For years I’ve ridden in normal general purpose saddles. I do a mixture of hacking, flatwork, dressage, jumping & polocrose – a bit of everything really. In the past I usually rode in whatever saddle the horse I bought came with, or what was in my tack room & seemed to fit my horse ok.
I have a basic knowledge of saddle fit. But in the past I didn’t know much about different saddle brands. Like many riders I relied on finding a local saddle fitter to help me if I needed something checked. My saddle was functional, but it wasn’t something I took a huge amount of interest in each day.
My first saddle issue arose a few years ago. One day in the paddock my horse refused to walk. The refusal to move was done in a very relaxed & polite way. It was completely out of character for my horse. As I sat on my now ‘un-moving’ horse, it reminded me a little of wearing uncomfortable shoes that are hurting your feet. You logically make the decision to find a chair to sit down in (and not walk anymore!) So I had suspicions that my horse was in the same situation. Something was hurting him. As he walked fine in a headcollar, it probably wasn’t his feet.
I deducted that something had gone wrong and different saddle was needed so I could ride my horse again. (I later found out it was old age, the saddle was just past it’s time).
A local saddle fitter tried and number of saddles, and one saddle fitted. Phew! A sigh of relief! It can be tricky to find a saddle that fits your horse, as there are so many factors that have to be right so it is ok for your horses shape.
The saddle did look like I was about to start jumping very large ditches. My seat was behind the horses balance point & my legs were out in front a little. But I had a saddle I could use so I didn’t pay too much attention. It fitted my horse and that was my main concern.
Over time my riding started to improve as I got more lessons with some really good trainers I flew into Ireland, from the USA & Australia. Things like posture & balance started to become more important.
I realised the importance of the saddle fitting both you & your horse correctly. For the riders, it’s not only about whether you have the right sized seat for your ass. It matters what position the saddle naturally puts you in!
Soon after this, I started the hunt for a dressage saddle. From what I knew, a dressage saddle would have the best chance of putting me over the balance point of the horse, so I wouldn’t feel behind the action. This logic was gained by looking at pictures of dressage riders in the past. Not the most scientific!
Two dressage saddles later and no joy. They were definitely better, but they still seated me a little behind. So I got determined.
I emailed 30 saddles companies all over Europe & America & I asked for their help.
I wanted to know their secrets…
~ What makes a good saddle?
~ Why is it to hard to find a saddle that fits?
~ Why do most saddles have you sitting in an armchair and the rare ones in a great position for more advanced riding?
~ What is really important to look for in a saddle?
~ Are there any interesting innovations in saddle design I should know about?
~ Whats the difference in material between a cheap saddle and a more expensive saddle, and does it actually make a difference to the horse?
I had some helpful emails, and one company went further than I had expected.
“Many thanks for your kind mail which we read with great interest. We would there like to invite you to our workshop in Germany where we could discuss everything from person to person and where we could also demonstrate how the problem can be solved.”
I was in shock! I had just got an invite from the Stubben family to come & visit! Stubben HQ is based outside Dusseldorf, and is a tack company which is much admired in Ireland for its saddles & the quality of its work. Our local vet had his 60th birthday a few years ago and his whole family came together to buy him a Stubben saddle.
And now Johannes Stubben was going to pick up up from the airport, show us around their factory in Germany & spend the whole day explaining how they make their saddles.
Needless to say I wrote back immediately and booked flights to Dusseldorf with Maura, a friend of mine who is also looking to find a great saddle for her & her horse.
About 2 weeks and one Aer Lingus flight later, we arrived on Thursday morning. We met Johannes at the airport & were driven to their base in Krefeld. Stubben also have a large manufacturing base in Switzerland for their products.
After taking a quick peek at their showrooms (so many beautiful saddles!) we started on the tour of the workshops & asking questions. Johannes was so patient. We literally spent about 7 hours that day talking about saddles, bridles, tack design & horsemanship.
There was a whole wall full of saddle trees, ready for new saddles.
This is the saddle tree with some preliminary work done. If you’d like to learn more about the Stubben tree you can read a more detailed article here.
It can be adjusted to 7 different widths for the horses back, 4 different lengths, also depending on how big your horse is, and 3 different seat depths. You can see how the seat depth can be changed by tightening the horizontal panels in the picture above.
I was starting to realise just how many different sizes and shapes horses backs came in. It was no wonder trying to find the perfect saddle fit was going to be tricky given just a handful of options.
