What to Expect at a Saddle Fitting

If you haven’t worked with a professional saddle fitter before, the process can be an eye-opening experience.  Here’s what to expect when I come out for a farm call:

Initial Assessment
The initial assessment of your horse is, ultimately, the most important part of a saddle fitting.  During the assessment, I inquire as to your horse’s health and lameness history, his age, the type of work he does, etc.  I keep records of this information to track if there are any changes from future visits.  I basically want to know everything there is about your horse, including any behavioral quirks (especially those that may result in my getting kicked!) that may be related to saddle fit issues.

I literally feel (palpate) the horse’s back, noting down any heat, tensions, or adverse reactions to touch.  This information is vital when it comes to diagnosing a saddle fit problem, as well as help determine how to correct any problems.  I record his reaction to my touch as well – is he pinning his ears or swishing his tail?  Does he bite at the crossties when I feel along his girth line? All of this information is documented and utilized in the saddle fitting process.

I then take templates (tracings) of the horse’s back, using a flexible curve.  I make small marks on his back in 4” increments starting at the area behind the shoulder blade, using a non-toxic window paint marker that washes off easily.  These templates serve as a topographical map of the horse’s back and are used during the reflocking process as well as to document any changes to the horse’s back in future visits.

I'm always very sensitive to how the horse responds. The information the horse provides can speak volumes to the cause of the problems under saddle.

Photographing the horse’s conformation is another huge component to the saddle fitting process, both for reflocking saddles and for saddle purchases.  When it comes time for saddle trial, I’m also taking photos to document the fit of each individual saddle being examined.  I prefer to photograph the horse’s back after having taken the templates, as the paint marks serve as a visual aid in determining any conformational irregularities.

While we are on the crossties, I do a cursory check of the saddle(s) in question, girthing them up without a pad and assessing their fit on a “static” level.  It is important to note that I strictly refrain from limiting my assessment on the crossties for the simple reason that a horse in motion is a different animal than a horse standing around in the barn while everyone else is being fed.  You simply cannot tell if a saddle fits without watching the horse move. So saddle fitters that rely on “crosstie fittings” are doing you and your horse a tremendous disservice.

Finally, during the initial assessment, I watch the horse move, sans saddle and rider.  This gives me an understanding of what I should be looking for when the saddle and rider are on his back.  Ultimately, I should see no change in the range of motion, the pace, and demeanor if the saddle fits properly.  I take detailed notes on how the horse carries himself – basically anything that can affect the saddle’s fit.  If we have a lunge line or round pen at our disposal, that is great, otherwise I’m not adverse to free lunging, provided the horse is generally quiet.

This initial assessment costs $75, and usually takes between 1 1/2 – 2 hours. It includes the assessment of one saddle.

Saddle Assessment
If I have several saddles to look at, as in the case of helping you choose between used saddles, I charge $25 per saddle, as I treat each one as an individual entity and repeat the process of examining it on the crossties, on the horse in motion without the rider and with the rider.

I document each saddle with photographs, and make notes about how each saddle fits, how the horse behaves in it, etc.

When it comes to watching the horse move in a saddle and watching a rider in a saddle, I prefer to not use a saddle pad.  This way, I’m better able to see how the saddle sits on the horse’s back and whether or not it is making proper contact, shifting around, etc.  It is important to note that some horses are sensitive to this.  In the case of a horse that is severely sore-backed or habitually “cold-backed”, I usually will use just a thin saddle pad.   Remember, if you have to use special padding to make your saddle fit, it most likely doesn’t fit at all.

Each saddle takes about 20 – 30 minutes, and I am very sensitive to the horse’s behavior during all of this.  If the horse becomes agitated or resistant, I generally recommend giving him a break between saddles.

Examining the saddle while on the crossties is only one small piece of the saddle fitting puzzle.

Your Role
During the assessment, I’ll be asking you all kinds of questions about your horse’s health and soundness history.  Being prepared with that information prior to my arrival is helpful, and keeps you from feeling “put on the spot.” Even seemingly small things like having been off on holiday for two weeks can influence the way your horse moves today, so jotting them down before I come out is a good idea (vets, farriers, and other equine health providers appreciate this information as well).

Here are some other things that can make our appointment (as well as those with other equine professionals) flow as smoothly as possible:

  • Pre-Appointment:
    • Let me know what your barn situation is.  Is your horse boarded at the facility, or is this your own property? Is there an indoor or covered arena, or are we going to be outside?  Please provide me with the barn address as soon as possible so that I can plan my route accordingly and be there on time.
    • Make sure that your horse is healthy enough for a farm call.  Your horse must be sound, and he must not have any infectious diseases (skin and otherwise) that I may unwittingly share with other horses.
    • During the Appointment:
      • Have your horse groomed and ready to go at our appointment time.  He doesn’t necessarily have to be warmed up, but it is helpful to have him ready to be tacked up.
      • Discuss any potentially hazardous behavior that your horse engages in.  Knowing that a horse has a tendency to kick means that I’ll take extra precautions to keep everyone safe.
      • Ask questions!  I’m always happy to explain what I’m doing and describe what I’m seeing.  I am glad to take the time to help educate you on the points of proper saddle fit, so if you don’t understand something, let me know and I’ll do my best to clarify.
      • Be prepared to ride.  The proper clothing and headgear should be worn at a saddle fitting appointment.  If you are not the primary rider, then that person should be there if at all possible.  I personally am most comfortable when you are riding with a helmet, but I will honor your decision not to – after all you ride at your own risk.
      • If possible, have your trainer present.  He/she can help elaborate on any issues you may be experiencing with regard to saddle fit and can provide some vital details that help bring about a solution.

I should also add that it’s extremely helpful if your horse knows how to lunge and how to stand squarely.  Taking a few moments when you’re tacking up each day to work on standing square translates into a much easier time of saddle checking and documentation.

I think it’s important to note here that my protocol for saddle fitting is that recommended by the Society of Master Saddlers, where I am working toward the Qualified Saddle Fitter status.  Unlike the British system, the United States has no system governing the conduct and education of its saddle fitters.  The methods that I ascribe to are a direct result of the education that I received in England.

Since a fair portion of the assessment takes place with the horse standing squarely, it's helpful to have your horse able to stand square for a period of time. This comes with practice, just like anything else.

Finally, know that I will work diligently to help you and your horse find the greatest comfort, so that you can work together harmoniously, staying safe and sound.  While I do have a few different new options to offer people, I am not a “brandist.”  There are hundreds of wonderful saddle makers out there, and what may be right for you and your horse may be dreadful for another.  Rest assured that I will be forthright and honest when it comes to saddle assessment.  You’re not going to be “pitched” or given a hard sale.  You will be given the time and thoughtful consideration that you and your horse deserve.

In the case of helping you find something used to ride in, this can result in my having to come out more than once to assess saddles.  I charge the initial $75, and then $25 per saddle.  If this means that I come out a second time to look at two more saddles, it’s just going to be $25 per saddle (although if I have to drive more than 60 miles each way, I tack on $0.50 per mile).

Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

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