I know you have bought shoes before, but have you bought performance shoes? Let me share my experience.
When I need new running shoes I go to a store that specializes in runners. A specialist watches me walk, analyzing my stride, looking at how my foot bears weight at different phases of my stride.
Based on that and the measurements taken of my feet I’m presented with a number of choices. I try on one after another. Some I can rule out right away. Even though they are my size, something about them doesn’t suit the shape of my foot. Maybe the toe box is too wide or too narrow, or the arch is too high or too low or too far forward or too far back or too long or too short.
I narrow the choices down to a few finalists. These I put back on and go for a run. Many stores specializing in running shoes have their own track. Others send me out onto the sidewalk or parking lot, but all recognize that this is a vital part of the process of finding the right shoe.
One pair of shoes will feel like home. Like I’m not even wearing anything because there is no pressure on any part of my foot and no sliding, but the world feels extra cushy to my feet while in them; like my feet are wrapped in a supportive cloud.
These are my shoes.
So how does this compare to saddles?
We start with a saddle fitter to analyze the horse’s conformation and movement, and to take measurements of the width and length of the weight-bearing portion of the horse’s back.
Based on that we can try on saddles. Some can be ruled out right away, because even though they are the right size, something about them doesn’t suit the shape of the horse. Maybe the panels are too squared off under the cantle, putting pressure on the horse’s back, or maybe the gullet is not long enough for the horse’s withers to have clearance all the way to the back or maybe the billets don’t hang at the horse’s girth groove. Or maybe we can’t see what is wrong but the horse makes it very clear that he doesn’t like it!
We narrow down the choices to a few finalists. We put these on and go for a ride. Although this is a vital part of the process, very few tack shops have a place to ride, and even sellers that allow you to take the saddle home will sometimes ask that you only sit in it for 15 minutes without stirrups or girth!
We can’t know what it feels like to him, but with one saddle your horse doesn’t fidget or toss his head or pin his ears when it is placed on his back. When you ride, he moves more freely and is more responsive and light to your aids. What’s more, your body automatically takes a correct position too.
This is your saddle.
Buying shoes for everyday use is much simpler. If they look good, we try them on. If they aren’t awful, we can often make them work. But new shoes often give us blisters, or make our feet sore so we kick them off with relief at the end of the day. We have special shoes that we wear if we know we are going to be on our feet a lot, and others we wouldn’t dream of choosing for such a day. Some shoes we don’t wear two days in a row to give our feet a break. And certainly you would not wear dress shoes to participate in an athletic event! Your horse probably does wear the same saddle day after day and is expected to carry a lot of weight in it and to perform athletically. We owe it to him to give choosing and maintaining his saddle at least the same level of concern that is given to athletic shoes.
I tried to take a short-cut with my running shoes once. There was a sidewalk sale, and being short on money at the time I hoped to find the right pair of shoes at a discount. I was familiar with the process, so I felt confident. I tried on the shoes, I went for a jog down the sidewalk. I thought they felt good, though there was a little extra support on the outside edge. Support is good right? They felt great on my first run of several miles. My feet were slightly sore after my second, but I didn’t think much of it. The day after my third run it was hard to walk! I had to take an entire week off to let my feet recover, before resuming training again in my old shoes. The same thing can happen to your horse – the wrong saddle can feel good on the first ride, but be crippling in consistent use.