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Buying a saddle is like buying shoes.

I know you have bought shoes before, but have you bought performance shoes? Let me share my experience.

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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.

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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.

When shopping for saddles, it’s extremely valuable to be able to try multiple saddles one after another for the most direct comparison. At your own facility, you can use your home arena to make sure that your horse can move freely and comfortably in the saddle, and then you should be able to have an extended trial in the saddle, or one similar before committing to the purchase.

Playing the Long Game

Saddle fitting is a process, not an event.

Horses change: aging horses’ backs drop, young horses fill out or sprout withers, between youth and old age their weight and fitness increase and decrease, their training progresses and their posture changes as they learn to use different muscles, occasional injuries result in time off. Even in a horse that stays entirely the same, the flocking in their saddle settles and needs to be topped off. These are some of the reasons that the Society of Master Saddlers recommends having your saddle fit checked by a professional every 6 months. (Are you overdue?)

When I fit a saddle, I do so with an eye to the future. I sometimes have to tell people “this saddle will work for now, but you need to start thinking of replacing it.” When working with someone interested in buying a saddle, whether or not they intend to buy from me, I have an eye to the future as well. I want my clients to be happy with their purchase for years to come. Sometimes I tell people, “Yes, this saddle fits great right now, but it won’t in 4 months.” I’d rather have them spend money on something that will work long-term.  It’s a challenge to predict the future, but having spent a few decades working with horses and observing how their shapes change, I’m familiar with patterns and commonalities.

Let’s look at some examples.

When I first met this horse a few years ago, I advised his owner that a Black Country Freedom tree would be a good choice, even though he didn’t look like it at the time! His topline was undeveloped and he had significant wither hollows. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that she was ready to act on my advice and she found a great used jumping saddle that she had me fit to him. At first, he needed a shimmed half pad. Over the course of the year, as his new saddle allowed him to move more freely and correctly, he developed new back muscles and now, as of his most recent fitting, he no longer needs the half pad! During that year I saw him to modify the fit about every 4 months. Now I don’t expect to need to see him for 6 to 12 months.

I love this picture! I put this horse into a Harry Dabbs saddle and he also needed extra pads and shims to fill it in at first but after only 8 months he didn’t need them anymore.

Horses that need to lose weight are trickier. You can’t shim a saddle for that, so most of the time you have to fit the horse as it is and then shim when it’s down to its correct weight, which may mean shimming for the long-term. I’d prefer to have the horse lose weight first and then fit it to a saddle but sometimes it’s hard to get the weight off without the ability to ride, and in that case, compromise is inevitable. There’s nothing wrong with long-term use of shims, it’s simply not ideal to have an additional component to tacking up. Of course some saddles can be narrowed to fit, too.

These are extreme examples but many, possibly most, horses will change in their backs after getting a new saddle or having substantial changes made to their old one. If you are not following up with your saddle fitter within 6 months you should not be surprised if your saddle fit and/or your horse’s performance suffer as a result. We’ve all experienced how small changes can sneak up on you over time until things are quite different all of a sudden (Covid weight gain, anyone?). Having a trained, experienced eye look things over periodically will help keep your horse’s training and health on the right track.

It’s always fun to do that scheduled maintenance and have the rider say, “Wow! This is so much better! I didn’t even realize how off balance I was until it was corrected!” or “Wow! My horse moves so much more freely! I didn’t even realize the saddle had started blocking her shoulders until it was corrected!” Give your saddle fitter a chance to correct your problems, too, even if you aren’t yet aware you have them.

So please, don’t think of your saddle fitter as someone you call when you have a problem, like an exterminator. Have a relationship with your saddle fitter, much like you do with your vet, farrier, and body workers. Planning to have your saddle fit checked regularly also makes it easier to schedule appointments – you can get all the people at your barn together and have one day to get it all done, much like how most people schedule the farrier or spring shots – it’s convenient, saves money on the farm call, and avoids problems developing down the road.

Scooby Doo’s custom saddle

I’ve been far too busy working on your saddles to keep you updated on Scooby’s progress, but it’s been remarkable, and so much fun! It’s also been remarkable how many saddles he’s gone through. Why? Well, out of shape horses, and horses learning a new job in a new discipline often change a great deal as they develop. Scooby had the added challenge of having been malnourished in a previous home. The person I got him from in late 2019 had rescued him from a neglectful situation in which he was fed so little that his body condition was given a score of 2 on a 10 point scale, emaciated. When he came to live with me his body condition score was still only about a 3 and while his previous owner had fed him and attended to his feet, teeth, and all his medical needs, she did not work him and he was turned out in a flat field and so he didn’t gain muscle. His neck was thin, his hindquarters were actually concave where they should have been round, and he couldn’t even keep himself warm on a cold day! He had a lot of weight to put on and a lot of muscles to grow.

The above pictures were taken 6 months apart in 2020. His back is still swayed, and I expect it will always be, but everything else is so much rounder!

During his development he wore a Harry Dabbs Avant XL dressage saddle, then a Frank Baines Omni dressage, then a Harry Dabbs Pro jump, then a Harry Dabbs DJ jump, then an Omni again, then a Harry Dabbs Extra dressage, and then an Omni again! Depending on his stage of development he was in a medium, medium-wide, or even wide saddle (he wore Omnis in all 3 sizes)! Now, a full year later, Scooby is close to normal in terms of weight and muscle mass. And he’s outgrown his saddle again. This time, I don’t have anything in my collection that is quite right for him. This is the same situation that many of my clients find themselves in – needing to order a custom saddle.  So what did we do?

The Frank Baines Rococco was the closest to fitting him, and he works the most comfortably in it, however we need to make some changes. The demo saddle has a front gusset which pushes against his shoulder (pushing the saddle back), and a point billet which is great to prevent a saddle from sliding foward but we have the opposite problem. Scooby’s saddle tends to slide backward, therefore Scooby’s saddle will not have a front gusset or a point billet. For me, the Rococco is extremely comfortable, balanced, and secure, but the thigh block is at the wrong angle. It will be repositioned to match the angle of my thigh, and the flap will be made a bit longer. 

Since we are making a whole new saddle just for us, we may as well make it stand out, right? Frank Baines has so many decorative options it would be a shame not to at least entertain some possibilities… Scooby likes green, and he looks so handsome in it! I wouldn’t have considered a green saddle, but as I was leafing through the options, the one that jumped out at me was Krypton green. It’s shimmery like (depending on who you ask) Peacock feathers, mermaid scales, or dragon scales! I couldn’t resist. So we ordered Krypton green cantle insert with bottle green welting and back facing and deep green stitching (the very bottom one in the thread sample shown, the one that doesn’t even look green). The pictures don’t do it justice

Now I just have to hope that he won’t change too much before we have a chance to enjoy it! Scooby is still very much a work in progress and is just learning to engage his hindquarters and lift through his back and base of his neck so realistically this saddle will be available for someone else to enjoy before too long.