The Flair system consists of air bags in your saddle panels as the “flocking,” replacing traditional wool. It’s available as a custom option on a number of different saddles or you can add it to your existing saddle.
Created by David Kempsell and Maggie White in the United Kingdom, Flair panels were first introduced in England about six years ago. We found the idea intriguing but mysterious as well. Despite some hearty endorsements and success stories, air panels haven’t exactly taken over the flocked saddle market.
Fitting Air Bags
The Flair air bags replace strategic portions of the panel flocking. An English saddle can be “retrofitted,” which means the insides of the panels are replaced with Flair air panels, for $450 to $750. The work must be done by a Flair-trained and -certified saddle-fit professional.
Both air and flocking are adjusted by adding or removing material, and neither should be “hard.” If the air panels are hard, they have too much air in them. If flocking is hard, it’s become compacted and needs to be replaced.
With Flair, basically, air surrounds the panels’ foam core, and the foam gives the panels their basic shape. The system uses two bags per side, which fit lengthwise along the panels for most of the panels’ length. The front air bags extend below the points of the tree. Each bag is a separate unit. Adjustment tubes, which the fitter uses to increase or decrease the air that affects fit, protrude from underneath the skirts on both sides behind the rider’s leg for access.
The fitting is done while you sit in the saddle on your horse, thereby giving you a custom fit. Adjustments can be made both at the halt and as you walk. The latter allows you and the fitter to take the horse’s movement and muscling into account. The fitter then disconnects the pump and tubing and temporarily seals the bags so you can ride at all gaits and jump.
After any final adjustments, the system is sealed against leakage and the tubing is concealed under the skirts. Unlike traditional flocking, which is sometimes fit a little high in front to allow for it to compress with time, Flair panels don’t settle. They should be adjusted for balance from the start.
A few riders use their air-panel saddle on several similarly shaped horses successfully, much like a flocked saddle. However, if you plan to use your saddle on multiple horses, advise your fitter and ask for a general balanced fit. Ride in the adjusted saddle on all these horses before the fitter leaves.
The air-fitting process allows you to add or take out air from one-quarter of the horse surface of the panel. However, you can’t remove air from a smaller area as you might remove flocking from just over a small raised area, such as an old injury, on your horse’s back.
You can use air panels on hard-to-fit horses, but they aren’t a saddle-fit solution. They may be used to improve a near-perfect fit, but they won’t correct major difficulties. However, you may be able to dispense with gel pads or other special cushioning pads, depending on your horse’s needs, with Flair panels.
The air bags allow the panel shape to conform evenly to the horse’s back, distributing the saddle pressure and rider’s weight evenly across the panels. During movement, the air panels flex with the horse’s muscles, evening out pressure. Although wool flocking will flex somewhat, it generally keeps its shape.
The air appears to provide increased shock absorption and is advertised to help some horses move better. We feel we can’t generalize on this because it’s such an individual reaction with many other possible contributing factors.
Riders we spoke with reported their backs feeling better with air panels. This may be true for some horses as well, as we were told some horses showed an increased swing and vertical movement of their backs. Some felt their big-moving horse moved even more freely with the air panel. We questioned if the subtle movement might upset a particularly sensitive horse, but no one we contacted reported this problem.
We received conflicting reports on the rider’s feel of air vs. wool flocking, so much so that we can’t make a call here, either. Some riders felt no difference (same effective feel). Others felt too much flexibility, or that the panels did not allow them to be “one” with the horse, or that the panels did not allow exacting seat communication.
Several users reported that some of their satisfaction with the air panels is due to the re-adjustability with a Flair professional. Flair adjustments can be made in minutes for approximately $25 plus a barn-call fee. Owners don’t have the equipment to make adjustments themselves.
We get reports that air adjustments are needed less often than traditional flocking adjustments, but many traditionally flocked saddles are rarely or never adjusted. However, adjustments are desirable when your horse’s muscling changes due to activity, inactivity, injury or conditioning. If you store your saddle in a cold tack room you may notice a decreased volume until the saddle warms up on the horse.
Flair air panels haven’t been available long enough to know the long-term-wear situation. We’ve not heard of cases of air leakage with time, but we learned that if this happened it could be remedied by air added at a refitting session. One fitter tells us that the rate of Flair leaks is less than one in 10,000, and that you’d pretty much have to use a knife on your saddle to puncture a panel. Flair has a one-year guarantee.
Our test saddle was retrofitted with Flair bags using a certified Flair adjuster whom we knew to be a good traditional saddle fitter. The saddle was adjusted entirely off our tester’s horse and left with her to try, counter to what we were told should occur.
Our rider used a major-brand, upscale saddle that was a personal favorite. Although the fitter said that the only time she should encounter a bouncy feeling would be with too much air in the panels, she found the saddle bouncy.
In addition, she couldn’t feel the horse’s back, had uncharacteristic difficulty sitting the trot and canter, and found the air panels to be much harder than either wool or foam. She said that while the saddle didn’t rock like a poorly fitting saddle, it still felt unstable. She commented that it seemed not only the horse’s movements were displacing the air, but her movements were as well.
We don’t think there was too much air in the panels. We believe we had fitter problems, especially after speaking with so many other riders successfully using Flair panels.
We also spoke with Flair representatives about our difficulty and were told that the Flair company procedure includes on-horse fitting. Based on our experience, we recommend you make sure the fitter gets it right before he or she leaves. In fact, don’t accept a fitting without it. If you have difficulty, get in touch with Flair.
Flair is costly, but some users swear by the system. We would not spend the money before trying a demo or a friend’s saddle on our horse.
In addition, check the geographic availability of a certified Flair fitter — and find out if that fitter is good. Whether you’re happy with your air panels appears to have a lot to d o with access to the fitter. The fitting process is involved and must be done correctly. Don’t write a check for payment until you’re satisfied with the adjustment.
Overall, we believe air panels may help you achieve exacting fit and cushion in your saddle, and we found just a few drawbacks. However, when you get right down to it, we believe traditional wool flocking is still a satisfactory answer.
Contact: www.flair.uk.com or 44-1227831614.