Dressage Saddle Selection

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A dressage saddle?s job is to keep the rider attached to as much of its leather as possible. Thus, while a jumping saddle will angle the body forward at the waist and raise the hips, the dressage rider wants a posture that is perpendicular to the ground, with an open pelvis that drapes down to a long leg hanging directly below the hip. A dressage saddle requires a longer, straighter flap than a jumping saddle, plus a deeper seat and a higher cantle.

A dressage saddle is like a well-constructed athletic shoe that fits precisely and molds itself to the foot for maximum comfort and utility. Riders generally shop for one saddle that will fit both themselves and a specific horse.

This dressage saddle features a prominent knee roll.

This dressage saddle features a prominent knee roll.

Dressage saddles have morphed toward deeper seats and larger thigh blocks over the past 20 years, to the point where there is literally little ?wiggle? room. With all these construction elements, fit for the rider has to be precise. Deep-seated saddles appeal especially to those who work long hours at a desk all day. The professional who rides several horses a day will have the muscle tone needed to remain secure on a saddle with a flatter seat.

PRICE


Dressage saddles cost $500 to $8,000. You can usually find a serviceable used saddle at around $1,000 and up; a new synthetic saddle from $500 to $2,000; a new leather saddle from $1,000 to $6,000; a new leather saddle through a saddle fitter/custom saddlemaker for $3,500 and up.

Synthetic saddles have the advantages of lower price and easier care and, yes, you can show in them. They generally can't be altered to make small adjustments that can make a big difference in fit. They also likely won?t last as long as leather, maybe 15 years rather than 30 or more.

Large thigh block that is ?external? (not covered by the flap).

Large thigh block that is ?external? (not covered by the flap).

Foam padding, rather than wool, also reduces the price. While wool padding needs yearly inspections (thus adding to the upkeep), it's actually an advantage as it can be adjusted as the horse's muscling changes. Wool breathes better and conforms better to the horse's back. Foam padding will retain its shape longer initially than wool, but any changes needed down the road are more difficult and thus costly.

The quality of the leather affects price as well. A softer seat is often more a factor of the quality of the leather than padding.

Varied features don't affect the price as much as the quality of the materials and construction. Do you want a deep or flat seat' An angled or straight flap' A specialized billet connection' Longer stirrup bars'

You may have to sit in a variety of saddles to figure out what you want, so don't just eyeball the passing parade of tack in the warm-up ring at a show or follow the narrow dictates of your trainer.

What's becoming harder to find is a plain flap without thigh blocks or even just a basic knee roll. For that, you may need to go custom or search for an older used model.

ADJUSTABLE SADDLES


?Adjustable? is a term that can be applied in a variety of ways, such as changing the gullet yourself with a simple wrench, changing the overall fit though a saddler, or altering thigh blocks. Verify the exact interpretation of ?adjustable? for a saddle you're considering and how easy the adjustment is to make.

Adjustable saddles can be cost-effective over the long term, if you may be switching horses. One of the benefits touted is that the saddle can be altered as your horse develops. But, unless you're starting out with a 3- or 4-year-old, there may not be a significant physical change after the horse is 5 or 6.

ROLE OF THE SADDLE FITTER

Saddle fitting has emerged as a separate equestrian profession over the past decade, especially with dressage saddles. The alternative is to haul around a wither tracing of your horse and endlessly test ride saddles from a variety of sources.

Left to right, trees for: Thoroughbred (on the narrow side for load bearing); Warmblood (medium width, even along the rib cage); Warmblood/cob cross.

Left to right, trees for: Thoroughbred (on the narrow side for load bearing); Warmblood (medium width, even along the rib cage); Warmblood/cob cross.

Ideally, saddle fitters have specialized knowledge of equine and human biomechanics, plus saddle construction, that most of us don't possess. Many are associated with a specific brand or tack store and thus, in a way, are salesmen as well as fitters.

The beauty of using a saddle fitter is that they come to your own barn with a van full of test models, devices to measure you and your horse, and equipment to restuff or repair a saddle you already have.

When you use a saddle fitter, much of the guess work will be gone. If the fitter doesn't have just the right model on hand, he should know enough after watching you and your horse in several saddles to either order one for you or have one custom-made.

Making the rider happy, though, can be harder than making the horse happy. Often riders aren?t realistic about their own limitations (including seat size) and order what they want, not what they need, such as a smaller thigh blocks. Nor can the saddle fitter really gauge the angle of an individual rider?s pelvis, which can be affected by the choice of twist.

If you use a saddle fitter, You'll pay up front for their time, usually around $100 for an initial fitting. If you buy a saddle, that fee may be applied to the purchase price.

Be careful, though. While there may be claims of ?certification,? anyone can hang out their shingle as a saddle fitter. There also isn?t a lot of solid science yet in this field, so a fitter?s education, know-how and judgment are their main assets.

Check with friends who?ve had a good experience with a specific fitter. Inquire about specific brands they represent and about any special training they may have had.

TEST RIDE

This saddle tree?s angle matches the angle of the horse's back very well.

This saddle tree?s angle matches the angle of the horse's back very well.

When fitting a saddle, there are no substitutes for actually riding the horse. Be sure to check the seller?s policy. Ideally, you should get a two-week trial period with full right to return the saddle if it doesn't work out. Our saddle-fit checklists (see sidebar) should be evaluated first without a pad, then with girth attached, then with the rider in the saddle using stirrups, then with the horse in motion in all three gaits.

You'll have a good idea that you?ve found the right saddle if you can forget about it during a test ride. You should feel you're riding the horse, not the saddle. If the horse's gait loses suppleness ? his canter flattens, his back stiffens, or he braces his neck when you post ? the saddle?s not going to work for him. If any soreness or resistance develops in the horse or rider, the saddle goes back.

OUR CHARTS


We polled various saddle manufacturers to describe highlights of their various models. Several responded without mentioning specific models, emphasizing that a ?best buy? or ?best seller? is simply the best fit for both horse and rider. And some catalogs have given up offering dressage saddles because there are so many variables involved to satisfy a customer making this an expensive investment.

BOTTOM LINE

Do not select a saddle because you like one you?ve seen or because someone recommends a specific make or model. This is a very individual choice.

If it fits into your budget, use a saddle fitter, which reduces time spent and frustration in your search for the perfect saddle. Don?t make the common mistake of putting up with a saddle that fits the horse but isn?t perfect for the rider. If the rider is uncomfortable, she'll make the horse uncomfortable. No amount of money spent on lessons will overcome saddle fit that is less than ideal.

Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman. Patty Merli, a saddle fitter from Charleston, S.C.,
provided some of the information in this article. She studied with Master Saddler Kay Hastilow in Scotland. Also consulted were Colleen Meyer of Advanced Saddle Fit in Marlboro, N.H., and Tracie Montgomery of North Salem, N.Y., with Custom Saddlery, plus representatives from Passier, LaSelleria, Smith-Worthington, Schleese, Stubben, JPC Equestrian, and English Riding Supply.