Category Archives: Tack and Gear

Posts regarding saddles, tack, and gear for horse and mule packing, riding, and training

Getting Ready for Winter Riding, or, How to Keep Your Tootsies Warm…

How many times have you been out riding in the winter and had your toes get so cold they hurt? Let me tell you a couple of tidbits that won’t make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, but will help you keep your “tootsies” a little warmer in the winter.

Most people simply add socks until their feet just barely fit into their favorite riding boots. While that may seem like the logical thing, in practice, it is counterproductive.

Let’s first start with the part that gets cold – your toes. Make sure your feet are dry. You might consider using foot powder around your toes before you put your socks on.

Gold Bond Foot Powder

Gold Bond Foot Powder

Believe it or not, your feet sweat, even when they are cold. Keeping them dry is key to keeping them warm.

Moving on to socks. Until a few years ago, I thought the best arrangement for the cold, was a pair of cotton athletic socks, or even two pairs, under a pair of thick wool socks. Nice, huh? Thick, comfortable. I always ran into the problem, though, like I mentioned above, of fitting into my boots. My feet were usually so cramped in my boots, that my feet likely got cold from lack of circulation!

What I didn’t know then, was that cotton socks, while comfortable, absorb and hold moisture next to your feet, right where you don’t want it. A few years ago, I invited my wife to go with me on a deer hunt. We were going to horse pack into the Blue Wilderness Area in eastern Arizona, set up a base camp, and stay several days. I wanted to make everything just right for her, so that in the future, I might get her out to do it again. Linda gets cold feet. So, I did some research on how to keep your feet warm. What I found out surprised me.

L-R Wool Boot Socks, Poly Liner Socks, Cotton Athletic Socks

L-R Wool Boot Socks, Poly Liner Socks, Cotton Athletic Socks

The recommendation was, and I have found it to be true, to wear a thin pair of polypropylene socks next to your skin. The poly socks provide little warmth, but neither do they absorb moisture. They actually act as a moisture barrier of sorts. Moisture from your feet passes through the poly material and gets trapped in the outer layer of sock. In recent years I have found it hard to find polypropylene socks. You have to get them at a specialty shop. Often even well-stocked outdoor sports stores don’t have them. As an alternative, I have found that mens’ nylon dress socks do almost as well. You can still find them in the “old mens’” section at clothing stores.

The next layer of your sock combination depends a little on your shoes or boots and the weather. If the weather is such that you are going to wear your regular riding boots or shoes, then a thick pair of wool socks might not fit. In that case, you can go with your cotton athletic socks. In extreme cold, however, cotton socks always come off second-best to wool. A good, thick pair of wool, or wool-blend socks over your thin poly socks will hold warmth around your feet, while wicking away moisture, from your feet, as it passes through the poly socks. It works much the same way as plastic diapers do on a baby. Wool has special properties, as well, that allow it to stay bulky and full, and therefore hold warmth, even when damp or wet. While other materials, such as synthetics, or cottons, may feel soft and comfortable, neither has both the ability to absorb moisture and stay bulky as well as wool products. Cotton absorbs water and compacts, synthetics remain bulky, but do not absorb moisture well.

Which leads us to our next topic: Insulation. One of the problems with wearing a bunch of bulky socks, is that when you stuff your feet into your boots, all that bulkiness gets compacted, losing most of its insulation value. Wearing a thin pair of “liner” socks, such as the poly socks described above, under your bulky wool socks, helps with this, as opposed to wearing two pairs of bulky socks. Buy a pair of riding boots for winter wear that are at least a half-size larger than what you normally wear, so you can wear a pair of bulky woolen socks without making the boot fit tight. You might consider buying boots with an insulating liner in them, such as “Thinsulate” which is one brand name of footwear insulation used by Cabelas.

L-R My Packer Boots, My Tony Llama riding boots

L-R My Packer Boots, My Tony Llama riding boots

Personally, I prefer boots with no insulation. I recently bought a pair of Hathorne Explorer packer boots, in preparation for my Great Western Trail trip (I figured I had better buy them early and have them well-broken in before the trip). These boots are made of very heavy leather (they are made by White, which is well-known for making high quality Logger and Fire-fighter boots), but they are not insulated. This allows me to decide how warm my feet need to be and to choose my sock combination accordingly.

Additionally, I purposely bought boots that were a half-size too large for me. At the same time, I bought a pair of high-quality insoles for them. The insoles make it so I can wear the boots all year round. I wear them with a pair of regular boot socks in warm weather, with the insoles in place, and I remove the insoles to wear them with my cold-weather combination of socks in the winter. The extra room, without the insole, makes it so my socks do not get compacted, while still allowing my boots to fit comfortably snug. The main point with boot fit for cold weather is this: Leave room for your “dogies to breathe!” If your feet are tight in your boots, they will be as cold as if you wore regular warm weather socks.

A little about moisture control. We’ve discussed moisture from inside the boot…from your foot. The rest of  the moisture comes from outside the boot. There are a lot of theories about waterproofing footwear, and the best I have found is called “Gore-tex.” Of course that is a brand name and there are other names for very similar materials, but I like Gore-tex. Gore-tex is a revolutionary synthetic material that is breathable, yet waterproof. Almost as good as wool! You can now buy everything from footwear to hats that are lined or made of Gore-tex. It is good stuff. However, if you are like me, and your champagne taste is tempered by a root-beer budget, Leather is the way to go for most situations.  Leather boots cannot be made absolutely waterproof without a Gore-tex lining. But, you can make them very water-resistant.

L-R Kiwi Shoe Grease, Kiwi Mink Oil, Kiw Wet-Pruf Wax Treatment

L-R Kiwi Shoe Grease, Kiwi Mink Oil, Kiw Wet-Pruf Wax Treatment

For those who want water-resistance and to keep their leather in top condition, there are oils, such as mink oil, manufactured under various brands, as well as other kinds of “shoe grease” that will soak into the leather and make it very near impervious to water. However, these types of leather treatments are essentially liquids themselves, and tend to get cold in cold weather. They are not the best choice for damp winter weather, in my opinion.

