We have all thrown around the T word since we became cognizant of saddles. Mostly we talk about whether we like a narrow or wide twist. Hmmmmm… have we ever considered the horse we are riding in this conversation? Not very often.
Just what IS a twist? The twist is actually supposed to accommodate the horse’s shape, not the rider’s. It is the area in the saddle tree that actually twists the wood or plastic tree angle from the withers to the angle of the back. That the twist is in an area that determines our comfort is just a coincidence. One more thing that makes this discussion important is that the twist area is hidden from an untrained observer. This area of fit, if incorrect, can silently kill a horse’s ability to perform.
Why is this important? Most of us have been purchasing saddles with twists we like and we have not been taking the horse’s shape into consideration. If the twist is too narrow for your horse, whether in an English, Western, or Australian saddle, it will pinch the primary muscle in the horse that needs to develop. Not only will the longissimus dorsi muscles not develop, they will atrophy in many cases because the pinched area also becomes a pivot point where all the rider’s weight focuses when the horse tries to utilize this muscle (ie. it flexes this muscle and lifts the narrowed area instead of having the room to flex into). The longissimus dorsi is part of the longissimus group of muscles that needs to develop in a healthy manner both to support the rider and improve performance.
If the twist is too wide for a horse it can cut into this same muscle right at the top and dig into the spine. In this case the tree will essentially hang on either sides of your horses’s long wither spinous processes.
Hold your bicep tightly and flex it. Try to imagine building up your bicep with the knowledge that every time you use it, you will experience pain. You would compensate somehow. Horses do too and that may be one reason why so many hocks and stifles are being injected.
When you purchase a saddle, use a saddle fitter who can talk you through whether your horse requires a wide, medium, or narrow twist. So what about your comfort? Let’s just say I hope you are comfortable with the build of the horse you purchased, because his or her shape should be the first consideration when you purchase a saddle… after all, your weight is on their back, not vice versa.
As a professional saddle fitter, I have found that some companies’ saddles work better than others. Is this to say that I won’t work with others? Not at all! I often see and work with saddles that fit a particular horse really well but they are saddles that have a very limited range of horses that they will fit that well.
I know and tend to recommend saddle companies who offer saddles that fit… better… than other companies’ saddles. This may sound strange to some of you, but some saddles, English, Western, and Australian style, have more tolerance for changes in your horse’s body. Most independent saddle fitters I know have favorite brands because they know that horses with similar bodies will be comfortable in that saddle.
Are these saddles more expensive? Generally, yes and here’s the trade-off:
Your horse will most likely be more comfortable from the day you purchase it
You will most likely be more comfortable in a higher quality saddle
Your horse’s behavior and compliance level will be better
Resale value is higher
More perspective resale prospects because of higher tolerance of fit and comfort
This saddle will remain more comfortable to your horse for longer
Do I equate price with quality? NO. The saddles that I generally recommend are not at the highest end of the new and used markets. They are expensive and they are expensive because they are designed well, built well, and utilize quality materials.
The other key component to these saddles is that they are mostly sold through representatives or tack stores who use time honored saddle fitting concepts. When I recommend that a client purchase a new saddle, I usually know who will be fitting that saddle for my client and I trust the representative to make you and your horse comfortable. If you are purchasing through the used saddle market, I will strongly encourage you to make sure that I see it before you own it. If I am unsure of the saddle seller, I also encourage you to have me or an independent saddle fitter evaluate the fit. There are saddle sellers and there are saddle fitters. I would like to say that saddle sellers always have the clients’ (both horse and rider) well being at heart, but this isn’t always the case. When you employ a saddle fitter who is not compensated by saddle companies, you know your money spent is for your benefit.
Most of us in the states with winters start thinking about saddle fit in early Spring. Not a bad thought… the saddle probably needs a little tune-up and the weather is tugging at us to start thinking about Summer! Here’s food for thought though. At least once in your horse’s show career, think about having your saddle evaluated at the end of show season. Why?
At the end of a show season, your horse is usually in the best shape of the year. You have been training and showing for a few months and you are both probably pretty buff. If you purchased this saddle when the horse was not quite at peak performance, you may want to ensure that this saddle still fits well and has room for the muscles that have developed. A quick tweak of the wool or perhaps a different padding system might be discussed so that there is no discomfort. As the colder season approaches and you begin riding a little less you can fill in with a thicker pad when your horses muscles begin to settle into winter.
Have the confidence that your saddle, at your horse’s peak condition, is appropriate by having it checked just after the shows end.
If you have worked with me or read my articles you probably know my answer… “It Depends”. There are differing levels of trainer involvement for each one of us so there are different considerations for their involvement in your saddle selection.
If you take lessons and very occasionally the trainer hops on your horse to illustrate a technique or make a correction, they should always be asked to view you in a perspective saddle in order to confirm that it places you in a correct position. They should also have a long enough history with you to establish that your riding is as good, or better in this saddle than in your previous one. If your saddle fitter has determined that the saddle is a good fit for you and your horse, and the trainer gives her blessing based on a visual evaluation, you are good to go!
If both you and your trainer are riding your horse on a regular basis, determine who your new saddle is really for. I have some clients whose taste in saddles and whose builds differ enough from their trainers’ that they bite the bullet and purchase two saddles. If this is not in your cards, work with your saddle fitter to identify separate saddles that will accommodate you and your trainer and that work well for your horse. An alternative is to ask your saddle fitter to guide you through the fitting process that will best accommodate you, your trainer, and the horse with one saddle. There are no hard and fast rules but the saddle fitter will be able to point out the impact on the horse of, say, a saddle that is too small versus too large in the seat for a rider. My bottom line as a fitter is always the horse but if the saddle is unsuited for the rider, the horse will feel the discomfort also.
Finally there are the owners whose horses are in full training. If this is going to be for an extended period, consider purchasing a saddle that fits the trainer then trading it in for one that fits you when the time comes for your partnership with your horse. I am a firm believer in the used saddle market and encourage clients to buy and sell as their needs change.By the time your horse has matured with professional training, odds are that he or she will need a new saddle anyway.
Some trainers have saddles that can be used on a variety of horses. That said, trainers are not professional saddle fitters and I have seen a great deal of damage done to performance horses by trainers’ saddles. It never hurts to have your saddle fitter check any saddle that will be used on your horse. Trust me, it is WAY cheaper than having the hocks and stifles injected because your horse is compensating for pain in the back.
One caveat to observe when looking for a saddle: keep an open mind! Some professional trainers have saddle preferences which work well for them and sometimes they are sponsored or have deals with saddle companies. Do not let their preferences or prejudices in saddle choices affect your selection process. Saddle companies make saddles in a way that will suit certain riders and certain horses. We, and our horses, are all built differently and we react differently to a saddle. Work with an independent saddle fitter who knows the quality and characteristics of many saddles and who can steer you toward the best for your unique needs.