How Do YOU Buy a QUALITY Saddle?

This is likely to become a multi-part series, but one of my frustrations as a trainer has long been horses suffering with ill-fitting tack.  Sometimes it’s a cheaply made saddle, or a saddle that needs a repair, or it might be a really expensive “custom” one that just does not actually fit correctly.

So how do you, as an equestrian without a saddler’s education, determine whether or not a saddle is of decent quality?

First, educate yourself on the basics.  Learn how to check a tree, and make sure to check the tree of any saddle you put on a horse.  Recently we disassembled what felt like a broken tree in a fairly lightly used saddle and found that the problem was actually a manufacturing error- two different lengths of springs!  If the buyer had flexed the saddle before purchasing, she would have felt something very wrong.

Second, learn to recognize basic signs of quality leatherwork.  Is the leather on the panel supple and strong, or does it feel like old cardboard?  Are the billets in decent condition? Ask what the tree is made of, and expect a good explanation from your fitter.  If your fitter does not know or cannot explain the materials, that should be a red flag. Buying used is always risky; it is pretty much guaranteed to be broken in asymmetrically, and without a saddler’s education it is next to impossible to determine how good past repairs have been.  I would never buy used a saddle without getting my hands on it first, to check the quality of the leather, stitching, and flocking.

Speaking of fitters, asking about education is always important.  There are some great programs that teach fitting, such as the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK.  But there are also many fitters who are well educated from working with other well-educated fitters and saddlers.  Most saddle brands have their own fitter courses, typically between a weekend to two weeks long, and some of them are better than others.  The important thing is knowing how the trees of each saddle are shaped, so a fitter who has only done a single brand’s bootcamp is probably not well educated outside of that brand.  Your trainer may likewise have a solid grasp of basic saddle fitting, but they are not going to be comparable to someone who has studied saddle fit in-depth.

Beyond the initial fitting and sales, it’s IMPERATIVE that your saddle can be routinely serviced.  Most saddles need to be reflocked every few years, and rebalanced as often as every six months.  Horses change shape frequently, so having a local fitter and saddler who can check the fit and make adjustments is extremely important.  Buying a saddle without local support can become an issue!  I frequently hear from people looking to have their very expensive saddle repaired or reflocked, but there is no local brand representative.  Most saddlers will not touch a saddle from a brand they do not represent, and we are all plenty busy with our own clients.  So be sure to ask about repairs and reflocks when buying a saddle, and make sure you have good access to both.

Finally, remember that quality saddles require quality materials and workmanship, which is going to cost a bit more.  In my experience, a new saddle under $2k is probably not going to be decent quality.  My next post on this subject will be about what exactly that $2k+ buys you, but for now just remember that a bad saddle can cause expensive, sometimes irreversible back problems for your horse, put you in an incorrect and/or crooked position, will not hold up to routine use, and is less likely to be repairable.  In the long run, a cheap saddle can end up costing you more in vet and training bills plus the hours of frustration spent attempting to correct issues that could have been avoided with a better saddle up front.

Learned Pain; Two Recovering Backs

People often say, “I don’t want to spend a lot of money on a saddle right now, his back is going to change so quickly.”  I cringe every time, but especially when talking about a young horse.  Do you really want your horse to associate riding with discomfort?  By choosing a cheap, and thus almost certainly ill-fitting saddle, to back your young horse with, you are teaching him that saddles are something to be tolerated at best.  It’s much better to spend the money on an adjustable, properly fitted saddle from the start!

Spike is the kind of sensitive soul who told his owner clearly that every saddle ever placed on him was uncomfortable.  As the years went by and the saddles continued to be not quite right, Spike’s knowledge that saddles equal pain became cemented in his brain.  Unfortunately for Spike, he is a very difficult horse to put a saddle on!  His back is very short, very downhill, and he has a massive shoulder rotation.  Kay, his owner, is a body worker experienced with equids in many shapes, include lots of mules and donkeys, and she really did try everything!  Finally, in early April, she stopped riding Spike and started working on helping him forget about the pain of the saddles.

This fall, when she felt he was ready to try again, I came out with some demos for them to try.  It’s always hard to do a fitting for a horse that is not currently in work, and this was exacerbated by Spike’s distrust of the saddles themselves.  They had also just gotten a new mule in the pen along the arena that Spike was acting wary of.  He was so tense he would barely walk forward under saddle, and trotting was out of the question.  Still, as I gradually adjusted the flair and Kay became level on his back, we could both tell Spike was starting to relax a little.  Kay ordered a gorgeous Baroque saddle with coccyx support for herself, and unique panels for Spike’s unique back.

I delivered their new saddle yesterday, the first saddle Spike has ever had that fits him correctly.  Plus, the ergonomic features of the seat really helped support Kay’s lower back pain and kept her in the center of the saddle, which is something she has struggled with due to past injuries.  It took about ten minutes to get the flair adjusted front to back, and Spike let us know where he wanted the balance.  He was stepping well and acting a bit sassy.  Then, I added a touch of asymmetrical air to support Kay, and all of a sudden Spike stretched down into the bridle and started breathing deeply.  They walked around for another ten minutes or so, and Spike continued to lengthen his stride and lift his back just a touch.  I was thrilled to see such a huge change in such a sensitive horse, and I cannot wait to see how his topline develops now that he AND his rider has a comfortable saddle.  By summer I expect they are back to their dressage lessons and frequent trail riding!!!

A First Saddle, and a Revelation

Yesterday I got to do two of my favorite things as a saddle fitter:  Deliver a girl and her horse their first “real” saddle, and show another young rider what riding in correct tack feels like.

Toree bought her five year old mare Charlie straight from her let-down from the track.  When I met them seven weeks ago for their initial fitting, Charlie was skinny, stiff, and a bit unsure, but incredibly kind and willing.  I was so impressed with Toree’s handling of this young mare, and with Charlie’s adaptability to her new surroundings.  Given how much horses change coming off the track and into careers like jumping and eventing, a WOW was an obvious choice.  In the seven weeks between ordering and delivery, Charlie gained nearly two centimeters of trapezius just behind her scapula, growing more than a tree size in traditional saddle terms!    Thankfully, we just put in a wider head plate and set up her Flair to fit, and the saddle we ordered works perfectly!

Charlie’s tracing from August 2018. Crooked, hollow at the withers

Charlie’s tracing from early October, 2018. Symmetrical, filled out nicely along the top line, and lifting through her withers

Seeing their progress under-saddle was inspiring.  Toree has worked hard to properly build Charlie’s topline and balance her up, and the symmetry is as obvious under saddle as it is on their new template.  When I last saw them, Charlie could barely hold herself up to the left, and now Charlie has a beautiful and balanced left lead.  With the help of their new saddle, I expect both horse and rider will develop exponentially in the next few months!

 

Next up, I got to help Anna and her gelding Sheldon.  I met this pair at a clinic over the summer, where Sheldon was a demo horse and I showed how his current saddle was restricting movement in his shoulders and sitting too low on his withers, disallowing topline development and likely contributing to his occasional refusals.  Anna had purchased the saddle a few years back, when she was several inches shorter.  Her femurs are quite long for her height, and her current saddle cannot accommodate her leg anymore, leaving her feeling insecure.

Sheldon is a typical shark-finned Thoroughbred with big hollows down to his ribcage, which is much wider.  One of the unique fit options of a WOW saddle is that we can match the head plate to the angle of the muscle behind the furthest rotation of the scapula, and then lift the pommel off the wither with a specialized panel.  When this is not an option, we can also use a V-style headplate, which lifts the front of the saddle higher than a U-style without changing the angle.  Both options allow for wither clearance without having to go too narrow down lower.   In this case, I did the first option to really give Sheldon as much freedom through his back as possible.


 

At first Sheldon was not convinced about the Flair adjustments, but after those ten minutes of fiddling Anna and he settled into a warm-up routine.  Their trainer came out and immediately remarked at how nice and through his back he looked.  She had them pop over a couple smaller fences, messing with the velcro blocks and stirrup positions a bit until Anna felt very comfortable.  Sheldon is an enthusiastic mover, and Anna’s leg got much quieter with the correct stirrup and block positions- neither of which are options on her current saddle.

Anna’s trainer set up a couple fences on the diagonals and had Anna just take Sheldon over them on a loop.  Each time, she raised them a hole, until we eventually ran out of daylight at just over a meter.  Sheldon consistently took off square and landed square- a first, according to their trainer!  As the fences got higher, Anna started to settle into feeling secure in her lower body and could focus on her equitation more and more, improving with every fence.  It was magical to watch!  They have been stuck at 2’3″, and I think this offered a revelation that a properly fitted saddle would help them get out of that rut.  Since she has not had much saddle buying experience I recommended that she also try two other brands known for fitting thoroughbreds well before deciding- the same as I told Toree- but whatever she decides, I hope to see Anna and Sheldon jumping the bigger fences this coming summer!