In the used pack-saddle market, the O.P.R. Decker is a 100-year old saddle many consider the greatest ever built.
For some horsemen,the idea of buying a used pack saddle is as appealing as purchasing a pair of used boxers. After too many trail rides, a once pristine saddle can resemble a leftover French fry at the bottom of the fryer basket. But lurking on the dusty shelves of the used-saddle aisle could be a gem whose quality rivals anything made today – the O.P.R. Decker.
“They are considered the best pack saddles ever made, and they are collector’s items among those who know,” says Bob Hoverson, author of The Packer’s Field Manual.
The lead packer for the Ninemile Ranger Station in Lolo, Montana, Hoverson is one who knows. this historic Forest Service pack outfit has used O.P.R. Deckers since its inception in the 1930s, when Oliver P. Robinette made new saddles to order. A saddlemaker and blacksmith, Robinette built Decker-style trees from 1906 to 1948. today, Hoverson takes pride in the Ninemile Pack Train’s working fleet of vintage O.P.R. Deckers.
“The design is near-perfect and the construction is solid,”he says. “The steel bows have a high profile to allow for putting up ropes, and the bars are made of cottonwood , a lightweight wood that won’t split as easily as the pinewood Deckers manufactured today.”
The design was innovative and long-lasting. When the Forest Service published their official Decker pack saddle specification in 1937, the only real improvement they made was the addition of one carriage bolt to the two bolts Robinette used for fastening the steel bows to the wooden bars.
To custom-fit a used saddle to your horse or mule, Hoverson recommends the “flour method,” which consists of sprinkling a layer of flour over the animal’s back, wetting the bars of the saddle tree and pushing it straight down to resemble the weight of a pack load. Lift off the tree and examine it. Powdered areas are where the tree connects with the animal’s back, and non-powdered areas are gaps where it doesn’t. Ideally, 90 percent of the tree should be powdered with flour, showing even weight distribution. If gaps or high spots exist, use a rasp to remove enough wood to achieve a uniform fit.
“A well-fitting O.P.R. Decker rides better than anything, with few instances of rolled-over loads or pack animals with sore backs,” Hoverson says.
The criteria for what constitutes a good pack saddle has remained the same for more than a hundred years. If you’re lucky enough to acquire an O.P.R. Decker, no matter how grimy, wipe the tree clean, use the flour method to custom-fit it to your mule or horse, and keep on packing.