Unlike the UK, where you have a governing entity that educates and regulates saddle fitters and makers to an industry standard, anything goes in America, and it is my sincerest opinion that our horses (and riders) suffer as a result. The fact is, when it comes to having your horse fitted for a saddle, it is important that you choose your saddle fitting professional with care. After all, it’s your horse’s health and soundness and your comfort and safety on the line.
I felt compelled to write this blog posting after spending so much time hearing stories about riders pushed into brand X because it HAD to be a custom fit, or because it’s the most popular saddle in the barn, or it’s the only saddle made for women, or blah blah blah. And yet I can’t begin to count the number of fittings where a “professionally” fitted saddle had been sold (often at great expense to the rider) that was never right for the horse to begin with! Sound familiar? And as those of you who are familiar with my earlier blog posts know, if it isn’t right for the horse it isn’t going to be right for the rider. End of story. It is one of those things that genuinely gets my blood boiling. So please forgive me if I seem to be stepping onto a soap box. I’ve just held this in far too long.
The Society of Master Saddlers, based in the UK, is truly the only organization in the world that has a tried-and-true system for educating and governing saddle fitters to an industry standard. That standard comes not from just one company, but all of the saddle making and fitting professionals in the UK. We’re talking centuries of combined experience coming together. To be a Qualified Saddle Fitter in the SMS means that you have been tested rigorously and are bound by a code of ethics that put horse and rider first, not some brand that you represent.
In fact, to be a Qualified Saddle Fitter with the SMS means that you can’t just represent some brand. Rather, you are required to retail at least 3-5 different brands of saddles. So what’s the difference between a retailer and a representative? For one, a retailer purchases the saddles they sell at wholesale and sells them at retail. They are a customer of the saddle company, not an employee. A representative likely works for the saddle company, and while he/she may claim to be an “independent” saddle fitter, at the end of the day their job is to sell their saddles. And while their saddles may be amazing (there are some great saddles out there on the market), it begs the question where does the loyalty lie: with the customer or the employer?
Truly independent saddle fitters have several brands that they offer at retail. Rather than working for one company, they provide options for different horses and riders at price points for anyone, but most importantly, they do not push you into buying a saddle. Instead, they provide an educated evaluation of the existing saddle and work to either provide a better fit with said saddle or help you find something suitable, within your price range, without making you feel as though you’ve stepped onto a used car lot. And I have heard of a fitter or two that have literally said “What do I have to do to get you into this saddle?” It makes my skin crawl.
This brings up another point: you should be paying for an educated evaluation, but it’s vital to ask: educated by whom? There are a lot of “certified” saddle fitters out there, many of them claiming to be independent. But this certification often comes from the company (and they aren’t necessarily going to tell you that), and sometimes you have to look very closely to recognize that it isn’t an independently run organization after all. From what I’ve seen, the education provided in this “certification” is largely based on the particular saddle company’s various models, and yes, these reps are very good at reciting all of the options available.
But the part about fitting the horse is often limited to a crash course (often just a couple of days with the manufacturer) that does not necessarily encompass the level of complexity involved in achieving proper saddle fit. Sure, they may have a basic idea about where the saddle goes on the horse, or how the panels should line up, etc., but where the fundamental lapse in education often manifests is in the wrong tree selection for a specific body type, or a panel design that does not provide the correct support, to name just a couple of basic mistakes I commonly see.
So how do you know who to trust to help fit your saddle? Here are some questions to ask to help make sure that your saddle fitter is up to snuff:
- Does he/she represent one particular saddle brand? If so, they may be expected to push for a sale rather than genuinely work with your existing saddle. And I strongly feel that when there is a commission on the line, you may not be getting a completely honest opinion. This does not mean that there aren’t ethical sales reps out there, but I think it’s important that you’re well-informed about who you’re working with.
- Is he/she certified, and if so, by whom? What are the requirements for this certification? Who provided the instruction? What was that person’s credentials? We expect our veterinarians and massage practitioners, etc. to be well-educated, why treat saddle fitting any differently?
- How does this fitter perform a fitting? How much time is being spent with you? Does he/she look at it on the cross ties and say it’s good? Do they bother to see your horse move without the saddle, with the saddle, and ridden? How comprehensive and detailed are the records they are keeping of your horse? I’ve heard of fitters only providing 30 minute windows within which the fitting is performed. How does that person get to know the needs of you and your horse within such a short period of time?
- What sort of flocking adjustments does this fitter perform, and who provided that training? Is the work guaranteed? Does he/she only perform onsite work? If so, I urge you to read my earlier posting on the subject: https://andersonequine.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/focus-on-saddle-fit-the-art-and-science-of-reflocking/; you may wish to find someone else to perform the work needed.
- What is the after care? Does this fitter stand behind the product? Does he/she offer follow-up checks included in the purchase of a saddle, or do they take the money and run?
- Finally, do you walk away from the fitting feeling as though you’ve been sold something you don’t need? Believe it or not, not every rider requires a custom fit, and with all of the saddles out there, there’s likely something out there “off the rack” that can fit some of these “custom” horses (that, in reality, aren’t all that difficult to begin with). And it needn’t be a $6000 saddle to be a well-made, well-fitting saddle.
One of the things that fundamentally draws me to the Society of Master Saddlers is that they seem to differentiate between saddle fitting and saddle selling. The SMS is continually researching how to make saddles that best fit the horse, and when they discover something that they can quantifiably prove (with the Pliance testing, for example), they will restructure their approach, not only in the way saddles are made but also in what the Qualified Saddle Fitter must now take into consideration. It’s an ever-evolving approach that, in the grand scheme of things, benefits the horse, and from there, the rider. Manufacturers (especially those not in the SMS) may not be privy to this kind of information, meaning that the saddle fitters they are training are not necessarily given the right tools necessary to ensure optimal comfort and safety of both horse and rider.
It is my sincerest wish that non-SMS saddle fitters work to better educate themselves on proper saddle fit. The SMS conducts twice-yearly Introductory courses in the US that allow you to eventually take the Qualified Course and the exams necessary to be counted among the Qualified Saddle Fitters of the world. I would love to see more QSF’s not only in my immediate area, but all across the US and in North America in general, because our horses and riders deserve to be fitted properly by well-trained, competent, and ethical saddle fitters.
Copyright 2012, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC