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.