Good saddles aren't cheap. And cheap saddles are rarely good. However, since the economy's in the crapper, many people are thinking long and hard before they plunk down a considerable chunk of change on a saddle. I empathize entirely; making ends meet is tough, and discretionary income seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. But with that in mind, I do urge my customers to invest in the best they can possibly afford without rupturing the budget, for three reasons:
#1) Better quality. As a rule of thumb, you get what you pay for. I'm not saying that you have to go out and spend $7000 - frankly, I get a good chuckle out of the people who hoist their snoots in the air because their saddle costs more than my family's monthly living expenses - but I do know that spending $2800 on a new saddle will pretty much guarantee that it will be of superior quality and workmanship than a spandy-new $400 saddle (especially if we're talking about a spandy-new $400 leather saddle).
#2) Better resale. Saddle prices don't go down, and most people are pleasantly surprised to find that the saddle they spent $2500 on a few years ago (and that they have maintained well) can be sold with only a few hundred dollars' loss.
#3) Real value. As Ma used to say, there are people out there who will "step over a dollar to pick up a dime", meaning that they'll snap up what seems to be a good deal without considering the long-term possibilities. Here's a little vignette to illustrate.
Bob is an appendix Quarter horse who harks back to the Thoroughbred in build and the Quarter horse in temperament. He's a rangy guy with a biggish wither and a dropped back:
I've known Bob for a few years; he's a genuinely good and kind horse, a former polo pony (too big and gawky) who went through a hunter barn (no style over fences) and spent a stint as a teenager's event horse (no zoom on cross-country) before landing with an adult amateur low-level dressage rider who breaks up ring work with long trail rides. This is pretty much an ideal life for Bob; he's amiable and honest enough to do a respectable Training level test, yet phlegmatic enough to be fairly bomb-proof on the trail.
Bob's not a terribly complicated fit, roughly a medium wide in the bulk of the UK-made saddles. I'll have to make sure he has a deeper panel in front to offer support and "fill in" down that substantial wither, and a full front gusset would probably be helpful to support the front of the saddle, too. He'll need a fairly scoopy tree and a thinner rear panel to deal with the upslope to his croup (which is more pronounced than this photo shows). My first choice would be either a Frank Baines Reflex or a Black Country Eden with a K panel and full front gusset. His owner doesn't have the budget for a new saddle, so we find a couple used saddles in the $1500 range, including an Albion SLK with a high head and all the necessary fitting options that fits Bob like it was made for him and makes Customer happy, too. I send Customer home with the Albion for the one-week trial.
About 5 days later, she's back in the shop with the Albion. "My trainer doesn't like this saddle," Customer tells me.
I take my glasses off and rub my eyes to keep them from rolling skyward. I know Customer's trainer - she's one of those Self-Appointed Experts who always knows best and can make a fitter's life (and the life of any other professional with whom she collides) a trial, and this isn't the first time I've run into this scenario with one of her clients.
Customer says, "She says Bob can't be a medium-wide, and needs a narrower tree because he has a big wither. She has a 30 cm. Stubben dressage saddle that she says fits him perfectly. It's in really nice shape, and she's going to sell it to me for only five hundred dollars!"
Customer is clearly excited about the price, while I'm as clearly and excitedly (though not in a good way) imagining just what a 30 cm. Stubben will look like on Bob. It's going to be so narrow and sit so pommel-high that I'll be surprised if Customer doesn't skid backwards off the cantle. "Uh, well, would you like me to take a look at it?" I offer, though that would undoubtedly mean having to deal with the Self-Appointed Expert ... which is about as appealing as stapling my lips to a wall, dousing myself in gasoline and sticking a lit match in my butt.
"Oh, no, no, that's ok," Customer tells me. "I'm sure it fits just fine. And what a great deal, too!"
Fast forward about six months. The phone rings, and it's Customer. "I think I need to make an appointment to bring Bob in again."
Yes, I bet you do, I think. "Sure. Does the Stubben need to be checked?"
"Um, no-o-o-o ..." There's a long pause. "I think I need a different saddle."
"Oh, sorry to hear that," I say - and though I'm not surprised, I really am sorry. I hate it when people fall into this sort of pit. "When would you like to come in?"
"I'm not sure. You see, I'm just getting over a broken arm."
"Oh, that's awful!" I say.
"It's almost totally healed now. I'm out of the cast and everything, but I don't feel comfortable trying to deal with the truck and trailer. My daughter will have to drive, and I'm not sure what her schedule is. Can we maybe pencil something in for next week, and I'll call to let you know for sure?"
When Customer finally arrives, I get to hear the whole story - with poor Bob's back to illustrate. The muscle atrophy behind the withers is even more marked, and he's developed a huge lump of muscle at the base of his withers - what I call a "resistance muscle", a feature that I often find on horses who've been lugging an ill-fitting saddle for some time. Fortunately, Bob's not back-sore, but his fitting issues are a lot more complicated that they had been.
Things were fine for a few weeks, although Customer was having trouble keeping her feet back under her body - no surprise, since the saddle sat so pommel-high. Then Bob started flinching when his back was being brushed acting cranky during saddling; he even developed the nasty habit of snapping at whomever was tightening the girth. He was reluctant to go forward, his gaits were choppy and his rear toes were dragging; he refused to bring his back up and consistently worked in an inverted frame. This was all very un-Bob-like, but Trainer decided Bob was just taking advantage of his ammie rider, so she rode Bob ... with the same results. Out came the draw reins and the German martingale, but even these couldn't make Bob drop his head and (at least pretend to) lift his back. At Trainer's recommendation, Customer called the vet and had them do a full work-up, including bloodwork, Lyme test (it's rampant in our area), endoscopic exam for ulcers and lameness exam with radiographs and thermal images. $800 later, the only thing they could find was a slight arthritic change in his near hock and some major back soreness. When the vet suggested that saddle fit might be the culprit (I love the fact that vets are getting hip to this issue!), Trainer pooh-poohed the theory and decided Customer needed to bring in the naturopathic vet ... which Customer did. After a $250 chiropractic and acupuncture session, the naturopathic vet told Customer and Trainer that they really should look into another saddle, since in her opinion the issues stemmed from incorrect fit. Customer was ready to call me, but Trainer wasn't convinced. A couple days later, Trainer threw the Stubben back on Bob, slapped on the draw reins, and bullied him around the indoor arena for a while; then she had Customer get on. Customer mounted, gathered up the reins, and asked Bob to move forward.
Bob went nuclear.
"I'd never felt anything like it," Customer told me, "and I hope I never do again."
Customer was launched in grand style, flying about 12 feet before landing on the top lip of the kick board and snapping both bones in her forearm.
"And you know what really bugs me?" Customer asked me. "I wound up spending over $5000 between that damn Stubben and the vet bills and doctor and hospital bills and a week lost at work. Should've bought that Albion in the first place. But you know the worst thing? It was the way he stood there shaking and sweating after he'd thrown me - he knew he'd done something awful, and I knew it was all my own stupid fault. I'd been putting my horse through hell with that saddle; I'd doubted it was working, but I didn't want to offend Trainer." She sighed. "I should have listened to Bob."