I am always striving to say what is so important for horses about saddle fit in a way that will resonate with people. Tight shoes analogy is getting a little old and most of our feet change slowly… so that one is going by the wayside. I have been thinking about Arnold… yes, aaaahhhnald… you know, the big guy.
Now, while I am not promoting any politician these days, his days of a bodybuilder are what I am focusing on. Imagine Arnold in his early years of becoming Mr. Olympia, Mr. America and Mr. Universe. Can you picture him staying in the same clothes as he sculpted those body changes? As we train our horses, striving for higher levels in competition, or change their work levels, our horses’ muscles are changing (and honestly, I have seen some Arnold-worthy changes in some of the horses I work with). They can change in unexpected directions. Seemingly small workout changes can produce some nasty saddle problems. Maybe you just started cross-training… a little more trail riding interspersed with your normal workout. Almost every muscle change can bring on a potential problem.
And the “clothes” I am talking about are wood, rigid plastic (and iron in some cases). When saddles don’t fit horses, they are super-uncomfortable.
We are asking our horses to sculpt their bodies to become better athletes but we are not changing the clothes that will allow for the larger muscle or fit the trimmer athlete. Think of Arnold in rigid clothing… how far do you think he would have gotten?
I will state my disclaimer here at the beginning. I am friends with Karen Borne, owner of Borne Saddlery and Andy Sankey, Master Saddler and owner of Sankey Saddlery. To qualify this remark, the basis of our friendship relies on their understanding and care for the horses they work with. The level of care and concern may also be said of owners and saddlers for other companies so I will explain what sets Borne and Sankey apart from other saddle companies I respect…
A woman from Texas and a man in Scotland met and began a collaboration. What this collaboration resulted in is slowly changing the English saddle market. The change is based on fitting horses with a tree chosen from a wide range of differing trees before they fit the rider. Another difference is that they can show you the tree and how it conforms to your horse’s shape.
This is quite different from many English saddle companies as most have only a few style trees and make changes in only the panels to conform to your horse. While wool panels are great because they can be changed to accommodate different aspects of your horse’s current shape, the wood tree will determine basic limitations of what the wool can do to protect the horse and enhance the fit. This is an ongoing industry debate so you will find saddle sellers and makers who believe that the panel is all you must worry about. I have come down firmly on the side of the tree defining the best and most comfortable fit for the horse.
In the past few months, I have pointed out to three horse owners that their high quality, English-made saddles no longer worked for their horses. One rider was able to change to a saddle whose tree was suited to her horse. Even though she had never noticed any problems, she immediately noticed an improvement in behavior and movement in Prix St Georges level dressage competition and in everyday hacks… especially when walking down hills.
The two other riders were unwilling to believe that their saddles were impeding their horse’s movement. Luckily both rode in a recent clinic with a world-class trainer who heard the stories, observed the behavior, and saw what the saddles were doing. An immediate change of saddle changed the behavior and movement of both horses. Both these riders were working with trainers but most trainers have not studied how to evaluate all aspects of a saddle.
All three saddles were made by the same English saddle company and two of the three were different models. Unfortunately, changing models within this company would not alter the outcome. This expensive, highly regarded saddle line offers saddles with similar trees made mostly to accommodate the rider’s comfort. If we are going to ask our horses to perform, the saddles must allow their performance muscles to develop.
Does this mean that the Borne/Sankey lines ignore rider comfort? Absolutely not. It just means that this collaboration is supporting both athletes by allowing the human to choose and giving the silent partner the best tools possible.