to both horse and rider at temperatures over 100 degrees.

Trailwise Saddles has had riders testing the exclusively designed JenXtreme Adjustable Saddle Liners, for the last six weeks.  And, Wow!  What an amazing performance add-on!  Not only were our horses more comfortable and moving better than ever, but we, as riders, noticed the difference immediately……much less concussion to the human spine, much more comfort through our bodies as kinetic energy transferred from horse to human and back again, was absorbed by the foam…. and all this while maintaining very close contact on our horse’s back.  In fact, I was so impressed that I will no longer ride without the JenXtreme Liners attached to my Trailwise Saddle tree bars.  Integration of innovative technology is a huge part of Trailwise Saddles, and we seek out and embrace those evolutions that make saddle performance better.

JenXtreme Adjustable Saddle Liners are now available as an upgrade option for all Trailwise Saddles to improve overall performance and saddle fit under extreme riding conditions. As well, the complete line of JenX Saddle Pads will be available through Trailwise Saddles for those who don’t need a new saddle but want the advantages of the JenXFoam Pads.



Order your JenXtreme Adjustable Saddle Liners for Trailwise Saddles



Already have a saddle you love but want the extra concussion advantage of JenXFoam?  Trailwise Saddles now offers the full line of JenX Saddle Pads… here to order. JenXPadPlusAnySaddle

Headshot_MichelleWe at Trailwise Saddles are excited and confident that the addition of the JenXFoam products will dramatically improve your saddle fit and your riding experience.  Please call Michelle Smith, Certified Saddle Fitter and Owner of Trailwise Saddles, with questions, comments, concerns etc:  970-231-3299

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Good Saddle Fit for Horse AND Rider

Michelle Smith is a Certified Saddle Fitter and an avid Endurance Rider.  She’s had 8 years of hands-on experience in Saddle Fitting, and is the Owner and Designer of Trailwise Saddles, which offer custom trees with an adjustable fit and rigging system, made in Colorado, USA.  She can be reached at or 970-231-3299 or visit

Hikers need comfy, sturdy boots for rough uneven terrain matched with a great sock.....horses need sturdy, comfy saddles matched with a great pad.

Hikers need comfy, sturdy boots for rough uneven terrain matched with a great sock…..horses need sturdy, comfy saddles matched with a great pad.  Michelle Smith with Pshantilly Lace at the 2014 Mount Carmel XP Rides.

“Choosing the right saddle for endurance riding is like selecting the right boot for back packing.” A hiker carrying a backpack over rough, varied terrain is best served by a sturdy leather hiking boot of high quality that offers support and protection to the lower leg and foot bed without causing blisters and rubbing.  A general boot size is picked and orthotic shims are often used to offer customized support to the hiker’s foot, which is similar to what a saddle with a tree and an adjustable fit system can do.

Selection of an appropriate sock is an essential and critical part of the hiker’s overall comfort; likewise, the saddle pad under a saddle plays a crucial role in overall fit and comfort for both horse and rider.

The saddle and pad combo is a crucial part of overall saddle fit.

The saddle and pad combo is a crucial part of overall saddle fit.  Tennessee Lane at the Happy Jack Endurance Ride.  Photo Paschal Karl

Like hiking boots for back packers, choosing the right saddle and pad combo for the protection and comfort of you and your equine partner is essential to a successful ride.  And finding a saddle that does all of that, plus supports and fits your pelvis, with a partner that can’t verbalize his preferences, can make finding the right saddle a real challenge.

The Saddle Fitting Equation

(1) The Saddle Must Fit the Horse, and (2) The Saddle Must Fit the Rider.  Without success in both areas, there is failure overall.  Often easier said than done!  Where do you start?  Read below!

Identifying Your Horse’s “Back Profile”

(1) Does your horse have a Flat Back or an Arched Back?

A flat back with "uphill" build

A flat back with “uphill” build


A back with some "rock"

A back with some “rock” and about level between wither and croup

A swayed back on an older horse  (an exaggerated amount of  "rock")

A swayed back on an older horse (an exaggerated amount of “rock”)

(2)  Is your horse Uphill, Downhill, or Level?

(3) How WIDE is your horse? You can take a wither tracing and compare it to other horse bodies in your barn to begin to get an idea of the width your horse is.  Some short horses are wider than they look, and some tall horses are more narrow than you might think, so tracings and measurements can give you an accurate picture of your horse’s width.  Click the link below for a quick video on how to do wither tracings:

How to do a Basic Wither Tracing

(4)  What SIDE of your horse is bigger than the other?  Look at your horse and notice what side is bigger or less developed than the other.  A good way to do this is to stand right behind his butt and look down his spine at his shoulders.  Almost all horses have one shoulder that is bigger than the other, and for some, it is quite extreme.  Usually the corresponding rib cage on that side will be bigger than the other, too. Horse, like people, have a preferred side and they tend to muscle up more on that side.  A horse that has a more muscular left shoulder will also tend to prefer the left A "downhill" build. This is one of the most difficult back types to fit a saddle to because the saddle will tend to fall and push into the shoulder area. This also will tend to make the rider feel unbalanced.lead over the right, and vice versa.  Some horses will lean on one side of their body when standing, making one should appear higher or bigger than the other.Our goal as an athletic rider is to help the horse become as balanced and even as possible, so the first step is to simply notice. Noticing the asymmetry and working the weak side more can help to balance the horse’s muscles, which in turn help the saddle to fit better.

