The first time Steen got a really terrible sunburn was in 2012. It was a surprise to me at that point that a horse could even get a sunburn in areas where they actually had hair. Although I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and my sister’s Appaloosa has always had a tendency to burn the pink skin around his eyes and on his sheath, it wasn’t until owning a Paint in Iowa that I learned how serious a sunburn can be.
Steen is a tobiano. According to my highly unscientific measurements, he is 46%* white. The white hair is pure white. Underneath the white hair is pink skin. Although those white markings are literally part of what he was bred for, they’re also surprisingly problematic. Steen has more skin issues than any of our other horses.
Turns out, white skin is vulnerable
The year he first burned, it was bad. First there was the burn itself, which was across both sides of his neck and withers. After the initial burn, the burn got infected. The vet told me to use a fly sheet to protect him from the sun. The only one I could find locally was a bad design. Between that and a mistake on my part putting it on, I set off a series of terrible events that ended with Steen tangled in both the fly sheet and the wire fence. He ripped open one hind leg and was laid up for months.
Since then, I’ve learned to manage things a bit better. Every year in the late summer, there is this weird window where Steen’s summer coat gets super thin but his winter coat has not yet started to grow in. During this window, he always burns.
Fortunately, I have learned to recognize the early signs of a burn. I keep a fly sheet that is well-designed and fits him out at the barn so I can throw it on as soon as he first starts to get crispy.
Poor scalded Steen
Unfortunately, this year a few things went wrong. First, Steen started his shedding cycle early. Second, it was unusually sunny for a block of days in July. Third, we were out of town for longer than intended on our summer road trip due to an accident that delayed us getting home.
These things combined into the unfortunate circumstance that Steen got pretty well burned. Between the fly sheet and some topical meds, I’ve been able to keep it from progressing to the infected nightmare it was once before. Still, it’s obvious the saddle makes him uncomfortable. While neither the pad or saddle actually touch where he’s burned, I think simply the way the skin moves with the saddle feels bad when he’s really scalded.
Bareback though, is fine. Though I do sit about half on white skin, he never seems to actually burn on his back—only on his neck and shoulders. So after trying a couple of rides with a saddle, I decided to just return to my roots for a while and go commando.
Bareback it is, then!
Years ago, before I discovered the glory of the Wade saddle and pre-turned stirrups, I had a hard time riding in a saddle. I have some issues with my joints that has led to various difficulties throughout my life, and one of them is to do with my right knee. From the age of about 15 to roughly 31, I never owned a saddle that didn’t hurt to ride in. For most of that time, I simply rode bareback.
Then I found a saddle that didn’t hurt my knees but was deficient in other ways. Then, finally, I got my current saddle. Which is crazy comfy.
Since then, I’ve ridden bareback a lot less. Sometimes I think I should do it more often. And then I don’t. So when I tried to ride Steen a few weeks ago and he just felt fussy when I asked him to move, it felt nice to just pull the saddle and put it back in our locker. The next couple of rides I didn’t bother to get it out in the first place.
All the same things, but different
When I rode bareback in the past, I mostly just pointed a horse somewhere and said, “Go.” Now I’m a lot more interested in precision. And what I’m finding these last few rides is it’s actually very physically demanding to hold myself in proper balance while working in circles and also using my legs and seat to steer.
Fortunately, Steen is mostly up for anything. One thing we’ve worked on the last few years is having him pick me up off of things, so mounting is easy. He’ll come over to anything I climb up on and put himself in place for me to hop onto. He’s very steady and predictable these days, so light work at all three gaits isn’t a problem. Our canter was the roughest thing. His upwards transitions were great, but then he’d want to either stop or speed up.
And while I’ve done loads of bareback canters in the past, I’m a bit rusty. I’ve also had three very recent wrecks mountain biking and really didn’t want to hit the ground again coming off of anything. So we’ve mostly been focused on the trot. And it’s fun. We haven’t been riding long or hard. But somehow the bareback rides feel more relaxed and intimate. So that’s been nice.
I’m probably not going to revert to riding primarily bareback any time in the near future, but it’s certainly a fun thing to play with sometimes. Maybe I’ll do it again before the next time a sunburn forces the issue.
*This is a joke. I have no idea what percent white he is.