The Whys, Whats, Wheres and Hows of the Matter
For most horse owners saddle fit is a mysterious and daunting thing. It is a very broad subject, with many conflicting opinions and very few unbiased professionals. On top of all that, purchasing a saddle is something that most people do, while also in the equally all-consuming process of buying of a horse. It is no wonder that after the fourth trip to the tack store, that some horse owners end up settling for something less than ideal.
So, I am here to walk you through the whys, whats, wheres and hows of the matter, to save you and your horse a great deal of grief.
Now, the next logical question for you to ask, is why should I trust your version of things? Some excellent reasons are that I am an independently Certified Saddle Fitter, and was not trained by a saddle company for their own purposes. I also completed six months of training, including an apprenticeship, whereas many saddle fitters have completed as little as four days of training. However, in my opinion the best reason, is that I will always give you a reason why I do or don’t believe in a principle or method. To me, it is a subject that should be understood by many, not kept to the few.
So, why is saddle fit so important? Your saddle is responsible for connecting you to your horse. It is the single most important piece of tack you will ever own. The musculature the saddle is placed on, is responsible for proper forward movement and engagement of the back. Any pressure points, or instability in the saddle can result in soft tissue damage, restricted circulation, and pain; not to mention an inability to use the affected area of the body. If we want our horses to perform to their full potential, it is physiologically impossible for them to do so with an improperly fitted saddle.
Now that we’ve established why this is so important, what are we going to do about it? A saddle is a very large investment, and it’s important to know what you are buying, before riding out of the barn. Unfortunately, in the saddle world price does not always equal value. Here are a few questions to ask about the saddle you are looking at purchasing. What is it made of? There is a wide variety of materials used in saddle construction, however they are far from created equal.
Your saddle’s inner structure is called the tree. This is what give it support and creates the angles and shape of the saddle. On top, (or rather underneath when you’re riding), is the panels which is what comes in contact with your horse. Trees are traditionally made of a laminated wood, such as a Beech wood, as well as steel. This keeps the tree light, gives it a small amount of flexibility, (not talking flex trees here), without losing strength and durability. There are also a variety of plastic, laminate, and flex trees now on the market. Many of these trees are made out of molds, which makes them very inexpensive to manufacture. However, there are a few issues with this process. First off, the trees must be removed from the molds before they are completely set, and this can often result in a twist or imperfection in the symmetry of the tree. I can’t tell you how many twisted or crooked trees I’ve come across in my travels; and how many riders “just couldn’t keep their leg on, on one side”. Secondly, it is more economical for a manufacturer to make a shallower mold; this results in trees that are often very straight through the panels. Since most horses have a curve to their back, this can result in bridging, (which we will cover in our next post). Lastly, composite and flex trees can be affected by extreme hot or cold. They can warp, twist or even shatter depending on the conditions, or how they are stored. It isn’t surprising that many of these trees are in lower end saddles, however what may surprise you, is that there are many plastic trees in very expensive saddles. A variety of plastic and synthetic materials are being used in high-end saddles, to improve the profit margin for these companies. These trees often have issues in stability due to their flexible nature, and are often not as strong, making them susceptible to breaking and fracture. Sometimes this fact is hidden from the customer, but most often it is given a fancy name and marketed as an advantage.
The job of a panel is very simple. It is there to distribute your weight over the greatest surface area possible, and absorb concussion. In order to do this, the panel must have the appropriate width, depth, and shape to have, and maintain, good contact with your horse. When buying a saddle, it is important to ask your seller or representative what kind of maintenance plan, is available for the saddle you are buying. Over time, our horse’s will change shape due to age, level of fitness, training level, and many other factors. Along with this, due to its job as a shock absorber, ALL materials inside the panel, WILL compress over time. Therefore, it is imperative that the saddle be flocked with a material that can be adjusted and customized. Traditionally, saddles are made with wool-flocked panels. Natural wool is soft, absorbs impact well, helps pull heat
away from the body, adjusts easily to maintain fit, and accommodate any asymmetrical aspects. Many saddles are now
being fitted with foam panels. This cheaper method is used in less expensive saddles, but more surprisingly in many very costly saddles. The foam in these saddles is typically sprayed in or cut by machine. This dramatically reduces the cost to the manufacturer. Foam panels can work when they’re new, but like anything, (including memory foam, or any other foams that have been developed), they will breakdown over time, and can never be custom fitted to the shape and asymmetrical aspects of the horse. Unfortunately, this type of panel cannot be maintained to retain good fit. The last type I want to talk about, (although there are others), is the FLAIR/CAIR panels. The FLAIR panel is the world’s best theory. When it initially came on the market many years ago, I was very excited. However, after a remarkably short period, the horse’s started to say
that there was a flaw in the technology. The thing about air is that it will always get out of the way. This means that if you fill the bladders so that the contact is as even as possible, as soon as you sit in the saddle the air will move away from the pressure. If you add extra air to accommodate this, you essentially create a balloon. The panels become so firm and bouncy, that not only are they failing to absorb any concussion, they are causing instability in the saddle. To further the issue, if the panel isn’t absorbing the concussion, your horse’s back ends up doing the job. One other little known fact is that due to the nature of the bladders, there’s a lot of space surrounding them in the panel. These are filled in with foam wedges rather haphazardly. The CAIR panels are slightly different, as
there is actually very little air in them. The CAIR panel is comprised of two vinyl bladders, filled with a foam piece, inflated and then duct taped together. Once again, you start with a very hard bouncy panel when the saddle is new, and it deflates over time. Then you typically have two areas of bridging, with a pressure point in the middle, (this is where the tape is). The good news about these types of panels is that they are typically very easy convert to wool.
Where to find the appropriate saddle then? It’s difficult to know where to find the ideal saddle. Not all retailers are forthcoming about the quality and components of their saddles, and the long-term service they provide. The best way to ensure you have found a reputable retailer, is to ask questions before you buy. Important questions include: What warranty does the company provide? What kind of fit maintenance, does the company provide? And do they have a representative that is near you? If you are dealing with a tack store, do they have a saddle fitter on hand? Or one they work with? It is also a good idea to consult others that have used that company or representative in the past. to get an idea of their reputation.
It can be overwhelming to bring half a dozen saddles to the barn, and try to decipher what is going to work on your horse and what isn’t. Hiring a saddle fitter does add extra cost to the process of buying a saddle. But it is significantly less than having to sell a saddle that doesn’t work for you, after only a few months. When buying a horse, remember to budget in the cost of good quality tack and professional help in finding it. You will start off your relationship with your horse, on the right hoof.