At the moment, I have two saddles; unfortunately both have such narrow gullets that there is no way I could use them on any horse that's wider than a wooden sawhorse. I spent over twenty years blissfully unaware of saddle fit, as I was raised in the school of "buy a saddle that fits you, throw a bunch of various and sundry foam/sheepskin/gel pads on the horse's back, slap the saddle on, and ride off into the sunset." Currently, I'm riding a Thoroughbred gelding and using the saddle that was custom-fitted to him; the fit for me is horrible, however, as the horse's owner is the size of an 8-year-old Asian gymnast. Seriously, I think I had the same sized saddle when I was a skinny little 5th-grader and, uh, let's just say that there is a whole lot more of me these days. So. Saddle Search on.
Issue #1: Integrated vs. Non-integrated panels. According to Patricia of Fine Used Saddles,"integrated panels are sewn directly into the sweat flap for close contact and a smooth transition between panel and flap." This supposedly puts the rider closer to the horse and gives you more of a "feel" for the horse's back. However, it also makes panel adjustments extremely difficult (maybe even impossible).
Issue #2: wool-flocked vs. foam panels. This one is a big debate! Both have advantages and disadvantages, of course, so it's a matter of taking your individual situation into account. Let's examine the evidence.
- Can be adjusted to create a custom fit for the horse's back. As your horse gains/loses muscle in the topline, your saddle can be adjusted accordingly
- Panels with wool flocking have rounded edges, which are easier on the horse's back
- Wool (especially lower-quality wool) can bunch up into balls, which is why some saddle makers either use a combination of pure wool & synthetic, or line the panels with canvas
- Wool flocked saddles gradually "pack down" and conform to the shape of the horse's back
- The wool will eventually harden, so you will have to periodically have your saddle completely re-flocked. How often you need to have this done varies greatly according to how often you ride, the climate you live in, etc. Of course, you might need minor flocking adjustments along the way to accommodate your horse's changing back. But most saddlers recommend having the saddle completely re-flocked at least every 8 to 10 years, sometimes more often
- It is getting hard to find wool-flocked saddles! Here are the brands that I know of that offer wool-flocked options: Stubben, Amerigo, Arc de Triomphe, Collegiate, Henri de Rivel, Stackhouse, possibly Frank Baines (?), County, Black Country, & Wintec
I have to admit, I am a bit of a purist about certain things; in my opinion, sports cars should be stick-shift, wine should be corked, and saddles should be wool-flocked. But that's just me. :-)
- Can not be adjusted the way that wool can
- Some foam panels can be cut thinner, so they offer more of a close contact feel than wool panels
- Can somewhat mold to match the shape of the horse's back. For this reason, some people believe that foam is superior for those who ride multiple horses, as the foam can self-adjust (up to a point, of course) to fit each horse's back. Patricia says, "The benefit to foam is that it holds its shape rather than molding to a particular horse and hardening up the way wool does. It is softer and molds temporarily when in use and bounces back to its original shape. This helps them fit more horses."
- Foam can last a lot longer than wool; however, replacing foam panels is much more expensive than having a saddle reflocked. "Devoucoux and Antares regularly do refit the foam panels on their own saddles, but it is not a cheap thing. It's about $500." (Patricia)
- Foam panels tend to have "square-ish" edges, which can cause discomfort to the horse
- Most of today's high-end saddles have foam panels, including Devoucoux, Beval/Butet, Delgrange, Antares, CWD, Tad Coffin, Hermes, Arc de Triomphe (although they also have the option of wool), Prestige, Lauriche, Luc Childeric (I believe), etc. There are a lot of saddles that do not specifically state whether or not they have foam or wool panels, but I'm guessing that most of them are foam
- Foam does eventually break down and get lumpy, especially under pressure points, just like wool-flocked saddles
Lumpy foam panels
Issue #3: Leather type. Most saddles have "grain" cow leather, while some saddles are covered in calfskin. The more expensive brands usually offer you the choice of which you prefer, and many of them also offer the option of buffalo hide. Personally, I'm morally opposed to calfskin, so that isn't even a consideration for me; plus, while it's soft, it's also much less durable. Out of the three choices, buffalo is supposed to be the toughest and longest-wearing, which of course makes it more expensive. This one is easy for me: grain leather it is!
Issue # 4: Flaps. Some saddles have only two flap options: Medium or Long. However, most of the more expensive saddles have myriad choices. There are multiple lengths, choice of forward or regular, jumping or standard, etc. I'm still figuring out exactly which option is best for me.
Issue #5: Tree width. Usually, you only have the option of Medium or Wide. Some manufacturers are offering the in-between choice of Medium-Wide, while other companies offer interchangeable gullets so you can create more of a custom fit for your horse (not sure if this is specifically gullet or also tree-related -- ??). I'm still a bit up in the air about which tree width to choose, although I tend to be more drawn towards wide/bulky horses...
So, now that I've rambled on, I'm sure that you are all on the edge of your seats to find out which saddle I plan to buy. ;-) The winner is a wool-flocked Arc de Triomphe (well...I'm fairly sure, still not 100%). I've ridden in Heather's and really loved it, plus the brand has a lot of different options. For now, I'll try some demos, plus keep an eye on e-bay for a used one (although I doubt the exact saddle I need will magically pop up for sale!).
Arc de Triomphe Classique
I'm sure many of you have been on this same quest. What advice can you offer? Thoughts, opinions, and additional info are all appreciated!
Used saddle resources: