Trail-Riding Saddlebags

Ready to go saddlebag shopping? Here’s a rundown of today’s offerings, from traditional to high-tech.

Saddlebags. What would we do without them? They hold our every necessity – or at least all that stuff we need when we’re on the trail. From traditional to high-tech, today’s saddlebags come in a vast array of sizes, shapes, colors, and materials. They’re designed to hold everything from sponges to sandwiches, and to fit on just about every part of the saddle.

If you’re like most trail riders, you want to carry the maximum amount of gear with the least amount of bulk and weight to enhance your horse’s comfort. Our saddlebag shopping guide can help you find the right saddlebag for your situation, whether you’re going on a short, casual ride or multi-day trek. You’ll find a bag to fit your saddle, whether you ride in a Western, trail/endurance, Australian stock, or English model.

Saddlebag Types
First, consider the type of saddlebag (or bags) you need, based on what you plan to carry with you on the trail, and your saddle type. Here’s a rundown.

Pommel/wither bags. Pommel bags slide over the saddle horn or clip onto front D-rings, and are designed for easy reach. You don’t have to turn around to retrieve items from a pommel bag, because it’s right in front of you. This means you can take a swig of water or grab your camera without taking your eyes off the trail, risking your balance, or losing control of your horse. The same front-of-saddle principle applies to wither bags, which attach to the girth billet and breastplate.

Cantle bags.Cantle bags are the traditional pouches used for centuries by equestrians. These bags rest over the back of the saddle and are often large enough to contain first-aid kits, sandwiches, ponchos, and all kinds of other items. They’re recommended for items you’ll use primarily when you dismount to take a break. But watch how much weight you pack behind the saddle, over your horse’s kidneys. (For details, see “Using Your Saddlebags” below.)

Cantle bags can be attached in a variety of ways, including clipping or snapping onto D-rings or tied with saddle strings. They come in traditional bag styles that lie on either side of the horse or elongated pouch styles that rest across the back of the saddle.

In-pad pouches.Designed primarily for use with English saddles, these saddlebags are actually pouches that are built into the saddle pad. They usually seal closed with hook-and-loop fasteners and hang from the pad’s sides, toward the back, where a cantle bag would normally go.

Item-specific holders. These days, riders carry everything from cell phones to water bottles. Item-specific holders are designed to carry (and sometimes protect) particular objects. They hang from the saddle, clipped to D-rings. (For more on such holders, see “Carrying Food & Water” below.)

First-aid kits. Saddlebag first-aid kits containing a variety of supplies helpful in a trail emergency can be hung over the horn of a Western saddle or attached to the cantle via saddle strings or D-rings.

Saddlebag Materials
Whatever saddlebag design you choose, you’ll find it in a variety of materials. Each material has its pros and cons:

Cloth materials.Pros: Nylon, cotton, and canvas are the most commonly used cloth materials in saddlebag manufacture, so offer the widest selection in style and color. These materials are durable, easy to clean, (nylon being the easiest), lightweight, and often inexpensive. Cons: Synthetic materials don’t have the traditional look many riders prefer. Cotton and canvas will show signs of wear over time.

Waxed oilskin.Pros: Waxed oilskin is made from tightly woven cloth treated with hot oils and waxes to make it waterproof. Many riders find the look of oilskin to be very attractive and lightweight, as well as resistant to the elements. Con: Waxed-oilskin saddlebags can be more expensive than cloth or leather.

Leather.Pros: This natural, traditional material offers a quality, rustic look. Leather bags are durable and hold their shape well. You can find them in finishes to match a Western, Australian, or trail/endurance saddle. Some are even tooled to match Western saddles. Cons: Leather saddlebags take longer to clean than ones made from cloth and tend to be heavier.

Carrying Food & Water
Food and water are musts if you’re going on an all-day ride or longer. Saddle accessories can help you carry these items into the backcountry.

Water bottles/holders. Plastic water bottles offered for equestrian use are the “sport” type typically used by other outdoor enthusiasts. The holders, however, differ, in that they’re specifically designed to attach to a saddle. Some clip to front or back D-rings, while others loop over the saddle horn. Others are built into saddlebag pouches that rest on the pommel or cantle. They’re usually made from nylon, although some are leather.

Canteen/canteen covers & carriers. Canteens are the old-fashioned way to carry water. Some riders prefer them to water bottles, because they rest more naturally against the saddle and/or horse’s body. Traditional canteens are made from lightweight metal (usually tin) and fit into a canteen holder or carrier. Some modern canteens are made from plastic.

Canteen holders and carriers can be made from canvas, synthetic materials, or even leather. They fit over the canteen and attach it to the saddle, often with a snap that fits onto a D-ring. Some Western saddles even come with matching canteen covers made from tooled leather.

Canteens for riding are made from waterproof synthetic materials. They fold up and clip to a saddle D-ring and expand when filled with water, becoming an instant water bucket.

Insulated bags. If you plan to carry food, consider investing in insulated saddlebags designed to keep hot food warm and cold food cool. Usually made from nylon, these saddlebags are padded with insulation. They usually contain several compartments and sometimes have integrated water bottles as part of the design. Some have pockets for freezer packs. Insulated bags typically fit on the back of the saddle and attach via D-rings or saddle strings.

