Saddle fitting: The difference between "really good" and "good enough"

This has to be my millionth saddle fitting thread on COTH. :lol: I brought popcorn.

I had an independent saddle fitter out today to check the fit of my mother’s saddle and one I was looking at for purchase. The fitter said: You need a hoop tree on this horse.

“This horse” is a wide-shouldered fellow with a curvy back, moderate withers, and wither hollows. He has been going in a saddle very similar to the one I was trying for almost the last 10 years: same tree, slightly different panel. In that 10 years, he has not had a saddle fit problem. I define this as: In that 10 years, his vet/chiropractor (who has taken care of him for 15 years,) the barn vet/chiropractor (who has done his routine care and chiro for 2 years,) his massage therapist, his farrier, and I have not seen pain, tenderness, atrophy, or anything else going on in the topline or way of going that we could attribute to the saddle. We have seen pain and tenderness in the SI that seemed to originate in the feet and resolved by adjusting his shoeing, and topline muscle atrophy secondary to “25 year old horse being ridden less due to age and quarantine.” We have also seen substantial positive development of the topline after changes in work and an overall positive change in his way of going over that time.

I’m not saying the fitter was wrong. I saw what she was seeing, I understood her recommendation, and I’m not trying to buy the saddle she told me not to buy. However, I have to wonder- my horse speaks really good English, I know him well, and he has a great care team who has known him for a long time. I ride him bareback often enough to feel a difference in his way of going between saddle and no saddle. And not one of us on his team heard him say “this isn’t good for me.” So, I’m having a hard time understanding if the saddle that I had was not good and he was compensating brilliantly (fitter’s opinion,) or if it was actually good enough the whole time and changing from a generous A-frame tree to a hoop tree would be better.

Anyone have experience with the line between “actually good and right in all ways” and “good enough”? How did your horse tell you? How did he improve when you got to “actually good”?

(BTW- I’d previously posted re. creative shimming solutions for my mom’s saddle that I had him going in a set of shims I made out of running shoe insoles because there was nothing on-market that did what I needed. The fitter said that was, and I quote, “genius” and confirmed Mom should keep riding that way. I use this to illustrate that I am not a total moron about the geometry of saddle fitting. There is always more to learn!)

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On a practical note, did she have a demo hoop tree saddle that you could try? Can you get a second opinion?

There have been quite a few anecdotes in other threads about horses who plainly prefer a saddle that “doesn’t fit” (usually they seem go best in a tree that is a bit wider). So it’s certainly possible that your horse has always been perfectly happy and doesn’t need a change. I don’t think you could know unless you tried it! But it sounds like you’ve always done right by the horse.

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It has been my experience that as soon as you say “wide” everyone goes for a hoop tree. None of my wide horses have needed a hoop tree, despite being arabs! My gelding has never complained once about his saddle fit, but my mare would lay down and die and/or pile drive you into the ground if it didn’t fit perfectly.

It has also been my experience that some saddle fitters are only interested in selling you a saddle, especially if it’s their brand. It’s harder to find a fitter that helps you with fit of your saddle, or of a quality used cheaper saddle.

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You know I have been in plenty of saddle fitting threads over the years. I have always had the same question: When is good, good enough?

My criteria:

  1. I will buy a saddle that clearly fits better than what I have. But I won’t buy one that merely fits differently, complete with an argument from the seller as to why that fit is better. But will always keep my eyes peeled and an open mind.

  2. I can say that because I have been choosing saddles for horse for a long time AND I haven’t caused any fitting problems that were of the size that I had to call a pro (vet, massage therapist, chiropractor, Robaxin, etc.) to fix. It sounds like you are there with your horse, too. I’m not in a place of desperation or ignorance.

  3. As you can see from a thread I started just recently in Off Course about seeing naked saddle trees, I want to pursue the best fit. I want to see that great fit… and the closer saddles creep to the $5K mark (meaning I might lose $1500 if I were very, very lucky) making a buying mistake, the more I want to know that the saddle really does fit better than the cheaper, non-hurting-him saddle I have.