I’ve talked to a lot of people, and in the last week alone have heard 2 stories of people who went into tack shops, tried 15 saddles on their horse and didn’t find one that fit.
One thing that came up in the clinic I spectated at this weekend in Germany with Jeff Sanders was the importance that the tree can move a little, as the horse moves.
Johannes showed us how the tree can bend from side to side when he twists it, and also how it moves when there’s pressure put on the seat area. It’s got flexibility.
Another interesting point is the length of the saddle. Jeff mentioned that saddles which extend past the horses 18th vertebrae, after the ribs end, put pressure an an area of the horses back which is weaker. He was looking at one horse at the clinic, and when he checked his back, the muscles in this area were tight. While it wasn’t causing pain right then, it could lead to a back issue in the future for that horse. You do not want your saddle to be longer than it should be.
Next was the area for cutting the different leather panels. The size depended on the pattern being used in that saddle, and the correct area of leather has to be used. In the saddle, the saddle flaps are made from a different cut of leather to the seat for example.
I was curious about the positioning of the stirrup bars. Are the different between a jumping and a dressage saddle? Johannes said that no they are the same. The reason for this is that the shoulder area is a very strong area on the horses back & so thats where the pressure of the stirrup bars are placed. Its the rest of the design of the saddle – seat, flaps, etc that makes the saddles different.
These are the main tools used:
There was an old military saddle in the workshop from the 1930s, 1940s which was pretty amazing. It weighed a ton, but had a really broad tree to spread the weight, and would have lots of padding so would have been pretty comfortable for the horse.
Then the saddle continues to grow. Johannes showed us a sneak preview of their new dressage saddle, the Euphoria. You can’t actually buy them yet in the shops. This has got an extra girth strap at the front, a special new seat design that is quite flat in the middle and a new seat design so its more comfortable to ride in. So interesting to see.
The saddle starts to come together then as more pieces are added. This is very complex as a lot of this is sewn together by hand. There is a LOT of skill involved!
People also seem to have gone a bit crazy these days, so you can also get customised Swarovski crystals etc as you’d like. The black ones were actually quite pretty! The bling-bling ones I think I’ll leave for someone else.
Finally the saddles make their way to the showrooms, & get packaged for delivery all over Europe.
One thing I really wanted to figure out when I was here, was why were a lot of saddles I tried at home making me look like I was sitting in an armchair.
What I learned is that each saddle needs to be balanced. It should not be tipped backwards or tipped forwards.
Secondly – this is something you need to check as part of your saddle fit. When you put your saddle on your horse, if it is lower at the back of the saddle, that saddle is not correct for your horse.
I had asked a local saddle fitter a few weeks ago what can you do in this situation. Should you can get padding & shims etc to put under different areas of your saddle? His answer was no. Those things will just put pressure on other areas and your saddle still won’t fit properly. You can’t really adjust your saddle to fix it either too much, as this relates to the whole design of the saddle.
Its also worth noting that this saddle may be fine… it just that it doesn’t suit the shape of your horses back.
The balance point of a horse is at its 14th vertebra. The balance point of the saddle (its lowest point) should be at your horses 14th vertebra. Then the balance point of your horse & saddle matches perfectly and you get that WOW feeling when you ride your horse. If the balance point of your saddle makes you sit back further than this, its on a weaker part of your horses back & its more difficult for your horse to engage their hindquarters and lift their back up.
Lastly, one aspect of getting the opportunity to have an all-access pass to a top saddle factory was to find out what innovative products they were working on.
The first one that caught my eye was this saddle!
And not only that. We got the full tour of all of the bridles, girths, stirrups etc that Stubben are working on – including some that are still in prototype stages.
We saw some pretty amazing new girth designs, some rather fantastic stirrups (one pair were purchased and will be tested out & reviewed in the next few weeks!), and some very unusual looking bridles.
I also found out how tack shops choose what they stock (101 flash nosebands anyone?!). I also have a possible solution for those with horses who are sensitive when you tighten the girth (aside from the obvious ‘do it gently and in stages’ approach), which I’m also going to be testing out over the next few weeks.
Many thanks to Johannes & Ralph Stubben & the whole team in Stubben for this wonderful day. Everyone was incredibly kind to us & it was amazing to get this type of access around Stubben. Any mistakes in this blog post are my own
In part 2 of this blog, I’m going to go through bridles, nosebands, new girths, different stirrups types & lots more. I ask lots more questions & you’ll also get to hear a short clip of the interview I did with Johannes this week. You’ll also find out the secret behind the unusual saddle!
You can read the second part of this blog post here.