I recommend a good quality boot or shoe waterproofing wax treatment. I have used a waterproofing wax made by Kiwi with satisfactory results. I have found that the wax application must be repeated several times each winter, as the wax does not soak into the leather like the oils do, but rather fills the pores of the leather on the surface, and therefore gets scraped off with wear. As it is not a liquid itself, and therefore is not wet to begin with, it does not seem to get cold like the oils do, and my feet stay dry and warmer.

For winter riding in which one is expected to encounter extreme wet conditions for an extended period, I recommend boots with a rubber foot, such as the ones in the picture, from the Cabela’s catalog.

Waterproof boots from Cabelas, with Thinsulate

Waterproof boots from Cabelas, with Thinsulate


No leather boot will stay dry for an extended period in wet conditions, unless it is lined with Gore-tex, in my experience. I find leather boots to be more comfortable than rubber-footed boots, so I will elect to go with leather in most circumstances.

One last tidbit has to do with boot soles. I always prefer to ride with smooth, leather-soled western riding boots. Not only do they make me feel and look like John Wayne (as long as you’re looking at my feet only), but they are actually safer to ride in than rubber-soled boots or riding shoes. They easily slip into and out of the stirrup, which greatly eases getting on…and unloading in a hurry, when necessary. Leather soles, however, get wet and slick when used on wet surfaces. The moisture will eventually get through to your socks and your feet. Rubber soles are completely waterproof, so I recommend them for winter riding. Rubber-soled riding boots tend to grab the leather tread most stirrups are made with, and keep the boot from slipping in or out. A rubber lugged sole, such as you see on some western-style boots, can actually be unsafe for riding. The lugged sole can become locked in place in the stirrup if the foot is placed at any angle other than normal.  When deciding on a winter riding boot, consider the type and size of your stirrups. Your riding boot should slip easily into and out of the stirrup. You may find you need to invest in a pair of winter riding stirrups, for comfort and safety, along with your winter riding boots.

So there you have it, the gospel according to Tony, for keeping your tootsies warm during winter riding.


A short plug for and Easyboots

While I was struggling with trying to get Penny over Laminitis over the past several weeks, I ordered a set of Easyboot originals from for Penny’s front hooves, based on the recommendations of Pete Ramey on his website,, with regard to treatment for Laminitic horses. I also bought a set of medium density pad inserts to give her a little extra padding.

Easyboots and medium density pad inserts

Easyboots and medium density pad inserts

Last week, when Penny unexpectedly took a turn for the worse, I ordered a second set of boots and pads for her rear hooves. However, as things turned out, Penny had to be put down before the second set of boots arrived.

The second pair arrived yesterday. I called to ask for an authorization to return the second pair of boots and pads, unopened and unused. When the customer service representative asked the reason for the return, I told her I had to put the horse down before the boots arrived. She was very kind and expressed her condolences.

Easyboot originals and medium density pad inserts

Easyboot originals and medium density pad inserts

Then she did an unexpected thing. She looked up the sale of the boots and noticed the previous order, from three weeks ago. She asked whether I was returning both sets or just the second set. I told her I had been using the first set for Penny’s front hooves since I received them and was quite happy with them. She then told me they were still within the 30-day unconditional money-back guarantee period, and that if I didn’t need them I was welcome to return them. How refreshing that was in this day and age when customer service has nearly died and the almighty dollar is the highest aspiration of all.

I plan to return both sets of boots, since Penny has passed on and I currently have no other horses, however, that one act by that customer service representative, at a time when any kindness softened a troubled time for me, has won a loyal customer.

I will continue outfitting for my Mexico to Canada  trip for 2015. You can bet Easyboot originals will be on the required equipment list for all of us.

Thanks again, EasyCare, Inc.

Trying out a Grazing Muzzle on Penny

I bought a grazing muzzle last week to see if it would work for Penny, to cut down the amount of rich grass she eats as I try to reintroduce her to the pasture after her bout with Laminitis. It consists of a headstall with a basket-like muzzle made of woven flat-weave nylon strap and a rubber bottom. The bottom has a hole in the middle, which allows for drainage and to allow the horse to get a small amount of grass through it. Horses quickly learn to eat grass through the muzzle, but it takes them a lot longer to get their fill.

Weaver Grazing Muzzle, purchased at Tractor Supply

Weaver Grazing Muzzle, purchased at Tractor Supply

I allowed Penny to graze freely for about two hours one morning last week, them put the muzzle on her and left her in the pasture for the day. When I first put the muzzle on her she couldn’t figure out what it was and began trying to rub it off on things like the barn, fence posts, the ground, and her leg. After a while she settled down and began to work at getting what little grass she could through the holes in the muzzle. Once I was satisfied she wasn’t going to snag herself on a fence and get hung up, I left her in the pasture.

When I came back for her evening feeding (I’ve been feeding her soaked grass hay morning and evening to minimize her sugars intake), I was disappointed to find several rub marks on Penny’s lower jaw, chin, and muzzle. In fact, the following day, I found skin sluffing off all over her muzzle. I have decided not to use the muzzle unless I absolutely have to.2013-07-27_12-48-04_730


This particular muzzle is a Weaver brand, which I purchased at Tractor Supply in Fredericksburg, VA. It ran about $40. It seems to be well made and durable. It is possible there are larger sizes, and it could be that I bought too small a muzzle for Penny, which could be the reason for the rubs, however, it seems to fit and not restrict her jaw movements. If it were any looser she would have been able to rub it off on the ground. It was the only size they had and was marked as horse size. It seems to fit her about the same as horses I have seen in other photographs wearing various kinds of grazing muzzles.

Rub marks on Penny's chin and lower jaw

Rub marks on Penny’s chin and lower jaw

Rub marks and sluffing skin on Penny's muzzle

Rub marks and sluffing skin on Penny’s muzzle

Rub marks on Penny's chin

Rub marks on Penny’s chin

I have read posts in various forums from people who use grazing muzzles regularly, to restrict their horse’s diet. The ones I have seen in photographs look like the one I bought. I saw one post that indicated they used Vaseline to keep the horse from getting rub marks, but I can’t see how that would be effective with the amount of rub marks Penny incurred in just one 6-hour period.

