My husband is a magician - literally. In his youth, he did it professionally; later, it served well as free entertainment at the boys' birthday parties, and now, it's a hobby. He's still very good at it, and I love to watch him. I also know the mechanics behind some of the illusions, but before he would tell me how any of them were performed, I had to take the Magician's Oath and swear I would not divulge any of the secrets to the World At Large.
Sometimes, the business of saddle fitting strikes me that way. Some fitters refuse to share any information whatsoever, some will only speak to you of fitting if you're also a fitter, some will only speak to you of fitting if you're a fellow initiate in their personal Sect of Saddle Fitting, and some cloak saddle fitting in smoke and mirrors and infer that it's a process very close to alchemy.
It just ain't so.
I will admit, it's not a job that everyone can (or would want to) do. Some people have a much better eye and feel for it than others, and the flocking and repair aspect does require that you have an aptitude for working with your hands ... but the meat-and-potatoes basics are something that pretty much everyone can understand - and should understand - for the good of their horses and their pocketbooks. In the horse world, there are as many fads and fashions and Ways to Keep Up With the Joneses as there are in any area in which you may spend your discretionary income, and some people get caught up in that to a ridiculous degree and end up changing saddles the way I change socks ... So for the good of the consumer (and their horses), here are some basic rules to help you keep your head about you while saddle shopping.
- DO learn as much as you can about the basics of saddle fitting. Read the books, read the on-line info, pick people's brains. Some of the info will be conflicting, but some bits will come up again and again ... and that's usually the truth showing through.
- DO set a realistic budget, and stick to it. Remember that a $1500 saddle can work just as well as a $7000 saddle if it fits you and your horse. You don't have to mortgage the farm and your firstborn child to get a good saddle that works. Even if you need a bench made (customized) saddle, many are available for $3500 or less.
- DO insist on a trial period before you buy. You can't tell if a saddle will work based on how it looks on your horse when she's standing still in the ties, or based on a sedate 5-minute toddle around the arena without fittings. You need 4 or 5 or 7 rides at all gaits under a variety of circumstances before you can make a decision with any certainty.
- DO listen to your horse. Sometimes a saddle may appear to be the perfect fit, but your horse may object. The opposite is also true - sometimes a saddle that looks marginal can suit you and your horse to a T.
- DO ride in as many different saddles as you realistically can. Obviously, you'll have to be conscious of chewing through your budget if you're spending money on shipping, but sample as wide a variety as you can.
- DO work with a reputable independent fitter (or one who reps for multiple companies) or a shop with a big inventory and an in-house fitter. You'll likely get a much more objective evaluation of your and your horse's needs, and have an easier time adhering to #4.
- DO ask your fitter to explain what does and doesn't work, and why. If they won't, or won't couch it in terms you can understand, you may want to re-think your optons.
- DO NOT buy a saddle just because your trainer insists. They may love that saddle, and it may work beautifully for them and for some of their other students/clients, but it may not be the right saddle for you and your horse.
- DO NOT buy a saddle just because "everyone" is riding in it, or because George Morris / Anky / Edward Gal / McLain Ward / David O'Connor / Valerie Kanavy is riding in or endorsing it. See number 8.
- DO NOT believe the "It's not perfect, but we can MAKE it fit" line. Some things can be tweaked to refine saddle fit - flocking and billet configuration, for example - but if the saddle fit isn't basically correct, pass.
- DO NOT believe the "This saddle will fit your horse for the rest of his life" claim. Unless it's a saddle that can have the tree width, tree shape and panel configuration altered infinitely ... it won't.
- DO NOT allow anyone to convince you that you/your horse need a custom saddle. Remember that most horses and riders can be fit quite perfectly with an off-the-rack or bench-made saddle. In over a decade of fitting, I've yet to meet the horse/rider that needed a full custom.
- DO NOT neglect to have your saddle's fit checked periodically. Wool flocking will compress and requires regular maintenence, and even foam-paneled saddles should be checked regularly to make sure they're still fitting well.