A Saddle Fitter's Perspective
By Lauren Sprieser
Colleen Meyer has made a lifetime study of saddle fitting.
Saddle fit is an issue near and dear to my heart, and that is entirely due to my long-time friendship with Colleen Meyer of Advanced Saddle Fit. Upon reading Catherine Haddad's recent blog, Colleen wanted to write her own response, and I thought you all would like to read it. Take it away, Colleen!
Anyone who has been around horses long enough is familiar with this fundamental law of the riding universe: For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.
Other sports have forged ahead with science-based research to improve not only athletic performance, but also the equipment used to enhance that performance. We equestrians mostly rely on some combination of the wisdom of the ages, current fashion trends and what our trusted trainers or other successful riders are certain is The One True Way, based on—and conclusively proven by—their own personal experience.
Nowhere in the riding universe is this more true than in the wonderful, wacky world of saddle fitting. I have done this for a living for some time now, and it seems to me that many of the “rules” about saddles that riders accept as gospel don’t serve horses very well. Of course, not all experts can even agree what the rules are, as there are many conflicting theories about The One True Way to design and fit saddles.
Before I proceed to attempt a convincing argument that, well, I really do have a pretty good idea who’s right and who’s wrong, I’ll confess upfront that, after fitting thousands of horses over many years, I still don’t know conclusively. I’m not sure that my British-biased views are right, and I’m not positive that the Continental bias in saddle design (for lack of a better term) that Catherine Haddad supports in her recent blog entry is wrong. Quite possibly, these differing approaches might both be wrong. Or some horses might do better with saddles that fit as I think they should, and some horses might do better with saddles that are designed to fit as Catherine advocates.
Since fitting saddles is my real-life job, I would really like to get it right for every horse. I dearly long for some robust research based on valid science rather than personal experience. But judging from the pathetic dearth of unbiased facts available to us, I fear that my dying gasp will be: “We still need to be more science-based in the way we design and fit saddles for horsezzzz.”
Your Horse Was Not Designed To Bear Weight
In the meantime, here’s how I see it. Your dressage horse is not a packhorse, no; but he is a horse, which makes the similarities more significant than the differences. Neither your horse’s back nor the packhorse’s back were designed by nature to be weight-bearing. That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and honestly, it’s not as if there is any “right way” to defy Mother Nature and get away with it consistently.
But since all of us who ride are going to keep trying just that, I think we should be looking at individual horses as unique three-dimensional puzzles, with movement thrown in as the fourth dimension. That means looking deeper than the surface in considering the shape characteristics of the bearing structure you are actually sitting astride on the particular horse you are riding.
What structure in the horse’s body is capable of supporting the weight of the rider? That’s the rib cage. But not all horses’ rib cages are alike. Some are like a pickle barrel on its side; some are as steep and angled as a mansard roof. Many horses with a dollop of Dutch driving blood somewhere in the mix seem to have their fair share of backs shaped something like a pagoda, where the support of a rib cage is nowhere in evidence until it springs out exuberantly about a hand span east and west of the peaky spine.
Some rib cages lie so high in the body at the wither area that there appear to be no withers at all. Many blood horses are at the far-opposite end of the wither spectrum: the vertical drop from the top of the wither to the top of the rib cage is crazy-far. Modern warmbloods often present as horsey Dolly Partons in body type: Their withers look quite slender and Thoroughbredy for a bit, then suddenly from the base of the withers on back, they’re huge!
So if it seems implausible that there is a best kind of saddle or any One True Way to fit a saddle to every kind of horse…well, duh.
One thing is certain: At the end of the day, some horses stand up to the unnatural stresses of weight bearing better than others, just like some shapes in architecture (Romanesque arches, for example) generally prove sturdier at supporting the mass of a structure in the long run.
I have no clear idea at all how this works, but the horse’s body—and the human’s—relies on levers and fulcrums and pulleys of all sorts to function biomechanically. Why aren’t we focusing and funding research on the actual mechanics—and the mechanical stresses—of how horses actually bear weight most effectively? What are the functional trade-offs in structure that we need to understand to breed and develop horses whose backs will withstand the concussive forces of riding?
And for heaven’s sake, will science never step up to the plate and settle once and for all the fundamental dispute about whether saddles should distribute the rider’s weight as evenly as possible over the broadest bearing area—like a hiking boot—or whether saddles should fit more like high heels, designed to carry most of the rider’s weight in the front half of the saddle, on panels that curl upward in an effort to free up the hind end?
Match The Tree To The Back
Thousands of horses into this job, I now have some dim awareness—developed by process of trial and error, frankly—that there are patterns in the structural architecture of individual horses that usually suggest saddle solutions worth a try. This involves an effort to find a saddle built on a tree—which is the bearing structure of the saddle—that is a close match in shape to the bearing structure of that horse.
As far as I am concerned, it all starts with matching tree shape to back shape. If I ruled the world of saddle fitting, all manufacturers would be pressured into revealing the actual trees on which they’re building, so that consumers could study trees, learn about them, and have some clue what back types these tree shapes are likely to fit. The details of tree shape are hard to discern once the tree is ensconced between seat and panel.
There are certain back types—mostly those at the more extreme ends of the shape spectrum (your pickle barrels and your mansard roofs)—that benefit immensely from trees that are type-specific for their shape. But for many horses, I have grown to love old-fashioned trees that are horse-shaped for a lot of average backs and not so very shape-specific. And I love, love, love a great big ole wool-stuffed panel, with gussets, cut-in sweats, and a run-in waist that sits the panel flush to the contour of the back and gives me lots of room inside for maneuver.
The panels are cushions that can enhance the fit and comfort of the tree, and—if they have enough volume—can influence the balance of the saddle in a positive way. Again, some panel features work better than others for individual horses.
But just having a big, deep panel by no means ensures that manipulating the wool will correct fit problems with the saddle. No matter how large the panel, it is just a bag of wool; the tree is your bearing structure, and the whole shape of the tree—not just the head—has to be a good match in its whole shape for the shape of the back. I would add that if your wool panels need tweaking every couple of months to keep the saddle fitting well—even on a young horse going through changes—you very likely have a fundamental problem with a tree shape ill-suited to your horse, and no amount of flocking will correct effectively for that.
Horse Fit Comes First
What I despise are saddles that are primarily designed for rider feel rather than for horse fit. Sadly, that is many if not most of the saddles on the market these days, since riders are understandably confused about what really is best for their horses (as are many of us saddle fitters), and horses don’t have blogs to express their own views about a saddle, nor can they write their own checks.
And while we’re on the subject, just a word about celebrity product endorsements: It is so not true that the saddle that works brilliantly for (fill in the blank with name of much-admired rider and/or horse) is therefore a good choice for you or your horse. Hey, you know what? It might not even be working as well for (famous horse or rider name of your choice) as he or she thinks it is. It is not always the top athletes in this sport who are good test subjects for saddles.
Just as a cyclist likely to win the Tour de France needs a super-human ability to tolerate intense and prolonged suffering, horses don’t reach the top levels of our sport without an innate capacity to stoically soldier on through world class aches and pains. They couldn’t get where they are if they lacked the capacity to get on with it despite discomfort.
My mare? Not so much. If she’s not happy with the fit of her saddle, her pad, or the color of the bling on her browband for that matter, she staggers around like the back-stabbed Duchess of Malfi in the death scene. Horses vary. Some horses render their opinions of a saddle tout suite, but many, unfortunately, put up with seriously ill-fitting saddles for years without making any sort of a fuss, because that’s who they are.
I’ve seen four-star event horses compete with astonishing success with definitively diagnosed kissing spines, and top-level dressage horses going gamely forward for years with all manner of physical issues that they somehow manage to tune out.
A horse’s tolerance for discomfort from a less-than-ideal saddle isn’t proof that they aren’t paying a long-tem price for it.