I was pretty disappointed with the results of my trial use with Penny. If there were no other solution, I guess you would just have to deal with the rubs, and I may have to with Penny, as she recovers from Laminitis, but I will certainly try to find other solutions as I reintroduce her to the pasture.

Giving some new equipment a test drive…er…ride…

The rain let up this morning, and it was nice and cool here in Virginia, so I took the opportunity to go for a short trail ride around home and take along my new big Smith and Edwards saddle bags for a test drive…er ride.

My extra large Smith and Edwards saddle bags

My extra large Smith and Edwards saddle bags

As I wrote in a previous post, the bags are made of woven nylon, a material sometimes known as “Iron Cloth”. This stuff has a reputation for being as close to indestructible as you can get. I have friends who have pack paniers made of this stuff. They tell me a horse can’t hurt it, you can’t stain it, and you can wash anything that gets on it away with plain old water, including blood. I have always been partial to canvas and leather, but I have to admit, this stuff is tougher, lasts longer, and stays cleaner. The only drawback I can find, is that it looks sort of “space-age” sitting there behind my saddle. Then again, I’ll bet any old cowboy back in the day would give his eyeteeth for a set of paniers made of this stuff.

2013-05-24 12.03.00I was a little concerned about the size, which is 12 X 12 X 6″. They are shown as “Extra Large” on the tag. The largest canvas saddle bags I have seen offered were 12 X 14 X 4, but I didn’t care for the nylon straps and plastic buckles they had.  I find the flat-braid nylon straps some other saddle bags have are too limp and hard to work with from the saddle or with gloved hands. As for plastic buckles, I simply don’t like them. I’ve had some break on other kinds of camping gear (and they normally can’t be replaced) and I also find them difficult to handle with gloved hands. These Smith and Edwards bags have heavy bridle leather straps and steel buckles, which I prefer.

From the rear

From the rear

As you can see from the pictures, These saddle bags hang well from the saddle. They have heavy grommets for saddle strings to pass through and tie behind the cantle. You have the choice of a D-ring or a grommet lower down, where the cantle meets the seat jockey. Once these saddle bags are tied in place, they will stay. You won’t have a problem with them sagging off to one side, although, if they aren’t balanced, they could pull your saddle off to the side.

Some folks prefer the nylon or cordura saddle bag outfits that have everything compartmented in zippered pockets and bags. My personal preference is simple, old fashioned, saddle bags. I find that with the zippered pockets, I tend to stuff too much stuff in them. Then when I need something, like, say, a jacket or a slicker, I have to unzip then rummage and pull, until I end up pulling a bunch of other stuff out with the jacket and it ends up on the ground. With regular saddle bags, I fill my bags with things like first-aid kits, lunch, snacks, hoof boots, binoculars, cameras, and light stuff I might need to have to hand while riding. I always tie my slicker and jacket on behind the cantle, easy to reach in time of need by simply pulling the bow on my saddle strings.

I have, on one occasion, tied my bedroll on behind my cantle. I don’t like to do that, but on a simple overnighter without a pack horse, it can be done. I would recommend a light summer sleeping bag for that, though, due to size. I can see where one of the cordura zippered compartment outfits might be nice in that case, where you could stuff the sleeping bag into the cantle bag portion. My preference, however, is to put the bedroll on a pack animal, even for short two-three day trips.

All-in-all I think these Smith and Edwards saddle bags I bought are going to do the trick just right for our Mexico-to-Canada trip, and many other pack trips.

I have always used round canteens, but I'm going to try a mil surplus collapsible (right)

I have always used round canteens, but I’m going to try a mil surplus collapsible (right)

I was able to test out another piece of new gear I bought while I was in Arizona. I bought a military surplus two-quart water bladder. These new-style military canteens looked like they might do well hanging on the side of a saddle for a pack trip or just for a day ride. I have used, as a matter of preference and availability (that’s what I had at hand), the old style round canteens with the indian blanket sides and metal band around them to protect the plastic canteen. I have had a number of them crushed and broken by horses rubbing them against trees. I have learned never to leave my canteen hanging on the saddle while the horse is standing tied. The last one I had, I removed the steel band and the indian blanket and wrapped it in rawhide. It lasted for many years, but recently sprung a leak. So, I decided I’d try something new.

MIlitary surplus canteen on saddle

MIlitary surplus canteen on saddle

As you can see, the military surplus canteen hangs well on the side of my saddle. Dad and I have found that a canteen hangs best by hooking the strap around the cantle, such that one sits on the strap, as you see in the photo. This places the canteen behind the leg and out of the way. It rides well on the horse and doesn’t get in the way up front or bang on your knee while trotting or climbing ascents. This canteen has a thin, but strong nylon webbing strap that cannot be felt while seated on it. The strap is adjustable and can be fit to hang the canteen exactly where you want it. I found I liked to hang it with the mouth pointing back. When I had it pointing forward I occasionally felt it contact the back of my thigh.

The one surprise I got with this canteen, which shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, was when I took my first drink. This is a soft canteen, a plastic bladder, and you can’t hold it like a regular canteen while removing the top. It will simply spill water all over you. You have to sit it on your hand, supporting it from the bottom, while opening it and drinking from it, like you would a water bag. As you use water, the bag becomes thinner. When empty it can be stuffed in a saddle bag, out of the way. Pretty handy.

One other little handy option these canteens offer, is that some have a fitting for a water tube, like a cammelback, in the lid. If you would like to buy or order one of these, decide first whether a water tube is an option you want, then make sure the one you get has a lid with the fitting. I don’t intend to use a water tube, but the fitting doesn’t get in the way at all and has its own tab to keep it covered.


