Does your saddle fit? Guest post by Jill Southern

Welcome to our second guest post! 
After Dressage Hafl's article on Horsemanship and Dressage, the topic this time is saddle fitting. Jill Southern, who has written a booklet about it, gives her view.  

Jill has been around horses most of her life with a particular interest in training and also had spells dealing with breeding and showing youngstock. Simply being on yards for years and observing lots of horses was an education in itself, of sorts, together with books, videos, attending demonstrations and having some lessons with some good trainers, she says. Still, she doesn't claim to be any kind of expert. But as a good fitting saddle changes so much for horse and rider and is quite simple to achieve, she felt compelled to at least try and get the message out there.

Hi everyone,

This may sound like an obvious question, but does your saddle really fit?? I mean, I expect your first reaction is to think "of course it does, you idiot" but how can you tell if your horse really thinks it does too? I spent years around horses and thought I'd learned enough to make sure my horse was well cared for, including whether his tack fitted correctly. I'd even had a beautiful dressage saddle made to measure for my last horse which, according to the things one usually is supposed to check, was a great fit. It was made by a very reputable company and they came out a couple of times taking every care to ensure it fit.  But by pure stroke of fate I came to eventually be shown that actually it didn't.

Jill Southern
Even when mounted, it should still be possible to put your hand under the front of the saddle and move your hand downwards under the panel to where the tree ends.If you cannot do this, then it is likely that the saddle is too narrow and tight, and no amount of adjustment to the padding can correct this. Photo: Jill Southern
I'd had the made to measure saddle for around a year, attending various training days with some really good trainers, meeting up with a few other riders who commented that my horse seemed to be getting more resistant and hollow in his basic way of going, not less, as you would expect after more training. The conversation eventually led to their telling me about a saddle fitter they knew because they thought my saddle may be the reason why. My first reaction was "it can't possibly be, it's been carefully made to measure" but I realised my little horse was not progressing the way he should so swallowed my pride and arranged for the fitter to come and see us with a car full of potential saddles.

Always one curious to learn, especially where horses were concerned, I quizzed the fitter constantly as she explained that the horse gives off signals and behaviours that show when he is uncomfortable.  She tried on saddle after saddle and taught me how to test ride my horse and what to look for and how I would know when he was really happy and moving the way he should. Some she tried she said were "better" but she wasn't satisfied even when we'd gone through half a dozen saddles because although he was more still in his mouth and tail they were indicating some resistance.

He didn't exhibit the behaviours she was looking for until the seventh saddle went on at which point, even before she said anything at all, I could tell we had found what we were looking for because everything about his way of going changed and I knew we had found a saddle he was really happy in. Unfortunately of all the saddles she had brought, it wasn't one I particularly liked for me, but I realised that, from what I had learned, I could find a saddle that was comfortable myself purely from the reactions of my horse.

I looked for months to find the saddle that was right for us both and when I did I noticed other things about his behaviour, both in the stable when the tack appeared, and out hacking, had changed. For example, I was married to a farrier at the time so his feet were always kept well trimmed but he had always tripped a lot when riding out.  With the comfortable saddle on this stopped altogether. These were things in addition to those the fitter had taught me to watch out for, but before I would never have associated the tripping with the saddle because he didn't trip when being schooled.

Does your saddle fit? Photo: Jill Southern
Over the next few years, from time to time, I had cause to "test" what I had learned on friends horses and found the theories checked out time and time again. The scary thing was it was amongst friends who were competent riders that had been around horses for a while too and when I asked them "are you sure your horse is comfortable in his saddle", they, like you, said "of course it does, you idiot!"  However, once they saw the change in their horse once he/she was in a different saddle that was comfortable, they had to admit, the saddle had indeed been affecting their horse, but they hadn't thought they had any particular problem at all.  It  was only by watching them ride and studying how their horse moved with "new eyes" could I see their horse's discomfort.

I guess my point is that we don't know what we don't know and sometimes we need to have a little less pride and be open to having our existing knowledge challenged. The topic of having a saddle that's comfortable has become something of a personal crusade for me because according to some very good saddle fitters I spoke to when I first drafted my booklet, up to 80% of horses are in a saddle that is not comfortable for them, so clearly it's still rife amongst us. I wrote "How to tell if your horse really thinks his saddle fits" available on Amazon simply to try and spread the message to as many riders as possible. The booklet illustrates what signs to look for in your horse and how to test ride him, it is purely the message. It is not intended to make anyone into an expert saddle fitter (there are good and much more lengthy books on that topic) but purely to try to get riders to really look for signs in their own horse that may show their saddle needs checking out. 

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