If we create a fictitious recreational rider it will serve to identify and discuss some of the common problems that saddle ‘fitters’ have to contend with when juggling the needs of the horse and the desires of the rider.
In fact I am going to use other fictitious characters in this story to illustrate a few points. They are not based on any living person, but more of a general type that most of you will recognise.
Let us call our fictitious rider Laura.
Laura is in her late 30s. She has a husband and two children, none of whom are interested in horses. Her job is receptionist for a medium sized company, so she is pretty sedentary during the day. When she can find time, she spends time on the internet and is a member of many horse related forums, where she likes to offer an opinion on most topics.
She learned to ride at her local riding school and bought her first horse when she was 22 yrs. old. She joined her local Riding Club about 5 years ago and competes regularly at Preliminary dressage and the occasional show jumping competition. She keeps her current horse at a DIY livery yard where there are some very novice horse owners and therefore, Laura is seen as a bit of an expert. She has lessons from a freelance BHS Assistant Instructor every other week.
A friend of Laura’s (lets call her Sally) has recently found a new instructor who is convinced that it is impossible for anyone to do ‘proper dressage’ in anything other than a dressage saddle, so Sally has been looking at dressage saddles with the aim of buying one. She has also been competing in Riding Club level dressage tests, and although her horse always behaves very well, she is frustrated that she is not winning, despite years of lessons.
Laura decides that if her friend needs a dressage saddle, then she must need one too, because she only has a GP saddle. Surely this must be the reason for her own disappointing marks.
Laura has been spending most of her evenings online for several weeks, searching for the perfect saddle. She has looked at all the top riders to see what they are riding in and has asked for opinions on all the Forums she belongs to. Needless to say......she is now very confused!
Her favourite dressage rider at the moment is called Hans Anfeet Blowhorn He is 6 ft 2 inches tall, slender, blonde and 26yrs old. He likes to ride Thoroughbred horses crossed with Warmbloods because he feels that they are more elegant than many of the heavier breeds of Warmblood. He is very opinionated, has the right accent for a dressage rider, and a lot of followers on Instagram where he regularly posts images of himself.
Laura, by contrast, is 5 ft 2 inches tall, is heavier than she would like to be and rides an Arab x Cob called Stan, who she bought from a riding school 3 yrs. ago. When Stan competes, Laura always enters him as ‘Stanhope Gold Wings’ because she feels this is more appropriate for a dressage horse. Stan doesn’t really care for his stage name, for the competitions he gets taken to, but his life is certainly more interesting than it was at the riding school, so he is willing enough to do his best.
Laura is thrilled to discover that her local saddle fitter sells the same saddle that Hans Anfeet Blowhorn uses.
She makes an appointment for a fitting and hopes that Stan will not let her down.
So, here we have set the scene for the introduction of.......The Saddle Fitter!
The saddle fitter is a man called Denny. Denny has been fitting saddles for 20 yrs. He has ridden in the past and has a genuine love of horses. He does his best to find the right saddle for every horse he sees and also tries to keep up with all the latest gimmicks and gadgets that horse owners seem to want these days. Denny has met Laura in the past and indeed, he sold her the saddle she currently uses when she first bought Stan.
He listens to what she tells him she wants when she phones his shop in a state of excitement and feels his eyes roll when he hears that her heart is set on a H.A. Blowhorn Olympic Dressage saddle. He knows that this will be totally unsuitable for her and Stan, but he also knows from experience that he is best not to try to put her off over the phone, because she will only go to another tack shop and ask them to sell her a Blowhorn dressage saddle. He will however, make sure he takes a selection of other saddles that he feels would be better suited to her needs.
When Denny arrives at the yard, at the appointed time, he finds that Laura is no-where to be seen. He enquires about her and is told that Laura has phoned the yard to say she is running late and has asked someone to get Stan in from the field. He then sees the reluctant Stan being dragged along at the end of a lead rope and tied up outside his stable. He is covered in mud. Denny looks at his watch and wonders if he is going to be late for his next appointment. He had allowed 2 hrs for Laura to try saddles, but he knows it would take all of that time for her and Stan to try a proper selection of saddles.
He makes use of the time by sorting out several saddles that look as though they could work for Stan. Laura arrives looking pink in the face and breathing heavily. She has had a row with one of her children for getting home late from school and is flustered and distracted. This state is not improved when she sees that despite her instructions to turn Stan out in a rug to keep him clean, the livery yard have forgotten and here he stands in all his muddy glory! Frantic brushing ensues and after about 10 minutes Laura has managed to transfer enough of the mud from Stan and onto herself to tack him up.
Denny sets about taking a selection of back profiles from Stan. He doesn’t ever really use them, but he knows that the customer is reassured by the sight of this, so he goes through the process. Then he looks at Stan’s shape and at Laura’s shape and gets his first saddle. Laura is very disappointed to see that it is not a Blowhorn Olympic model and glances over towards Denny’s car to see if she can see the Olympic in there. She is relieved to see that it is, because she really isn’t interested in anything else.
Denny has taken into account the shape of Stan’s back and Laura’s short and rather dumpy legs and knows that the ‘working hunter’ style of saddle will be easy for her to ride in while giving her a saddle that has more of the look of a dressage saddle. It has a wide tree, a good width of gullet and generous but flat panels. He puts it onto Stan’s back and is pleased to see how it sits around his chunky body and wide rib-cage.
He has carefully chosen the saddle in a width that allows room for the sheepskin saddle pad that Laura seems to use under her current saddle.
Laura looks sulky and is not interested in his explanation of why he thinks this saddle is worth trying. She can only think about how good she will feel next time she meets up with her friends and can show off her Blowhorn Olympic saddle and come home with a Rosette.
“Denny, I have to go and pick up the children in half an hour, so I don’t have time to try other saddles. I want to try the Olympic dressage saddle because I know this will help me”
Denny sighs and accepts defeat. She had promised when they set up the appointment, that she had at least 2 clear hours available to try saddles, to do a proper assessment, and now, after arriving late and keeping him waiting, she was in a rush to do everything and leave.
He goes to the car and picks up the dressage saddle. The large H.A. Blowhard name plate on the cantle, glittered in the afternoon sun and the reflection shone across Stan’s heavy forelock and startled him into opening one eye! There were shiny gold details in several places on the saddle. The seat was deep, the cantle high, the shape of the flaps was very straight and it had large blocks at the front. It has long girth straps and he is glad he had remembered to bring a short dressage girth with him.
He puts it on Stan’s back and can see that although this was the widest version that was made, it rather perches above Stan’s almost non-existent withers. The panels are too angular for Stan’s flat, wide back, but this is the only panel shape available. He turns to Laura to explain why and how the saddle does not look suitable for Stan or for her, but can see that she is gazing at the saddle in a kind of glassy eyed reverence and awe. There is no room for a saddle pad but Laura does not care, she just wants to get on the saddle and know what it feels like to be a ‘proper dressage rider’.
She drags over a milk crate to act as a mounting block and climbs onto it. She spends several minutes fiddling with her stirrup leathers and manages to heave herself up onto the saddle, at which point…… Stan opens both eyes very wide!
Denny is worried that Laura will not be secure enough in this dressage saddle and insists on leading them both around the arena to start with.
Laura is desperately trying to like the new saddle but feeling very uncomfortable. The shape of the seat and the whole saddle has her wedged between the high cantle and the large blocks that are pushing her legs back and down. She feels like she is being stretched. Her hips are hurting and cramping. Her back is hollow and she feels very unstable. She has never felt anything like it before. No wonder she has never had good marks in her dressage tests. It is obvious to her that if this is how it feels to ride in a proper saddle, she is going to have to work even harder to ride properly. In the meantime, Stan has also never felt anything like it before. Even in his days at the riding school, he had not felt so uncomfortable. Things were pressing into his back that hurt him. His shoulders could not move back because there was something hard in the way. Being a smart horse, he quickly figured out that if he took shorter steps, it didn’t hurt as much, so that is what he did. He was also a bit alarmed about the way his rider felt. She was very wobbly and when she gave him signals with her legs he didn’t really understand, because she was kicking his sides in a different place to the one he was used to. However, after a lot of kicking and clucking with her voice, he decided that it might mean that she wanted him to trot…. However, when he went into a trot, she was so wobbly, that she pulled him in the mouth, which he knew meant that she wanted to slow down. He slowed back to a walk and she kicked him again. It was all very confusing. However, he did his best and off they went around the arena, walking and trotting and wobbling. He would be glad when this ended and he could have his old saddle back on and they could have a nice time going for a ride.
Poor Stan….. little did he know that this was just the start of a miserable few months. Laura, bought the Blowhorn saddle and valiantly tried to ride in it. She dismissed Denny’s concerns that although it might be a saddle that suited the 6 ft 2 inch, athletic frame of the young Hans Anfeet Blowhorn, on the type of horses he liked to ride, she might be better off in a less extreme style of saddle.
2 months later and Stan starts to dread the sound of Laura’s car arriving at the yard because he knows he is in for an uncomfortable and unhappy hour of being ridden in almost constant circles in the arena. His back is sore and his sides are sore from all the kicking. He stumbles frequently because he can’t move his shoulders like he used to and they never go for rides in the countryside anymore.
Laura is also suffering and frequently has lower back ache these days. She is frustrated that Stan is not performing as he should in the new saddle that she has spent so much money on. All the advice and the opinions she reads in the hours spent on her online forums (from people who have never seen the kind and long suffering Stan, and have no idea of what is going on) lead her to become convinced that he is being disobedient and resistant.
All she needs is some help from a good instructor. She looks around and finds someone who is well known in the area for sorting out difficult horses. They book a session. Stan’s life is about to become even worse, because Francesca Wildbody (BHSAI) takes no prisoners and after observing him shuffling around the arena in a stiff and awkward way, she produces a set of draw reins and without even considering that there might be good reason for his restricted way of moving, Stan finds himself manipulated into a new and even more uncomfortable and frightening position. He cannot move his neck anymore and his mouth is pulled back until he can only see the ground in front of him. Laura’s wobbly legs are kicking him every step he takes and they hurt him more because there is something hard and sharp on her legs.
Now, his whole body hurts, his back hurts, the joints in his legs hurt, his feet hurt, his mouth hurts and for an hour every day, he is tortured. He does not understand why. Laura has grown more and more dissatisfied with Stan and convinced that she needs a better horse because he is holding her back. She puts him up for sale.
This is where the story has a happy ending, because Stan is bought by Penny, who knows alll about the BALANCE approach to Saddling, Riding and Training and has been using a BALANCE saddle for some time on her own horse. She also knows Laura and Stan and has seen Stan change in the previous 2 years from a kind, steady but willing horse, into a miserable, stiff, awkward and often lame horse with a dropped back. She wants to give him a chance to recover and have some fun with her young daughter in his old age.
She negotiates a price with Laura and brings Stan home. Laura goes off to find herself a 'proper dressage horse' and that is whole other story, with Laura ending up in A&E and never riding again!
Penny turns Stan away for the whole winter and lets him recover from his ordeals while he remembers how to just be a horse. Taking time to get to know him and gain his trust. In the spring, she starts to get him fit by taking him for walks in hand and simple lunging. She get his body checked and treated by a good Equine Osteopath and once she can see that he can walk and trot on large circles with just a cavesson and look confident, elastic and happy, she arranges an appointment with one of the TEAM of BALANCE trained and registered Saddling consultants. So that they can bring a selection of saddles and pads and find out from Stan, what he is most comfortable in, by observing his response to the choices he is given.
Stan enjoys the whole process once he realises that there are people who are actually interested in his opinion. For the first time in his life, he gets to feel how it is to be ridden by someone who understands how to help him be balanced and in a saddle that keeps out if his way and creates no discomfort or restriction.
A happy ending to an all too common story.
In the 30 year history of the BALANCE organisation and the BALANCE Saddle Company, there are so many case studies of horses like Stan, and many high level competition horses, who have been liberated by changing them into a Functional Saddling approach. There are also thousands of horses who have only ever known the comfort of a correctly used BALANCE saddle and pad system. I can only hope that this continues in the future, and that one day…….. this logical, simple and horse-centred approach will be recognised and adopted as the default method of saddling, rather than something that is seen as a last resort for horses with years of previous saddle related damage.