November 19, 2019

Saddle Fitting #6: Stubben, and Getting Cozy with the USEF Rulebook

Brand: Stubben
Cost for Fitting: $150
Number of Saddles Tried at the Fitting: 4
Number of Saddles Trialed: 0

Two different people messaged me on Facebook to ask how the Stubben fitting went, which reminded me that I never wrote about it!  Goes to show you how much attention y'all are paying to these saddle fitting posts, you remember what I tried better than I do.  To be fair, I did leave for Canada like thirty seconds after the Stubben fitting, so it got pushed out of my brain rather quickly.

It's a shame I forgot because Stubben was one of my more positive fittings.  This rep has been fitting saddles for 5+ years now, first with County (Ohio and I think Ketucky) and now with Stubben, where she has Indiana for the first time.  She made the brand jump because she was so impressed with "new Stubben". 

She also reps Bombers bits, and did fittings for those with my trainer and a barnmate while she was here, which knocked a bit off my fitting fee.  Please give her a call if you're into Stubben or Bombers.  She's new to the Indiana market as of September, and while she's not 9 years of education amazing, she's still one of the better fitters I worked with.

I ended up trying three models and seeing four (wrote the 1894 off on sight for looking too much like the CWD).  The first one, above, is their most bare bones model.  Even customized it'll come in under $3k.  It was fine - nothing special.

The last one I tried, and the only other one I have photos of, was fascinating.  It's a Stubben Aramis with a 17.5" seat...and a 12" flap, as measured from the bottom of the stirrup bar.  The literal shortest Dressage flap I've ever seen in my life. By like, a LOT.

Compare the same saddle pad with the Aramis...

...and the CWD, which by the way, IS a short flap!  Pro tip: use a pad you don't care about for fittings with new saddles so that if they bleed all over it, you don't cry.

I was absolutely enamored with that flap, with the feeling of feeling horse under my calf and not leather.  Literally 20 minutes after I sat in the Aramis, I sat in the flapless for the first time, and it struck me how similar the two saddles felt.  You don't notice the lack of flap in the flapless, except for the feel of horse under your calf, and the Aramis with the tiny flap felt largely the same.  The only difference is the way it felt under my thigh.

I've asked several fitters since then what the ideal flap length is, and they all say the flap should come lower on my leg than I've come to realize I prefer it.  No one has explained why that is, though. Maybe it has to do with sweat.  Am I allowed to like a ridiculously short flap?  Am I just overcompensating for the fact that I'm used to Dressage saddle flaps hitting my ankle bone?

The fitter pulled a block off of a jump saddle in order to meet my preferences, and I loved it.
The Aramis is a solid #3 for me.  That flap was delicious, but the rest of the saddle didn't knock my socks off.  This demo was way too narrow for Connor in the front, which, fine, it's a demo, but this is a brand that historically I haven't been able to get to fit him at all, so I was perhaps judging it more harshly than others when he didn't go well in it.

I did have one important takeaway from this fitting: I looked up the USDF/USEF rules on minimum flap length, and found that there are none.  Specifically, "An English type saddle with flaps and stirrups is compulsory for all tests and classes other than FEI tests..." is all it says, until you get to FEI, when you must have "long, near-vertical flaps".

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  I tucked that information away in my brain for future use.

Short List: Stubben Aramis (Really) Short Flap
  • That 12" flap!
  • The tiny little block that just hinted to my thigh that it needed to stay still
  • The leather and comfort - Stubben has come a long way
  • The fitter, who has purple hair (relevant I know) and is genuinely good at her job.  She definitely is one that lost money, driving 2.5 hours one way to get to me (I'm so sorry but thank you!)
  • Velcro blocks, please and thank you
  • Connor didn't go well in it, because the demo didn't fit, but even still that's hard to get past
  • Just didn't knock my socks off 

November 18, 2019

Lesson Wrap-Up: Falling Off a Cliff

Not one to squander a trip to CGP's, I asked to take a lesson on the same day I hauled in for the Patrick Saddlery fitting.  We don't have any kind of formal "Cob Jockey will take monthly lessons" agreement, but I've made it over there for a lesson once a month for three straight months so that's a thing now.