This horse is fairly level between wither and croup and has a back with some "arch"  that will tend to "hold" the saddle in place.

This horse is fairly level between wither and croup and has a back with some “arch” that will tend to “hold” the saddle in place.

(5) Does your horse have a MEATY SHOULDER or a POCKETED SHOULDER?

Once you know your horse’s Back Profile–Flat or Arched, Uphill, Downhill or Level; Narrow, Medium or Wide–you can begin to narrow down the tree style needed (like a boot size for your foot) to best fit your horse.  Even a saddle that offers adjustable fit should come with a tree that closely matches your horse’s Back Profile for best results.

Saddle Fit for the Horse:  The Key Areas

(1) Wither Clearance — Make sure you can fit two to three fingers between the underneath of the front of the saddle (pommel or fork) and the top of the horse’s wither.  The saddle should not touch the wither.  And if you get more than three fingers, then the saddle is probably too narrow for the horse.

Wither clearance of this saddle appears to be adequate.

Saddle is sitting right on the wither in this image….not enough wither clearance, which means the saddle is too wide.

(2)  Shoulder Fit–There are three things to consider about the horse’s shoulders:  The overall width from side to side, the angle of the shoulders as they descend from the withers, and the amount of “pocketing” behind the scapula.


The horse shown above is a 16 yo gelding, about 15.1 H tall, with a medium width shoulder with some pocketing behind the scapula and an average amount of “rock”  through the back with a croup that swoops upwards but is slightly lower than the wither.  This horse will do well with a Trailwise tree that is our 6.5 Cowboy Bar model.

Same horse with the tree on.  Notice the clearance of the tree over the wither.

Same horse with the tree on. Notice the clearance of the tree over the wither.

 (3) Spinal Channel–When the saddle or the tree is place on the horse’s back, you should be able to see daylight from one end to the other, front to back or vice versa.  This will indicate that the tree isn’t actually resting on the horse’s spine.  And don’t forget to sit in the saddle and check with your hand to make sure the wither clearance–now with your weight in the saddle–is still adequate.  Sweat marks later will also help you to determine that.

(4) Middle of the Back — This can be the most difficult area to accurately assess because it’s the least visible.  One way to check fit in the middle of the back is to place one hand on the front of the saddle and the other on the back and give it a rock back and forth…..if the saddle rocks easily, then is probably has too much arch in the middle of the tree bar.  You can do two things to fix this:  get a tree with a flatter bar (note that a flatter bar will often close in the shoulder area which is not ideal); OR, in the case of a saddle with some adjustability–like all Trailwise Saddles– shim the front and back of the bar on each side to make it more level and flat overall.

Tune in next time for our segment on Saddle Fit for the Rider…….often overlooked, but just as important for effective riding, which in turn will make your horse more comfortable.

MeNKlem2–Michelle Smith, March 31, 2015







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What Makes Trailwise Saddles Different

What Makes Trailwise Saddles Different

There is a huge selection of saddles on the market today, and choosing one that’s right for you and your horse and your riding goals can make saddle shopping really confusing! Recently I’ve been asked “What makes Trailwise different from other saddles?” so here are a few answers I hope you’ll find helpful:

(1) Affecting the Fit of the Tree: There is a wide variety of saddle PAD choices on the market today that use a host of techniques to improve saddle fit. Many of these padding options do indeed help, and if you can get them to stay in the right place under the saddle, and if the saddle isn’t too terribly “off” in fit, then these pads can dramatically improve your saddle fit. Trailwise Saddles, like several other brands on the market today, use padding with one key difference: Velcro! (a.k.a, “hook and loop”). With the use of Hook and Loop, Trailwise Saddles is able to keep our proprietary Adjustable Saddle Liners in the right spot under the tree to positively affect the way the tree lays on your horse’s back.

Adjustable Saddle Liners stay in place because they're attached with Velcro










(2) Materials that Breathe: Trailwise is specifically different from other so-called “adjustable” saddle brands because we use materials that can vent and “breathe” (wool felt & Open Weave Merinque), as opposed to neoprene rubber and/or closed cell foam. In addition, the pockets in our Adjustable Saddle Liners are easy to work with and guide the user to fit in the three key areas of the horse’s back, rather than leaving it up to the user to do randomly. As such, the pockets take some of the confusion out of the adjustment process which is key for the novice fitter.

Pockets are built in to our Adjustable Saddle Liners to influence fit in three key areas of the horse's back: shoulder, middle and loin

Fine tune your fit using our proprietary Adjustable Saddle Liners on your Trailwise Saddle

(3) Trees to fit Back Profile: Most importantly, Trailwise is different in that we don’t use one tree to fit every horse, nor do we ever say that our saddle can fit every horse. We select trees based on the general Back Profile of your horse (as determined by wither tracings), and from there, you can fine tune the fit of the tree to accommodate weight, conditioning and aging fluctuations in your horse (or most other horses with that type of Back Profile) by using our Adjustable Saddle Liners. It is not a perfect system, but it does offer many options for better saddle fit.  (Hint:  There is no perfect system!)

This horse’s Back Profile needs our Cowboy Bar tree, which is a tree with some rock to the bars. Note that this horse is very slightly downhill due to the sway in its back.

(4) Impeccable Quality: All Trailwise Saddles are made in Colorado, USA from top-grain vegetable tanned cowhides that come from eastern American tanneries (Wickett & Craig of America). The materials are of the best quality and the craftsmanship is impeccable and hails from a Colorado saddle shop with over 40 years experience.

The Trailwise English Trail with tooling and conchos and lots of attention to detail.

Trailwise Saddles: Choose from 4 terrific models, all lightweight and trail worthy.

(5) Adjustable Cable Rigging: Our unique Cable Rigging System allows adjustability of the rigging and the ability to quickly change from Western to English and vice versa, and is a unique feature on all Trailwise Saddles (rigging holds up to 12 tons with not one failure in the 20+ years of its existence).

Our unique Cable Rigging guides the rigging position to an ideal spot on your horse AND it can be easily swapped out for Western or English based on your preference.

(6) Comfort for the Rider: Trailwise Saddles offers three seat styles to ensure rider comfort based on seat-bone configuration of the Rider. We have a No Rise, Single Rise, and Double Rise. Use of the correct seat will put your body in optimal alignment in the saddle, allowing the thigh to hang from the hip in correct position, giving you that ever sought after “dressage” style, “legs under” seat position.

With all of the above options, it’s easy to see that Trailwise is very different from other saddle brands. Trailwise Saddles recognizes that saddle fit is not a One-Size-Fits-All reality; there is no such thing.  What we can promise is a product that offers a variety of options for improved saddle fit and is well-made and specific to trail riding and long-distance riding.

At Trailwise Saddles, the horse always comes first, and good saddle fit is our passion.

Purchase a Trailwise Saddle in the month of February and get $100 off your order using Coupon Code $100OFF.  February is one of the best months to order a new saddle……you’ll have your saddle in about 8 weeks — just in time to get going for Ride Season! Call 970-231-3299 for more info or go to Order Trailwise

Michelle and Juliette at the Shamrock Endurance Races

–Michelle Smith, February 1, 2015

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What Makes A Saddle Comfortable to the Rider?

A Word on Seat Style and How it Affects Your Ride

There are two things that make a saddle a success: (1) It fits the horse so that he can perform and carry you without pain; (2) It fits you so you can carry yourself and perform your best without pain and also with seat security.

Both the above statements sound simple but are often elusive. Either the saddle fits the horse, and is uncomfortable or insecure for you to ride in; or the saddle feels good to you, but does not fit your horse. Either is a deal breaker when selecting a saddle!

Saddle fit for the horse can be accomplished with a knowledgeable saddle fitter, a quality built saddle, wither tracings, and ultimately a tree that follows the horse’s back profile correctly. Because all Trailwise Saddles come with a versatile fit system by way of the Adjustable Saddle Liners, and because all Trailwise Saddles offer trees made to custom-match your horse’s back profile via wither tracings, saddle fit for the horse using a Trailwise Saddle is quite achievable, with few exceptions.

But let’s talk about you, the Rider. A saddle should feel both comfortable and secure to you or you will avoid riding in it. What makes a saddle comfortable for a rider? Much of your perception of comfort comes directly from the seat, specifically as determined by the twist. This feeling of comfort or discomfort is in turn affected by your pelvic formation, which is usually determined by your sex and/or the width of your seat bones.

Left: Woman's pelvic markings. Note that the public arch comes in contact with the seat. Right: Man's pelvic markings. Photo Schleese Saddlery

Let’s talk about Twist. There is a difference between the width of the twist and the width of the seat. The twist is the area of the saddle located between the thighs. (The width of the seat is determined by the distance between the two sides of the seam running along the edge of the seat.)

MEN: A man’s seat bones are much closer together so the distance between them is much smaller As such, most men will feel comfortable on most twists, regardless of the width. That being said, it has been my experience as a saddle fitter that most men prefer a flatter seat style, most likely because their legs are longer and not as angled inwards as women’s legs.

But if you’re a woman: The width of twist you will need is determined by the space between your upper inner thighs and the arch of your pubic bone. A woman has seat bones that are spread further apart and thighs that angle outward at the hip and inward at the knees. As such, a woman will carry more weight in her upper inner thigh than a man. When the twist is too wide for a particular woman, her legs will tend to push forward rather than hanging down in the ideal shoulder/hip/ankle line. This also puts excess pressure on the hips which causes discomfort.

To determine what seat stye you will need for a Trailwise Saddle: Sit on a flat, non-cushioned chair. Spread your legs apart as you would if sitting astride a horse. Locate your pubic arch, and using a measuring tape, measure from the top of the pubic arch to the surface of the chair. It it is 2 inches or more, you will be better served with the Double Rise Seat.

There is a distinctive difference between the pubic arch of a male and a female.The subpubic angle of a man is generally 50-60 degrees while that of a woman is generally 70-90 degrees, the difference being due to childbirth.

To solve this very important criteria, Trailwise Saddles offer 3 seat types: no rise (flat), single rise (average), and double rise (more slope from pommel to seat). What we are referring to here is the Ground Seat and the Twist. In general, women tend to prefer a more narrow twist, so a single or double rise seat is recommended. Men, especially taller ones, tend to be more comfortable in a flatter seat with a wider twist, so a No Rise or Single Rise is recommended. If you’re not sure, sit in the saddle that you currently have. How does your seat feel? Are your legs in the right position? Do you feel tilted forward or backward? And finally, if you’re just not sure, we recommend you go with the “average,” which is our “single rise” seat. See the differences below:

From left to right:  No Rise, Single Rise, Double Rise

Above:  Both saddles are the Pioneer Endurance models by Trailwise Saddles

What makes up the difference in twist width and slope from from to back are leather strips worked into the ground seat of the saddle.  Wow! What a difference a couple strips of leather can make to the feel of the seat……it’s very slight, but can be very noticeable. Recommended for women: Single or Double Rise. Recommended for Men: No Rise or Single Rise. Recommended overall: SingleRise, a good middle-of-the-road average for most people, regardless of sex.

More rise creates a deeper pocket in the seat, which makes a lot of folks feel secure. Less rise allows more room and moveability in the seat but can sometimes tip you forward, especially for women with wider spaced seat bones.

Note that the Single Rise is slightly flatter than the Double Rise. As a general rule, most women with wide seat bone formation will prefer the Double Rise.

Men or individuals with very long legs tend to feel better in a Single or No Rise Seat (not shown).

So, if you are thinking of a new saddle, make sure you determine the width of twist that is right for you……it will make all the difference in the world for comfort and seat security.

–Michelle Smith, Owner and Designer of Trailwise Saddles & Certified Saddle Fitter

October 2014
Trailwise Saddles, Inc. * 8504 N. Glade Rd. * Loveland, CO * US * 80538

©Copyright 2014. All Rights Reserved

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Pedal to the Metal at Mountain Mettle: Our First 75

From left to Right: Reese, Colwin, Amy Goodwin, Lynne Oslick, Cheyenne Williams and Banjo. Amy got 5th place on Rushcreek CO2 and Lynne got 2nd on Kenlyn Psyche on Saturday's 50 miler.

It was August 1st and we had been preparing for the Mountain Mettle Endurance Ride in Colorado—our first 75 miler– since last winter.  It had been a busy season thus far for me and my rookie 7 year-old Arabian mare, Pshantilly Lace.  What made it extra special is that I started Lacey under saddle only last summer, and less than a year later we were successfully completing 50s.  My intuition told me this was a very special horse, and so far, she had proven me right every step of the way.

Michelle Smith, owner of Trailwise Saddles, and Pshantilly Lace, after a successful 75 mile completion at Mountain Mettle. The oak horse shoe mounting block was beautifully crafted by Dan Horne as an award.

Our preparation for this ride began 10 months earlier, with lots of winter riding, getting out in all kinds of weather, whether we felt like it or not.  Because of that, we were ready to compete early in the season, and did Antelope Island in April, Mount Carmel in May, Strawberry Fields in June, and Shamrock in July.  Mountain Mettle was right around the corner, and we had a good base and felt ready for the 75 mile challenge, which would be a first for us both.

Mountain Mettle Endurance Ride, Friday Morning, 8/1/14:  We hit the trail at 5:30 am, still draped in darkness, with all the other riders in tow:  There were (I think) 5 or 6 starts for the 55, 4 starts for the 75, and 2 starts for the 100.  There had been torrential rain days before the ride, and a lot of folks were headed to Tevis and another established ride in Wyoming, which I think helped explain the disappointingly low turn out.  (In comparison, the first day of the 50 milers at Strawberry Fields, only about a month prior, listed 120+- starts.)

Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Some of the scenic overlooks on the trail.

