At the risk of sounding like a school-kid returning to class in the fall, I must say that I went to camp this summer. No, not to learn canoeing, nature crafts, or even dressage. I went to "saddle camp." For the better part of a week, our group of eight, made up of professional saddle-fitters, tack-shop owners, riders, an insurance agent, a college professor and an assistant editor--me--bent over carpet-covered workbenches in a classroom at the Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. We used assorted-sized metal "flocking irons" and wooden "smashers" to push and shape soft wool into saddle panels, while our instructor, saddler David Young of Raleigh, North Carolina, looked on. "Put the flocking in there as light and fluffy as possible," he told us. "Don't let it ball up." We heeded his word and worked intently, knowing an intensive five-part practical test and written exam loomed at week's end.
The course, sponsored by the Master Saddlers Association (MSA), was an education in equine anatomy and saddle fitting. As I realized at the time I enrolled in the course, it's impossible to teach or to learn everything there is to know about these subjects in just five days. But you can take people who already know something about horses and saddle fitting, teach them the basics of what they don't know and give them guidelines for standard saddle-fitting procedures. Going into the course, I knew I was the least experienced member of our group. But I really applied myself, soaking up every bit of information I could, and I passed the final exam--a major accomplishment in my book.
Of all the valuable lessons I learned during saddle camp, the nine points of saddle fitting is the one that I most want to share because it's information that every rider can use. I'm also going to outline some of the details of my final exam to give you an idea of what goes into the education of a saddle-fitter.
Nine Fundamental Points
After a day's lesson in equine anatomy by Joyce Harman, DVM, I had a renewed awareness of and appreciation for the skeletal structure, muscles, and ligaments that bear the weight of saddle and rider, and so are at the core of any study of saddle fit. Through Harman's instructive slides and props and her straightforward presentation, I felt adequately prepared for the second day of class, which was devoted to the fundamentals of saddle fitting. Master Saddlers Association founder Gene Freeze began to build our foundation of understanding by introducing us to what he calls the nine points of saddle fitting--a basic checklist that zeros in on the most critical and readily identifiable aspects of a saddle's suitability for a particular horse and rider.
Point 1: Saddle Position
To begin our evaluation, Freeze emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the horse each of us is examining is standing squarely on level ground. I check my horse's stance, then I proceed to place the saddle correctly without using a pad: I lay the saddle on the horse's back, slightly forward on the withers. I put my left hand on the horse's neck, just in front of the withers. Then I grab the saddle by the pommel with my right hand and I give it a sharp tug back and down. The saddle "locks in" when it is in the correct position. I repeat the process; the saddle stops in the same place each time.
According to Freeze, many riders place their saddles too far forward, which restricts the movement of the horse's shoulder. The equine shoulder blade (scapula) moves backward by as much as three inches when the horse is in motion, so saddle placement must allow enough clearance for the shoulder to move freely. Ideally, the "points" of the saddle--the fingerlike extensions at the front and on both sides of the saddle tree--are far enough behind the back edge of the horse's shoulder blade so that the saddle doesn't interfere with movement.
Point 2: Level Seat
With the saddle correctly placed on the horse's back--and the horse still standing squarely--Freeze now instructs us to look at the lowest point of the seat, which, in most cases, is centered between the pommel (the front of the saddle) and the cantle (the back of the saddle) as well as level. This is the ideal position because it allows a rider to sit comfortably and effectively deliver seat and leg aids without putting undo pressure on the horse's back.
When the deepest point of the seat is too far back, the rider slides toward the cantle, loading the back panels and causing the horse to hollow his back. During the sitting trot, the rider also tends to rotate forward onto her crotch to compensate for that feeling of being "left behind."
At the other extreme, if the saddle's center is too far forward, the rider slides toward the pommel and feels pitched forward. Then the natural response is to brace against the leg, making the aids less effective.
A seat that is not level may indicate a serious saddle-fit problem, or it may simply mean that the panels require adjustment. As long as the saddle tree correctly fits the horse (which will become more apparent as you continue to evaluate the points on this checklist), it may be possible to adjust the level with flocking--extra natural or synthetic wool stuffing placed inside the panels.
Point 3: Pommel-to-Cantle Relationship
A dressage saddle's cantle is higher than the pommel by virtue of its design, which takes into account the amount of sitting a dressage rider does. For comfort, the cantle conforms to the anatomy of a rider's seat. If, however, the saddle is sitting slightly low behind--and as long as the saddle tree is not too narrow--a saddle fitter may be ale to add flocking to the back of the panel to raise the cantle.