Noooooo media so have some Hank pics

It wasn't pretty, but goodness it was effective.  We spent much of the lesson progressing through the gaits while living by these rules:

1.  A down transition can happen at any time and the pony must carry himself in such a way that he can do one at any moment
2. The pony must respect the bit and cannot lean over his chest
3. A reinback may or may not follow a down transition and the pony must be ready for that at every single moment
4. The pony is not allowed to race backward in the reinback
5. If the rider isn't in total control of the speed and number of steps of the reinback, the pony is in charge and that's not the way life works anymore
6. The pony needs to obey commands immediately
7. ...which means the rider needs to give more clear signals

The net result of all of that at the walk and trot was that he actually shifted his weight onto his hindquarters.  When we finally started this at the canter, we added an 8th rule:

8. The pony needs to strike off into the canter with conviction from the moment the rider asks.  No trantering!

Being a very pretty bowling ball, NDPC 2017

The most difficult part of the lesson was when she asked me to canter to reinback, knowing it would be a hot mess.  She told me to pretend he was about to canter off a cliff, and I had to stop him and back up away from the cliff - but not in an out-of-control way. "You should decide that he's going to stop at the letter E and he should stop at the letter E.  You need to be more clear with your aids."  We did actually get there with this exercise, and he got so uphill and pushed so hard off his hind end in the upward, I actually got left behind the first time in surprise!

I'm not going to tell you he was the picture of a perfect Dressage pony in this lesson, especially not in the beginning.  CGP said we're going to go through a period of increased tension, that we're sacrificing relaxation in the name of things he needs to learn right now (and should have learned earlier, but hey, this is my journey up the levels), but that we'll come out on the other side.

At the same time she's giving us this very welcomed tough love, she's also murmuring offhanded comments like "You're going to have a nice piaffe someday, little dude" and "Can't talk a walk like that to Grand Prix!"  We haven't sat down and talked about my goals yet, and we all know the odds of Connor making it to Grand Prix are slim to none, but it's pretty cool that she's training us as if we're headed there anyway.

I should also note that this entire lesson was in the flapless, that my GP trainer was more than supportive of it, that she has other students that ride in them, that she personally knows the founder of Eq Saddle Science, and that even though she's sponsored by Patrick, she didn't care at all which one I ended up with, which felt great!

November 17, 2019

How My Feelings on the Saddle Industry Have Changed

I don't normally post on Sundays but I have a big backlog of posts that I need to get out this week.  This is a super important topic that I'd love to start some dialogue on, so comment away!

I came into this search without a lot of feelings.  I have all kinds of feelings now, and I need to get this off my chest.

My biggest feeling is disillusionment and disappointment with the saddle industry.  Look, I couldn't be as blunt as I wanted to be in my reviews of some of these brands.  This blog is Googleable and I'm not a jerk. But if you're considering any of the brands I looked at, please, shoot me a private message and I'll give you my honest thoughts.

Going to break up this monologue with scenes from the fitting journey. WOW something or other.

But I will say that it amazes me that more than one rep expected me to sign a check for 1-2x what my first car cost after an hour of them standing in the center of the arena and saying "Looks good" every so often.  After not even looking at the horse's back.  After being unable to explain the physics and mechanics of the interaction between the saddle and the horse's back.  After having no idea why my lower leg swung wildly in one saddle but not another.

Butet Dressage

It also amazes me that the "holy grail" of saddle shopping is buying a custom saddle.  Expecting people to spend that much money on a fixed, unchangeable (or only changeable to a point) object that is designed to fit a very changeable object like a horse's back and rider's seat is insane.  And then add the fact that we order it usually without ever having sat in exactly what we ordered, and then we hope and pray it fits well when it gets here - and THEN add the fact that a lot of US fitters doing the fitting and ordering are simply not competent at all.  It's terrifying.  I am terrified of that process.

The Stubben Aramis with the 17.5" seat and the ridiculously tiny 12" flap

Now let's look at demo and used saddles.  This whole thing is set up to where a rider is encouraged to accept "good enough", and please don't interpret that as me calling anyone out, buying the saddle in front of you is way better than ordering custom IMO.  

The custom CWD that had my name on the nameplate already and everything.  If I may rant for a second, it was a very poor quality nameplate considering that saddle is currently worth more than my truck!

