Why I will Never Order a custom Saddle

Stackhouse Jumping Saddle

Readers of my blog know that I have a pretty full-blown saddle addiction, but the one thing I’ve always resisted is ordering a custom saddle. Well, not quite. I have a saddle that was made to measure for me — a Roosli Pilatus dressage saddle. Not technically “custom” it was assembled to fit my measurements and built on their standard wide tree. I’d tried a demo saddle on my horse and I knew that it fit him, plus my trainer at the time knew Fredy Roosli and she was able to offer her students the dealer discount, which made it a very attractive package. This was especially true for me as I need a longer, more forward flap than was standard on dressage saddles at the time, and was having a hard time finding one that worked for me. And yes, I owned a Stackhouse cross country saddle that had been custom made for somebody else.

Jeffries JMX
I bought this Jeffries JMX for a fraction of the cost of a custom saddle. Full Buffalo leather, wool panels, and supremely comfortable.

These days, a “custom” saddle is on many people’s Christmas list. Partly it’s because the saddle manufacturers have done a terrific job at selling the necessity of going custom (my saddle fitter’s opinion was that very few horses cannot be fit off the shelf); partly it’s because the marketing behind these saddles is phenomenal: the are guaranteed to fit a wide variety of horses and make you look like a million dollars; partly it’s because they are very comfortable to ride in; and partly because of the prestige associated with owning one. Keep in mind that in some barns, the trainer may be a “sponsored” rider, and will get a commission for every saddle his or her students buy. This make me appreciate Renate Lansburgh even more. Not only did she not take a commission, she passed along the savings because she wanted her students to have great saddles.

But the dirty secret behind the custom saddles is not their expense, it’s that despite the fancy packaging and the exquisite leather, many of them simply do not fit — not the horse they were “made” for and not the rider.

Why is the failure rate for custom saddles so high? There are a couple of reasons:

  • Most saddles are not truly custom. The manufacturers buy standard trees and then assemble the saddle based on the measurements of the fitter, creating a customized saddle based on your preferences. Some horses are not suited to the type of trees sold by certain brands, so they will never fit.
  • The fit is only as good as the fitter and many reps simply aren’t that good at the technical side of their job. If you don’t start with the right measurements, the saddle won’t fit.
  • Your custom saddle may not fit the same as the demo saddle. Personally, I will never buy a saddle again that I can’t ride in first. There is always going to be some variation in the manufacture of saddles and IMHO, you are much better off buying a saddle you know you like.
  • The French saddles typically use foam panels. Now, lots of people like foam as it is supposed to create a custom feel for each horse. Here’s where my preference for English and German saddles will show itself, so keep that in mind. Foam panels are thinner, providing a very close contact feel, but they aren’t as adjustable and some horses prefer more padding between their backs and their humans. Sure, the foam panels will compensate for some differences in your horse, or allow you to use the saddle on horses with very similar backs, but you can “tweak” the fit more with a wool flocked panel. If your horse changes so much that your foam panels no longer fit, your only option is to have new panels made. As you can imagine, that’s a lot more expensive than have the wool flocking adjusted. This is actually what happened with my Stackhouse saddle. My horse’s back changed just enough that it no longer fit him. I opted to sell it on and buy something that worked for how he’d changed.

If you are one of the unlucky customers who find their custom saddle isn’t working for them (usually after waiting for weeks, if not months for the saddle to be made), getting satisfaction — your money back or a saddle that fits — can be quite a process. I’ve read many tales of woe, but the link to the post below happened to one of my fellow bloggers, who lived through this experience first hand. She is kind enough in her post not to identify the brand of saddle that she purchased, so although I know it, I will keep the secret.

My biggest saddle shopping Mistake
Click on the image to go to the blog post.

Have you ever sprung for a custom made saddle? What was your experience? Good or bad?

17 thoughts on “Why I will Never Order a custom Saddle

  1. Hmm, interesting! I can’t imagine spending that much on a saddle. But then, I think western saddles tend to be cheaper? And, of course, sometimes its better to spend more on higher quality, especially when it comes to you and your horse’s comfort and soundness!

  2. I am all for buying quality. What I’ve found, over the years, is that with many saddle brands you are paying for their marketing budget :). The promotional materials have created “problems” that their saddle solves. But it’s not always true. My favorite jumping saddle, the Jeffries JMX (sadly discontinued), retailed for about $2K and can. be found on the used market for about $1K. I’ve owned saddles that retailed in the $4k-$5k range that weren’t any better and sometimes had some weird attributes that were presented as features. The trick is making sure the saddle fits you and your horse, and understanding that to accomplish that takes a good independent fitter rather than just spending more $$.

    1. Just chiming in to say that I found a Jeffries dressage saddle (also no longer in production) for one of my clients. It was $200 and it fit her horse and fixed her leg like a magic bandaid!

  3. I ride at a Very Nice Barn where a certain French company sends a rep on a regular basis. All the boarders have their saddles. As a result I get to ride in several of them. I will admit that they are extremely comfortable and make me feel like I’m locked into my best eq. And they make me a little self conscious about my collection of much cheaper saddles. However, like you, I am turned off by the foam panels. Not to mention the price point is a complete deal breaker. I cannot imagine buying a saddle for that much money without being able to ride in it for several rides first. It definitely feels a bit cult-like to me and I was wondering about what kickbacks the barn gets for marketing their products so passionately. I chuckle much like I do when I see a “custom built home” for sale. Custom built doesn’t help you unless it was custom built FOR YOU. And I’ve seen a few of these horses come up back sore in their custom saddles, which definitely raises an eyebrow.

    1. They are beautiful saddles and when you are showing, I get the appeal of wanting the saddles that the pros or top riders are using. However, those folks never pay for their saddles, so if they need a new panel configuration, the manufacturer just sends them a new one. Must be nice!

      1. Where do I sign up? I would like free saddles and the adjustments they require! I’d settle for a free treeless endurance saddle… no adjusting needed!

  4. I whole heartedly agreed before I even read the part about the bad custom saddle company. I worked with a saddle fitter for my massage certification and she ripped apart custom saddles when we went over them, including the reps who really don’t get as much training as they should when fitting saddles. I’m all for good quality and fun customizations but I’m more for making sure the fit is right before any of that happens.

    1. Exactly. I’m lucky to live in an area where I have my choice of fitters. It’s harder if you have to depend on a brand-specific rep. Somehow, their saddles are always the “only” ones that fit your horse!

  5. Never sprung on one and now probably never will. The amount of effort you would go through getting the measurements and adjustments on a custom saddle isn’t horribly different from what you might go through testing out multiple “off the rack” saddles and pads.

    1. I feel strongly that you need to ride in a saddle before you know whether or not it will work for you and your horse. Unfortunately, the demo saddles don’t always ride the same as the one you order. That’s why I buy saddles that are used. I don’t need a new one. Heck, I’d just as soon have the first owner experience the depreciation.

  6. Having been a professional equine massage therapist for 12 years (now retired, my shoulders can’t take the work anymore) I can tell you the high price saddle industry is a murky swamp. I would bet that 80% of my work was on sore backed horses from saddles that just didn’t fit right.

    The hardest part was when some dressage diva would call me to come work on her horse with a sore back, I’d ask to look at her saddle and her expression was always one that said, in essence, I didn’t pay $5000 for this saddle to have you tell me it doesn’t fit the horse.

    As was said earlier, the reps aren’t making money when they sell some other company’s saddle. A saddle is only as good as the fit on your horse. When I was saddle hunting for my pear shaped ribcage, mutton withered, Arabian gelding, the saddle that finally fit him perfectly was a cheap used Collegiate that I paid $150 for. My friend, Sue, spent a ton of money on an Albion for her warmblood, Raven, and it didn’t fit didn’t fit didn’t fit even after several reflockings. She returned it to the rep who took it back rather sullenly. She finally found a Hulsebos that fit him perfectly and buying it used saved her some money…but even so, it was $2K.

    As for foam panels? NO. NO. NO. Maybe things have changed, but foam panelled saddles can’t be reflocked. The foam absorbs sweat, even through the leather, and turns into solid chunks of hard ‘plastic’. It’s a cheap shortcut..for the maker of the saddle.

    1. Horses don’t read the marketing materials :). They just know what fits and what doesn’t fit. All of my horses have loved the old style Wintec Pro Jump saddles. They are inexpensive, balanced and they have some flex in them which I’ve always thought made them more comfortable. I have no problem spending a reasonable amount of $$ for a good quality saddle, but dropping $7K or more for foam panels . . . or for one of the highly marketed brands (Schleese comes to mind), just isn’t necessary.

      Of course, so many people do not have access to independent saddle fitters so they buy the dream and want to believe that the money they spent on the saddle will fix all their riding problems and fit their horse forever. If only!

    1. The leather on the Schleese saddles are beautiful. I bought one of their xc saddles years ago, for pennies on the dollar but I couldn’t jump in it. The balance point was all off for me.

  7. I really wanted to order a custom saddle from a saddle maker here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but after your article I’m now wondering if I really need one! I do agree with Liz Goldsmith that when we buy various saddle brands we are just paying for their marketing budget. I’ve always thought that a custom saddle should be perfect for horse and rider, otherwise what’s the point of going custom?

    1. Some people love their custom saddles and it works out really well for them. Before choosing a supplier, I’d do a lot of research to find out whether customers are happy with their work (does the saddle fit horse and rider when it’s received) and how the company is to work with if there’s a problem. Of course, getting a saddle that fits your horse today, isn’t always a guarantee that it will fit in the future. I’ve found that my horses’ backs stayed pretty constant once they matured and if they stayed in consistent work. Before then, they did need adjustments which were usually achieved by tweaking the flocking. A few times, the saddle just plain didn’t fit after their backs changed too much.

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