The carry bag is made of nylon, like most modern military surplus bags of any kind. Tough, light, handy. The bag has a small pocket with a velcro closure for purification tablets, which I though was a handy thing. I normally have to dig through my saddle bag to find my small bottle of tablets. The strap, as I mentioned, is nylon webbing. It is adjustable and has a snap on one end. On the back of the bag are the military-style belt hooks, for hanging the canteen on a military-style belt. These hooks work equally well for hanging the canteen on any type of belt or strap, provided it isn’t too thick. You can get the bags and straps in tan, olive drab, or either color of camouflage, to suit your taste.

I found the military surplus canteen, at $15.00, including the carry bag and strap, to be a good value. The one shown on the saddle was bought from a military surplus store in Pinetop, Arizona. I ordered the green one from an on-line store on ebay and paid $7.99, but with shipping came out only little less than the store-bought one.

So, two more pieces of gear added to my outfit.

I just received a set of “Modified Arches” for my first effort at building a Decker-style pack saddle from Mr. Bork at Bork Saddlery Hardware, along with several antique saddle horns he threw in. Stay tuned for more on them.

Took a trip up to Utah. Got some more stuff…

I was in Utah last week, for the graduation of my daughter from Brigham Young University. It was a nice visit. Had a nice time with a lot of family. While I was up there, I decided to find a good boot shop, since my old Tony Llamas are pretty well worn out. Ended up at Ream’s Boots and Jeans, in Lehi, Utah. I couldn’t find a website for them, so no link. Sorry.  Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised at their selection of boots and the prices. I picked up a pair of Tony Llama bullhide boots for $150.

The sales rep told me that about 10 years or so ago, Tony Llama was bought out by Justin Boots, along with several other brand names. In an effort to keep up with Ariat’s low prices on boots made overseas, Tony Llama also outsourced boots to China. They come with lower pricing, due to lower labor costs. Tony Llama retained their production in El Paso, Texas as well, though, so you can still buy U.S made boots, although at a slightly higher price for comparable boots. Everybody seems to have gone with throw-away boots, now, though. They come with rubber soles and sell them as “slip-resistant” on wet or oily surfaces. Problem is re-soling a rubber sole. On many, particularly the ones from China, you can’t replace the sole once it has worn out, making the boot a throw-away. Personally, my boots usually last through three half-soles and heels before the tops begin to wear out…then they become work boots.  I like leather soles.

Tony Llama boots

Tony Llama boots

However, since I currently live in Virginia, and wet conditions are common, I put aside my aversion to rubber soles on cowboy boots and bought a pair of El Paso-made Tony Llamas with rubber soles and leather heels. The rep said these boots CAN be resoled and heeled. I like them. They are very comfortable. I have narrow feet, so I normally go straight to the Tony Llama rack when shopping for boots, as Tony Llamas tend to be narrower in a D width than other makers.

As I was ready to check out, I noticed something I just could not resist. They had the largest set of saddle bags I have ever seen. They measure approximately 12″ X 12″ X 6″ and are made of a woven nylon product sometimes known as “Iron Cloth”.

I’ve been told you simply cannot wear out, or even damage, this material. I’ve been keeping my eye out for a set of such saddle bags. They were marked $74, but were marked down to $51.99. That’s the lowest price I have seen, even on the Internet, and no shipping charge. They are made by Smith & Edwards, measure 12″ X 12″ X 6″, and are labeled as model 19229W, Nylon Saddle Bag X-Large. I am looking forward to giving them a test-drive.

My new grazing bit with copper curb

My new grazing bit with copper curb

I also picked up a curb bit for my mare. I am getting ready to transition her from the bosal to the bit. It is a simple grazing bit with a copper curb and stainless steel shanks. It is made by Metalab. It has a medium port, and 6″ cheeks, and a 5″ mouth, which is pretty common for the average horse. It ran $26.99. I elected to go with a copper bar, as I have been told helps keep a horse’s mouth moist and lubricated while riding. I suppose it somehow causes their salivary glands to activate a little. I like the look of the bit and I look forward to seeing how my horse likes it.

On the way back to my folk’s place in Eagar, AZ, we stopped by Loa, UT and met West and Kami Taylor, of Extreme Outlaw Rides | Wild West Mustang Ranch, Fremont, UT. West is a member of our WTR forum. West and Kami are currently involved in creating a TV pilot for a new cable network series about outlaw stories of the old west. The have a funding drive on Kickstarter, which you can find here. West is also a certified bronc stomper for the BLM, to help them in their efforts to get mustangs in captivity adopted. West breaks and trains them, after which the mustangs go for public adoption.

We enjoyed a nice lunch at the Country Cafe, which is the only eating place in Loa. Food was great, as was the conversation. Stupid me, forgot to get a picture to post. Oh well, go check out their facebook page and their Kickstarter project. It’s a worthwhile project, well worth funding. I think I’m going to be seeing more of the Taylors. Once I get relocated to Utah next year, I plan to get in some good trail riding time with them.

On the trip home, Dad and I decided that at some point we are going to have to do some horseback exploring of the area between Blanding and Hite, UT. Absolutely amazing country, full of indian ruins, deep canyons, and awesome views. Overall, a very productive and enjoyable trip. 


Sorry, it’s been awhile…

It’s been a little while since my last post. Thought I’d explain, so my readers don’t lose hope.

I finished the bathroom project several weeks ago. It turned out very well. I’m happy with it, if I say so myself. You can see it at the link below.

Bathroom remodel

So, I was thinking I would have some spare time to do some work on my gear, make my chaps, work on my saddles…nope. Turns out the Good Lord had other plans.

I have spent almost all my time over the past several weeks helping a couple of senior ladies move their lives from one home to another. It has been an enjoyable experience for me, and a lot of work as well. This has left precious little time and energy to get back to my play-time stuff and keep up on my blog. It is amazing how much stuff we can amass in a lifetime, and how attached we become to it. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I think we become attached to the memories connected to the stuff, not necessarily the stuff itself. While I have enjoyed the service, I have felt deeply the sorrow and heart-wrenching emotions these fine sisters have gone through watching me haul their lives away to Goodwill and the dump, as they have divested themselves of all but their essential belongings. It has been a humbling experience.

