This is an issue which has arisen time and time again – I hear it all the time. “I bought a custom saddle [note on tangent – there is a lot of misconception of what truly construes ‘custom’ anything – but I digress] and I expect it to fit me and my horse for as long as we live and never need adjusting”. Okay, that’s a bit exaggerated, but I think you may understand where I’m going with this. True, you may be lucky and find a saddle that you feel is comfortable for you and you feel is fitting your horse and lets you ride in it without any issue – but (and it’s a big but!) the fact of the matter is that the horse will by nature change his conformation, hopefully grow his musculature, change his three-dimensional back shape as he matures and trains. And isn’t that what you ideally want? A horse that doesn’t change means he’s not improving; he’s not going anywhere!
What you want is a saddle that will allow the horse the freedom to move properly and the freedom to change his musculature as you train him. Unfortunately, this will entail needing to have your saddle adjusted on a pretty regular basis to accommodate these changes. Some saddles can only be adjusted by moving around the flocking somewhat, but growth in the trapezius (wither muscle) also needs to be accommodated, which in most English saddles simply cannot be done – some perhaps in the width but not in the angle, which also will change. Certainly you can ‘quick fix’ some of these changes by shimming, but this is a remedial cure at best and will over the long run inhibit your horse’s change.
The saddle is positioned over the top of the wither where it sits like a ‘tent’ and hangs there with its main point of contact up top on the panel by the trapezius. When the horse changes it will just keep hanging on the spine, withers and shoulder and seem to still fit, but in reality it does not. This will create issues which may be mistaken for behavioural or training challenges, or if your horse is a true stoic (as so many of them are – they function despite of what what we do them - and keeps on going, well - it may cause irreversible long term damage as an end result.
You may have heard me say in the past that a well-fitting saddle shouldn’t even need any padding – except a thin cotton one to protect the leather from the horse’s sweat. I always have to laugh when I see jumper riders who buy pretty expensive French jumping ‘close contact’ saddles and then jam these way up on the horse’s shoulders (which leaves them of course sitting pretty uphill and – what I don’t understand is that they don’t understand that this greatly impedes the horse’s freedom of movement at the shoulder (pretty important for jumping!). Where was I? Oh yes – with an uphill jumping saddle. Okay – and then the jam pad after pad under the panel in order to bring the saddle level and up in the back. Where is the close contact in that?
Sorry – I digress again, a bit. My point is that you should have your saddle evaluated for saddle fit at least every 6 months (more or less, depending on how often you ride, etc) because anything that happens to your horse (new shoes, new diet, health problems, etc.) all will effect saddle fit and, more importantly, saddle balance. This is the one piece of tack which will immediately respond to any changes in the horse occurring from exposure to any of a number of elements (all within the ‘circle of influence’ which is another term you may have heard me use before) But the key one here, the one that most people need to understand, is that your horse will change as he grows, matures, trains. This is a GOOD thing! It is difficult sometimes to reconcile the fact that, yes, you might even need a saddlefitter coming out every three months to adjust the saddle – but be happy! This means you are doing everything right; your horse is responding! And keep in mind that having your saddle adjusted regularly is still a lot cheaper than having to deal with the possible injuries and other issues a badly fitting saddle could result in – veterinarians, chiropractors, osteopaths, etc. will all charge you much much more than your local saddlefitter to come out and diagnose the problem – let alone fix it!
Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE