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The Saddle Search – Part 1

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This series of articles describes a year-long saddle search Jerry undertook after buying a new horse. These articles were originally posted on the QueryHorse "How-to Horse Guy" column and have been consolidated and converted to article format to make them easier to find and access for new QueryHorse visitors.

I bought a new horse last year (well, new to me; he'd been around a while) and wanted to get a saddle with which I'd be happy. I'm a trail rider, ride at least 10 or 12 hours each week, and I wanted more security in the saddle. While I first learned to ride English, that genre of saddle is too flat for the trail — stuff happens there and I feel they're not safe enough.

A Secure Saddle is Important
I've had horses spook when we've surprised a couple of deer and they let out this very loud, awful hiss like I've never heard before. More than once, I've had a dog (or three) jump out of the bushes twenty feet or so in front while at a gallop and the horse I was riding shied sideways at incredible speed (I'm still amazed at their power and light-speed reflexes). I took a tumble one autumn while at a walk when a horse in a temporary paddock on the other side of a grove of trees squealed loudly because he was startled by the sound of my horse passing; so my horse spun around on a dime and I slid down his side onto the rocky gravel below.

These kinds of surprises happen all the time on the trail and it pays to have a saddle providing lots of support. That means more of a western design than a flatter English saddle. Yet, I want to be able to jump low-level obstacles, like the freshly fallen tree that's hard to get around or that narrow, deep, fast-running brook. Looking down at that horn before a jump gives me the "willies" — at speed in the air it looks more like a scalpel if I should get the landing wrong — that's pretty scary and I'm just not that brave.

As a result, I decided to buy an inexpensive, synthetic, western saddle to fit my new horse on a temporary basis so I could ride and have whatever time I needed to investigate current saddle offerings. And so began my quest for the "perfect" saddle.

Saddle Concerns
I just mentioned that an English saddle is flat and provides little support — this is obviously true, but it doesn't mean I don't value a good seat. In the winter, I like to ride bareback in an enclosed space to continue developing a better, balanced seat. The margin of error when bareback is minimal and if the rider isn't balanced, he/she is not on the horse for long. There's also more a feeling of "connection" with the horse when riding bareback. Just apply a tiny bit of "leg" on the horse and he responds — he can feel your whole thigh directly as well as your calf.

Sometimes, I've ridden with just a halter and lead line. I direct-rein to the left and neck-rein to the right (or vice versa). (Next I'm going tack-free — Stacy Westfall, LOOK OUT!) While this is great fun and safer in that enclosed space, horses act much differently on the trail and respond to animals and other horses in ways a rider might not always desire. Things happen fast and a horse's coat is slippery (I'll not ride bareback on the trail). But with the long rides I do, comfort can't be ignored and neither can a good saddle fit for my horse and me. We're both in good shape and I aim to keep it that way.

This all conspired to start me looking at the myriad variations of Western saddles. While my synthetic saddle has worked fine, it's not ideal. If it was, I'd just take a hacksaw to the horn so I can safely jump and be done with it.

Fit and Comfort — Important For Horse & Rider
I started visiting area tack shops and sitting in many saddles. Sales people offered lots of advice and told me too many times how comfortable a particular saddle was. Guess what? Evidently some people have a much different idea of what comfort is. True, each human body is at least a little different (and some are radically different). But I gotta tell ya, I sat in some saddles that I can't believe anyone thinks are comfortable.

Well, if some saddles are so uncomfortable for me, doesn't it stand to reason the same will be true for my horse? So I started asking about trying a saddle for a week or two on my regular rides — how do you think that went over? NYET!

They explained about problems restocking a once new/now used saddle. So I asked about borrowing a similar saddle that is used or "pre-owned" — More NYET!   Evidently their saddles are so outstandingly good that none has ever come back…yeah…right.

So I continued shopping for saddles. Unless I can find a similar used saddle to try for at least a week, or a 100% guarantee on a new saddle that can be returned with no questions asked, I'm not about to lay out good money without a satisfactory trial for both my horse and me first.

Next to Part 2

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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