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We have sometimes found that the interpretation of the word “custom” — either custom-fit or custom-made — engenders an expectation of perfection that may exceed the actual state of the art in saddle making and saddle fitting.
Some horses are relatively straightforward to fit in a variety of saddles, but many are not, and while we are constantly striving for a wider variety of fit solutions, the design technology of saddles is not highly sophisticated compared to, say, digital technology. Many horses who are fairly average for their type — for example, an extremely high-withered, steeple-backed Thoroughbred or Irish Sport Horse at one end of the range, or a mutton-withered, overweight, chunky cob at the other end — may present tough challenges in finding a perfect fit.
A perplexing problem we face fairly often is the horse who has dimensions that are at odds with one another. We often see horses who are relatively wide and thick at the base of the withers where the stirrup bars lie, but are narrow and extremely hollow (atrophied) behind the shoulders. This shape is more or less analogous to a human with a 20″ waist and 45″ hips. The best clothing designer in the world would be hard-pressed to make jeans to fit this figure because there are inherent limitations in the design structure of pants. Likewise, there are inherent limitations in the design technology of trees and panels, and more specifically, there may be a set of tradeoffs to be considered in getting an optimal (perhaps not perfect but best possible) fit for such a horse.
In the case of the steeple-withered horse whose hollows behind the shoulders are something of a mismatch with his width at the base of the withers, a “Thoroughbred” type of tree (also known as a police spec or keyhole tree) will probably be very helpful in holding the saddle up in front and might seem superficially like an excellent solution . . . except for the likelihood that such a tree will create a severe stricture further back at the waist of the tree where the horse is thicker and wider.
We have been working with an enhanced panel that is very helpful in filling out the hollow bits and providing extra support to the front half of the tree, but in extreme cases, the wool panel alone may not be sufficient to support the weight of an adult rider on a steeple-withered horse without the additional support of a pad made of less compressible material.
Meanwhile, every “expert” from the chiropractor to the Pony Club DC is advising the customer that this is not how a “custom” saddle is supposed to fit. Everyone knows that a correctly fitted saddle shouldn’t need any extra padding to make it stay up nicely. (Nor, according to this logic, should there ever have been a need to invent push-up bras or Viagra.)
These days some of the books and articles offering advice on saddle fitting, along with the mini-courses being offered to various equine practitioners, sometimes reduce the complex trade-offs involved in remedial fit situations to a deceptive simplicity. I can attest from personal experience under the educational aegis of the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK, that the world’s best saddle makers, the top experts in remedial saddle fitting, veterinarians who are genuinely knowledgeable about the design technology of saddles from decades of collaboration in this endeavor, and the collective expertise and experience of many qualified professionals in this field, do not always add up to a clear-cut, standard protocol for finding an optimal fit solution for every type of horse. Hair-raisingly, the deficit of conventional solutions pertains to some of the most common remedial fit problems we encounter, just like the horse described above.