Friday, April 9, 2010

Mythbusters, Inc.

Here we are, more than four months into a new year and a new decade.  I remember being in my teens and doing the math to find out how old I'd be in the year 2000 ... and not being able to imagine being that old.  And now I'm 10 years older than that.  Little did I know ...

There were lots of things I believed in my youth that have turned out to be fallacious:  "Wait an hour after a meal to go swimming.  If you don't, you'll get a cramp and drown."  (I rarely go in over my head, and "You'll get a cramp while you're wading" just doesn't have the same impact.)   "Eating raw potatoes will give you worms."  (I love raw potatoes, and if I have worms, they're very quiet tenants.)  And the biggest, courtesy of my French-Canadian Catholic grandmother:  "At midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals in the barn bow down to honor the birth of the baby Jesus."  (Ever the pragmatist, I snuck out to the barn one Christmas Eve when I was about 6, sat quietly, and watched.  Midnight came and went, and while most of the cows and some of the horses were lying down, there was no bowing to be seen.  This not only made me question the whole organized religion thing - it also blew some pretty big holes in Grandma's credibility.)

There are also a lot of old saws regarding saddles and saddle fitting that should be laid to rest.  Some are based on outdated practices or technology, and some were never really true to begin with.

1)  "If the saddle is the right size for you, you'll be able to fit your hand between the back of your butt and the edge of the cantle."   Perhaps back in the day when English saddle design was pretty static, this might have been true.  Now, however, it's pretty much gone the way of the dodo.  If you look at the deep seat and high cantle on some dressage saddles, or the swept-back cantle on some cross-country saddles, you'll see what I mean.  The length and set of the flaps, and the placement of the blocks are also important - if the seat's ok but the flap or blocks are wrong, the rider won't be comfy:

The seat on this saddle is sufficiently large - it would be too large for some people's taste - but unless the rider lengthens the leather considerably, her knee is going to be over the block and off the flap.  A more forward-set flap would be needed if the rider is not comfortable with a longer leg.

Now here's an example of a saddle that's just too darn small - we're almost talking "thong with stirrups" here:

Probably another inch of seat length, and perhaps a more generous flap, would make the saddle a much better fit.

 Also, personal preference plays a large part here.  Some people like to feel a little more cradled, while some prefer a bit more room to move.  If you feel balanced and comfortable, and can ride well and effectively, then the seat's the right size for you.

2)  "Foam panels are no good because they break down so quickly."   This was pretty true in the beginning.  Anyone who's old enough to have had one of the first English saddles with foam in the padded flaps will tell you that it degraded in pretty short order and became this nasty, grainy sand-like stuff that would magically leach out and cling with great tenacity to the knee patches on your breeches.  Unfortunately, the first foam panels behaved in pretty much the same manner.  The good news is that today's foams are far more resilient.  They don't conform to a horse's back the way wool does, which makes them a good choice for a "one saddle, multiple horse" situation (providing, of course, the fit is basically correct for all the horses it's being used on).  And if something does happen that affects the integrity of the foam, the saddle can be sent back to the manufacturer and the foam can be replaced.

3)  "You should have 3 fingers' clearance between your horse's wither and the gullet of the saddle."   This has changed to a much less exacting "adequate clearance."  With some horses and saddles, three fingers will be about right ... and on some, it may be 4 fingers, and on some, only one.  Hoop trees, for example, are designed to sit lower on the horse than standard trees, in order to minimize lateral instability on the sausage bodies.  Here's an example of a hoop tree that's fitting well (note the green lines showing angle of the back and angle of the tree points).  There's not 3 fingers' clearance there, but the fit is correct:

4)  "Buy a saddle with a wide tree and you can pad it to fit any horse."  I'm going to go back to my favorite analogy here and compare that to buying a pair of size 14 shoes and thinking they'll fit everyone if they just wear enough pairs of socks.  I know there are some big-name trainers out there who subscribe to that theory, but if a tree's way, way too wide for a horse, you can have it sitting up on 4 or 5 or 6 pads, and it still won't fit properly.  And in addition, you'll run into lateral stability problems if your saddle is perched 3" off your horse's back on a drift of multiple pads.  Just not a good idea.

5)  "Women want saddles with wide twists, and men want saddles with narrow twists."  I covered this in a blog post way back in March of '09 (, so I won't go into tons of detail -  I'll just reiterate and say that I've never found much truth in that particular statement.  I'm a woman, and I like a narrow twist; two women here in the shop like a wide twist.  So go figure.  If I ever get to the point where I can peg twist width preference and fit for the rider as easliy as I can assess fit for the horse, I'll retire in under five years.

6)  "High withered horses need narrow trees for wither clearance."  High withered horses rarely need narrow trees.  I've been fitting saddles for a decade or so, and in that time I've run into two horses that really needed a narrow tree (and strangely enough, when their fitting needs were met, they both developed muscle and had to be re-fit with medium trees).  Often, high withered horses need modified panels:  a K or trapezius panel, a wither or full front gusset, or a deeper rear gusset.  Putting a narrow tree on a horse just because of a big wither will actually cause more muscle atrophy under the tree points and actually exacerbate the fitting problems.

7)  "Steeple-withered horses are built that way because they've never had a saddle that fits them properly."  As I said in #6, trying to fit a big wither with a narrow tree can make a bad matter worse.  But there are times when saddle fit isn't the culprit - genetics are.  If you've been on the Trumbull Mtn. website at all, you might be familiar with this photo:

(Sorry it's so pixellated - I can't find the original and had to pull this one from the site.)  This is a fairly young horse at the beginning of his under saddle career.  That wither's a fitting challenge, and could be made worse by a bad fit, but it comes directly from Mom and / or Dad, not from a saddle.

8)  "Getting a custom made saddle is the only way to get a really high-quality saddle, and if you have a hard-to-fit horse, it's the only way to fit them correctly."  Any saddle company out there is going to make the best saddle it possibly can, whether it's a stock model or a custom job.  And as for fitting hard-to-fit horses ... in all the time I've been fitting saddles, I've yet to see a horse that really, truly needed a fully custom saddle.  Some need a bench-made saddle - that is, a stock model made with certain modifications - and some have needed one saddle built on another saddle's tree.  But as far as honestly needing a custom tree and a custom saddle built on it?  Nah.  It's a nice way to spend your disposable income, and the snob appeal is undeniable, but I've yet to see it be an absolute necessity.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, very informative for someone that struggles with saddle fits being too darn tall!

Kate said...

This was a really interesting post and I learned a lot from it. I am going through the process of finding a dressage saddle for my TB mare. I took one on trial, a 17.5 Ainsley Weybridge with a medium tree. It was such a fantastic deal and I was so excited to ride in it, but when I got to the barn and put it on what I thought was a pretty standard TB, the medium was really pinchy in the shoulder area. It just did not sit right on my horse at all.

My jumping saddle is an M. Toulouse Premia w/ a medium tree and it fits her great (I've had a saddle fitter out to check it out and he gave his approval) and I'm confused about why the Ainsley fit her so poorly. I thought that tree size was kind of standard, but maybe it's not? Should I move on to other brands, or through proper alterations could the Ainsley be made to fit?

Either way, the search continues!

Cut-N-Jump said...

And with each of those 'rules' there are a handfull of horses to prove and a handfull to deny the truth in them. They are animals and each is built differently. Saddles are improtant but the fact that it fits properly is even more so. Padding underneath only goes so far and it still won't correct a poor fit.

Zanthia said...

I don't know if you have time to answer questions, but I love your blog so I thought I'd give it a try.

I recently bought a western-style gaited horse tree saddle online. Just a cheap little saddle for easy trail riding.

It fit my horse well, so I've used it for about 10 rides. No problems at all until my ride on Thursday night. It was the horse's first trail ride, and he was acting funny the whole time. Zig-zagging, turning his head one way while his body went another way, stuff like that. (He's just turning 4 years old.) I thought his behavior was just due to the newness of being in a cornfield...

We got back from the 60 minute ride, and I discover that he has foamy sweat on ONE SIDE of his back where the saddle/pad was. The other side is rather wet, but no foam at all. The fleece on the underside of the saddle is obviously more worn on that one side. After only 10 rides!

When I set the saddle on his back, it still seems to fit ok, but seems a little crooked no matter how you try to adjust it. Then, when I set the saddle on the rack and studied it, it almost looks like there is a very slight twist from the front to the back of the saddle. Could be my eyes fooling me though.

I think the saddle is a lemon, but I have no way of proving that I didn't damage it somehow. Or maybe the saddle is fine and something is wrong with my horse?

Any advice or suggestions would be very appreciated. Or if you can recommend a good saddle expert in central Illinois...

saddlefitter said...

Zanthia, most horses are asymmetrical to some degree, as are most riders, which can create fitting issues similar to what you're describing. We carried the Abetta western saddles for a while and liked them, but every once in a while, as saddle can come through skewed - it happens. You might want to have an experienced western fitter come out and take a look. I don't know any personally, but I Googled this guy:, and I always refer western fitting questions to (lots of info and really nice people). Sorry I couldn't offer more, but hope this is at least marginally helpful.

Zanthia said...

Thank you for the tips!! It's only a $325 saddle, so I'm not sure it's worth repairing. I will see if the retailer will take it back.

Val said...

Useful and entertaining post! My blogger photo is of me riding my horse in the used saddle which was purchased from Trumbull Mountain. The fitting help offered by your tack shop staff was priceless. Thank you again.

How can one tell if the foam in an old synthetic saddle has lost its usefulness?