Compromises must never involve the horse . . . Horses change shape sometimes very rapidly
The professional saddle fitter will always recommend 'one horse/one rider/one saddle' for reasons that will be fairly obvious to most people. Inevitably there are variations on this 'best scenario', the most harmful being the saddle that is used on two or more horses. The saddle adopts the contours of the individual horse's back as much as a shoe adapts to the wearer's foot. Borrowed or second hand shoes can cause the wearer considerable discomfort and may even result in long lasting problems even when the borrowed shoes are the 'right size'. So it is with the saddle and it certainly isn't unknown for a saddle to be used on horses with totally dissimilar back profiles with no understanding or regard for the damage that may result.
In these days of shared horses the saddle fitter quite often has to equip a horse ridden by two riders of differing physiques. Such a situation will always involve compromises but these must never affect the horse. This must always be the saddle fitter's primary consideration. Some combinations present more problems than others recently I was faced with a situation that was particularly difficult.
The horse concerned was a 16.2 Warmblood that had enjoyed a quite illustrious show jumping career but was now going into semi-retirement. A delightful temperament and a laid back attitude ensured this attractive gelding would adapt well to becoming a 'family horse' and he was going on loan to friends of the owners for this purpose. It was the new owners who rang to arrange for a saddle to be fitted.
At the time of the initial enquiry the saddle fitter requires substantial information about the horse and will then ask for rider details - height, weight, age, gender, standard of riding and so on. When a horse is shared it is the larger/heavier/taller rider who will have priority.
In this particular case the elder son was the largest and so it was his details I took. Although only eighteen, he was already 6'2" and weighed nearly thirteen stone. Described as a 'reasonably experienced rider', he had previously had two ponies before a combination of the demands of preparing for A levels and his increasing size had forced their sale. I pointed out that the other family members would all need to be present when I undertook the saddle fitting.
When I arrived at the family home I was met by the parents - father about 5'10", trim and athletic, mother about 5'4" and curvy with it, fifteen year old younger son already 5'11" but slim to the point of being thin - nine year old daughter who was petite in the extreme! The parents had previously been heavily involved with horses, the younger son's experience was limited - and he wanted it to stay that way, it being obvious that sailing and not riding was his priority - and the little girl was passionate about her own pony and determined not to be left out when it came to riding the ex-show jumper! I tell this story to illustrate the sort of rider considerations with which the saddle fitter is sometimes faced and to indicate some of the compromises that must result - and I emphasise that the fitting the horse must always be the most important factor that must never be compromised.
The second extract from my diary concerns a saddle I fitted six months ago. At that time the horse was just four, a TB type potentially destined to event. The owner called me out because she thought the saddle might need adjusting.
All horses change shape. The regularity and degree will depend on a variety of factors including age, breed, management, training, the season and so on. Most horse owners are aware that their horses do alter - but the speed and degree with which this sometimes happens can be a surprise! So it was with the horse I was asked to check.
I keep very full records (a copy of which is given to the client) of each saddle I fit - both for my own satisfaction and to comply with the Society of Master Saddlers' direction to qualified saddle fitters. In this particular case the records revealed the horse had grown nearly an inch and a half in height, had filled out and begun to muscle up. Fortunately, when I originally fitted the saddle I allowed, as far as possible, for future growth. The in-built flexibility meant this saddle could be adapted to provide a very satisfactory fit - but this is not always the case and there are instances when the horse has altered so much that the only answer is to fit a new saddle. Fortunately such cases are relatively rare - but they do occur.
Saddles should be checked to ensure they are still providing a good fit. The regularity with which the checks are needed depends on any number of factors such as the growing youngster, the ageing horse, one that has been off work (especially if turned away on rich grass), substantially changing work regimes - and so on.
I find it quite surprising that it is often the less experienced rider who appreciates the need to have the fit of the saddle checked. It is experienced riders who frequently ignore this requirement - until something goes wrong! I have to say, too, that it is often experienced riders who use one saddle on several horses - a cardinal sin!
The other day, driving out of a yard where I had fitted three saddles, I had to pass the manege. Therein what was obviously a young horse was being lunged - or what passed for lungeing. The surface of the manege was dry and deep and the youngster was having immense difficulty in maintaining any sort of balance. The girl was trying to chase the mare with an inadequate whip. A combination of the girl's and the mare's inexperience was resulting in the horse being chased all round the manege rather than a circle being described. The mare was tacked up and the saddle - which had patently not been fitted by a qualified saddle fitter - was bouncing up and down and rotating on her young back. All this was - presumably - in the name of schooling. Sadly, occurrences of this type are not as rare as I would wish.
Adapted from articles recently published in THE ESSEX RIDER magazine