**I've been battling with a persistent cough for the past two weeks, so posts are a little slow right now, but I do have two more in the works.. including the January goals post, which will probably be up by mid-January or so. Oh well.
Emma of Fraidy Cat Eventing asked for tips for first-time saddle shopping tips, and I came up with enough that it turned into a post rather than a novel-length comment.
First off: English saddles are usually listed from Narrow to Extra-Wide. Each brand seems to handle their measurements differently, and measures different places, so what this really means is: your horse may go in a M in one saddle, or a MN in another, or a MW in yet another, or maybe even a Wide in another. Confusing and frustrating? Yep, but that's how it goes. Western saddles seem to be a little more consistent, but my Western shopping experiences are practically non-existent, so.
That 'size' mainly addresses gullet width, and sometimes also affects the width of the 'channel' between the panels down the back.
Next: English saddles also have a 'rock' to the tree. Some saddles are better for horses with curvy backs. Others are good for horses with flat backs. Brands are, I think, pretty consistent as far as how they fall in this category. If the tree is too flat for the horse, you'll probably run into pressure points at the front and back, and an area with no contact (or minimal contact) in the middle.
Saddle balance is very important. A too-wide saddle can tip forwards, tipping the rider forwards, and vice versa for a too-narrow saddle. Ideally, you want even contact all the way back.
Some horses also have conformation or movement that tends to shift the saddle forwards (or backwards). Consider if that is the case with your horse, watch the saddle, and if that is the only issue (especially if it's an issue for most/all saddles on your horse), consider if you're willing to use a breastplate and/or crupper full-time.
Things to consider that are more specific:
- Withers. If your horse has high withers, your saddle choices will be more limited to accomodate that. If your horse has NO withers (hi Fetti!), you probably do not have to worry about wither clearance. Standard rule of thumb seems to be that you can fit 2-3 fingers at the front of the saddle before touching the top of the withers.
- Shoulders. Does your horse have big shoulders? Yep, Fetti again! Between the no-withers and big-shoulders issues, I originally looked at wide trees as ideal, but then the angle wasn't necessarily right. I need saddles with enough flare to accommodate her shoulder movement and not just pinch. The big test for me: is there consistent pressure all the way down at the front of the saddle, or is it awfully tight in one spot?
- Girth groove. Where does the girth want to fall? Is that going to pull the saddle? I think I have point billets on my Thorowgood that I'm using, and that helps keep things in place for me. An anatomical girth can also help with this, but I'm hesitant to recommend that as a fix when buying a saddle.. it's great to fix an existing one, but seems like if you're buying you'd like to get things right to start with.
What pad do you want to use? My Thorowgood fits nicely with a plain square pad. It would be too narrow with a Woolback. My Specialized fits nicely with the Woolback, but take that padding away and it throws off all sorts of things quite visibly. If you're dead-set on using both a square pad and a half-pad with the saddle, try them like that. Don't trial with a Woolback if you want to be using a dressage pad. You get the picture.
Also.. does the saddle work for you? It's easy to get caught in the saddle fitting the horse, but it needs to fit the rider too - even more important if the horse isn't yours. Are knee/thigh blocks in the right place, and if not, are they moveable? Is the twist comfortable for you? (Narrow twists work for some folks, wide twists work for others, treeless is often extra-wide twists, especially the more inexpensive ones.) Is the seat size right for you?
I seem to switch out gullet plates in the Thorowgood every winter and again in the late spring. Her back and shape changes enough that decreasing/increasing a size clearly makes it a better fit. This is not actually an option in non-adjustable saddles, but maybe most horses don't grow a ridiculously wooly winter coat that affects their width? Who knows. In any case, be mindful of their physical condition when saddle-fitting the first time, and be aware that it may change in a few months.
White spots are a pretty clear indicator of saddle fit not working for the horse. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, they don't show up until it's been not-working for quite some time.
I tend to check sweat patterns to see if they're even or if there are dry spots. There are folks that advocate against this, but it's worked for me so far so I'm sticking with it. I like to see consistent sweat patterns without dry patches anywhere. But! Be mindful that if you haven't worked hard enough to get the horse all sweaty under the pad, don't judge based on a lightly-sweaty pattern. Some areas dry faster than others and I've been fine with that. After a two-hour trail ride, everything under the pad should be at least moderately sweaty, and matching dry spots on both sides raises concern for me (so, in my case, I switched to narrower cushions to make the tree a bit wider. Specialized is complicated sometimes).
Some horses are loud and clear about not liking saddles. Fetti occasionally strongly dislikes something, but mostly is just 'meh' about everything. Until and unless she has stronger input, she doesn't get much of a say, else I'd drive myself crazy looking for invisible signs.
So - that covered the actual saddle fitting basic question stuff. As for shopping..
What's your budget?
How soon do you need it?
If you need the saddle next week, your budget will obviously have to be more flexible. The longer you can wait, the less your budget can be.
I tried lots of saddles when saddle-hunting. I tried saddles I knew I couldn't afford. I tried saddles I was sure wouldn't work. I tried saddles that friends had. If you can figure out that X brand and tree size fits your horse, it's so much easier to buy used. It's still a bit of a crapshoot- there's no guarantee it's exactly the same as the one you tried - but personally, I'd probably be comfortable buying sight unseen/online based on trialing something with very similar specs locally.
Once you know what will work for you, look obsessively for it everywhere. Ebay. Craigslist. US-wide Craigslist (adhuntr!). Facebook tack sale groups. Online forums. Local consignment stores. Local tack store bulletin boards. Figure out what price it usually goes for, and then figure out if that's a reasonable price for you. No? Keep stalking. You can probably find it cheaper eventually.
I purchased my Thorowgood from an East Coast craigslist ad. I knew it was an adjustable gullet and that Thorowgoods historically worked fairly well for Confetti. The price was quite fair and I knew I could resell it for a very similar cost if it ended up not working for us.
I purchased my Eurolight based on a two or three line text ad and without asking really any questions, completely sight unseen, at a really astonishingly excellent price, and paid by a mailed money order. I think I knew that it was a Eurolight and it was brown. I think that's all I knew. I wouldn't actually recommend that method.. but I was willing to take the risk because the Eurolight can be semi-custom fitted to the horse. Also because it was a ridiculously good deal and I decided I was okay being out the money if all went catastrophically wrong. BUT. It took a year of casual/obsessive searching for something to come up at that price. It's also the one and only time I've actually placed a phone call based on a Craigslist ad; I hate calling people, I really hate calling strangers, and I'll disregard an ad if there's no email for me to write to. No regrets on this one.
My first endurance saddle was given to me when it magically fit Confetti, after I'd gotten really discouraged with internet-searching in my price range. This was the "there's no way it'll fit, but we'll try it anyway, why not" saddle. And it fit. So, there's that.