Howsoever, I have not been totally useless…er…I mean, idle, with regard to my GWT trip.

Last month I bought a book on horse and mule packing, entitled The Packer’s Manual by Bob Hoverson, through Trailhead Supply.

Bob Hoverson's The Packer's Manual

Bob Hoverson’s The Packer’s Manual

I found it to be a good resource for anyone, experienced or just beginning, who is involved with packing. Hoverson is a confirmed Decker-style packer, and the book is specifically geared toward Decker-style pack saddles and all things related thereto. He spends a chapter on horses and mules, but for the most part the book details all the how-tos and wherefores of Decker-style packing. I recommend it.

Since I have decided I will use Decker-style pack saddles on my Great Western Trail trip, I decided I should start putting my gear together and get some practice in.

First off, I ordered two 150′ hanks of rope, one 3/8″ and the other 1/2″, in accordance with the recommendations Hoverson makes in the book. He likes a synthetic three-strand rope made by New England, called Multi-Line II. After handling the rope, I have to agree with him. I like the rope. It has enough body to hold knots and hitches well, yet is not so hard that it is tough on the hands and gear. According to Hoverson, it wears well and is resistant to sun degradation.

Hoverson recommends the following ropes for each pack saddle:

2 – Sling Ropes, 1/2″ diameter, 24-28′ in length
2 – Cargo Ropes, 3/8″ diameter, 35′ in length
1 – Lead Rope, 1/2″, 12′ long
1 – Pigtail, 3/8″, 7′ long
1 – Breakaway, 1’4 or 3/8″ manila rope, about 3′ long

Each rope gets backbraided with an eye on one end and a simple backbraid on the other. Hoverson refers to these as backsplices (technically, a splice is joining two pieces of rope).

Eye backbraid

Eye backbraid


End backbraid

End backbraid


I came just a few feet short of being able to make all the necessary ropes for two pack outfits from the two hanks of rope I bought. I made my ropes to the longest recommendations of Hoverson. Had I made my sling ropes 24′, rather than 28′, I would have been able to get all the necessary ropes from those two hanks. As it is, I have about 19′ of 1/2″ left over for an additional lead. I’ll have to order about 7′ of 3/8″ for another Pigtail and 28′ of 1/2″ for another Sling rope. You can get the stuff by the foot or bulk from Outfitter Supply, but I found the prices to be better from Rigging Warehouse.

I followed  Hoverson’s instructions for doing the backbraids and eyes and was able to recover a skill I had as a much younger man, but had forgotten long since. I enjoyed an evening braiding the ends of my ropes and getting all my ropes finished. I will eventually get around to making an instructional video on cutting, backbraiding, and finishing this synthetic rope.

Almost all my packing ropes in one box

Almost all my packing ropes in one box

Additionally, I have bought several other items of equipment. I bought a pair of Estwing axes from Home Depot that appear to me to be perfect for packing.

My 16" and 26" Estwing pack axes.

My 16″ and 26″ Estwing pack axes.

I bought a 16″ one, that will probably go with me on my GWT ride, and a 26″ one that will go with me on my shorter pack trips where I think there may be trail maintenance involved.

I found a decent little 30″ tree saw on Craigslist for $20, and bought it. It will need a new wood handle and to be sharpened and polished, but it will be very handy on any trail.

My new old 30" tree saw alongside my one-hand log saw

My new old 30″ tree saw alongside my one-hand log saw

I will make a leather holster for it and simply hang it from any convenient place on either a pack saddle or my riding saddle. You see it here along side my one-hand log saw that is also in need of polishing and sharpening.

I replaced my old trusty rawhide covered 1-gallon canteen, which seems to have sprung a leak recently. I bought a round 1-gallon and a round 2-quart canteen, as well as a military surplus collapsible 2-quart canteen. I decided to give the MS canteen a try on the trail. It looks like it will hang quite well from a saddle and will likely stand up better to being banged around on the trail than my round canteens, despite it’s definitely “un-cowboy” appearance.

I have always used round canteens, but I'm going to try a mil surplus collapsible (right)

I have always used round canteens, but I’m going to try a mil surplus collapsible (right)

I have used the round canteens on the trail for many years and prefer them, but they are susceptible to being broken by being mashed against trees. The one I wrapped in rawhide many years ago lasted well, though.

I also repaired the water heater in my horse trailer/camper. The previous owners forgot to winterize, apparently, and the 6-gallon tank split. I ordered a replacement on ebay and installed it two weeks ago.

This is what happens when you forget to winterize!

This is what happens when you forget to winterize!

The next project on the trailer is the spring-over conversion for the axles, to raise the back of the trailer up to level it when towed behind my 2005 Dodge 3500 dually. I’m just hoping the horses will still load and unload once the trailer is raised. We’ll see what happens.

So, you see, while I haven’t made a post in a while, I haven’t been totally disengaged.

It may be a while before my next post as well. This weekend I head west to attend the college graduations of two of my kids. My #2 daughter graduates from Brigham Young University at the end of this month, and my oldest son graduates from the University of New Mexico Medical School the second week in May. I’ll also get to spend some time with my parents in Arizona between the two dates and will hopefully get in a nice little pack trip while I’m there.

Stay tuned!

Bork Saddlery Hardware

This morning I had one of the most pleasant conversations I’ve had in a long time.

I called Bork Saddlery Hardware to get some specific information before I order some saddle horns and a pair of Decker pack saddle arches. I needed to talk to Mr. Bork, so he would know exactly what I needed in saddle horns for the saddle trees I’m working on.

Mr. Bork casts his own hardware. I was especially taken with the bronze cast pack saddle arches, which he offers in both a “modified” version, which will accept both Decker and crossbuck style paniers, as well as original-style Decker arches. Very pretty. Rod Nikkel, of Nikkel Saddle Trees, uses these on his Decker pack saddle  trees.