  4. If I have a saddle that doesn’t seem to be damaging my horse’s back (and I keep track of how the horse’s back looks and feels (how the muscles feel) with every ride), I would want a saddle which, when I put it on a little ahead of where it would sit, seemed to “snap into place” when it got to the natural stopping point. If it snaps into place, it will be balanced, too. But I’d the shape of the saddle (not pads, maybe flocking doing it’s part, not a tight girth) to do most of the work of holding the saddle in that natural place on the horse’s back.

I’m not sure this long answer helps, but I hope so!

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I have a really wide animal–an Irish Draught mare. When I first bought her, she hadn’t yet achieved her full, shall we say, breadth, ahem. I rode her in a wide, A-shaped tree (a County). And that was fine for a while.

But she did begin to protest, and so when a fitter recommended a hoop tree, I went for it. Her “protests” consisted of the occasional small crow-hop when in the upward transition, and the occasional head shake. In other words, the protests were not dramatic, and her back wasn’t obviously sore, she stood for mounting, she wasn’t girthy, etc.

But in a hoop tree, those subtle protests went away.

Moral of the story: it’s worth trying a hoop tree. You might be surprised by how much your horse likes it.

I get as close as I reasonably can to a good fit and then let the horse tell me if there is an issue. There’s no reason to spend time and money fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.

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I have a princess-and-the-pea mare who is the poster child for a “good enough” fit to mean completely unrideable, don’t even try. When I tried The One, it was immediately obvious (because the bucking stopped, lol). By the end of that nightmare I had ridden in a different saddle nearly every ride for an entire year, immersed myself in both sides of the fitting world, and now do my own flocking adjustments because every fitter was wrong… and my main takeaway is that no one is as qualified to judge fit as the horse itself, even if it that saddle doesn’t make an ounce of sense according to the textbook.

I also learned that stoic horses in a “bad” fit are always betrayed by their body in time, the majority of horses are doing perfectly well in a “good enough” fit (if this weren’t the case, the saddle fitting market would be a lot bigger), and that horses like mine are extremely rare.

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Also had a princess who made it known what was right and what was wrong. Saddle fitters said he needed X. And sometimes he responded with very clear behavior (planting, rearing, bucking, casually trying to scrape me off on the fence, standing there and looking back at me like, really??) when we put X or something X-like on his back to try. The saddles he liked the best in terms of his willingness and relaxation I would have put in the “maybe good enough” or even “I don’t know why you like this at all” categories. He had a lot of motion to his back when going, and I also learned he was highly sensitive in certain areas and less phased by other areas, and if we got the shape right in his dealbreaker areas, that was good enough for him.

I think if your horse wasn’t so strongly opinionated, you would have had some kind of problem with his back or performance or soundness along the way.

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Thanks, everyone.

The fitter is brand-independent and was recommended to me by someone I trust. She explained why she recommended the hoop tree based on where the points of this saddle tree fell relative to his conformation and did have a hoop tree in her car. I saw it on him and understood why she was recommending it. I didn’t have the opportunity to try it because it was two seats too small for me- she was coming out to do a fit check, not sell a saddle, so she didn’t have my specs in her car. She’s going back to see if she has something suitable.

The thing is that I’ve never met an English made saddle I liked, other than Crump and Crosby, and I have an absolutely negative desire to spend a lot of money on something I hate if my horse isn’t going to like it any better. If the saddle I was trying for him is actively doing harm that’s one thing and of course if that’s true he can have whatever he wants. But I’m having a hard time understanding how it would harm him so invisibly that he isn’t manifesting a problem to anyone on his care team, and so if what he has is actually good enough.

Saddle shopping always makes me want to quit and ride bareback.

@mvp I’m glad you chimed in. I feel like you and I have been on the saddle struggle bus since the dawn of this forum and I respect your opinion.

Have you tried a bunch of British saddles? I’m surprised your liked NONE

Thanks for your kind words.

