The Princess and the Pea

Princess and the pea

We’ve all seen saddles with a few too many pads under them. This one was passed along by my saddle fitter.

I suspect we’ve all seen saddles like this one — perched so far above the horse’s back that you might not even know you are riding a horse.

I’m sure that the rider’s intentions are good. But while they might want a pad to protect their horse’s back, too much of a good thing can cause problems.

Fundamentally I think people have lost track of the purpose of saddle pads, which used to be to keep your saddle clean. Now there seems to be more emphasis on the pad than on the fit of the saddle.

In this case, it appears that the folded towels are being used to prop up the cantle as well as lifting the entire saddle a good 6 or 7 inches off the horse’s back. Why isn’t this a good idea?

For one, stability. When you have that many pads under the saddle, it’s not really sitting on the horse and is likely to shift during riding. Certainly when you are doing any kind of riding that includes varied terrain or jumping the last thing you need is a saddle that moves independently of you and your horse.

For another, pressure points. Propping up one part of the saddle almost always creates pressure points under the opposite end. A saddle needs to be the right shape for the horse’s back — the tree points should follow the shoulder and the panels should touch the horse’s back evenly, supporting the rider’s weight.

Saddle fit is such an important part of keeping your horse comfortable and the rider balanced that it’s worth spending some time learning more about the basics. I’m lucky enough to have access to an excellent fitter. I’ve learned a lot from watching him over the years. But if you are just looking for some basics, this video is an excellent starting point.

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Saddle Fitting Long Distance

Saddle fitting long distance

Kitt Hazelton of Panther Run Saddlery wrote an excellent blog post that shows what kind of photos you need to provide to help a fitter evaluate your saddle on your horse.

I am lucky. I live in the land of saddle fitters. I have many choices of who to use and don’t have to wait months for one to travel to my neck of the woods. My fitter comes to my barn at least twice a year to evaluate how well my saddles fit. Even better, I have access to independent fitters — people who are not repping a particular brand so they are not trying to sell me a better, more expensive saddle than I already own.

However, many people live in a saddle fitting wasteland. Perhaps the only people they can get to look at their horses is a rep for a brand. Maybe they aren’t even that lucky! Those people have two options: learn to fit saddles themselves or work long distance. Given how many people I come across who have ill-fitting saddles (even when they think the saddle fits), choice #2 is a pretty good option.

To work effectively with a saddle fitter you need to be able to provide two things: a good set of photos and a wither/back tracing. You can follow the link to video instructions on how to do a wither tracing. And Kitt Hazelton (Panther Run Saddlery) wrote a great blog post that shows exactly what kinds of photos you need to provide but they include conformation shots, a conformation shot with the saddle girthed up, and a view that shows the tree points in relation to your horse’s withers.

Just remember not to compromise on fit. A poorly fitting saddle can cause your horse a lot of pain and can often be the root cause of performance issues. It’s definitely worth getting a professional opinion.

What the dust patterns on your saddle pad tell you

saddle pad dirt patterns

The dirt patterns on your saddle pad can tell you a lot about how your saddle fits. Read this article at http://www.horsejournals.com or at Schleese.com/saddlepads

Reading the dust patterns on your saddle pad is the equestrian version of reading tea leaves. You study the marks that are left after riding and they help you evaluate the pressure points under your saddle and if it’s a good fit for your horse. Of course, it can also tell you that your horse is dirty!

In general, wherever you see dirt, there is contact. Where there’s no dirt? No contact. Analyzing the dirt patterns can help you see if you are crooked in the saddle (more dirt on one side than the other), whether the saddle bridges (no dirt where you would expect to see contact)

According to master saddler Jochen Schleese:

The dirt should accumulate in the areas of the saddle pad that experience the most movement: at the front of the saddle (where the shoulder moves up and back) and at the back (where horse’s back swings). No dirt should show in the areas where the saddle doesn’t come in contact with the horse’s back, such as the gullet or at the transition between sweat flap and panel.

Just remember to start with a clean, white pad and a clean horse. If your horse isn’t pretty clean, excessive dirty on parts of its back can skew the results. Also, if your pad slips at all during your ride, it will impact the patterns.

Finally, your horse gets the final say in fit. I had a saddle a few years ago that created dirt patterns that, to me, indicated saddle fit problems. My horse apparently hadn’t read the manual because he loved that saddle. So sometimes the tea leaves don’t tell the whole story.

How your horse’s “girth groove” impacts billet positions.

Billet position explained

Click through to read this article on Saddle Fitting: The Inside Journey

Does your saddle slip forward? It could be that the saddle is too narrow, but it could also be a combination of the billet placement on your saddle and your horse’s girth groove.

I read a great article today on Kitt Hazelton’s Blog, Saddle Fitting: The Inside Journey that really explains the issue well.

Click on the photo to read more.

 

 

Saddle fit for riders makes a real difference

Roosli Pilatus

I can’t remember the last time I rode in my Roosli dressage saddle but it is perfect on Zelda.

There’s so much focus now in equine forums about saddle fit for horses that sometimes fit for riders gets overlooked.

Sure, it’s important for the saddle to fit your horse. But it also needs to fit you! Fighting the tack every stride does not make you a better rider, it makes you a frustrated one. And yes, there are some riders (usually pros) who can ride in any saddle because their core strength and balance can overcome the issues with fit.

For the rest of us, saddle fit — and the use of a saddle made for a specific discipline — can make riding infinitely more pleasurable. A saddle that allows you to sit in a balanced, appropriate position is a pleasure.

I’ve been struggling to find the right saddle for Zelda. I had my Ainsley Chester fit to her, but since it’s a true cross country saddle with very forward flaps, it puts me in a bit of a chair seat. For flat work, I knew I needed to open my hip angle and stay in a more centered place. After all, she’s a draft cross and she already carries a lot of her weight on her forehand, she doesn’t need me adding to the burden. I tried my Freeform treeless saddle on her but it wasn’t giving me the support I needed.

I rarely ride Freedom in a straight dressage saddle because the saddle I bought for Kroni is slightly too wide for him. But guess what, it works pretty darn well on Zelda.  I dusted off my beloved Roosli Pilatus dressage saddle and bingo! It sits me just the right way and all of a sudden it’s not so hard to have the right hip angle, my pelvis is balanced just right and I feel solid in my position.

When I bought that saddle I probably tried 15 different brands before I decided to what to buy. It wasn’t my first dressage saddle — by then I’d owned several, the most recent being a Prestige that my horse had outgrown. I was at a larger barn at that time in my riding life so I was able to try other boarders’ saddles, plus I had several shipped to me from consignment shops. My trainer had a Roosli and once I sat in that, I was convinced. In fact, the process of trying so many saddles was fascinating because they were all so different — the width of the twist, the depth of the saddle, the position of the knee blocks and stirrup bars — these elements all influence your balance. (Of course, the saddle has to fit your horse, too. If it’s too wide or too narrow, it will tip you slightly forward or slightly back).

I’ve held onto that saddle, despite not riding in it for a few years, mostly because I knew I could never replace it for what I could sell it for — or, really, what I paid for it. This is a saddle that was made for me based on my measurements and it really fits my long leg. I was lucky enough to order it from the factory during a time when the exchange rate was more favorable and I got it at a great price because my trainer ordered it directly from Fredy Roosli. Sitting in it again, I remember exactly why I bought it in the first place. I’m so glad now that I didn’t sell it!

 

 

Reflocking necessary

Saddle Doctor

Gary Severson, aka The Saddle Doctor, starts work on the Chester

The Ainsley Chester saddle that I’m now using on Zelda is the one I bought in the parking lot of a CVS from a woman who drove up in a white van (see Another Saddle for my Tackroom). This brand/model was very popular among eventers about 35 years ago. The woman who sold it to me said it had belonged to her

Wool from saddle

The wool that came out of the saddle was a wool/synthetic blend and was quite compressed.

room mate’s father and that it had been sitting in a closet for a long time. Probably 20 years!

The saddle is in good shape for its age although the panels were quite firm. My saddle fitter (who has been around long enough to work on them when they were trendy) said they often came slightly over stuffed from the factory and this one hadn’t been touched since then (there were no flocking slits).

The “wool” that came out was obviously a mix between real wool and a synthetic fiber and it was so compressed that it almost looked felted. The new wool that went in is soft and fluffy and left the panels feeling very cushy.

Compressed wool

The wool was so dense and compressed it felt felted. That will happen after 30 years!

Of course, the final say on comfort is up to Zelda. So far, she seems very pleased with her “new” saddle. I’ve had two buck-free rides now and she’s starting to use her back better. She has a long back and it’s easy for her to get hollow. I’m guessing that the new saddle is making it easier for her to lift her back.

Zelda and the three saddles

Ainsley Chester

I started with three saddles and figured one of them would fit Zelda. And the winner is . . . the Ainsley Chester, the saddle that I thought was the least likely.  This is marked as a Medium tree but is too wide for Freedom.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Zelda sometimes bucks. While some of it is probably testing boundaries, I also worried that it could be related to saddle fit. I haven’t had a horse the size and width of Zelda ever, and while I have a “library” of saddles, I wasn’t sure which one was the best for her.

If you’ve been saddle shopping you know that it’s not as simple as saying your horse takes a “medium” or a “wide” tree. Saddles are like designer clothes — everyone’s sizing is different. Even saddles with centimeter measurements (for example, a 30 or a 32) can measure from different points, making comparisons meaningless.

Freedom is most comfortable in a generous medium tree. Not medium and not quite medium wide. So, looking at Zelda, you’d think that she would probably take a Wide tree.

Looking at my assortment of saddles I had three that I thought might work for her.

County Extreme

I thought the County would be the best fit for her. It’s an okay fit and we could have made it work but it wasn’t perfect and

County Xtreme – This is one of my favorite saddles. I used it on Kroni and it was so balanced and comfortable. It is too wide for Freedom and I’ve considered having the tree narrowed. The saddle is marked as a Medium (3) but it appears to have been professionally widened before I bought it.

Wintec Matt Ryan (Pro XC) – This is a very forward cut Wintec saddle that is great for jumping, especially if you have very long legs. This saddle came to me with a wide gullet installed. Unlike most Wintecs, this saddle requires a saddle fitter to swap out the gullet.

Ainsley Chester – Another saddle for long-legged riders, I had one of these for a horse I owned several years ago.

Wintec Matt Ryan

The Wintec Matt Ryan has a wide gullet but you can see from looking at it that it’s a bit too narrow. It’s sitting on her back pommel high.

I always regretted selling the first one so I bought another last year. The forward flap fits my leg very well and it’s a comfortable saddle. This one has a Medium tree but only fit Freedom with a shimmed pad.

My best guess was that the County would work. And it could have worked, with some reflocking.

The Wintec was immediately discarded as being too narrow and, even more importantly, the angle of the tree and the panel just didn’t work with her shoulder.

But the real surprise was the Chester. Not only was the tree wide enough but the angle of the tree fit her shoulder really well — better than the County.

Take a look at the three saddles from the front.

Tree angle Wintec

You can see that the Wintec does not follow the shape of her shoulder well.

First, here’s the Wintec. You can see right away that it’s not a good match for her shape and will pinch her shoulder. In fact, during the saddle fitting process it became obvious that Zelda is a bit of a princess and the pea. She is a horse that is bothered by even minor fit issues so this saddle is a real non-starter.

The County is an okay fit.

The County is an okay fit.

The County is an okay fit, But still not ideal. However, since the County had other issues (which I will address in another post) we decided not to work on it.

Once again the surprise winner was the Ainsley. This saddle fits her shoulder beautifully.

Now, it still needed some work –

Chester

Like Goldilocks and the three bears, we finally found a saddle that fit “just right”.

the saddle had never been reflocked (it was probably 30+ years old) and Zelda likes a more cushiony fit. Stay tuned tomorrow for a review of the reflocking process.

Listen to your horse

Not all horses are picky about saddle fit. On one end of the spectrum Freedom is pretty stoic and puts up with minor discomfort. On the other end of the spectrum was a mare I used ot own — Dezzi – who would refuse to move if her saddle bothered her.

Zelda is somewhere in the more sensitive side of the spectrum. She made it very clear where here preferences lie and she gets the final vote.

Wool vs. foam vs. CAIR: One case study

Although I’ve owned many, many saddles over the years (Goldilocks and the 31 Saddles ) all but three have been flocked with wool and checked by a saddle fitter twice a year.

What’s the difference?

The material that fills the panels of the saddle are critical to saddle fit and comfort.

Adjusting the wool in a flocked saddle

Wool flocked saddles are adjusted by adding or removing wool through slits in the panels. It’s a good idea to have saddle fit checked regularly since wool can compress over time or your horse can change shape.

Wool Flocked

Traditionally saddles were flocked (stuffed) with wool. The wool is soft enough so that it conforms to they horse’s back over time. If it compresses too much, it can be removed and replaced; and if your horse’s back changes over time, a fitter can add or remove wool to adjust the fit. While a wool flocked saddle can’t be made to fit if the tree is the wrong size or the panels are the wrong shape, there is a lot of flexibility. The disadvantage is that wool saddles need to be checked more frequently to see if they’ve maintained their fit. The wool may move in the panel or compress. I, for example, have my saddles checked twice a year by a saddle fitter and those fittings can run $75-$250 and any adjustments are done on site.

Foam Panels:

When foam paneled saddles were first introduced, they were generally cheap saddles and the foam didn’t hold up well over time — it compressed to the point where it offered no padding and then disintegrated.

The new generation of foam is more sophisticated and durable and is used by many of the high end saddle manufacturers. It is made to automatically adjust to fit a wider tolerance of shapes, to offer cushioning and shock absorbancy, and to “spring back” to it’s original shape. The idea is that unlike a wool flocked saddle, which usually is fitted to a specific horse, a foam paneled saddle can be used on many horses. The disadvantage is that if your horse changes shape beyond the scope of the panel’s tolerance, the only ways to make it fit are to buy new panels — a company rep will remeasure your horse and the company will replace the panels for $400-$1000). Or, you can do a foam to wool conversion — this can be tricky since some of the foam paneled saddles have very thin, close contact panels.

CAIR Panels

Inside a CAIR panel

This is what a CAIR panel looks like when you cut it open.

CAIR panels technically filled with air, but it’s a bit more complicated than the balloon image that invokes. Air is captured at atmospheric pressure in an open-celled foam and sealed in the Air Panel. Once the air panel is welded the open-celled foam becomes irrelevant, as it is the air trapped in the panel.

Like foam panels, CAIR panels are designed to accommodate use on different horses — it is resilient and does not permanently conform to a horse’s back the way wool does.

Some people don’t like the feeling of CAIR: they find it to be “bouncy.” Some people say their horse’s don’t like the CAIR panels. I’ve also heard of CAIR panels that deflate. I haven’t had a problem with any of those aspects of it; so far the CAIR panels on my saddle have worked fine.

CAIR has many of the advantages of foam (fits many horses, requires fewer fittings) but the system is exclusive to saddles made by Bates/Wintec.

In addition to the CAIR panels some of the Wintec saddles also have pockets where a fitter can insert wool to fine tune the fit.

My experience

When I bought my Stackhouse saddle I was over the moon. I had found a used version of the exact saddle I’d always wanted. Since I have quite long femurs, it’s hard for me to find saddles with extra forward flaps on the used market. To find one in a Medium Wide tree as well? It was my Christmas present to myself in 2010. And I had heard positive things about the resiliency of the newer foam panels.

The saddle did not disappoint. It is incredibly well balanced — it fits my leg to a “T” and makes me feel very secure. My leg falls exactly where it should without any effort. It also fit Freedom very well. Or, it did until this Spring.

Over the past month and a half, since I started jumping Freedom again, I could tell that his back was a bit sore. Not terribly sore, but a bit too tight and a bit too sensitive. I have several saddles so I rotated them until my saddle fitter could come to the barn — I figured if one saddle was bothering him,  I could keep each of them from getting too much ride time.

Wintec Pro Jump

My Wintec Pro Jump still fits him very well and also provides me a balanced ride. But it’s a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. And my knees are right at the edge of the flap.

Sadly, it was the Stackhouse that was causing the problem. Strangely enough, my other saddles still fit just fine (I have a County jumping saddle that’s a tad wide but works with a Mattes pad, an Austrian A/P saddle and a Wintec Pro Jump). The first two are wool flocked and the Wintec is CAIR.

Looking at Freedom, I can’t say that his back has changed much. He’s in very much the same fitness level as he was last fall and his weight is very similar. He’s about 12 so is at an age where you don’t expect to see a lot of changes in a horse that’s in consistent work.

You would think that the foam panels could accommodate the minor changes in his back since the saddle has fit so well for the past year and a half. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

I discussed it with my fitter and decided that it wasn’t worth trying to shim it and pad it into fitting. Foxhunting is a discipline that takes us over quite varied terrain and you need a saddle that fits (you don’t want it to slide about or become unbalanced).

My conclusion: If I’m going to buy another expensive saddle, I’m going to choose one with wool panels. The Wintec saddles (and their Bates counterparts) are not so expensive that it’s a tragedy if they don’t fit after awhile. Foam panels are fine until they don’t fit. And then they’re not.

Since I enjoy saddle shopping, it’s not a big deal for me to sell the Stackhouse. I’ll hunt in my Wintec for the time being and keep my eye out for the next saddle to try. And I will pass my Stackhouse along to the next lucky person who has a horse that’s the right shape for it.

What have been your experiences? What type(s) of saddles do you ride in? Are you pleased with them?