We learned in a remarkably popular article on our website recently that sweat marks on a saddle pad can tell you a lot about how the saddle fits. (We also learned that nothing raises the ire of horsewomen like a photograph of a horse with sweat marks that tell the tale of an improperly fitted saddle … but that’s another blog post for another day!)

I’m eyeball-deep in the saddle fitting process right now, and I’m learning/have learned a lot about what works/doesn’t work/might work for my horse.

Happy, my 9-year-old Thoroughbred, has been retired from racing for a year now. I got him back in the winter, and our time together so far has gone a little like this: Snow, an abscess, more snow, rain, a paddock accident, some more rain, hives, two lost shoes, more hives, another abscess ... and did I mention it rained? (I don't know if you've ever experienced this, but it's tough healing abscesses when there's constant mud.)

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After each of those incidents, we’d get into a groove and made some nice progress with our training before having another incident. It’s just how things go sometimes. This year has been great for developing patience and perspective, though I won’t pretend like I haven’t gotten frustrated and grumbled a bit about “just wanting to ride already!”

Still, I’m adoring the companionship of my sweet horse, and at this point we’ve done a whole lot of hacking, a decent amount of flatwork, and a little bit of jumping. I thought we’d be further along right now, but that’s probably okay because, like I said earlier, we’ve been on a saddle mission.

Happy wearing my current jumping saddle at the start of our saddle fitting.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

Some history on my current tack: I’d had my jumping saddle reflocked in May, and had been waiting eagerly for Bob Schneder, aka the Cowboy Leather Guy, of Oklahoma, to come visit and advise me further on its fit. I was also looking for advice on a dressage saddle direction to pursue (I don’t have one currently). Bob came highly recommended from some of the staff up at Dover Saddlery in Cincinnati.

In short, Bob knows saddles. He’s been doing this for decades, for all disciplines.

Bob looked at Happy’s back and confirmed a few things I suspected, but also added a whole lot of useful information that I didn’t necessarily anticipate.

Currently, my saddle is flocked slightly more on the left side than the right. Happy's shoulder is also more built up on this side, which one might expect from a recently retired racehorse.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. Yes, my horse doesn’t have a topline now, but he will be developing one when we can get into better, regular work with optimized saddle fit. Up until this point I was making do with the reflocked saddle and a borrowed half pad, and Happy seemed comfortable.

Here, Happy and begin trying out our jump saddle with the shimming adjustments. 

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. Yes, my horse has some whopper shoulders that we’ll be accommodating. But he is more muscled on the left at the shoulder than the right—not entirely surprising, given his history of racing to the left in the U.S. and Canada. With my jump saddle's current flocking, Bob confirmed that we need to fill in the space on the right shoulder so the saddle would have proper contacton the left. The answer was a shimmable half pad, with two shims on the right, one on the left. He suggested waiting to reflock the saddle again—no need in stressing the leather again so soon if I’m going to have to reflock it anyway after Happy’s back changes shape.

Bob takes a look again at Happy's back after our short ride in my shim-corrected jumping saddle.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

Here you can see how Happy's more muscular left shoulder creates a gap at the front of the test dressage saddle. 

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. Yes, Happy needed a chiropractic visit. Aside from the imbalances hinted at above, Happy been bitten right over his spine during the paddock incident, resulting in some soreness (you'll see the teeth mark scars in some of the photos!). Bob anticipated Happy’s movement would be freer after an adjustment (I had already reached out to a chiropractor for scheduling, and have since had Happy adjusted! I can’t wait to tell you about it in another post).

Another angle that shows Happy's shoulder (im)balance and the need for a better fit.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. No, we don’t need to invest in an expensive new saddle right now. There are just too many variables that could change. Any saddle I’d probably order new would be to the tune of custom--or almost. If you take the inevitable upcoming shifts in Happy’s muscling and add them to my build (I am a very tall girl), you have a pricey new saddle that won’t work for us in six months … maybe even three. (Why are there so many used almost-custom saddles on the market? Because I’m not the first person to have come up against this problem!)

A medium-wide used Prestige fitted to Happy using a half pad with shims to accommodate his current topline, which will develop with balanced, correct work.  A correctly fitted saddle will have the stirrup bar parallel with the ground, so that the stirrup falls perpendicular to it.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

Happy and me trying out the used Prestige. It was wicked hot that day, hence the grimace.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. When the time comes for me to get a dressage saddle, Happy will need a medium-wide tree, so Bob suggested looking for some used options in that category. Out of the used saddles we tried that day from my neighborhood tack shop, Wise Choice, a medium-wide Prestige worked best on us as a pair. I’ll need an 18.5 seat, because my long thigh gets me “stuck” between thigh block and cantle. This is a bit of déjà vu from my college years, as my cross-country saddle was a special order with a long forward flap and 18” seat to accommodate the same geometry.

Here's what the half pad with shims looks like without the saddle.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com

  1. A saddle fitting wasn't so unlike a road bike fit I did a few years ago, only the bike fit had fewer variables. I had to buy a men’s bike for my height, and retrofit it with components and tweak it to fit my women’s geometry.   

Now I’m on the hunt for the right used dressage saddle for us, which is a journey in and of itself. In the meantime, I’ve been doing all my riding in my jumping saddle, now properly shimmed.

When was the last time you went through the saddle fitting process with a new prospect (or old), and what did you learn?

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/TheHorse.com