But it's expensive to move demos around the country, and if it's in your hands already and it's passable, that's a more attractive option than continuing to spend $$$ finding other options.  If I hadn't been willing to drop a truly stupid amount on fitting fees, I would have ended up with that County Connection, because it was good enough, and it magically appeared in my tack room, and the fitter was local.

A delicious color, and that was the most it had going for it even though it was briefly in my top spot

Demo/used saddles are a better option than custom new, but they're just as challenging to get right.  Consider the fact that what took the Patrick demo from "This is fine" to "I LOVE THIS" was the fitter identifying that the balance was ever so slightly off and putting part of a towel under the front of the saddle.  Without a good fitter with a keen eye for biomechanics and physics, I would have accepted "good enough" when "AMAZING" was so close!  Not to mention "Good enough" would have slowly devolved into "I'm fighting this saddle, aren't I?" over the following months, like my last Dressage saddle did.

Said rolled up towel

Next, let's look at the life of a good,in-demand fitter.  They don't have a life.  As one put it "I don't have a husband or a family or a house or a life, this is my life."  Unless you have a huge concentration of customers in one place, fitters have to travel a long way to get to you, and fitters flunk out of the industry for very mature, rational, human reasons all the time as a result.  So even if you find a good fitter and buy a saddle through them, there's nothing to say they won't quit in a year and leave you with a less qualified fitter, or no fitter at all, and then you're stuck with a saddle no one will work on (if you're in my area where there are no independent fitters).

Fact: this baby doesn't exist if former CWD rep Mary is still a saddle fitter
Now let's look at compensation for fitters.  If you break down those $200-250 fitting fees into federal mileage reimbursement rates, plus the hours on the road it took to get to me, plus the time it took to do the fitting, some of the ones I worked with were losing money!  Obviously they cash in big if I buy a saddle, so I set the expectation upfront with all of mine that they were one of six fitters I was working with, no one's odds were great with me. 

The only one no fitter came out for, and yet, my fitting experience was top notch

Finally, let's look at fitter education in this country.  It's non-existent, and it's why you hear so many people say "[Brand] is a good brand, but it totally depends on your fitter."  To be a rep for CWD, Mary spent 30 days in France getting educated, and that's on the high end.  Some brands require two weeks of training and no prior qualifications before they get turned loose on your horse's backs.  TWO WEEKS!  And it shows.

County Epiphany.  So much hate.  Either this block position works for you or it doesn't.

This system is all-caps BROKEN, and therefore I have an enormous amount of respect for companies like WOW and Eq Saddle Science that are trying to change the system.  WOW is trying to solve the "So sorry this custom saddle didn't work for you when it got here, now you have to sell it at a loss and buy another one from me!" problem, and Eq Saddle Science is trying to solve the "No fitters in your area and you're stuck with a saddle no one will work on" problem.

Both companies are weird and unconventional and therefore have a massive uphill battle in an industry full of people that are terrified to be weird and unconventional, but hats off to them for trying to solve the problem instead of contributing to it.

With these tools and guidance from a pro, anyone can adjust the Eq Saddle Science saddles in the field

In the end, I'm glad I dropped something like 800 bucks on fitting fees.  What I thought I wanted in the beginning isn't what I ended up liking, and I'm glad I took the time to really do my homework before signing a check over.  What I don't expect is for all of you to do that - that's a stupid amount of money.  I hope you've learned a lot from these fitting posts so that you don't have to spend that yourselves, and I hope you've learned to hold your fitters to high standards.  You and your horse deserve it.

November 15, 2019

Saddle Fitting #5: WestHill & Son/Patrick Saddlery

Brand: Patrick Saddlery (By way of a WestHill & Son fitting with Kate Ballard)
Cost for Fitting: $250
Number of Saddles Tried at the Fitting: 1
Number of Saddles Trialed: 0

Next up, we have Patrick Saddlery, and I'll cut right to it: it's super, super close for me between this and Eq Saddle Science.  I shipped out for this fitting, which took place at my GP trainer's barn.

Kate Ballard is a member of the Society of Master Saddlers, one of only three in the US.  To earn the title, she had to go through nine years of formal education, and continues to go through continuing education and written and practical recertifications every year.  As she puts it, this is all she's ever wanted to do with her life since she was 11, she's proud of her work and she lives for this.

