I recently had a fitting appointment with a woman who was looking for a dressage saddle. I asked her what saddle fitting issues she'd been having in the past, and she replied that every saddle she tried on her horse was "too tight behind the shoulders". She'd tried 5 or 6 different saddles in varying widths, but all had the same problem. Since everything in saddle fitting can be open to interpretation, I took her word for it, though the horse didn't appear to have any major fitting issues. I found a few saddles that looked like good candidates (and that she'd liked sitting in on the buck), so she tacked her horse up in the first one and started riding around the arena. I watched as she walked and trotted, and the saddle looked like a pretty darn good fit - there was no popping in the cantle at the rising trot, the saddle wasn't slipping forward or backward (or rolling side-to-side), and the horse was moving out well. The rider looked comfortable and balanced, too. She cantered in both directions, and things were looking about perfect. She brought her horse to the walk, let the reins out to the buckle, and got a free walk that should have scored a "10" in a dressage test. I was about to tell her how good everything looked when I noticed that she was glaring down at the pommel of the saddle.
"This saddle is doing the same thing all the others did!" she exclaimed.
I was totally flummoxed. Everything looked perfect to my eye, and the horse sure seemed happy, so what in the world was she seeing? "Could you show me what you mean?" I asked.
She tucked her whip under her thigh, leaned forward, and proceeded to stuff her fingers under the panels of the saddle, right under the tree points, behind the horse's shoulders. "I can't get my hands in there!"
"Well," I relpied, "you're not really supposed to be able to."
"Why not?" she countered.
Fortunately, I'm usually pretty good at thinking on my feet. Since it would have been impolitic to say, "Well, you have your whole body weight in the saddle, which is weighing it down pretty effectively, so why would you think you should be able to fit your hands in there?!", I had to find another explanation. Then, I noticed that she was wearing tall boots. "Can you stick your hands down the top of your boot?"
"Of course not!"
"Do they fit well?"
"Of course!" she answered.
"Same sort of thing here," I told her. "You want the saddle to fit like your boots: not too tight, not too loose, no big gaps and no pinching." I also explained about wanting even pressure under the entire length of the tree points, and how lack of pressure - or too much pressure - can cause problems.
I just have to wonder how many of the saddles she tried really did fit well ...
MORAL: Your hands do not belong under your saddle - at least not when you're IN it. Don't try to put them there.
I was chatting on the phone with a customer who'd sent photos and a template, discussing tree width. She said she knew her horse wasn't happy in a medium-tree County, and when I saw the tracings, I could see why: the tracings showed the horse to be a hoop tree candidate ... and at least an extra-wide hoop tree, at that. When I relayed that information, there was a moment of silence on her end of the phone, then, "Oh."
I blathered on quite happily, telling her which saddles offer the hoop tree, when she interrupted.
"There's no way my horse is that broad."
I said, "If your tracings are correct, we're looking at an extra-wide hoop ..."
"There is NO WAY my horse is that wide."
"Well, I'm afraid the tracings I'm seeing are definitely matching the extra-wide ..."
"My. horse. is. not. that. fat," She said, a little shakily.
"Oh, width doesn't equate to fat," I explained. "Lots of breeds are very well-sprung in the ribs and broad. I see your mare is a Morgan - Arab cross, and both of those breeds tend to be ..."
"MY. HORSE. IS. NOT! THAT! FAT!!"
I sighed mentally. "Of course not - I wasn't inferring that at all, honestly. Extra-wide trees don't ..."
"I just can't get my head around that," she said. "My horse is only 14.3."
I plowed on. "Height isn't much of an indicator of tree width, really. Lots of the smaller breeds - smaller in height, I mean - are wider than the bigger breeds. According to the tracings you sent ..."
"She's really NOT fat!" she wailed. "If you're saying she's an extra-wide, it means you think she's FAT!"
"No, no, not at all," I assured her. "You can see in the photos that she's really very fit. It's just that she has the broad back that's pretty typical of her ..."
"I'll ... I'll need to call you back." She sounded very close to tears. "I just can't get my head around that. Extra-wide?!?!" And she hung up the phone.
MORAL: Wide does not equal fat.
I was doing a fitting on a Morgan gelding who was ... well, let's say "conformationally challenged." He was 15 h. at the withers and 15.2 h. at the croup (which was flat as a table); he had upright pasterns, an upright shoulder, a 6" long neck, long cannon bones, forelegs that appeared to come out of the same hole in an incredibly narrow chest, and almost no detectable hock. "He's built like a saw horse," his owner explained, and I thought that was a pretty accurate description. The owner said he needed a narrow tree, but when I looked at his back, I'd have said at least a medium-wide, if not wider. I plunked the owner's existing saddle, an old medium-wide Albion Comfort, on his back and did a quick assessment. It met all the criteria of the Heavy Seven, though a strip-flock was definitely in order.
"Have you been having any problems with this saddle?" I asked.
"No, not at all," she replied. "But after realizing how narrow he is, I thought there was no way a medium-wide saddle should be fitting correctly."
"The Albions tend to run on the generous side when it comes to tree width," I said. "He'd likely need a wide tree in some saddles."
"But look at how narrow he is!" she insisted.
I looked at the horse. That back was pretty broad, and when I turned to the owner to say as much, I realized that she was NOT looking at his back. She was staring directly at his chest, and said, "I'm surprised to hear you say the saddle fits well, considering ..."
"Well, when I say he's wide, I'm looking at his back ... not his chest."
The owner stepped up beside her horse's shoulder and gazed at his back. "OH! NOW I see what you mean ..."
MORAL: In saddle fitting, it's the width of the BACK we consider.
As I said earlier, we do a lot of work with the help of photos. When assessing fit, we ask for photos like these:
Sometimes, if rear panel contact is in question, we'll ask for photos like this:
But what we DON'T need are photos like these:
That's a cute face, but it tells me zip about saddle fitting needs or issues.
Again, a nice-looking horse, but I can tell nothing about what he might need for a saddle.
Ok, we have definite clearance over the withers, but that's about all I can tell ...
I can't even see the saddle, let alone the back ... impossible to tell anything about fit. Nice tail, though ...
The saddle's not girthed up, and it's way too far forward. I'm also hoping that the horse didn't take two big steps to his right and drop the saddle in that mud puddle ...
The red saddle nail tells me this is a Duett ... or an Albion ... or perhaps a Keiffer ... but that's all.
I'm not even totally sure what this one is ... I think it's a horse's back ...
Anyway, bottom line: I need good info to do my job. This doesn't mean professional photos or reams of poetry about how the saddle feels for you or a dissertation on how your horse is going ... but clear, concise input from you makes my job a ton easier, and increases the likelihood that your saddle search will be as short and painless as possible!