So, Stella’s education had a bit of an interruption when I realized that her saddle really didn’t fit. Now, this isn’t the first time I realized that she’s a bit tricky to fit. And this wasn’t her first saddle, either. In my attempt to find something that fit her well enough to work her in I had gone through five saddles in less than five months. I used the last two (a Verhan Odyssey and a Thorowgood T8) for a couple of weeks, but when she began showing the typical signs of a horse in a saddle that just doesn’t fit (tossing her head, not wanting to go forward, not happy being tacked up), I realized I couldn’t fool myself any longer. This pony needed a saddle that fit her.
See, what you might not know if you’ve never owned a Connemara is that they are not shaped like your typical pony. They have a wither, almost like a real horse wither but wide as the dickens. They have a great big, really laid-back shoulder that will definitely be pinched by all but the perfect saddle. But they don’t have that oil-barrel shape that typical “wide” ponies have (you know, with a back like a table top that you could serve tea on). In fact, especially in youngsters (keeping in mind Connies don’t normally mature until they’re, oh, about eight years old), the rest of their body can be quite petite.
And then you have those Connemara backs. Oh dear. There’s the real problem. They’re short (and I mean short. Stella has exactly 13 inches from the back of her shoulder to her last rib), and “scoopy”, not flat. They tend to rise pretty significantly from the wither to the croup.
And I don’t know if this is true of all Connemaras, but Stella’s sensitive as all get out. She’s not one of those stoic little ponies who’ll trot round all day with ill-fitting saddles bouncing around on their backs. If she’s unhappy, you know it. Think ears-flat-back, head-in-air, “I-will-not-go-forward”. Saddles that don’t fit just plain make her grumpy.
So, I decided I only had two options. Teach her to drive and have a lovely cart pony… or begin what has become known around the barn as the Great Saddle Hunt of 2014.
First, I did what I do best. I took to the internet. I read every article and blog post I could get my hands on about saddle fitting for ponies. I googled terms like “dressage saddle for extremely short back”, “saddle for Connemara pony”, “how to get my 17 1/2 inch butt into a 16 1/2 inch saddle”… and Google didn’t fail me.
Everything I was reading kept leading me to three conclusions (and the reasons why thus far nothing had worked for her).
1. Ponies her shape need a “U” shaped tree, and most of what is out there have a “V” shaped tree. The U shape allows the saddle to get out around her withers (which are a little wide at the base), and can accommodate her large shoulders. See, the problem isn’t her width, it’s her shape (which is why saddles with an adjustable gullet system didn’t work. They just didn’t have the correctly-shaped tree for her, no matter how wide I tried to make them).
2. A back like hers (extremely short and quite scoopy) needs an upswept panel (rather than the nice cushy gusseted ones you see on many of today’s dressage saddles) so that the weight-bearing surface of the saddle doesn’t extend beyond her last rib onto her loins (and also to accommodate the upward curve of her back. A saddle with gussetted panels is too flat. It presses down into her back and makes her sore).
And finally, 3. You can ride in a smaller saddle if you don’t mind a seat that’s not as deep as most dressage saddles out there, and if you can make do without those great big thigh blocks that have become so popular in the last decade. A more open seat with little or no thigh block gives you a lot more room to fit in the saddle. Compare these two – the first saddle has a very open seat and small knee roll, whereas the second saddle has a deep seat and large thigh block. Sure, that seat & those blocks will help hold you in place… but they don’t leave a whole lot of room for your caboose if you have to “downsize” an inch to fit the saddle on a ridiculously compact back!
The next problem was the width of the channel.It is imperative, when putting a saddle on a horse, that it does not rest on their spine or the ligaments around it. As I started trying on saddles that seemed to fit everywhere else, this became the last stumbling block.
This Kieffer, which actually fit her in almost every way, was unfortunately far too narrow in the channel, and most certainly would have pressed on her spine, especially when turning, or as we started lateral work:
Many older saddles (and, surprisingly, even many newer ones) either have a very narrow channel, or one that starts out wide in the front, but then becomes narrower toward the back (which doesn’t make sense to me. Your horse’s spine does not become narrower toward the back…). Nonetheless, the lovely miss Stella requires a full four finger width in the channel, so I added this to my shopping list.
So, now that I knew what I was looking for (U-shaped tree, upswept panels, generous medium-wide to wide tree, and a wide channel), I had to get out there and find it. Which brings to light the next problem: I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. Where there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of used dressage saddles with the attributes I needed. So faced with the prospect of having to pay to ship saddles across the country (and, inevitably, pay to ship them back when they don’t fit), or worse still, ship from the US and pay an outrageous amount of duty at the border, I decided that my best bet was to go to a place where I could sit in a lot of saddles without having to pay to ship any of them anywhere.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to be able to pack Stella up and drive her from tack shop to tack shop to try on saddles. So I did the next best thing: wither tracings. Armed with a flexible curve ruler (you can buy this at most hardware stores, but I borrowed one from my friend Sarah), a large piece of sturdy paper (I actually used scotch tape to put two pieces of 8 1/2 X 14″ cardstock together), a sharpie, and green painters tape, I found the following measuring points on Stella:
2. The point 4 fingers width behind the shoulder blade
3. The lowest point of her back
4. The last rib (18th thoracic vertebrae or “T18”)
I placed the flexible curve over her back at each of these points, then carefully traced the resulting curves onto the large piece of paper (all on one piece) until I had a good picture of what her back looked like at all four points. Then I placed the flexible curve lengthwise along the top of her spine, and traced that onto the paper as well, to show how curvy her back is. Next, I took about 30 pictures of her, without saddles, and in the saddles that didn’t fit her (this was easy, as we’d tried every saddle in the barn at this point, without much success).
Now, as luck would have it, we were coming up on a trip to Maine, which my mum and I had been planning for awhile. When you’re already driving nine hours (each way) to do a little cross-border shopping, what’s an extra three hours when that gets you to that New Hampshire mecca of used saddle shopping, Pelham Saddlery?
Armed with Stella’s wither tracings, her pictures, and two large Tim Horton’s coffees (yes, they have Timmy’s in Maine), we set off from Bangor to Pelham early on a Monday morning, and arrived at the shop shortly after lunch to find Janie, their in-house saddle fitter, ready to help me. I believe I sat in about twenty saddles that day. By mid-afternoon Janie had sent me home with three saddles to try: a Saddler’s Bench Dressage, a Karl Niedersuess Symphonie and a Crosby PSG.
So, twelve hours of driving (and a stopover back in Bangor) (and an hour spent at the border trying to explain why I had three saddles in my trunk and didn’t want to pay tax or duty on any of them) later, I was back at the barn with the three saddles.
We started with the 16.5″ Saddler’s Bench, with a medium-wide tree. It had actually had the gussets removed from the panels, to be modified into a more upswept style. Length-wise, it was perfect, with the weight bearing surface ending about half an inch in front of her T18. Unfortunately it was a little narrow for her (although still better than anything we’d had on her up to that point).
We moved on to the 17″ Crosby PSG, with a wide tree. With its generous fit through the shoulders and it’s lovely upswept panels, it was almost perfect. I’d say it was just a tiny bit too wide, as it sat a little low in front; not enough to interfere with wither clearance, but enough to change the balance of the saddle, which could have been easily fixed with a little re-flocking from a good saddle fitter.
And just about the time I started to feel like Goldilocks in her tale of the three bears, we sat the KN Symphonie on her back. With it’s backward facing points (for extra shoulder relief), it’s forward balance (to keep the rider over a point more forward on the back and thereby decrease pressure on the loins) and it’s slightly shorter seat (16.75″ instead of 17″), it looked like it might just do the trick.
We lunged her and rode her in it that night, and then again over the next two days before I actually took the price tag off the saddle, but I knew from the minute I put my leg over her back and sat gently down into the seat that I was in love with it. Despite the open seat and lack of a thigh block, because the saddle sits me right in the perfect spot, and allows my leg to hang in the right position, I feel very secure (important when you’re riding a youngster).
And best of all, Stella loves it. No head tossing, no flat-back ears, no grumpiness. Just a calm, happy young pony, ready to work. The Great Saddle Hunt of 2014 is finally over. Now time to get back to work!