Bork Saddlery Hardware

Bork Saddlery Hardware


Decker pack saddle tree by Rod Nikkel









What I expected to be a short conversation turned into a chat that lasted most of 45 minutes, I guess. We talked about saddle horns, of course, then we talked about saddles for a while. Turns out Mr. Bork used to build saddles himself. He said one of his saddles recently turned up in South Carolina. The owners saw the maker’s mark and called him to get information about it. Mr. Bork said the saddle was still in excellent condition after more than 50 years. He was obviously proud of his saddles, but he hasn’t made saddles in quite a while.

We talked about old-time saddles and how they were made to fit slimmer and less muscular horses than we normally see nowadays. We talked about restoring and rebuilding old saddles. He was a wealth of information about restoring life to old leather. In his younger days he would often take in old saddles as partial payment for other services, or as trade-ins on a new saddle. Then he would take the old saddles and rebuild them for resale. He once took in a whole load of old saddles from a ranch in British Columbia, Canada, rebuilt them and sent them back to the ranch for $25 apiece.

Here’s what he would do. Normally the stirrup leathers were shot, so in the trash they went. He would then cut new stirrup leathers from strips of leather from industrial machinery power belts he would purchase at a great price from a mining company in Alaska. They were made of very heavy leather, about 18 inches wide, and made excellent stirrup leathers, once he was able to get them straightened out!

He would also remove the skirts, which were normally in pretty poor shape, remove the fleece, and clean them up. He would put them in a bathtub with warm water and a bit of laundry detergent, and apply elbow grease with a stiff brush. By the time he was done, the water normally looked like chocolate milk. After cleaning, while the skirts were still wet, he would press them between heavy wood planks and set a heavy electric motor on the stack. He would take them out every day and pour sperm oil (it was cheaper than neatsfoot oil) over them. He said the secret, though, was that mold would form on the leather. He would clean off the mold every day and apply more oil. In his opinion, the reason the leather was so stiff and dry was that “it was dead”. The living mold infused the leather with life. As the leather dried, it would become as soft and pliable as new leather. I may have to give that a try.

Sometimes he would encounter a saddle with a broken horn. He would cut off the broken horn, make a new one, then cover it with rawhide and a latigo wrap. For a worn out cantle binding, he would remove the stitching and the old binding, then trim the old leather down a bit, making a regular cantle out of a Cheyenne Roll, and replace the binding with rawhide. He said it would reduce the cantle height by about a half-inch, but worked fine. Because he was selling these saddles to people who were looking for “economical” saddles, he would replace the fleece with thick felt. A lot of work for $25, seems to me.

Then the conversation turned to horses and pack horses, and pack trips. I told him about my plan to ride from Mexico to Canada, and my desire to make my own equipment. I told him about my efforts to plan a route and the hundreds of trails to choose from. He seemed genuinely excited about the trip. He encouraged me to document the trip as well as I can, so others coming behind may be able to follow the same trail. I told him I was doing my best and intend to use GPS and other means to document the trail as I go. We mused at what might have been, had Lewis and Clark had a GPS.

Somehow the conversation got around to how horses are healthy for people and that some people are now using horses for therapy for emotionally and physically handicapped people. We talked about that for a while. We decided that horses and dogs are probably more qualified as therapists than some of the people that claim that profession. I was captivated as he told me about his dog and how she waits for him every morning and is always excited to go with him. Seems we both share a love of horses and dogs.

We got back to saddles and saddle horns then. He asked whether I would consider a horn off an antique saddle, since I was rebuilding and duplicating one. He said he still has quite a few from old saddles he has taken apart over the years. I told him that as long as it was similar in shape and size, I would be happy with that. After all our conversation, I told him to take a look at the pictures of the broken saddle horn that I had previously emailed to him and to make his best judgment as to what I needed. I told him I’m sure I would be happy with that.

He’ll call me back once he has checked his stock of antique saddle horns. I’ll place an order for two pony saddle horns and a horn for the old Visalia saddle tree I’m duplicating. I’ll also order a pair of Decker pack saddle arches. I’m sure I’ll be happy with all of them. I certainly was happy with the conversation.

That was the best experience I’ve ever had with Internet shopping!

Spent a little time in the workshop this afternoon…

It was a cold, rainy day today, so I couldn’t get some of the things done that I needed to do, however, that presented a great opportunity to hide myself away in the workshop for a few hours.

I got a good fire going in the stove, water in the coffee pot on top to heat for hot chocolate, and started looking at the myriad of unfinished projects I need to finish.

I decided the most worthwhile thing I could do, with the limited time I had available, was to start building some jigs I will need as I get my saddle-making hobby underway. If you have been following my blog, you know I have been in the process of rebuilding several saddle trees for some time now. I am at the point now that I need some jigs in order to be able to make and duplicate some of the parts.

I need a jig to help me cut the proper angles on the cantles, where they join with the bars. I need another jig to help me cut the proper angles on pommel and cantle cuts on the bars. I need another jig to help me cut the proper arch and twist into the bars. On top of that, I need a stitching horse to help me with the hand-stitching I’m going to be doing.

Well, it took me a while to get rolling, as I tend to overthink things before I get started, but I got a couple things done.

Cantle-cut jig

Cantle-cut jig

I made this cantle-cut jig out of scrap 3/4″ birch plywood I had laying around. I think it is going to work ok. I just have to figure out how to set the proper angle before I start cutting on the bandsaw.

Stitching clamp

Stitching clamp

I also cut out the clamp for my stitching horse. I glued-up three pieces of 3/4″ oak, squared it up on the jointer, then cut it out on the bandsaw. I think it turned out pretty well. I made it according to several photos I have seen on the Internet. I’ve never actually seen a stitching horse before, other than in photos. I made it stand 17″ above  the bench, which is just below my eye level. That should allow me to work within my reading glasses’ focal range, without having to bend over. Hopefully that will save my back a little.

The stitching clamp needs to be smoothed out a bit and have some finish put on it. I will build the bench part later this week. I still need to get a buckle for the tensioner strap and a 3″ hinge for the clamp.

I’m looking forward to getting theses jigs done. I would like to be able to get started on the saddles.

A rainy day well used, I think.


Just received an order from Trailhead Supply: Feedbags

I just received a couple of nose feed bags from Trailhead Supply. I ordered a nylon mesh one and a canvas/leather one to see which I like better. Both have tags indicating they were made by Richland Yellowstone Mfg., Sidney, MT.

2013-02-20 17.35.49

The mesh one seems to be made well. It has a canvas bottom and the mesh is sewn to the canvas in two places, one line of stitch low down and another near the top of the canvas, which I would suppose would add to the durability. The mesh seems to be made of thin woven vinyl lace, which appears to be pretty durable. My only concerns are the single line of stitching holding the straps to the bag and the plastic buckle. Never liked plastic buckles. A good buy at $14.95, I thought. We’ll see.

The canvas bag was a bit more expensive, at $21.95, still a good buy, comparing at $39.99 from another supplier. I would have to believe this bag will be more durable than the mesh bag, being as it is made of heavy canvas and leather. Feels like maybe a #6 canvas with high-quality leather straps and bottom, which I like. I also like the steel adjustment buckle. It won’t fold up as quite small as the mesh bag, and it’s a little heavier, but there’s not enough difference to be a decision maker. The one concern I have with the canvas bag is that the breathing panel is situated too close to the bottom of the bag for my taste. I have seen horses stop feeding in a bag, because their breathing was restricted. I’m not sure the breathing panel wouldn’t be covered up with three or four pounds of alfalfa pellets in there. If the maker were to raise the air-hole panel up about two inches, I wouldn’t have any complaints.

I’m going to give both of these some use and see which I like best. I’ll report back later.

Pack Saddles: Crossbuck vs Decker

I’ve been busy remodeling the master bathroom in my house these past couple of weeks. Doesn’t leave much time for messing with the horse or working on the saddles. I’ve been trying to do some research on pack saddles, though, in the early morning and evening hours.

Since I’m going to have to put together two pack outfits for the trip, and likely have a third for a stand-by, I’m trying to decide whether to go with Decker-style pack saddles or the old standard Crossbuck packsaddles.

I have been using Crossbuck pack saddles and Utah-style paniers (big, open grocery sacks made of canvas and other tough materials), since I was in high school, so I had never even considered any other option for my Great Western Trail trip. As I started looking into suppliers for gear, though, I noticed that most of them seem to be carrying Decker-style pack saddles as their main fare and Crossbucks have taken second-seat. So, I have been asking around about the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.

Crossbuck pack saddle and rigging

Crossbuck pack saddle and rigging

The Crossbuck pack saddle has been around for a long time. I haven’t been able to come across anything that tells just how long they have been around, but suffice it to say that when one imagines an old miner with his pack donkey, in the pre-Gold Rush days, wandering around the west, dodging indians and avoiding civilization, he had a Crossbuck pack saddle on his pack animal.  The Crossbuck gets its name from its configuration: Crossed wooden “crutches”, normally made of oak or some other hardwood, attached to the saddle bars for the horse’s back, traditionally made of Cottonwood. The crossed bars looked a lot like a “sawbuck”, which is a fixture made for cutting wood, consisting of two logs or wood beams, bolted or tied together crosswise, across which the wood to be cut was laid to hold it in place.

Modern Crossbucks are solidly glued and/or bolted or riveted to the saddle bars. They are normally rigged for double-cinches and use breast straps and breeching to keep them in place on the animal. An over-sized saddle pad, normally made of mohair or wool felt covered by canvas is used to protect the pack animal’s back. Modern Crossbuck pack saddle bars are carved to fit the animal much like modern riding saddles, however, when one looks at an antique pack saddle, one can easily imagine a sore-backed pack animal. Many antique Crossbuck pack saddles simply had wide, short, flat boards for saddle bars. The rigging of a Crossbuck pack saddle hasn’t evolved much over the years. It is essentially the same as it was 150.

In the late 1800s, came along the Decker-style pack saddle, which was developed to more easily hauls odd-shaped loads while protecting the pack animal. Decker pack saddles were not named for the inventor, S. C. McDaniels, an old Arapajo packer from around the turn of the 20th century, but for several brothers named Decker, who saw the utility of the new style pack saddle and applied for a patent, which, apparently, was never granted. The name Decker stuck, however, and the saddle has had that name since the early 1900s¹.

The Decker-style pack saddle, rather than using wooden crossbucks, has steel bows, arches, or hoops (take your pick as to what to call them) to which the saddle bars are attached. Modern Deckers may have saddle bars made of wood or polymers, and they may be fixed or “self-adjusting”, or able to move to self-adjust to the shape of the pack animal’s back. Deckers have several hoop configurations, to satisfy varying needs of packers.


The original Decker hoops were simply arched hoops connecting the two saddle bars. The straps from the paniers (the bags that hold the loads) are buckled through the hoops, or are attached using Decker hooks.

A Decker saddle uses an oversized saddle pad, similar to the Crossbuck saddle, however, in addition, the Decker saddle uses an Arapajo, or Half-Breed (apparently in honor of McDaniels, who is said to have been part Arapajo), which is a padded canvas pad that lays over the pack saddle, protecting the pack animal, the saddle, and the saddle pad, from the chafing of the loaded packs. The Half-Breed has slits in it, through which the hoops of the saddle protrude, allowing the paniers to be attached over top of it. The Half-Breed also has side boards installed in pockets in the lower sides of if, which help distribute the load across the pack animal’s sides and further protecting it from the chafing of the load.

Many packers also utilize a “Quarter-Breed”, which is a piece of canvas, which lays over the Half-Breed, to protect it from wear and keeping it clean. Since the Quarter-Breed is simply made of canvas, it is easily and cheaply replaced.