I had been on some pretty rides thus far, Strawberry being one of them, but I was truly impressed by the stunning scenery provided by this trail.  We cantered through the sun rise (wow!) with the peaks of mountain tops spread out below us.  The degraded granite footing was superb although the trail was technical, with ruts from recent heavy rainfall, roots from trees, and lots of ups and downs, switchbacks and stream crossings throughout the entire ride.  I remember thinking:  People spend their money on a lot of things–fancy cars, plastic surgery, drugs, season football tickets, golf trips, hair, nails, massages, designer clothing, trips abroad, etc.–but I could think of no better way to spend mine than on what I was doing at that moment in time.  Endurance competition is an expensive addiction, there’s no doubt.  But worth every dime if what you love doing is riding a great horse on an exquisite trail with a sunrise the color of liquid gold melting over mountain tops.

Michelle Smith and "Lacey" coming into the first vet hold, near Indian Creek campgrounds, which had been closed off due to bear activity

Michelle Smith and a rider from California (in yellow) coming into the Indian Creek vet hold

This was the first time I’d brought Lacey to a ride by herself and also the first time we’d ever ridden out alone, without a buddy.  So far, she was handling all of it beautifully.  Eventually we fell into place with Susie Jones and her horse Flash, competing on the 55 miler that day and both veteran competitors.  I was riding faster than usual, which was my strategy for this ride:  Get through the first sections of the ride in the cool of the day, make time, and then slow it down later.  We were probably averaging about 8 miles an hour on really challenging terrain, and throughout the entire ride, both of us remained in first place for our mileage division.  After the Indian Creek vet check we fell in with Sami Browneller on the 100.  All three of us rode together for a good 20 miles or so until we reached the Platte River vet check, which was about 45 miles into the ride.

Susie Jones on Flash and Michelle Smith on Pshantilly Lace come into the Platte River vet hold, about 45 miles into the ride

Michelle Smith and Lacey.....all is well!

Platte River, engorged after days of heavy rain

Tyler Cernak and Cole Smith enjoying the Platte River vet hold

Dominique Camarco, junior volunteer, with the rat terrier puppie, Beans and Beowulf. Dominique was a sunny, positive presence throughout the entire ride!

Junior Volunteer, Jackie Smith, hams it up at the Platte River Vet Hold

Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Bridge over the Platte River...horses did great with this bridge!

At the Platte River vet check Lacey was tired and not eating as well as I wanted, so we stayed 20 minutes over to let her rest and eat.  Sami Browneller headed out right at her release time.  Susie Jones pulled her horse at this vet check, so Lacey and I headed out alone on the 10 mile loop back to base camp, and I walked alongside her for about 5 miles of that, letting her stop and graze and fully regain her energy. Eventually, Kevin Waters and his amazing grey gelding, on the 55, caught up with us, and that revived my horse quite a bit and we mostly dragged off of them back into camp (thanks, Kevin!).  Back in camp Kevin only had about 10 minutes until he went over time, which was hard to believe since he had been going at a good clip, but he made it—first place and (I believe) the only rider that completed at that distance for that day.  He was surprised to see that the mileage on his GPS dialed in at 62 miles, rather than 55.  I didn’t have a GPS, but I know I couldn’t have ridden those miles any faster than I did and it sure felt longer than 55 miles, but it is what it is, and I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of any of that.  I just knew we were back, and still in the race and still ready to go complete our first 75.  About an hour behind me were Diane Craft and Breanna Clark on the 75, and Dana Cernak, on the 100.  Sami Browneller, also on the 100, was now about an hour ahead of us all and had just left Base Camp as I was getting there for my hold.  I had observed Sami for several years, and this was nothing new–she was a frequent Top Tenner, if not down-right winner, at many rides.

Sami Browneller and her 12 year old super awesome mare, the day after the ride, going out to pull down ribbons.

Michelle Smith and Lacey, heading out solo at 7:20 pm on the last 22 mile loop for the 75

The Real Fun Begins: I went in for my one hour hold and went out on our last loop—22 miles– at 7:20 pm.  We kept a steady trot until it became dark, a little after 9 pm and that’s when the Fun began.  I’ve never ridden in the dark without a full moon.  In addition to just a sliver of moon, there was lots of cloud cover, and it was getting really cold.  Lacey had glow sticks attached to her breast collar, but they didn’t seem to do a bit of good—still couldn’t see a damn thing, and I could tell she felt uncertain as well.  We had already crossed over 3 bridges and the trail was technical and surprising in its variety of obstacles.  I  electrolyted her right before it got pitch black, which turned out to be a smart move.  I turned on my head lamp, messed with the settings, and finally found one that seemed to work the best, although I still could only see a few feet in front of us.  We continued following ribbons at a walk.  I would try to trot, but the head lamp in the inky thick darkness didn’t pick up on depth, and we often fell into ruts or stumbled on rocks and roots.  I was by myself in a remote area of the Colorado Trail, and decided that trying to trot under these circumstances would be a Bad Choice.  If my horse fell or I got hurt, we would be in serious trouble. No one knew exactly where we were. I hated that we were alone.  As the darkness descended like molasses, I felt a fluttering panic set in, barely kept at bay by force of sheer will.

