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Life in the Saddle

“I rode, I learned a lot about horses, and the saddle darkened with use.”

– Verlyn Klinkenborg

Last Wednesday we moved a group of pregnant heifers closer to headquarters in preparation for calving season. We arrived at the corrals before dawn and began to saddle our horses. The toss of the blanket, the swing of the saddle, the unbuckling of the cinch on the offside: this ritual, which lasts only a few minutes, is a chance to collect your thoughts and prepare for the day ahead.

As the sun rose, we began the trot to the Buckpuppy, our farthest pasture out east, where we spent the day sorting out two and three-year-old heifers and trailing them back towards headquarters. It was a long day for these first-time mothers, a roughly ten-mile walk. We left them in the Pivot Trap, a smaller pasture about six miles from headquarters, and unsaddled after sunset. While the movement of cattle can be hard to predict, there’s one constant and absolute requirement for this kind of work — a good saddle, which should fit not only the horse but the personality of each rider.

On long moves like this one, a rancher’s saddle is just as important as the horse she’s riding. The right saddle, in theory, makes the job easier. By design, the Western saddle is larger than the English saddle to spread out the weight of the rider and tools across a greater surface area. It should not impede movement by weighing the rider or the horse down and the saddle construction should properly fit the rider and the horse. It helps to have multiple saddle strings to tie a jacket or fix a broken rein and a place to put tools and water. And if you’re a rancher in a wide-open country like ours, it should have a bigger horn to rope large animals. Jake Meldon, Samantha Bradford, and Andrea Parrie, three members of the Chico Basin Ranch team, count on their saddles to help them get the job done.

Jake, a civil engineer turned rancher with a thick moustache and suspenders, rides in a McCall 98 Wade saddle that has a big Guadalajara horn cap. When he has to rope a calf out in the pasture or at a branding, that bigger horn makes a difference because it allows him to feed more slack. Jake knew before purchasing this saddle four years ago that he wanted a big horn to dally and a semi-quarter horse bar to fit a range of horses. The whole saddle is roughout, meaning it’s made from full-grain leather with the rough side showing out. As you ride, your seat and leg rub against the full-grain leather and wear it down so “over time your fenders take the shape of your leg and get smooth. On the inside, they get a lot of sweat marks from your horse and get worn smooth there too.” A lot of people are proud of the way their roughout wears in because it shows the hours spent in the saddle.

When it comes to his gear, Jake likes to keep it simple. He prefers to ride without saddlebags because they flop around, “but I have a little bag that I made out of an old boot top that I clip in on the other side, opposite the little medicine bottle bag, if I need anything extra.” He always carries a rope, too: “Most of the time you don’t use it, but it’s one of those things that can really help you in a lot of ways. Maybe you’re gathering a pasture and you find an animal stuck in an arroyo or a wet spot in the creek. If you have a couple of people with ropes, you can get a hold of it and pull it out. Sometimes little baby calves won’t want to cross water so you can bring them along with your rope.”

Sam, who’s built like an Olympic pole-vaulter and has the mane of Rapunzel, brings a rope, too, but unlike Jake, stuffs her saddle bags full. She seems to have a limitless supply of energy; perhaps she stores it all in that long blond braid. Having a horn the size of a dinner plate is not a priority for her, but having doctoring tools, medicine bottles, and water is. You often hear her before you see her, saddlebags flapping as she trots out of an arroyo. And although Sam is newer to roping, she’s still proud of how the mule hide on her horn is wearing in: “that’s an exciting thing for me. I came to the Chico knowing a little bit about horses, a little bit about cattle, but never having roped horseback in my life. Now if there’s an animal that’s sick in the pasture, I feel confident that I can go out on my own, rope it, trust my horse to hold it, and I can get down and do the work that I need to do”.

Sam is also the resident wildlife expert and head of the education program at the Chico. The other week she found a dead ferruginous hawk in a pasture, cut its feet off with her pocket knife, and tied them to her saddle with saddle strings. Then she trotted home, hawk claws swinging, and preserved the feet in a glass case in the office to use for future education groups. After five years at the Chico and over 5,000 hours horseback, Sam is in the process of ordering a custom saddle. On the wishlist: a bigger Cheyenne roll, drop plate rigging, and, of course, roughout.

Andrea, or “Lanky Yankee” as we refer to her at the Chico, is 6’1’’, with legs that often dangle past her horse’s flank. She bought her saddle from a man who is 5’7’’, but somehow, it works. The seat is comfortable for her and the fenders and stirrups are long enough. She likes seeing which parts get more character; “where my leg goes, all the different pairs of jeans that have broken in and haven’t lasted as long as my saddle, they add a little extra color and interest to the fenders and seat.” But now, after three years of working in the leather shop, she’s ready to build her own. “It will be a mile marker for my abilities in leatherwork and a lesson in frustration.” Her current saddle has D plate rigging but her new one will have flat plate rigging for better contact with her horse. It will have swells, which are a little trickier to build, but she appreciates the extra support they provide. They help her “lock in” if the terrain gets steep or her horse acts up. She’ll use Hermann Oak leather for the entire thing, which is the same hardy veg tan leather the leather shop uses for its retail products.

The cattle move went well, no one had to rope a sick calf or pull anything out from being stuck. The heifers didn’t get “sticky,” meaning they didn’t stop to graze too much, and we got them to water just before nightfall. Back at headquarters we unsaddled in the dark, hung the blankets to dry and turned the sweat-stained horses out. After thirteen hours in the saddle, everyone was ready to do it again.

By Alice Wilkinson, a photography intern at Chico Basin Ranch.


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