(And yes, I'm using her full name because she's absolutely incredible and I think everyone should know about her, so welcome, if you find this via Google.)

She started with a thorough hands-on analysis of Connor's back, and an anatomy lesson for me, pointing out the location of his bones and the size of his bearing surface.  She didn't find any areas of soreness, but she did point out two atrophied spots that I'd never noticed before, right under the back of my saddle panels.  She made me dig my fingers in and feel the way the muscle changed there, it was stark!  But not something you can easily just see.

Since my hands were too numb to work my phone, I'll use pictures from Patrick Saddlery's Facebook page.  There are no upcharges for embellishments, it's all one fixed price for the saddle regardless, so their customers tend to go nuts with it!

A jump saddle, lest you think these are all Dressage saddles.

Next, she brought out two naked trees: one that she knew wouldn't fit (for the sake of showing me how important tree shape is) and one that she thought would fit (and it did).  It was fascinating, and very clear that unless the whole fit starts with the tree, it's impossible to know exactly what's going on in there.
Naked trees in their England workshop

It's not just tree shape, but also tree width, and where the curves of it would and would not dig into his back, regardless of where the flocking was or how wide the channel was.  Some of the difference between the wrong tree and the right tree were SO subtle, but I could see how even the subtlest "wrong" bits would be annoying for Connor.  This is also where she talked about how the idea of a "twist" being a rider preference is ridiculous. 

A naked high head tree

She talked about how they start out with the naked tree, finding which of their many tree shapes fit the horse best.  Then, using extensive 2D tracings taken of the horse, over in England they build a physical 3D model of your horse's back in their workshop and they spend 45-60 minutes painstakingly hand-shaping and shaving the beechwood tree to precisely fit that 3D model.  There are five guys, and one guy alone is responsible for your saddle from start to finish.

After that, she brought out her "fitting saddle" based on his tree and my seat size.  Interestingly, she put me straight away in a 17.5", and it was perfect. She said although I'm short, I have a very short torso and quite a long hip to knee length for my height.  No wonder I felt crammed in my kids' sized Dressage saddle!  Just goes to show that I thought I knew something about saddles, but I really, truly do not.

Next we started playing with blocks, which she does with the fitting saddle in the photo above, with a special Velcro panel and an alphabetized grid, which both makes it easier to get each block exactly the same on both sides, and also makes it easy for the saddlefitter to document where your block should be for the saddlemakers.

This took a long time, and was made more complicated by my complete lack of trust in my own feel of my leg lately. Luckily, my GP trainer lives on-site and Kate texted her to please come out and give her opinion - and she actually jumped out of the shower into the cold to do so! 

The three of us spent the next half hour playing with the blocks and the balance of the saddle, and determined exactly what block, which position, and how much foam needed shaved off the block and where to give me the perfect amount of support without pinning me into the saddle.

How did I feel about this saddle?  If the flapless made riding easier, the Patrick felt like it made riding easier AND helped me be a better rider.  For example, one thing I often hear is that I get onto my pubic bone during down transitions out of canter, and I had just heard that in my lesson with the GP trainer right before the fitting, in fact.  But I did a beautiful one in the Patrick with the absolutely effortless balance that Kate figured out for me. GP trainer clapped her hands with glee at that transition.  The saddle felt so solid underneath me, in a good way.

How did Connor feel about the saddle?  He FREAKING LOVED IT.  He had just had a really hard lesson with my GP trainer an hour before, then stood in the cold for an hour, then I got back on and with no warmup whatsoever, he felt amazing.  I put him through every movement we're capable of, and he just kept getting better as we went along.  And this is a horse who always goes quite poorly during saddle fittings. 

I've actually seen this one in real life

Kate made it very clear that I was under no obligation to buy, but we needed to document his back and my preferred saddle configuration anyway so that she had it on record should I decide to buy in the future.  She put several dot stickers on his back at particular anatomical points, and took tracings at each point.  She also used this crazy looking level with adjustable points along it to precisely measure the angle and slope of his wither and spine.  All of this will be sent to England and used to create that physical 3D model of his back in their shop.