We continued to follow the trail ribbons like bread crumbs, until suddenly out of the darkness loomed a vast expanse of monolithic granite where the trail suddenly stopped.  We scrabbled over the granite, Lacey’s steel shoes echoing and scratching loudly in the quiet darkness.  She was slipping and sliding on the rock, and I was trying in vain to figure out where the trail picked up again.  I knew Sami Browneller was about an hour ahead of me, on the 100, and so I had been following her horse’s tracks up to that point, but granite doesn’t leave tracks, so we were at an impasse.  We continued to scrabble around the granite, finding each edge in each direction, looking, looking, only able to view several feet at a time in the murky glow of my head lamp, made more confusing by the dancing shadows it cast.  There were no ribbons here, no glow sticks, no chalk markings, Nothing.  Just more and more granite glowing eerily in the pitch black.  Finally my headlamp picked up what appeared to be the vaguest sign of trampled earth…….a trail? and we headed that way.  Hoof prints.  Success.  This happened about four times, and each time we had to stop and scrabble and search and look, which took up vast amounts of time.  I could hear the clock ticking in my head.  I still had hope we would make our timeline, but with each new granite encounter and each passing minute searching for trail, at a walk, groping around in the dark, that hope was growing dimmer.  The voice in my head said This Can’t Be Happening……but it was.  It was.

I began talking out loud.  I told Lacey that when we saw our first glow stick, that meant we were close to camp.  Wasn’t that what they had said at the ride meeting?  I was sure that was what they said, but now, stumbling around in the dark, I became less certain.  I chastised myself for not listening better.  I didn’t know how far along on the loop I was, or how much further I had to go.  It seemed we had already been out there forever, in the dark, alone.  Then in the inky blackness, out in the distance, I saw a small glow…….yes!  The first glow stick.  I urged Lacey into a trot, and as we got closer I saw not one, but two glow sticks….Wait a minute!…..those weren’t glow sticks at all, but rather two glowing red eyes staring steadily at me through the darkness.  A shiver went down my spine and I felt a surging panic rising up through me.  I have always been terrified of running into a mountain lion, had glimpsed them a time or two out on trail, in the dusk, at a distance, and now here I was, alone with a tired horse in the darkest night I could imagine.  My worst fear was in front of me.  With the intense fear grew a feeling of outrage, and  I started loudly singing, and then yelling.  You better leave me the f— alone! I shouted, with all the bravado I could muster.  Don’t Mess with Me! I yelled.  And we kept trotting, right past the glowing eyes that followed us.

Several miles later we did finally, actually, come to a real glow stick.  I was elated.  There it is Lacey, I announced, in a reassuring voice, patting her neck, urging her towards it.  As I got closer, yes indeed, it was a glow stick, but hmmmm, it looked so weird……I got closer and saw a white surgical rubber glove, with the middle finger of the glove inserted over the glow stick and the other fingers closed in……It was giving us The Finger.  My excitement at seeing an actual real glow stick quickly turned to momentary confusion and then outrage.  And yet, it seemed to fit the circumstances.  It was as if the dark part of the Universe had just spoken, and it didn’t have anything nice to say.  Still, even at that low point I could appreciate the twisted humor.  You’re Doomed, it seemed to say.  Despite that, we continued on.

And on.  And on.  And on.  More glow sticks, more ribbons, more glow sticks, glow sticks with animal skeletons attached to trees, one had a spinal column nailed to a tree below the glow stick, another, a skull.  It gave me the creeps.  But worse than that, none of them seemed to be bringing us any closer to camp.  They just went on and on, more and more, and we were still out in the middle of Nowhere!

I came down onto a good sized hard packed dirt road.  I could tell it was used frequently. Now I felt sure we were close.  We picked up a brisk trot on the road, happily anticipating somehow, someway riding into camp……and then more stupid glow sticks headed us off the road and back into the thick dark forest.  Noooooo! I wanted so badly to stay on the road, stay on the road, stay……No more woods, no more glowing eyes, no more Nowhere.  But I knew I had to follow the trail or I would be disqualified.  I looked at my watch.  It was 11 pm.  I still had half an hour…….we could do it.  I turned Lacey into the woods, and on we went.

The air was getting colder and colder, and we were descending.  Soon I heard the crashing water sound of a quick, full river.  I could feel the vegetation thickening.  A shadow passed my eye….what was it?  Was it even real?  I was beginning to feel like I was out of my body, seeing things that weren’t there, hearing things that weren’t there.  And then I heard a growl.  It was low and rumbling, throaty, bear-like.  The Indian Creek Campground, where our first vet check was supposed to have been, had been closed due to bear activity, and all day long I had been swiping at raspberries and thimble berries growing thick and wild along the trail.  Perfect for bears.  The growl I just heard sounded like a bear.  Lacey heard it too and we raced by, as fast as the darkened trail would let us, dancing and moving in my head lamp, which was starting to make me feel seasick.

