Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No Magic Bullet

Becoming a saddle fitter was a mid-life career change for me.  I'd been an "at home mom" for about 5 years before I started working for Edie, and before that, I'd spent about 15 years making my living as a dressage trainer and instructor.  And when I'm doing saddle fitting, I find that my trainer / instructor past is never far away.  Many times, I have to keep myself from slipping back into the instructor's role if I see someone posting ahead of the motion or struggling with a transition or allowing the horse to lean on the inside aids.  Having an eye for a rider's issues can be a help when choosing a saddle ... but old habits do die hard.

In the previous entry, Edie mentioned riders looking for a "miracle" saddle, and that's not as uncommon as many people would think.  Our society's search for instant gratification is definitely manifest in the horse world - we want everything yesterday.  We  race Thoroughbreds that have just turned two years old; have 4 year old dressage horses that are showing First level and schooling Second; we start horses over fences at 3, show yearlings in longe line classes ... and want to find the magic saddle that automatically make our balance perfect, our seat independent and secure, our hands light and soft, and our aids perfectly timed and impeccably applied.  (It's also supposed to turn our horses into Ahlerich or Giltedge or Abdullah or Rugged Lark ... but I won't get into that now.)

Here's the bottom line, people:  there is no magic bullet.  You must learn to ride, and ride well.  I'm not talking about becoming professional or Olympic caliber; I understand the physical and mental limitations that we all face (yeah, even you young skinny types who bounce when you get dumped rather than just going "splat"). I mean doing your personal best and gaining a solid level of competence - becoming a rider instead of a passenger.  I'll be the first to admit that the right saddle can really help your position and balance, and the wrong one can hinder the same, but there is no saddle out there that will make up for deficiencies in your riding.  Deep seats, big calf blocks, grippy seat leather, padded flaps and steroidal thigh blocks will not turn an inexperienced (or - let's be blunt - lazy) rider into a competent, experienced rider.  The only thing that will do that is practice ... and lots of it.

Why become competent?  Besides the obvious - taking pride in the ability to ride well - there are two reasons:  first, it's a lot easier on your horse.  Anyone who's ever carried an unbalanced toddler on their back can empathize with a horse that has to carry an unbalanced rider.  If you're consistently sitting heavily to one side, if your core muscles are lacking and you're unstable in the saddle, if you don't develop a soft, independent seat and hands, your horse - AND your horse's performance - will pay for it.  You'll have a horse who's impossible to bend in one direction or the other, who drops behind or goes above the bit, who'll only pick up one lead, who'll duck out at fences, who'll go down the trail with his back hollow and his head in your face, who'll refuse to engage his haunches and work through his back ... I'm sure you get the idea.  In order for your horse to develop correctly - or at least be comfortable - you must become a competent rider.

Second, it's easier on your saddle.  I've seen "sided" riders who compress the flocking unevenly and stretch their stirrup leathers ... and that's just the tip of the iceburg.  I've also seen sided riders stretch the panel and seat leather.  I've seen riders who use an unholy amount of seat wear holes in or stretch the seat leather.  I've seen riders twist saddle trees by constantly riding with one side further forward.  I've seen tight legs warp or wear through flaps, I've seen riders who depend that "rider glue" - Sadl-Tite is one - compromise the finish of their leather, and in one memorable case, a rider whose dependence on "grippy" full seat breeches completely trashed the seat on her saddle - chewed all the way through to the foam - in about 3 years. 

I guess it comes down to where you prefer to spend your money and time:  in the saddle working to improve your riding ... or on the ground, with your vet and saddle fitter.


Cut-N-Jump said...

Wow! Some of the things mentioned- I have never imagined could be done.

I knew a girl in high school, who showed me her new barrel racing saddle by pulling it out of the horse trailer by the horn and dumped it on the ground.

I can only bet her parents were proud but also thrilled they had spent the money on it for her to treat it like that...

Sometimes it is just amazing what people do to their stuff instead of just learning how to do things right.

Anonymous said...

That was a great post! I totally agree that the right saddle will definitely help but it will not replace correct work on improving your position.
I can't believe people can wear holes through the seat leather! After 2 years of riding, the suede on my saddle seat looks like new and I usually ride in my sticky full seats. It's amaizing how much better the horse goes when your postition is correct, I'm just beginning to discover that.

Meghan said...

Great post! I detest those saddles that have incredibly deep seats and huge thigh blocks. Personally, I'd rather spend the money on longe lessons than an uberfancy saddle to "hold" me in in place.

The saddle I have now is nothing fancy, just a $500 Wintec all purpose. But it's the right size for me, it sits level on my horse, and the seat is just grippy enough to make me feel secure. Since I lengthened my stirrups, I now have a very good leg position, and even though the stirrup bar is too far forward, my leg still relaxes back into the proper position. On the other hand, I paid nearly three times as much for a saddle that supposedly made the perfect position effortless, when in fact it was all wrong for me and my horse and very hard to ride in.

On the other hand, I often see people who spend thousands of dollars on a horse, yet they put any cheap saddle they can find in their cousin's garage on that horse's back. Sometimes money and sense don't go together.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of wearing a hole in the leather on the seat of a saddle. I can only imagine the level of riding and lack of training (both horse and rider) involved to do that.

I have two very nice saddles that I keep to myself and won't let anyone else ride in. They fit me, they fit my horse and why let someone else ruin that?

I recently seen and advertised saddle, stating the stirrup bars were moved back to reduce the 'bulk' under a riders leg. In thinking about it logically, I just don't see how that would work. Any ideas? I will try to find the ad and send a link.

tamara said...

Excellant blog, I picked up on it during a search for guess what? Yes, that miracle saddle, probably treeless as I don't tip so much to the right with one! Having read this blog I now realise I was after the miracle as a quick cure all. I now plan to save my money for more lessons as my current saddle was fitted by a MSF who did comment that she needed to flock one side where I sat heavily and my pony likes it. Man is my hubby happy now!

Anonymous said...

Of course riders are looking for a miracle saddle! Just like golfers look for miracle golf clubs and Runners are looking for miracle sneakers.

aussiechic said...

Everything here concerns me, as not one person mentions how the saddle fits the horse....it is all me me me m em eme memememememe. Ugh.
First, fit the saddle to the horse, THEN fit the saddle to you. Period. Make your horse as comfortable as possible, then worry about yourself. When your horse is comfortable, you will be comfortable and then your riding will naturally improve.....

tamara said...

I dont think your comment is very accurate regarding earlier posts.
If you read my post for example you would have noted that it said that my saddle was fitted by a MSF (Master saddle fitter) and my pony liked it. it isnt all me me me as you say for some of us its 'us us us' I wanted a miracle saddle for me and my pony, saddlefitters blog made me realise that a well fitting saddle with all the new woofers and tweeters (big knee rolls etc)will not resolve my riding problems, thats down to my body control etc! Sorry but riding well isnt just down to how comfortable your horse is, it takes a lot of work from the human as well.

Jane said...

Wonderful wonderful post! I ride in all kinds of saddles, but I too have occasionally wished for a miracle saddle. Nice to be reminded I have to work, and stop complaining (internally) about some of the saddles that I ride in, that don't fit me. Thanks!

A well-balanced, athletic rider can make any saddle (that fits the horse) work for her for short periods of time.

For me, it was a given of the post that the saddle must fit the horse first: it's Kit's blog. :)