Shopping for Saddlebags
With all the saddlebag styles available on the market, it can be difficult to decide which one is best for your situation. To choose the right saddlebag (or bags), think about the type of riding you do and what you plan to carry with you.

If you typically go on short one to two-hour or half day rides, you probably don’t need much more than a water bottle or canteen and a small pommel bag. A pommel bag will hold a hoof pick, a snack or two, and a small camera. You’ll want to also don a fanny pack or wear something with pockets to keep your cell phone, lip balm, tissues, and other personal items close at hand. (Tip: Keep on your body any emergency items you’ll need should you become separated from your horse.)

If you enjoy long trail rides and are out for many hours at a time – sometimes even overnight – you’ll need both a pommel bag and a cantle bag. Your cantle bag will carry such items as your lunch, a rain poncho, and other items you’ll need to access when you stop and dismount for a break.

The kind of saddle you ride in will also play a part in the type of saddlebags you choose. Western riders have the most options, since Western saddles are fitted with a variety of D-rings and saddle strings, as well as a horn, on which pommel bags and item-specific containers can be hung.

Most trail/endurance and Australian stock saddles also feature a number of D-rings that enable you to hang an assortment of bags from the pommel and cantle area. Some trail and Australian stock saddles have horns, as well. Cantle bags designed specifically for trail/endurance saddles work well for carrying extra items on long rides.

English riders have some D-rings for attachments, as well as pads with built-in pouches. However, note that English saddles aren’t usually designed for trail riding, so these saddles typically have the least amount of saddlebag-attachment points.

The material you choose for your saddlebags is a matter of personal preference. Some riders like the high-tech look of nylon, while others prefer the traditional appearance of leather. Practical matters do come into play when choosing saddlebag material, however, since cloth materials are lighter in weight than leather and oilskin, and are also easier to clean.

When choosing your saddlebag, consider price. Leather and oilskin are typically more costly than cloth. Prices can also vary within each of these materials. For example, high-quality, full-grain leather with detailed tooling will cost more than plain, low-quality, split leather.

The size and type of saddlebag will also determine price. Small pommel bags are often less expensive than larger, insulated cantle bags, for example.

Using Your Saddlebags
Once you’ve chosen your saddlebags, you’re ready to put these handy items to use. Here are some use tips.

Accustom your horse to saddlebags.If your horse has never carried saddlebags (or if you aren’t sure whether he has), make certain he is okay with this concept before you head down the trail. This is especially true if you plan to carry a water bottle containing ice. Some horses become terrified at the sound of ice shaking around on their backs.

First, let your horse see and smell the saddlebags before you put them on the saddle. Be sure he’s not afraid of the saddlebags before you clip or tie them on. Next, attach the saddlebags, lead him at a walk, and let him get used to their feel and sound. If he remains calm, ask him to trot with you. The saddlebags will jiggle and bounce, so be prepared for a possible reaction. If he spooks, go back to the walk, and wait for him to calm down before trying it again.

When your horse is used to the saddlebags, ask him to stand while you open and close the packs. If the closures are made with hook-and-loop fasteners, he’ll hear a ripping sound as you open the pouches. This may startle him, so be prepared.

When your horse is completely comfortable with the feel and sound of saddlebags during ground work, mount up. Open and close the bag a few more times so he understands this is a sound you’ll make while mounted, too. (Tip: Carry horse treats in your saddlebag; once your horse finds out that goodies come from saddlebags, he’ll likely be more than happy to carry them.)

Distribute weight wisely.When packing your saddlebags, place the heaviest items on the bottom, and stack lighter items on top. Resist the temptation to fill your bags with a lot of stuff; your horse has to carry all this. If you have cantle bags, distribute the weight evenly between both pouches. If one pouch is heavier than another, the saddlebag will shift to one side as you ride, and might even cause your saddle to lean, as well. An unbalanced load is difficult for your horse to carry, which can lead to fatigue and even lameness.

On long rides when you need to pack a lot of items in your saddlebags, spread the weight around. Put lighter items in a cantle bag and some heavier items in a pommel bag. This will make it easier for your horse to carry the weight of packed items in addition to your weight. Horses do best when carrying weight in front of their center of gravity. This means placing the weight far forward, just behind the foreleg and about one-third of the way up your horse’s body, according to seasoned Montana outfitter andThe Trail Ridercontributor Dan Aadland.

Keeping weight in the front prevents a heavy pack from putting pressure on your horse’s kidneys. Aadland warns against filling oversized saddlebags with unnecessary items, thus putting weight on the worst place on your horse – behind the saddle

Secure your saddlebags. Saddlebags often come with instructions describing the best way to affix them. Sewn-in clips, snaps, and clasps are designed to attach to D-rings on the saddle. Some saddlebags-especially those made for Western saddles-are meant to be tied on with saddle strings. make sure all attachments are secure. Before going on a long ride with your new saddlebag, take a short ride to make sure it doesn’t interfere with either you or your horse. Ride your horse at different speeds to see whether the saddlebag flops or bangs around. If it does, tie it more securely before you embark on a longer ride so you don’t have to deal with this problem when you’re far from home.

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