We kept riding and riding.  I kept thinking that this couldn’t go on, it just couldn’t.  But it did.  The ribbons kept coming, the trail unravelling fitfully before us, shadowy and shaky in my headlamp, like a Nightmare.  We came across two more sets of glowing eyes, peering out at us from the darkness on the sidelines of the trail, and each time I began singing, shouting, making noise and issuing meaningless threats.  I wanted a gun.  I wanted a warmer jacket.  I was shivering from fear and cold.  My breath was fogging up in front of me making it even harder to navigate the trail, and I began to turn my head to the side to exhale so my breath wouldn’t cloud my vision.

Lacey was hungry, and pulled her head down at every opportunity to eat grass.  I think if I would have let her, we would have stayed out all night, just grazing and ambling along.  She had reached a point where she just didn’t care anymore–about dark, eyes, noises, predators–she just wanted to eat.  I would let her grab a few bites, nervously glancing around each time, and then urge her on.  Each time, she would let out a big sigh, but dutifully continue down the trail.  I could just imagine her rolling her eyes with disgust at the stupidity of human beings.

I saw a flickering light ahead and smelled smoke.  We got closer, saw a parked car in the dim light, and then a row of water buckets, filled with beautiful water.  More proof we were on the right trail.  Lacey drank deeply.  The water buckets were a hopeful sign and made my heart lift a bit.  There was a good sized camp fire crackling in the distance, and I could hear voices talking, laughing.  Lacey perked her ears with curiosity in the direction of the voices.  I called out Do You Have Cell Phone Service?  Someone answered No.  Then they said Are You Alright?  I said I’m On A Horse.  They replied:  Oh, Sorry.

I thought about going into the warmth of the camp fire.  Of lying down and wrapping my reins around my hands, and just calling it a night until morning.  I was so tired.  I was so scared.  I wanted People and Warmth.  But then I thought about the fact that Lacey needed food, electrolytes, a blanket, good care.  Also, what kind of people were these, camped around a fire at……holy crap, it was already 1:45 am!  I was done.  I had missed my time.  It was Over.

And yet it wasn’t.  It wasn’t Over.  I was still Here, with my horse, in the dark.  I couldn’t stop, we had to keep going.  Keep going, keep going, keep going.  It became a mantra in my brain, and with that, we stumbled back onto the trail, away from the beckoning campfire, diligently following the now hateful glow sticks and ribbons, which only seemed to lead us further and further into black, cold, Nowhere.

Across another road.  Back into the woods.  Up the side of a steep mountain.  Ahead I could see the vaguest glimmer of city lights.  Must be Denver.  Through some clear cut burn area.  More woods.  More sides of mountains.  More glow sticks and ribbons.  A wave of dizziness swept over me and I almost fell out of my saddle.  I felt like I was going to throw up.  I stuffed half a protein bar down my throat, and forced myself to drink more electrolyte water.  I knew I was dehydrated, tired, cold, and hadn’t eaten much all day.  I was weak.  I felt delirious.  I dismounted, momentarily crumpling to the ground, then staggering up. I felt like I was 100 years old. My legs were numb with exhaustion.  I stumbled into the darkness, the reins wrapped around my fist, leading Lacey onwards.  I thought I might die.  I thought about just laying down, sleeping, giving up.  But as long as I could still put one foot in front of the other, I would keep going, just keep going.

More glow sticks, but now they were coming closer and closer.  Hmmm.  I saw a reddish light across a canyon area.  I heard a plane fly overhead, and the noise of humanity and machinery ironically gave me hope.  I wanted People.  I wanted Light.  I wanted Warmth.  I began yelling Hello at regular intervals.  Lacey was startled at first and then got used to it.  I yelled out my husband’s name—Michaaaaael– knowing he was probably looking for me, that I was way past time, it was now 2:15 am, where was I, where was I?  And yet I was Somewhere because there were ribbons and glow sticks, and I wanted to kill every ribbon I saw, and smash it under my boots.  Stupid ribbons!  Stupider glow sticks!  I began apologizing to my horse.  I am so sorry we are out here, Nowhere, in the middle of a cold night, hungry, walking, lost, Nowhere.  Stupid, stupid Human.  Stupid Me.   I could only imagine what she thought of me.

We stumbled forward, I saw the fluorescent striping on an RV, and…..oh my God, was that really an RV?  It dawned on me that we were actually, really, honestly, finally nearing Base Camp, and suddenly a man with a lantern appeared.  Hello? I yelled.  The man and the lantern stepped forward, the lantern held up, tentative, searching the dark.   It was someone I knew, it was Hack, part of my girl friend Dana’s crew.  Am I at base camp? I asked in a pitiful voice.  Yes, yes, you made it, Hack told me.  I started to cry, with relief, with exhaustion, with fury.  We made it?  We made it.  We made it!


Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Dana Cernak and "Bubba" on the 100, before the night-time "fun" began

Hack took the reins, hugged me, told me Michael was out looking for me.  We were joined by headlights and a car, with Dana’s husband and son inside, looking anxious.  Dana was attempting the 100.  Dana was Lost.  Should we go look for her, they asked me.  Absolutely, I said.  For miles I had been hoping, wishing to be Found.  I had called, yelled, been lonelier and scare-der than I’ve ever been in my whole 48 years of being alive.  I said I know Dana’s one Tough Woman, but if it were me—and it just was—I would want you looking for me.  If she feels anywhere near what I have been feeling, she wants to be Found.  Right now.  If not sooner.

I staggered back to my trailer.  My son and daughter came out and helped me care for Lacey.  Michael was still out looking for me, but had considerately left a bucket of beet pulp, grain and electrolytes ready-made.  Irina Weise, the vet, came to check on my horse.  She’s doing great, she said.  Gut sounds, heart rate, pulse, respiration, all Great.  I was so l relieved.  Sue Horne, the Ride Manager, came up and hugged me, told me how worried they had been, how relieved that I had made it back to camp.  It was clear she was genuinely worried.  I couldn’t help but think how tired she must be, still up, after all these hours.  Her husband had called Search and Rescue to look for Dana.  My husband was still out with Linda Browneller, looking for me.  Dana’s husband and son had strapped on their head lamps and set off into the darkness on mountain bikes, looking for her.  Sami Browneller had (wisely) pulled after riding through the loop I had just finished, saying I’m Not Going Out There Again!  Screw the 100.  She was sick, her eyes as big as head lights, and she laid right there on the ground when she finally made it back into Base Camp.  Slid off her horse and laid on the ground, dizzy and sick.  Or so I was later told.  I knew the feeling well!

At 5:15 am Dana Cernak was Found and brought back into camp.  I was told that one of the trails I’d been on in the night was called Nice Kitty Trail, named so because of the numerous mountain lion sightings on that section of trail.  I was really glad I didn’t know that beforehand!  If you had asked me then what I thought of my first 75, I would have told you It Sucked. It Sucked Bad.  It was the worst, scariest, stupidest night of my life. Extreme fear and exhaustion do funny things to the human psyche.  My friend Tennessee Lane refers to this particular aspect of extreme endurance riding as “The 100-mile Hangover.”  I hadn’t technically done 100 miles, but I sure felt the Hangover!

But after a shower, some food, and sleep, I felt very differently.  I looked back on my Night of Horror and saw it in the light of day from a whole new perspective.  I had faced my worst fears, gone through something extremely difficult, and came through it, alive, intact, and stronger and wiser than before.  Now I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that me and my horse could absolutely do a 100 miler, without question.  Did I have what it took?  Yes.  Did my horse have what it took?  Even moreso Yes.  We had done something Really Hard and come through it together, even stronger and better and more bonded than before.  It was a Beautiful Thing.  And one of the best things that happened was that even though we didn’t make the time, Lacey and I were granted a Completion by Ride Management because we had completed the entire 75 mile course, as it was originally prescribed and designed. In addition, Diane Craft and Breanna Clark were granted completions, even though they did the wrong loop, because they did it twice by the 11:30 pm cut off and made the miles.  So, as I understand it, there were 3 completions for the 75 miler, one for the 55 miler, and no one finished the 100 on Friday, the first day of the Mountain Mettle Ride.

Diane Craft and Kenlyn Valentine, the day after their successful completion of the 75. Diane has competed all season in a Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle.

However, completions (and attendance) for the Saturday ride were much better and I believe may be a reflection of the slightly easier courses offered on that day.  Despite my horrific moments on the last loop of my first 75, I know I will never forget this ride and what me and my horse learned about ourselves.  It is clear that this ride is a Labor of Love by Ride Managers Sue Horne and Linda Browneller, the Volunteers and the vet staff, and has all the necessary components to be a Truly Great Ride.  There is talk of a 2-day 100 miler for next year, which would cut out the night-time riding and some of the safety issues involved with that.  Making the courses more like the trails offered on the Saturday ride would reassure attendees that completion rates would be more in the “normal” range.  That combined with the truly stunning beauty of this ride will make it popular winner……As such, I am already looking forward to next year’s Mountain Mettle!

Jessica Cloeter and her horse going out to help take down ribbons. Jessica came in1st place (I think?) on Saturday's 50. Whatever it was, she and her horse kicked butt!

Linda Browneller, trail manager, heads out Sunday morning with volunteers to remove trail markings.

Kristi Schaaf and her mare, Lisa, all the way from Iowa came to attend the Mountain Mettle Ride. Kristi will soon be the proud new owner of a Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle.

Make sure to welcome new endurance riders Jack Eckels and his wife....both recent "empty nesters" and having tons of fun getting into endurance. Jack's horse is "Houdini", a mustang.

(Next:  Happy Jack Endurance Ride here we come!  It’s Jackie’s 13th Birthday, so please stop by our trailer for some cake!)

–Michelle Smith, August 4, 2014

Photos by Michael and Michelle Smith and Patricia Jarvis (Ride Photographer)

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