Saddle Fit and “Saddlefitting Hell” – by Sabine Schleese

“Saddlefitting Hell”

I have seen this term used many times in various chat forums to indicate general unhappiness with the whole procedure of having to buy a(nother) new saddle because the old one no longer fits or works.

Even though over the years saddle sales and fitting procedures have changed drastically (and I like to think I had something to do with that), too many riders are still having huge issues with finding something for themselves and their horses. When I came over to Canada in 1986, saddles were still mainly treated like commodities – bought in store (very few saddle sales people would ever come out onsite to actually look at the horse – if they even knew what to look for), taken home to try out, and then – if you were lucky – exchanged for something else (sometimes over and over till you gave up – either satisfied or somewhat frustrated with the whole process but just tired of it and going to make it work). There wasn’t really anyone who a) could really fit the saddles; b) could actually properly repair broken trees or c) came out to the barn and measured both horse and rider to ensure optimal fit from the get go.

How many of you have experienced this? Many things in the equestrian industry (except maybe blacksmithing and veterinary medicine) are still very unregulated.

The term ‘master’ anything means relatively little in North America, since the apprenticeship process and the certification is largely arbitrary. In Europe these things are part of a recognized trade and certification process before a panel of ‘old masters’ – you need to have achieved the ‘rank’ of Master in any trade to be able to be in business for yourself. We registered the trade of saddlery with the Ministry of Skills Development in 1990 with a recognized 3 year apprenticeship program, but saddle fitting is unfortunately still largely an unregulated industry.

There are no standards that your saddle fitter needs to adhere to when working with your horse and saddle. Much of what is being done is based on opinion, and is limited by the materials available. Many English saddle brands can be reflocked if they have wool panels, but they can’t really be properly adjusted in width and angle over the withers.

How can you accommodate conformational changes as your horse ages, is in training, grows?

It’s no wonder that the process of continually finding a saddle that fits is so difficult and frustrating for many riders. It’s one of the reasons that I founded Saddlefit4Life® 10 years ago as an educational facility as well as a training and certification authority. Becoming a Certified Saddle Ergonomist is one step further beyond simply saddle fitting, and S4L requires a bi-annual recertification to keep the professionals at the top of their game.

Saddlefit4Life® is a network of equine professionals – all dedicated to protecting horse and rider from long term damage. I am working on establishing global standards of a common language of saddle fitting. Working with vets, chiropractors, physiotherapists, REMTs and SMS fitters to give them further insights into anatomy, biomechanics and saddle fit, Saddlefit4Life® is establishing a level of competency which will ultimately benefit you – the rider – because sometimes you just don’t know what you just don’t know.

The idea is that these professionals actually come onsite to work with horse and rider to ascertain the optimum options available to them in saddle fit – regardless of make and model. Even Wintecs for example can be part of the S4L philosophy, as long as the rider recognizes that she may have to bite the bullet and buy a new one every year or so to ensure that fit is ensured. While this goes against the philosophy of making an investment in a saddle that can be constantly adjusted properly over the life of the horse, it does in effect work with the needs of the horse to ensure an ongoing good fit.

The point is that it seems that the whole world is moving towards disposable consumables rather than working with what you have to conserve goods and somewhat protect the environment (water bottles, clothing, etc.) How many people still darn socks or repair rips in clothing instead of buying new ‘stuff’? Very few I’d wager.

But I digress somewhat… given that your saddle is probably going to be the 2nd most expensive purchase you will make when riding (after your horse – and sometimes it will even be more than your horse!), the price of the saddle is always of concern. We often come to saddle fitting clinics and hear things like “my budget is $1000” or “I’m only looking for a good used saddle”. These are both very valid statements; the reason someone has made an appointment in the first place is often just to learn and to see whether or not their saddle fits or can be made to fit their horse.

We like to think that there is value in buying something that you can keep over the course of your horse’s life and development (as a matter of fact, we like to think that this is actually very environmentally responsible as well – don’t throw your saddle out; adjust it and keep it working for you!). The premise is that you actually can save money riding in an adjustable non-disposable saddle – and you just might save money on vet bills by ensuring that your saddle is fitted properly all the time.