Do the self-adjusting bars lock in place as well? I thought they just sort of hinged and floated.
Exactly. They hinge and float. You adjust the arches so as to get the best overall width between the bars, then adjust the bars themselves with a rasp / sander to get the best fit for each bar. Our pony didn't need that much adjustment of the second kind but it took a while of trying, loaded as well, before we found the best width for the arches. It's an advantage not to have had really to touch the bars themselves, because if we do have to change animals along the way, we have a better start for a good fit. When the pony walks, the bars hinge according to her movement. As well as her back being in good shape when we unsaddle, I've spent a lot of hours riding behind her and haven't seen a limp, a hobble, a spasm, or any other sign that indicates an uneven distribution of weight.
We have a packers' scale for the loads and we have had no problems with the saddle or pad slipping, if the cinches have been done up correctly (there was one day when we forgot to check...
) and the loads are balanced. Occasionally, because of the varied shapes of the items in the H-shaped top pack, it can 'slump' to one side: however, adjusting the straps that attach the top pack to the side packs will fix this. One thing that has surprised me is that the saddle hardly moves at all even for stiff climbs and descents. The pack pony doesn't have any kind of harness with her saddle, only a breast collar, and we were (are) ready to make / obtain one if needed. We check systematically after each serious change in height and I can honestly say that until now, we've never had to adjust the saddle because it's moved forwards or back.
In contrast, that saddle wouldn't suit the other packhorse at all ; his ribs are all wrong. Then again, the manufacturers do make draft bars which might suit better. However, the twist on the local saddle bars suits pretty well and accommodates his much more significant shoulder. His harness is necessary because of the single cinch and the fact that he has a very 'drafty' way of going, really getting his neck swinging and his chest into it. The one time I tried his saddle without the harness, just around the arena, his saddle pad walked about three inches...
Tell me a little more about the sweat leather you use under the pack saddle pads. I've never heard of that. I'd like to see a picture and learn how you use it, if it's not too much trouble. How are those McClellan saddles working out? I see they're getting that "used" patina. How do they do for long hours in the saddle?
It's a piece of fine grain leather, reasonably stiff at the beginning, used flesh side against hair, and attached to the top pad front and back (otherwise it will walk out from underneath). It shapes to the horse after the first three or so uses, and it doesn't wrinkle. Absorbs sweat quite efficiently and stops the pad from getting too disgusting (washing facilities being limited), plus it lasts better than a fabric pad, what with the qualities of horse sweat. You need to soak them overnight in water once a month or so to get the salt out, and scrape off the crud with a knife or the curry comb at the end of the day to stop it drying hard overnight. We think we may have sized ours a fraction too long because there is some rubbing to the hair on both packhorses, just where the end of the leather is. We will trim one and see if it improves - if not, we'll have to look for another solution.
I don't have a photo but they are much like this
one. Ours are a bit finer because that's what we could find, leather-wise.
A leather sweat-protector is quite widely used in continental Europe, and here in Argentina they have either a canvas or leather one.
Saddles are working out well. We had to add another layer for each horse, so each now rides with two blankets, but otherwise all is fine. They're looking a lot less new now, aren't they, but it's all patina and absolutely nothing structural. They are firmly adapted to our behinds now and very comfortable, although since we get off and walk at least once every two hours if not a bit more, they could probably be a bit less comfortable and we wouldn't notice. MUCH happier with them than with the Chilean originals...