Question: My new 4-year-old needs a saddle that fits. With so much growing left to do, how can I keep him comfortable without having to buy a new custom saddle every three months and investing a small fortune before he is even ready for FEI?
Name withheld by request
Answer: Congratulations on your new horse. I appreciate that investing in a new saddle is an expensive investment, but it also one of the most important investments you will make in your horses success. Invest time in selecting the right saddle for you and your horse and don't be afraid to "beg, borrow and steal" a loaner from a friend or look into used saddles. What is most important is that the saddle fits. During his formative years, your horse must have confidence that the saddle does not create discomfort. Regardless of the make and model, I strongly recommend getting a wool-flocked saddle because a saddle fitter can make many more adjustments to it than a foam-filled saddle.
Most young horses may need their saddles reflocked every three months as they develop, while others can stick to every six to nine months when in full work (the standard for most older horses). Horses grow at different rates, depending on their genetics, the amount of work they do and how quickly they progress through the levels.
For a young horse who does not make dramatic changes (changing tree widths), many of his developmental needs can be met with rebalancing through different padding or shimming. However, if your horse has experienced large physical changes, this may be the moment you need to think about a different tree width. One helpful way to know how often you need refitting is finding a saddle fitter that you trust and can work with long-term. As time goes on, he or she gets a feel for how often the saddle needs to be adjusted based on the musculature changes they see in your horse. Also, they can help you make educated decisions on the first or replacement saddle that best fits your young horse.
If you do not have someone in your area you trust to help you fit a saddle, you can opt for finding a long-distance fitter to ship your saddle to. If you choose to a long distance saddle fitter, I recommend choosing a fitter based on a phone interview and client testimonials. Take time to discuss what information the fitter requires to determine your horse's needs. This may include a video and pictures of your horse as well a wither tracing. To get a proper look at your horse's back, he must be standing square on all four feet during tracings and pictures. Photos should include: one from each hip into the length of the saddle position, one from each point of shoulder for the length of the saddle position, each side of the horse and if you can stand on something, a picture from the rear looking down into the saddle position. Most saddle makers and fitters can walk you through the tracing process over the phone or will have information on their website.
Keep in mind, that there is no such thing as a standard tree size. It is more like fitting pants--buy what fits. If the saddle does not fit perfectly, you have a few options to supplement. One such option is wool half pads. Many professionals prefer to ride with a fleece or a half fleece pad, which they feel gives the horse more cushion and comfort. The fit of the saddle must be established with the fleece pad included. This is a matter of preference, and if you have a properly fitted saddle, it will not be necessary to use the wool pad. Think of them as a pair of socks and shoes. As long as you fit your shoes with those socks on, you won't have any problems. However, for a shoe (or saddle) that is too tight, added padding only makes things tighter. On the other hand, if the fit is too wide, you may find that additional padding may help the issue by making the horse's body artificially wider. The pad must go beyond the edges of the saddle. Remember that the wool will break down, so wash it less frequently, just brush it out, let it dry and ride with it over a saddle pad. The maximum life of a pad is about nine to 12 months.
Shims can be temporary or permanent. A shim is a system stacked of pieces of material (I prefer closed cell rubberized sheets) that will lift a specific part of the saddle and support a low spot on the horse's body. You can also add the shims to your wool half pad. When you have a horse where the saddle sits with the cantle much lower than the pommel and you can't get the cantle up, you can always have a shim (as long as it is beveled). Any time you use a pad, it cannot end with a square edge of the pad under the panel of the saddle will create a pressure point that it will become painful and result in atrophy.
Regardless of how you get there, what is most important is how the saddle fits when you are riding. For example, I had a young horse at the lower levels who would lift his back in a way that created a great deal of lift under the cantle, so at halt the saddle looked cantle-low to accommodate this lift. However, as he approached the FEI work, he started to lift his trapezius, which lifted the front of the saddle, and he developed more ability to sit (joint articulation) behind. Standing in the crossties, the saddle looked out of balance in the opposite way from the lower levels--it was pommel-low and cantle-high. Adjusting the saddle to follow the muscular development and changes in the horse's body is how you keep your horse comfortable and you with the most effective seat.
Routine attention to the fit of your saddle and the comfort of your horse is critical, especially when he is young. The greatest challenge you can face with young horses is that once they get pinched and hurt by their saddle, it is difficult to regain that trust. A too-tight tree will restrict, but a too-large tree will move around like a loose shoe and create a great deal of friction. Sometimes, people make the mistake of replacing the former with the latter, since the horse seems to have short-term relief (like finally taking off a shoe that is too small). In the end, if you want to achieve the highest level of comfort and confidence for your horse's performance, it is very important that your horse work in a correctly fitting saddle.
Deborah Witty is the owner and president of Trilogy Saddles and Performance Saddlery (trilogysaddle.som) and a qualified saddle fitter from the Society of Master Saddlers of England. Prior to developing the Trilogy saddle line, Debbie was an active dressage competitor and instructor. Today she lives in Ithaca, NY, with her husband, son and three horses--two Dutch Warmblood mares and her Mecklenburg gelding.