October 5, 2010

Saddle fitting suggestions, part 1

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A friend of mine just bought her first Arabian mare. A fine bay Arabian mare with white socks and a star. She asked me to help her with choosing a saddle for her mare, Sarafina. Sarafina is currently ridden in an older Wintec dressage saddle (the type before the changeable gullet and CAIR system). Instead of writing my suggestions in a private email, I thought I would post most of the discussion here so other people can read the article and post suggestions.

The general steps for choosing a saddle include knowing what you want to ride, knowing your horses’ (and yours) shape, and then sitting in everything you can to figure out what feels good. Like shoes, some brands run narrow or wide. And then you get to take home the top candidates and see how they fit your horse.

A note about saddle costs

You can spend as much as you want on a saddle: from $100 to $5,000 or more. A used name-brand dressage saddle in good condition will run $1000 to $2000 — probably half off the original price. Just because a saddle is expensive in the tack shop, don’t be afraid to sit in it. If you find a saddle that feels great and is out of your price range, check around online. You may find a great bargain in a tack shop’s used / consignment section, on Craigslist, eBay, or in the used saddle lists of online tack shops.

Riding discipline

Before you purchase a new saddle, the first question to ask is what do you want to do: show jumping, reining, dressage, trail riding, endurance…? Customized saddles are available for all of these disciplines. If you are interested in trying multiple disciplines, you should be able to purchase an all purpose Western or English saddle. (Any comfortable saddle can be used for basic trail riding.) If you know a particular saddle make and model fits your horse, that can be a great starting point for finding a saddle.

Shape changes and saddle fit

The saddle you choose has to fit both you and your horse. A horse’s shape change over time, some times from season to season as the horse gains and loses muscle mass and weight. When people lose or gain weight, their saddle size may also change.

Exchangeable gullet systems and fit

If you consider a saddle with an exchangeable gullet, it will offer additional flexibility. The gullet system will let you adjust the saddle’s tree width to accommodate changes in a horse’s shape.

The gullet system adjusts the front of the tree. The channel (the space between the panels on the underside of the saddle) has to be wide enough to accommodate the horse’s spine and the back pads have to lay with the horse’s shape. No gullet system will change the physical dimensions of the saddle. (See the videos included below for information on fit, conformation, and more.)

One of the first dressage saddles I bought was a Wintec. Over time, as Isis matured and muscled, the Wintec no longer fit. While the dressage saddle used to fit her whithers well, eventually she became too muscled (and fat). The saddle was too narrow at that point: when the saddle was placed on her, the pommel was up in the air — higher than the cantle (back of the seat).

I traded the Wintec in on an all purpose eventing saddle made by the Spanish saddler Zaldi in 2004. Comfortable saddle — like a big comfy chair with good contact. It fit her very well for her build at the time. Her body shape drastically changed shape after she recovered from colic surgery. I had to pad the Zaldi so it would fit her over the whithers and back. When we started taking dressage lessons, I had the Zaldi fit re-evaluated by my instructor. We discovered that the saddle no longer fit at all. I ended up buying both a dressage saddle and then the next year, an all purpose.

Saddle trees and expansion

I did a lot of research into trees, saddle fit, impact on human/horse conformation, and read way too many reviews. Some breeds are harder to fit than others, with Arabians being notorious for their dainty heads and broad backs. Most English saddles are built on a spring tree: the tree offers some flexibility to move with the horse. After doing a lot of reading, I liked the e-Motion tree used in the Courbette saddles. The e-Motion tree provides additional flexibility so it’s easier to fit a broad range of widths without being so flexible as to pinch the horse’s whithers.

I decided to try a Courbette Magic dressage saddle because of the e-Motion tree. These saddles are hard to find locally. When I did find used Courbette dressage saddles in the local shops, they were not the Magic saddle and inevitably they felt like sitting on plywood. I ended up ordering a used Courbette Magic dressage saddle used from Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop (excellent price, great trial program). I was very pleased to find that the saddle fit Isis well and was very comfy.

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I’ve now had the saddle over two years. It has fit both Kasane and Isis very well. The saddle has even fit Isis as the shape of her whithers have changed with work, weight, and various medical issues over the last two years. Because the Courbette fit so well, when it came time to purchase an all purpose, I found a used saddle that was made with the same tree as the Magic, a Courbette Bernina. The Bernina seems to fit Prize and Isis very well but might be a little narrow on Kasane.

Examples of saddle fit

Several posts on this blog have pictures and descriptions of fitting the Courbette Magic and the Bernina:

I recently had to revisit saddle fitting when Kasane started riding. I’ve been very lucky and the dressage saddle appears to fit Kasane very well. The all purpose might be a little narrow, but I’ll have to take pictures of her in both saddles and post them here for comparison with Isis’ pictures.

If you don’t have access to a saddle fitter, then a good way to get an idea about whether a saddle fits you and your horse is to watch a few videos on saddle fitting on YouTube. Out of the dozens of hits for searching for saddle fitting here are two options I watched when fitting Kasane with the dressage saddle.

This is a general video on how to fit a saddle.

Here is an excellent video on how the saddle needs to fit both you and your horse with discussions of equine and human anatomy.

Saddle considerations

General points to keep in mind:

  • Any saddle should be comfortable for you and your horse. (Your tush should say “Ahh!” when you sit in the saddle.)
  • Do a whither tracing to figure out the correct width tree your horse needs. (See Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop’s saddle fitting guide for instructions.)
  • Know what size saddle you need, including tree width and channel size.
  • Be aware of the type of flocking in the saddle — wool flocking can be reshaped while foam flocking cannot.
  • Sit in everything so you have a good idea of current offerings, quality differences between price ranges, and what fits you (narrow or wide twist, big thigh blocks, etc.).
  • Search online for reviews of any saddle you consider purchasing to find out other people’s experiences with the saddle.

If you find a saddle in a shop that you really like, you may be able to find a cheaper version of it online some where. You’ll have to pay shipping if you order online. Make sure you investigate return policies and trial program terms before purchasing.

Getting the saddle on the horse

If it is comfortable on the fake horse, it may (or may not) be comfortable when you actually ride in it. Make sure the tack shop place offers a reasonable trial. You should be able to try the saddle out (reasonable — so no visible damage or wear is done to the saddle) and bring the saddle back if it doesn’t fit. When you try a saddle on the horse for the first time, make sure the horse is clean so you won’t get the saddle dirty. (Retailers have to be able to sell the saddle if you return it.)

The videos above have some excellent points on how the saddle should fit and what you need to watch out for. When trying the saddle, keep an eye on where settles on the horse’s back. Is the channel wide enough? Does the saddle press on the horse’s shoulders? Does the saddle rock back and forth or does it settle into place properly?

When I was trying the Courbette Magic on Isis, it was one of three saddles I was test riding: a Wintec dressage, Albion dressage saddle, and the Magic. I paid my riding instructor for an extra lesson so we could try all of the saddles and then take a lesson in the saddle that fit the best. The Albion was too wide for Isis and the twist was far too wide for me. (It felt like I was riding a four-by-four.) The dressage didn’t quite fit me or her right even though it was comfortable to sit on in the store. Her movement was different in each saddle. When we put the Magic on her, her gaits felt freer. It just fit her beautifully, so that was the one I purchased.

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