More Expensive Is Not The Answer
But this doesn’t mean a custom saddle for every horse. In my experience, the weirder the back, the less likely it is that trying to order truly custom for that back is really going to work.
For horses with backs that challenge the constraints of conventional saddle design technology, I say put ‘em in a fabulously average tree that basically fits like sweatpants, and look to an anti-concussive orthotic solution (aka, the much vilified pad). Sometimes horses with dippy backs do better with an inoffensive, average, horse-shaped tree and a good, cushy, anti-concussive pad to smooth over those dips.
A highly customized saddle built down into the drops and hollows may create the external appearance of a brilliantly accurate saddle fit without the use of corrective padding, but it can be an illusion, kind of like wearing a whalebone corset. What looks good from the outside may not be all it seems when the horse actually has to move in that saddle.
And before a loud chorus of protest swells that it isn’t all about the horse—that the saddle has to work for the rider too—let me just say that the two can nearly always go happily hand-in-hand. When a horse can work comfortably in his saddle, he is more likely to go freely forward and not brace his body defensively against the rider. That kind of horse is easier and vastly more pleasurable to ride.
Of course, there are many unfortunate instances in which people are looking for a great deal of help from their saddle in securing—even locking down—their position. A good, secure feel is a legitimate wish up, but sometimes riders are looking for the saddle to solve a serious problem: They may be trying to ride too much horse for their current level of ability.
As far as particular rider features go: tastes vary and so do riders’ bodies. A LOT. Not everyone’s femur sits in the hip joint the same way. Not everyone’s hip ligaments are equally strong or equally lax.
As a fitter, I believe above all other things that a great deal of what affects the way a rider sits in a saddle has to do with how the saddle sits on the horse. Beyond that, I am a skeptic when it comes to any One True Way that any particular feature such as knee rolls or seat depth should somehow miraculously work equally well for all riders of all ages, sizes and body types. There’s just too much variation from one body to the next. Ideally, a rider should have several saddles to choose from that all fit the horse equally well but may have variations in rider features that allow some freedom of choice.
Anecdotes Do Not Make Data
The world already has sophisticated imaging technology that could shed serious light on these matters. If there were the funding and the will to back our beliefs about saddles with serious, science-based research, we would be vastly closer to knowing what really is best practice in saddle design and saddle fitting.
In the meantime, we saddle fitters on both sides of the great philosophical divide have nothing to fall back on but our own personal efforts to find and follow The One True Way. That really bites.
Since saddle manufacturers are not currently held to any real standard of proof for their claims, and there is precious little independent research on the subject, I don’t think we can know with certainty what is right or what is wrong for every horse and rider. In the meantime, consumers (for the most part) do want to find the best-fitting saddles for their horses, but they don’t generally have enough specialized knowledge available to them to even know what questions to ask.
In my view, saddle manufacturers specifically—and equine product purveyors in general—too often get a pass for explanations that seem logical but have not been backed by scientifically valid research. Far too much of what is said on this subject has, as Jonathan Swift might put it, more plausibility than truth.
I don’t hold out much hope that the saddle industry will come forward with a significant commitment to unbiased research because I frankly have seen no convincing evidence that the saddle industry is made of that sort of stuff. But I fervently hope that others genuinely interested in advancing the interests of the horse will put some real support toward research into this crucial matter.
In the end, we pay a steep price for accepting what seems reasonable without asking for science-based proof. What’s worse, our horses do too.
Colleen Meyer is one of a handful of Americans certified by the UK’s Society of Master Saddlers, the only internationally recognized professional qualification in saddle fitting. She is the principal of Advanced Saddle Fit and a life-long horsewoman. She also writes a blog called "Saddle Fitting For Smarties." She graduated from Dartmouth College (N.H.) with a degree in economics and has a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Md.). Colleen, Matt and their children have four horses, four Jack Russell terriers and two Maine Coon cats on their farm, Windrows, in Marlborough, N.H.