Thoroughbred Logic: Saddle Fit

“…thus began the process of learning many, many things that I did not then know about an essential but often left-out element of horse ownership: saddle fit.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). Come along for the ride as she offers her logic on the importance of saddle fit.

This week’s article functions as a bit of a Public Service Announcement: assess your saddle, folks, and make sure it helps as opposed to hinders.

When I was 11, I sold my deep-seated little-kid’s Stubben and purchased an example of what, in the mid-1990s, was a prime example of fashionable tack: a pancake-flat 16.5” Pessoa jump saddle. I remember being told that knee rolls were for the weak. Envy of suede-covered knee areas abounded as I trained my leg to stay still despite my saddle. Clearly not having learned anything in a decade and a half, in 2012, I was still riding, still using my own tack, and still made the very adult call to purchase the correct size of (… drumroll)…the identical thing that I rode in as a kid.

Popping around on Rayne, the Hackney-Arab in my fabulous pancake saddle, half chaps and jeans… oh how times have changed… Photo by Howie Chiou.

For the next six years, I ran horses through Training level, restarted any number of Thoroughbreds, and rode all the ones no one else wanted to get on in a singular and extremely flat saddle. Sure, for some horses I added a cheapy half pad, some owners provided their own tack, but for the most part, saddle fit both for the horse and me was never really part of the conversation. I simply didn’t know any better, and apparently that idiotic pride about not needing knee rolls somehow lingered.

In 2018, I had had Forrest (Don’t Noc It) for about a year. With my old-ass Pessoa literally wearing out, I knew I needed something new-to-me and more “with the times.” I mean, hell, other folks’ saddles actually looked comfortable. I shopped online and was suckered into a post that claimed such and such monoflap saddle “fits every Thoroughbred in my barn, small tear, 800$.” Perfect – that was just what I needed, I thought, and shipped it to my house.

Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It) at the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project’s Makeover leaping off the drop in that same Pessoa. Photo by GRC Photos.

Let my ignorance/idiocy be your warning – a small tear is rarely inconsequential, and a wide gullet saddle likely will not fit every Thoroughbred in your barn. I tried stuffing thick shims in my half pad, tried a friend’s memory foam thing, tried a thicker square pad… then tried not doing any of those things. I hated it and so did my horse. I sold it at a loss and got in touch with my old college friend, Thais McCoy, who now owns Peak Saddle Fitting in Washington State. And with her help, thus began the process of learning many, many things that I did not then know about an essential but often left-out element of horse ownership: saddle fit.

That god-awful wide off-brand saddle made it clear that stability and comfort for the rider and the fit and balance for the horse are equally important. As I have learned over the years since, ignoring that can bring on seriously undesirable side effects.

Thoroughbred backs can be tricky to fit with their often-high withers and long sloping shoulders. Tuck (JC Louisiana Bling) is a pretty solid example. Photo by Kelly Robison

Since then, I have seen Thoroughbreds come in to my barn sporting riding issues influenced by poor saddle fit: saddles that are too narrow and pinch, have too-far forward tree points and aggravate their shoulder, serious rocker points that unbalance the saddle, and tack that is too wide and therefore put pressure on their spine and withers, and so on. On the gentle side, the behavior that has accompanied these issues has been anything from a horse moving poorly through their shoulder to remaining behind the leg and getting “bawky,” to getting quick and struggling to come over their back. In more severe or sensitive cases, others have come in for straight up bucking, bolting, rearing, and so on. A proper fitting saddle might not immediately nix those behaviors, but a) sometimes it does, and b) it is hard to address behavior when there is pain or irritation. Checking the saddle is an easy place to start.

Baby-horse Louis (Unbridled Bayou) is learning all about Eventing. With proper fitting tack, he and I can focus on the task at hand and not worry about the saddle. Photo by Cora Williamson

On the human side of things, many adult students come to my barn with a saddle that they, like me, have carried from their teen-years into their adult life – moving it from dorms to apartments to homes — hoping it will work for both them and their current or future horse. Sometimes it does the job well enough, but much of the time, riders are physically different from who they were as a 15-year old, and they and their horse need more from a saddle. In the right tack, a timid rider should feel confident, bold, and stable enough to push their limits and learn. They should be able to lesson, ride, jump, do whatever it is that needs to get done and not be thinking about the tack under them. Get that piece right for horse and rider and progress gains actual momentum.

Let me interrupt my own story/analysis here to be really transparent. I now ride in County Saddles and am part of their trainer program. No, this is not an article urging you to buy their tack (though, yes, it is amazing, and comfortable, and makes my horses and humans happy…). This is an article urging you to assess what you have and how it fits. I have friends who ride Thoroughbreds in excellent fitting Counties, Fairfax, Devecoux, CWDs, Black Countries, Stubbens, etc and love them. A good fit is a good fit regardless of brand. But that fit is critical.

Dr. Amanda Woomer confidently pilots Ranger (Cowboy Night) around their first show as a pair, aided by a saddle that makes her feel confident and balanced enough to jump. Photo by author

And so, like getting a trainer when needing to address a riding issue, getting a fitter to help with assessing a saddle is important. Yes, arriving at the correct gullet size (no, not all Thoroughbreds are Narrow) and seat size (it’s a thigh length and a feel thing, not a “how fluffy are you” thing) is a good place to start. But there is more to it than that, and that is where a professional fitter is super helpful. Wool flocked saddles are stellar as they are adjustable to the horse and they age well (being easily able to be restuffed as needed). That said, the wrong amount or balance of wool flocking, or the wrong shims in a half pad can make a perfectly great saddle feel terrible to both horse and rider.

Moreover, from my saddle fitter here in Georgia (here’s looking at you, Cindy), I have learned that a good fit should enable the rider easily get in two-point (staying there is on you though), keep their body approximately where it needs to be in alignment (and not encourage things like chair seating or knee pinching) and help the horse swing through their shoulder, move forward and carry over their back. And most importantly, both horse and rider should be happy going to work.

Boomer (Bada Bing Bada Boom) clicked around XC at Poplar Place Farm last weekend, happy as a… well… as a Thoroughbred who gets to gallop and jump all the things in good-fitting tack. Photo by Cora Williamson.

At the end of the day, there is no saddle panacea. One saddle may work for many horses — many of the same breed even. It might be a super nice expensive saddle (or equally, an old-ass pancake one), but if it is not helping you and your horse mosey along your own path to happy riding, it is likely not worth the perceived money saved by keeping it. And equally, that brand spanking new, fitted-to-your horse saddle is just one piece of the puzzle. It does not guarantee square knees over the fence, or that your leg won’t swing. But the saddle is an easy piece of the very, very complicated riding puzzle to do well.

Happy riding, folks, go enjoy your ponies.