Interestingly, when she got to his lower back, she asked me if he'd ever been injured on the right hind.  I said no, but then described our asymmetries under saddle and she said "that makes perfect sense with what I'm seeing".  And you could really see it in the tracings, his right side musculature closer to his hindquarters looks way different than the left.  So...every other saddle fitter so far would have sold us a saddle that did not address this asymmetry?  Hmmm.

While she did the tracings, she handed me a stack of leather options to peruse.  Since all of the options add no cost, many Patrick saddles end up with embellishments (snakeskin, crystals, colorful trim) and it seems like the saddlemakers have a lot of fun with the wilder ones.  That said, they're also happy to build the plainest of plain saddles as well.  It's entirely up to the customer.

One option I was toying with - a sliver of croc on part of the cantle, brown panels, warm purple (didn't photograph well here) piping and brown wool serge panels.  I really like the serge panels, after she described the benefits to me, although you can of course get leather as well.

Short List: Patrick Saddlery Fully Custom Saddle
  • Absolutely incredible fitter that I desperately want a long-term relationship with (no not that kind of relationship lol)
  • Said amazing fitter comes to my GP trainer's barn 2-3 times a year
  • Connor went the best in this out of anything
  • It's precisely made to his back, no guessing, no hoping
  • It made me more effective in the saddle, and made things easier that I struggle with
  • Let's be honest, who wouldn't want free rein to design and build their own custom saddle with whatever options they wanted?  That's just fun
  • It's CUSTOM for my body and his body.  (At the same price point that CWD (and others) would've given me a bench saddle at...which puts the nail firmly in that coffin...)
  • Resale value is going to be quite good on an attractive, normal-looking 17.5" saddle even if it's not as well-known of a brand as something like Custom
  • Serge panels - love the idea of warm wool on his back in the winter and wicking wool on his back in the summer.  Also love the idea of just brushing dust off the panels instead of wiping them down after each ride, which gets to be a PITA in the winter months
  • There is no adjusting the block once it's on, because it's built into the saddle. Since we took an extensive amount of time trying to figure out what was right for me, that shouldn't be an issue, but still, I HAVE COMMITMENT ISSUES
  • Not able to do a trial saddle because they are all custom and because what I rode in was a fitting saddle, but I liked it enough that I'm not sure that mattered in this case

November 14, 2019

Saddle Fitting #4: Eq Saddle Science (Reactor Panel)

Brand: Eq Saddle Science (English saddle sister company to Reactor Panel)
Cost for Fitting: $95 for two week trial and remote fitting, including shipping both ways
Number of Saddles Tried at the Fitting: 1
Number of Saddles Trialed: 1

After former CWD saddle fitter best friend Mary gently helped me come to the realization that nothing in CWD's lineup was made for the way I want to ride Dressage now, I was taken aback.  I realized two things. First, MW is more counter-culture than I realized, at least to saddle makers, and, second saddle makers are making what the general riding public asks for, and what people ask for isn't always the most biomechanically sound.  Therefore there are a lot of saddles out there that aren't biomechanically sound.

So I sent an SOS to fellow biomechanics nut Kate and asked what saddles she loves and she had a few ideas, but her resounding recommendation was Eq Saddle Science.  Her words: "never fallen in love with a saddle more in my life".

Yes, it's weird as f*** (This saddle has three billets because it's a demo.  Once purchased, the third billet would be cut off after you determine which two you want to use.)
Because it's so weird looking, I'll cut to the chase quickly: I LOVE this saddle.  I have never felt more balanced or stable in anything in my life.  Read on for more.

We do have a local-ish fitter (Cincinnati), but our schedules didn't line up, so I took advantage of the remote fitting.  First, you take lots of tracings of his back as well as photos from the side and above.  Then you physically mail the tracings and email the photos to ESS, and they build a saddle for you off of that.  After that, you schedule a remote fitting via Facetime/Skype/Hangouts/whatever to validate the fit, then you ride, then you call back and discuss (I also sent videos).

One of my fitting photos

According to Carmi, the founder and my remote fitter, they have about a 75% success rate of getting it correct out of the gate with this process.

It rides so much more like a regular saddle than you'd expect, and you don't notice the lack of flap in any negative way.  You don't feel the billets.  You do get the sensation that your horse is suddenly much narrower (a godsend for me on this horse!) and like it takes less effort to transmit aids.  I could easily get my whole leg on him top to bottom, when normally I have to decide between thigh or lower leg at any one time.  Even a monoflap doesn't do it for me anymore after riding in this.

