Sunday, August 22, 2010

What The Flock?!

Saddle shopping: almost as much fun as throwing Drain-o into one's own eyes. Integrated or non-integrated panels? Medium, medium/wide, or wide tree? Jumping flap? Standard flap? Forward jumping flap? Monoflap? Foam or wool-flocked panels? Grain leather, calf skin, or buffalo? There are seemingly more options and combinations to choose from than there are stars in the galaxy. It is enough to make one's head spin! Add to that the fact that I do not currently own a horse, and it's even more of a crap shoot. But will that dissuade me? Surely not!

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.

Wool Flocking

- 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

Wool Flocking

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:


Carol said...

After trying to fit my own saddle and ending up with too many saddles, I finally hires a professional saddle fitter who also sells some used saddles. My husband got a used Albion that fits he and his draft cross mare perfectly - not an easy fit! I got a new WOW saddle. It has air pockets instead of wool or foam, and you adjust them according to your horse's requirements. I love it and it can be changed from dressage to jumping. It's kind of expensive, but my plan is it will be cheaper to stop buying saddles. My horse is young and I'll never sell him. My two cents worth.
It's hard - keep trying, your perfect saddle is out there.

Anonymous said...

You realize, of course, that any saddle you get now will not fit the horse you get next.

I'm a fan of wool flocked - foam is generally a sign of a less-well-made saddle and doesn't wear as well. I've had a couple of horses who were very hard to fit - it took trying over 15 saddles to find one that fit Maisie - it's an Amerigo and wasn't cheap even used. My strategy is to find one that fits me, then try it on the horse, including while moving and also get the approval of my chiropractor who is very good about saddle fit. Most people who claim to do saddle fitting in fact don't know very much and are trying to sell you something - learn how to do it yourself. A common failing is to have a saddle that is too tight in the shoulders - if there's not space for your hand at rest there will be less space when the horse is moving.

Good luck!

Frizzle said...

Thanks for the feedback, guys! :-)

Carol, I have heard mixed reviews about the air-filled panels, so I just avoided them altogether. Some people love them and some hate them; but, if they work well for your horse, that's great!

Kate, LOL, I know, it's Murphy's Law, right?
I've looked at a few Amerigos, and they are very nice saddles. I've never ridden in one, though, so I'm not sure how well they would fit me.
My equine massage therapist/hoof trimmer lady taught me a lot about saddle fitting and I've been reading up, so I know the basics. But, when I do get another horse, I will certainly have my vet (who is also an equine chiropractor) make sure my saddle fits New Horse-y.

Carol said...

There are certifications in saddle fitting if you are wondering where to start. It isn't an easy job or one that can be adequately learned quickly. Here is the website for the certification held by the person I used, but I'm sure there are others:
They apprentice for 7 years. Lumping most saddle fitters into a category of wanting to sell you something and not knowing much seems just a bit inconsistent with my experience. Maybe it's done differently elsewhere.
Re air filled, yes I agree and researched before buying. People seem to love them or hate them. I love mine!

sumaclab said...

Just wanted to add one to your list, Santa Cruz saddles are wool flocked, or at least the model I'm buying is. Agree with everyone about the importance of having someone with some training evaluate the fit. My favourite tack shop is owned by a lady certified by the Society of Master Saddlers (UK) and she's been a tremendous help!

eventer79 said...

Yes, saddle shopping is a horrible thing. Especially if you are riding multiple horses. Lots of the features are personal preference -- for example, Americans are obsessed with leather, while Europeans lean more towards the practicality of synthetics (OMG, I love my Wintec!).

Saddles I have found do well with multiple horses (story of my life till Solo) -- Wintec (yes, the saddle snobs look down on them, but they are well balanced, easy to care for, tough, versatile saddles), Crosby (my first, pre-Solo, the older ones have a great spring tree, it fit everything...except Solo), some Collegiates.

My Crosby was a wool/foam mix. It was old, so on the verge of needing repacking when I sold it, but I liked it, didn't have any lump or breakdown issues and stayed smooth. Now, both my saddles are wool. I like it, but it does pack down and get uneven over time, pain in the ass, but it's not too hard to reflock. My saddle fitter uses synthetic wool to avoid clumping issues.

Alana said...

Wintec! Wintec! Wintec! Wintec!
That is all...

Oh, wait, not quite...I am with Kate, no matter what it will not fit your next horse. So, go ahead and get a pony, then a saddle, and post lots of pics along the way!!

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

OMG, with all this, go bareback! LOL!
No seriously, I got lucky and found a great Crosby, gently used that fit me and fits Laz (or did, not sure about now)..but lately I've been enjoying the lazy tacking of 'nothing' and just playing Indian. But, with just walking and some baby trotting, it's ok.
Great post though Frizzle!

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