You do have the enviable position of being neither desperate nor ignorant. And your horse seems OK to you and his team. That said, I’d sit in the hoop tree saddle (even while it’s being British) in the name of open-mindedness.

I tend to have happy horses… and that might mean they are a little stoic? Kind of good at sublimating pain the way good athletes are? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. So when I try a new saddle, I’m waiting for that “seas parted” moment where my mare tells me that This Is THE ONE and she wants to borrow money to buy that saddle a ring.

And yet, meh. I mean, she’ll date a saddle and she has brought a hoop tree home for dinner (meaning it fits her the best of any saddle I have found, save a Tad Coffin wide dressage saddle). But I don’t love the geometry for me. I own that saddle… it’s British…because I’m not a selfish person, but I am hoping that there will be a better saddle out there.

One thing that hoop tree saddles do well is Be Wide In The Rails. OK, this is my totally amateur opinion and I don’t have x-ray vision, nor access to trees to back up my claim. But the width and angle of the rails seem to be a key feature for my current Half-Arabian ride. I mention this only because you might want to consider that middle part of the saddle that we have a hard time seeing and fitting. IMO, it’s important to fit the rails of the tree for the side-t0-side fit and stability on the wide-ribbed horse.

In any case, at least see how the saddle fits and feels to ride in. Do it in the name of Science.

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One other thing to consider is workload. If his workload is fairly light with a well balanced rider, he may fine in a “good” fit. If either of those changes, that might also be the tipping point where he needs “great” fit.

In my experience, there’s not always a huge difference between a wide tree and a true hoop. I had an Arab that had broad shoulders, a short back and low withers - NOT fun to fit. Thanks to CoTH, I ended up with a Smith Worthington. It’s not a true hoop tree, but they could adjust it very wide and it worked for both of us.

@Renn/aissance your bareback comment made me laugh. I got my horse mid July and to date, and think I still have more time bareback on him than under saddle. He’s a three and a half year old fjord and is on the stockier side of the breed. Prior to him, I was leasing a Belgian mare and had gotten a Wintec wide all purpose with the ajustable gullet and riser system in the hope I’d be able to use that on a future horse… the drafty types :slight_smile:

My fjord is a pleaser and it wasn’t until girth sores popped up with two different types of girths and he had some white hair start to crop up that it was clear the saddle was an issue. I felt awful. I ended up having to go up two gullet sizes for my fjord to the largest size they make! I’m hoping that will hold us for a while because as nice as new saddles can be, shopping for the right fit for horse and rider is just exhausting. And expensive. I’m expecting we also may need to go the hoop tree route in the future.

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I like a flat seat with a narrow twist and I need a long, extra-forward flap. I think the perfect saddle was the old Beval World Cup, which was a pancake with no blocks. :slight_smile: I want to feel close to my horse, sitting around and with him, not on top of him. Generalizing, in British-style saddles made in the last 10-15 years, regardless of the model or the equine it’s sitting on, I tend to feel like I’m sitting in a chair seat on one of those pavilions people put on top of elephants. I’m stuck in the back seat, the seat is too deep, my leg is in front of me, and I have no idea what’s going on underneath of me. This was true of County, Smith-Worthington, Hastilow, Fairfax. I have not sat in Black Country (when I was last looking, and they were last recommended to me, their area rep would not return my calls) or Bliss-Loxley (which had the hoop tree I saw today.) If anyone has a brilliant idea here, I’m all ears.

As re. the elephant pavilion feel, this is not a wool vs. foam issue- I know they ride differently, I’ve ridden in wools I liked (particularly, Amerigo) and foams I hated.

Yes - I know that feeling and I have HAD that feeling with this horse, with the most recent saddle (which I will call Devoucoux #2) and the one I currently have on trial (Devoucoux #3.) His big tell on the one that I have on trial right now is that he can give me big, correct, expressive lead changes both ways on the first try. The dude is 25, the left to right swap can be very situational, the fact that he’s banging out his swaps and scoring a 10 on each one is a big deal. :slight_smile: (What doesn’t work about the one I currently have on trial is that it’s built up a little too much in the wither hollows, which works great for him in the winter when he’s as fit as he’s getting and not eating grass, but the reality is, he is 25 years old and semi-retired, he’s not going to be that fit all the time, he’s also going to be more zaftig so the wither hollows will fill in, best we go with less there for a better year-round fit and shim a little here and there.) I thought this saddle was getting a ring and I was ready to go $1k out of budget to give it one.

The fitter is going to go “do her homework” (her words) on some hoop tree demos or used models that I can sit in, and in the meantime, I’m also calling the Devoucoux rep and saying “okay, so tried this one, this is the problem, I’d like to try THIS, THIS, and whatever else you think is a good idea.” I have tried a lot of saddles on this horse. I am not saying that the Devoucoux tree is The One. I don’t even believe in The One in life partners (my husband knows this. :slight_smile: ) I do know, though, that this tree is the best of all of the trees I have tried on this horse to date in 15 years, and his care team does not have a concern about his saddle fit in this tree, and I don’t want to close the door on something that I know works effectively for both of us.

I remember your post about fitting your cute boy and I actually thought of you today as the fitter was describing another client of hers whose horse got white hairs after just one ride! Sorry you haven’t found the right fit yet. It’s like buying a bathing suit for two butts!

BC was what I was going to suggest. Don’t have a a computer at the moment or else I’d write more. Sorry. Hate the iPhone for posting

It IS like buying a bathing suit for two butts :lol: I couldn’t believe how fast the white hairs cropped up. With the girth issues I was taking everything very slow and short rides when I was trying the saddle with different shaped/material girths after the sores were in the clear (thankfully both were caught very early). We are seemingly comfortable now, sore free, and no new white hairs, but like the question you posed…I am also trying to sort out how good “good enough” is, and for how long with him still having a bit of growing to do.

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Hehe… the bathing suit for two butts. That is the most apt description of the problem!

And to make things worse @Renn/aissance, it sounds like your derriere is of the French Persuasion. I think those trees/saddles are designed to build a narrow twist into a saddle, at all costs. I think, too, that some of the lovely balance we enjoy in those saddles comes from having the stirrup bars and pommel quite close together, measured horizontally. And I think all that, plus the seat are designed to have the rider sit up near the withers. At least, this is the balance I love and I think the progenitor of it all, the Hermes close contact saddle started it all.

What this means, then, is that you might do OK in a British saddle that had the right geometry on top for you. I think the twists will feel wider, but if you had one with the right “line up” of your heel to your ear, and an open seat, you might find that you like it.

When test-driving a saddle with a really different twist, I try to give myself a good week’s worth of rides, even if they are short ones. In a dressage saddle there there’s lots of sitting and I have to move my hips vis-a-vis my femurs a bunch, a wrong-sized twist will not get better. But for we H/J types, I think there is more margin for error if our body is healthy, strong and flexible. So in my mind, I try to distinguish a saddle that has good geometry for me and, therefore, good balance from one that has this or that twist. Again, with British saddles (which I think are friendlier to the wide horse), I try to keep an open mind and open hips about the size twist I need since, really, the shape of the horse is going to have a lot to say about that.

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For what it’s worth I only ride my 27 year old in a bareback pad anymore. It’s just so much easier. Quick on and off, everyone is comfortable. Given she’s only trail riding or doing light walk trot on occasion anymore. She could do more, we just don’t. I have found I do some of my best flat work bareback, they make bareback pads with stirrups now too.

Yes - I’m hoping somebody out there is making it. IIRC Frank Baines does, and I was remiss in not saying they are the one British style saddle manufacturer I remember liking. That said, I haven’t sat in one in almost 20 years (the forerunner to the Elan, I think.) I know they do tree widths but I don’t think they do geometries. Harry Dabbs might- they certainly know how to design a lot of different saddle “feels” while also making good shapes. Have you sat in a particular model that you think might do this?