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Saddle fitting and custom saddles are expensive!

By: Galadriel Billington

9:23PM Aug 25, 2006

Well, in truth, sometimes getting a saddle that fits correctly is expensive. However, that's the rarer case. For most horses, an inexpensive fitting option is out there.

Most horses have a decently easy-to-fit back. Whether English or Western, a good fitting solution can be found. A horse who is typical of his breed or with a generally standard back, a horse who has a rounded/muscled back (not wasted, damaged, and dropped), a horse who hasn't worn badly fitting saddles in the past, can usually be fit to an off-the-shelf saddle with minimal adjustments.

Now, the design of English saddles includes the assumption that the saddle will be tweaked to fit any time it's put on a new horse. It's initially lightly stuffed (so there is room to add flocking to fit). It "beds in" to fit whatever horse it's on--and also in reaction to the peculiarities of the rider, which may include riding heavy to one side etc, which make it pack down more on one side than the other. It's VERY important to have a NEW OR USED English saddle adjusted as soon as you get it.

Certainly good quality saddles are expensive new; some people think they are worth the investment.

Poor quality saddles are almost guaranteed not to fit. Cheap saddles are cheap for a reason; a new saddle selling cheap will not fit your horse and will hurt him. Saddles have three major elements of quality: quality of design, quality of materials, and quality of manufacture. If a saddle is new and cheap, one (or all) of those elements has been neglected. A poor design will not fit horses and will hurt them. Poor quality materials will not last months, much less years. Poor manufacture leaves a saddle uneven and badly balanced—this is terrible for your riding and also makes the saddle sit crooked on the horse, and the tree will become twisted quickly.

However, used saddles are a real possibility. Often a good quality saddle can be found at a very good used price. Good quality saddles can last decades; in many cases, age is totally unimportant. Cosmetic flaws are also unimportant; having a saddle that suits your horse is much safer than having a pretty saddle that will make him upset. Used saddles can sometimes be found for only 1/4¼ of their original price, while still in terrific condition.

Beware when buying a used saddle---even a new saddle--that the tree is sound and straight. A sure giveaway of a broken tree is separation of the seams at the seat (even if the seller thinks it's "only cosmetic" or rippling in the leather of the seat. A twisted tree can often be seen in pictures. Most flaws of uneven-ness can also be seen in pictures.

How can you tell if a saddle fits your horse? How can you select a good quality saddle with a sound tree?

In some cases, no off-the-shelf saddle will fit a horse. When a horse has worn poorly fitting saddles and has a damaged back, the standard sizes won't accommodate that damage. The horse has high, narrow withers, a very flexed (dropped) back, and the muscles around the wither and spine are weak and wasted. If the horse receives good therapy, his back may recover and he may be able to fit a standard saddle. However, if the horse has been in that condition for too long, or if the owner is unable to get him therapy, there isn't a saddle out there that is actually made to fit him.

Sometimes breeds with strong "types" are crossed to produce an interesting offspring. Some breeds have very typey backs and have saddles generally designed to fit those backs. When you cross two of these breeds, you may get a back that is like one or the other of the parents--or a mixture, or something else entirely. For example, a typey Arabian has a short back, low withers, and narrow shoulders; the "Arabian tree" in a Western saddle is designed to accommodate this shape. A foundation Quarter Horse has a broad back, broad shoulders, and often built a little downhill (rump-high); the "Full Quarter Horse Bars" Western tree is designed to accommodate this shape. If you cross the two, you may get a QH back, an Arab back--or some unholy mix of the two that won't fit any saddle standard there is. A broad, downhill back with narrow shoulders--or very broad shoulders with quite a short back--etc--simply can't be crammed into any of the standard sizes, because standard sizes are made for breed standards, not mixes of two very different breeds.

In cases where a horse has an unusual back, an English saddle often can be made to fit. Much of the fitting of an English saddle is in the adjustment of the flocking, and that can be changed to accommodate unusual back shapes.

However, you just can't adjust a Western saddle. If you want to ride Western (and aren't willing to go with one of the Western-y English saddles with flocking), you may have to get a custom saddle. But wait! Even this doesn't have to be outrageously expensive. You can communicate directly with a tree maker, and get a tree custom made for your horse. You then simply have to find a saddle maker willing to build a saddle on that tree, which can be a lot less expensive than a whole custom saddle with a custom tree. If you opt for a rather simple saddle (no silver, plain leather, etc) it can be less expensive yet...and you can always go back and get tooled leather or add silver later.

Getting a saddle that fits well doesn't have to be expensive. Indeed, many of the gimmicks advertised to "make" a saddle fit will cost more than a saddle fitting evaluation and saddle adjustments combined! Trying one gimmick after another, guessing to find something that works, will cost more than just buying a good quality used saddle. It's so much more sure, better for the horse (!), and even less expensive to just get a saddle fitter to help you adjust what you have, or find a good suitable saddle.
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© 2006 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.