Decker pack saddle and rigging

Decker pack saddle and rigging

The rigging of a Decker pack saddle is more adjustable than that of a Crossbuck saddle. Most Decker pack saddles I have come across have buckle adjustment available for every strap on it. A Crossbuck saddle’s rigging has few adjustments, outside of the tightening of the double cinches. The Decker’s rigging can be adjusted to move the cinch farther back, or forward, as well as use a single or double cinch. In fact, most of the Decker saddles I have seen come standard with a single cinch. Decker-style rigging appears to be more easily repairable, since it attaches to the pack saddle via D-rings, rather than being riveted or screwed to the saddle, as Crossbuck rigging normally is.

Crossbuck paniers, at least the ones I am acquainted with, have hanger straps that are simply leather or nylon loops sewn into the top edge of the panier. These loops are hung over the crossbuck to suspend the packs. There is no adjustment. They just hang where they are. You can adjust the way they hang a little by the way your diamond hitch is tied, but for the most part “they is what they is”, as they say.

Decker-stype paniers are more versatile. They may have hanger straps, like the Crossbuck paniers, but they buckles in them, so as to be able to unbuckle them and pass them through the Decker hoops. They can also be used on Crossbuck saddles, in the same way Crossbuck paniers are used, except that you can loosen or tighten the hanger straps to adjust the way the packs hang. This is useful in balancing a load, when necessary. Decker paniers can also be made, or fitted with, “Decker hooks”, which are brass, bronze, or steel hooks, made to hook onto the Decker saddle hoops. Decker hooks can greatly simplify the loading of a pack animal, particularly single-handed.

Decker hook

Decker hook

Decker saddles also lend themselves, depending on the hoop configuration, better than Crossbucks for “top packs.” While I have always simply loaded stuff on top of my Crossbucks, thrown a canvas tarp over the top, and tied it all into place with a diamond hitch, there are available a number of different styles of top packs, made specifically to load on top of the pack animal and the paniers. Top packs made for Crossbuck saddles are generally configured in an “H” pattern, allowing for the crossbucks. Top packs for Decker saddles are rectangular or square and have no need for the “H” shape, in most configurations, and therefore can have more space in them. Never having used one, I can imagine that it would be somewhat easier to pack and load a square pack than an “H” pack.

As for panier shape and configuration, Decker saddles are easily adaptable for a number of odd-shaped loads, from railroad ties, to hay bales, to regular Utah paniers. I have read of Decker saddles having shelves attached to them to facilitate the packing of lumber and other long, straight goods. While Crossbucks have been used to pack odd-shaped loads, over the years, the Deckers have proven to be more easily adapted and therefore more efficient. The original Decker brothers are said to have amazed many experienced packers with their efficiency in packing hundreds of tons of goods into the back country of Idaho in the early 1900s.


Now for costs. From my research, it appears a fully outfitted Decker-style saddle will run roughly $100 more than a similarly outfitted Crossbuck. The added expense is in the Half Breed and some extra leather in the rigging, with the option of adding a Quarter-Breed, if one wishes. I have recently (as of January 2013) found Decker pack saddle outfits from the low $500 to the mid $600 range, not including freight charges, if any.  A fully rigged (minus cinches) Crossbuck will average about $500, give or take $40 or so. Some sellers throw in a saddle pad with either type, which is nice and effectively lowers the price of the pack saddle outfit.

Now, before I close this post, there has, actually been some innovation in pack saddles in the past several years. In my research, I came across the record of a patent application from 2003, by a man named Summerfield. He applied to patent a new style of pack saddle that seems to capture all the good of the Decker and Crossbuck saddles and combine them into one. The new saddle, in fact, has crossbucks, but they are made of metal, each having an eye at the top of the crossbuck, to which Decker hooks or ropes can be attached, as well as being configured to allow Crossbuck-style paniers to be hung over the crossbucks.

Summerfield Pack Saddle Patent Application, Google Docs

The Summerfield saddle bars are wider than either the Decker or Crossbuck bars, and are carved to precisely follow the contours of the horse. The saddle rides on an over-sized saddle pad that has pockets on the sides to hold the saddle bars. The pockets have a closure at the top that captures the bars and holds the saddle pad securely in place. The bars appear to be attached to the crossbucks in a manner that allows them to be adjustable, however, they do not appear to be “self-adjusting.” The saddle can be easily configured for either a double or single cinch, just as the Decker can. It appears a Half-Breed and Quarter-Breed could be fitted to the saddle, as well.

I can see where the Summerfield saddle and the Crossbuck might have one failing in common, that the Decker does not share. I have read on two different sites where the author has said that in the event of a “rollover” wreck of a pack animal, the Decker-style pack saddle is much more likely to survive in usable condition than a Crossbuck pack saddle. Due to the configuration of the Summerfield saddle, I would think it might suffer damage from such a wreck.

Having said all that, I have been unable to locate a dealer who carries the Summerfield pack saddle, as yet.

So, I guess the matter comes down to this: Tradition? Do it like my father before me…and with me…or practicality? While I still have leanings toward the Crossbuck (I just like old-style stuff), the practicality and versatility of the Decker-style saddles is winning me over.

Now, being retired, and not being, by any stretch of the imagination, wealthy, I must also consider costs. I have been in this mode for many years, due to a Chief Executive Officer in my home who is an excellent money manager, my good wife (she is the reason I can be retired at all), which has led me, in many instances, to attempt to build things I want. So I am contemplating whether I want to try to build a Decker-style saddle.

I have all the tools necessary. I have the know-how to use all the tools. The Decker-style saddle is quite simple. Much simpler to build than a Crossbuck, if one has the tools to do so. I have the leather working tools to make the rigging as well. The one fly in the ointment, so to speak, is the canvas Half-Breed. I would need to find a supplier who could provide two or three…not two or three hundred…over-sized 1″ thick mohair or wool felt saddle pads measuring about 32″ by 60″ or so. Dad has the sewing machine, back in Arizona. Good excuse to go see him.

So, here we go again. Another project for me to try my hand at. I’m looking forward to it already. I’ll keep you posted.

1. Information regarding the origins of the Decker saddle were taken from information on the Outfitters Supply website. Many thanks to Outfitters Supply for such an informative and well-executed website.

2.  Many of the photographs on this post were taken from website. Others were from Google Images searches.