Three cheers for a REPOSITIONABLE STIRRUP BAR!  Unusual length femurs of the world, unite!

The thing I love most about it?  The balance is just incredible - and they have a published study to back this feeling up.  It feels like it gives me body control that I normally don't have, without locking me into place.  I feel so stable and in control in while in the saddle.  And all that is with a block configuration that I'm not sure yet is perfect for me.

If you're wondering why he looks like crap in these videos, this was hour #5 of back to back saddle fittings with a steadily falling temperature (it was 25 degrees in this video).  It's a testament to his kind nature that he wasn't flat out saying "NO" at this point!
I included the unplanned down transition at the end just to show you how stable I stayed even when he plows onto his forehand like a ton of bricks.
I'm showing you this direction because it's my right lower leg that tends to swing wildly at the posting trot in most saddles, while the left remains stable.

The negatives?  This thing looks weird af.

Half a saddle for my "haffie"?  Where's JenJ when I need her?

I didn't prepare my poor trainer for this one, and she was like "What IS that?!" when I pulled it out of the box.  The panels are a combination of foam plus a proprietary rubber disc:

You'd think it would have a concentration of weight under those discs, but the heaviest part of the saddle isn't under the discs at all, and ESS has the pressure pads to prove it.  They are also preparing to publish more research on this as well for the true skeptics - and I do consider myself one, even though I love this saddle.  I challenged the founder on the weight distribution over the phone and she was delighted, saying she could always tell it was an intelligent, thinking individual if they questioned the panels that much, and she dove right into the research and panel mechanics with me.

This configuration also means it's user-adjustable, although they recommend you not touch it without guidance from a pro, either in-person or over video chat.  They recommend taking tracings and assessing fit regularly, in part because it's actually possible for you to adjust, unlike a wool or foam saddle.  This is a big selling point for me out here in saddle fitting no man's land, where I'm lucky if I see a saddle fitter yearly when someone makes their "big trip" up from Florida or the East Coast.

All of the stuff it shipped with (minus my whip, plus some webbers (not shown))

It comes with thin flaps that get attached to the saddle with Velcro, either for regular use or just for shows, where it's illegal to show in a flapless saddle:

Shown with flaps that I don't think I had attached quite right

Finally, it also comes with a special two piece Toklat III saddle pad made specifically for this saddle - and by two piece I mean each SIDE is completely separate.  They have regular colors and then you can also custom order any color combination you want. The pad has Velcro pockets that the ends of the foam panels slip into, which makes it look (slightly) more like a normal saddle.  This also has the added benefit of making it impossible for the pad to slip, the saddle pad and the saddle become a single unit.

Totally separate.  I do love that there's no binding to tighten against the withers or spine.
They also sell a quilted panel cover that goes over the strangest looking parts of the saddle to make it look more normal, so that you can then ride in your regular saddle pads, as well as pocket pads and full pads that are wool fleece or sheepskin underneath.

I really, really didn't want to like this.  It would be so much easier to hate this, but I don't.  I have to say it's my current #1.  All of my dislikes about it are rooted in fear - of being weird, of losing money - none of it has to do with the saddle itself.  It feels absolutely amazing.

Short List: Eq Saddle Science Flapless Dressage


  • Everything about the way it rides - it makes riding easier.  It's the first one I've looked forward to riding in a second and third time.
  • The way it fits Connor and really moves with him
  • The way I can get my whole leg on him and not be forced to choose between thigh and lower leg
  • The repositionable stirrup bar
  • Carmi's commitment to "Getting it right or we won't take your money"
  • Remote fittings and user-adjustable parts mean I'll be able to check saddle fit more than once a year 
  • The way the saddle pads don't have any spine binding whatsoever

  • Much smaller resale market and therefore resale value won't be good
  • New saddle pads would be an additional cost
  • The thin flaps are such poor leather I thought they were plastic.  Maybe that would get better with conditioner?
Outstanding Unanswered Questions
  • Am I really ballsy enough to show up in this saddle to clinics and shows even if I love it?  
  • If I ride flapless in the summer will my legs get sweaty?  Not something I can test in the dead of winter!