Holistic Management - Part 2- Straightness & Asymmetry of The Saddle
Welcome to the second in my three-part series about asymmetry in which I will be talking about the saddle and how it can play its part in causing or contributing to asymmetry. The first thing to say is that saddles should always be symmetric. I will explain later why I, and many other saddle fitters, do not agree with ever making a saddle asymmetric to help a horse or rider. But for the moment lets just accept that a symmetric saddle is essential. In order to be symmetric a saddle must be built on a symmetric tree and all the constituent parts, particularly the panels, must also be symmetric. Finally, it must be flocked evenly too, or if foam is used this must be even.
If you buy your saddle from a reputable saddle maker, such as AH Saddles, the company will have quality controls in place to check the symmetry of the saddle at every stage of its production, and this includes of course the tree. It will simply not be possible for a saddle to leave the factory and not be symmetric. But unfortunately this is not the same with all saddle makers. I well remember that when I was much younger and show-jumping I was very excited when I was able to afford a very beautiful close contact jump saddle by a well- known European brand. In fact I was so taken with my new saddle that I could not help but gaze lovingly at it each time I walked past it in the tack room…..and it was in one of these moments that I realised it wasn’t sitting straight on the saddle rack. Long story short it was obvious on closer inspection that it was indeed twisted. I contacted the saddler who referred me to the manufacturer and I spoke to a very helpful customer services chap who assured me it was impossible that one of their saddles was not straight and agreed to come out and see it such was his certainty that I was wrong. You can only imagine the look of horror on his face when he discovered I was right…..So yes, it is possible for a new saddle to be asymmetric if the saddle company doesn’t have correct protocols in place to ensure this can’t happen.
But more usually saddles become asymmetric. This can happen when they are re-flocked if this is done badly and without sufficient attention to symmetry. Or a previous saddler might have on purpose flocked the saddle asymmetrically for a particular horse/rider combination. More on that later. Other common reasons are a saddle that has been rolled on by a horse, or where a horse has fallen with the saddle on. One of the problems with buying a second-hand saddle is that you are unlikely to know the history of the saddle and therefore it is absolutely essential that you check the tree and symmetry before you buy – or better still get a good saddle fitter to do this for you. As a saddle fitter, I of course do not recommend that people buy saddles without having the fit properly checked! Finally, a very asymmetric rider, especially a heavier one, can also cause a saddle to twist over time, as indeed can a very asymmetric horse. In my opinion one of the worst things you can do is put an asymmetric saddle on a horse because as a minimum the saddle will rock, and in the worst cases I have seen a saddle press on the side of the spine, and make turning in one direction almost impossibly uncomfortable for the poor horse. Not to mention causing serious pain and injury over time.
A basic check of the symmetry of a saddle is easy to do. The video that accompanies this blog shows you exactly how to do it.
So, if you find your saddle IS asymmetric what can be done? The saddle will need to be taken apart and opened to first check the tree for soundness and symmetry. If there are no problems with the tree and the panels have been cut to be a pair, you should find a complete re-flock will bring the saddle back into symmetry. Many brands of saddles with synthetic trees and foam do have to go back to the manufacturer and in some cases they cost of refurbishment is prohibitive.
You cannot underestimate the effect a twisted tree will have on both the horse and rider. These saddles often also slip to one side. Not long ago I was asked to look at the fit of a saddle a client was borrowing for backing her youngster as he was rather wide, and she didn’t have anything suitable. Incidentally as we are on the subject please, please get saddles properly fitted when starting youngsters. You sometimes hear people say things like, ‘oh its just an old saddle I use for breaking’. But this is the young horse’s first experience of a saddle and it is essential that it fits. Anyway, when I checked this saddle it was quite dramatically twisted. My client said she would certainly tell the person whose saddle it was and later I found out that they had replied that they had always wondered why the saddle slipped so badly to the left! Of course, it is also possible for a perfectly straight saddle to slip sideways – usually because either it is not a good fit, or because of undiagnosed lameness, or an asymmetric rider pushing the saddle over.
For the rider an asymmetric saddle will almost certainly make them uncomfortable too. It’s a really interesting exercise to put a twisted saddle on a wooden horse (they tend to be more tolerant!) and get different riders to sit on it. Its totally fascinating to see how the saddle affects how different riders sit because it will not have the same result with all of them. This is partly because all riders have a certain amount of asymmetry too, and partly because riders will try to correct the asymmetry by altering how they sit.
So finally, back to the question of asymmetric flocking to correct an asymmetric horse or help a rider. I am very much against this as I believe you should always put a straight saddle on a symmetric base, the base being the horse. If the horse is very asymmetric then I prefer to use shims in a pad under the saddle to make the base symmetric rather than altering the saddle. Why? Firstly, shims are easy to change and play with to find what works best. Its much trickier to keep altering flocking. Sometimes where you need the shims is quite counterintuitive and being able to play with the shims in different places and different thickness can really help you to get it right for the horse and rider. Secondly if you flock a saddle asymmetrically and you want to use it on another horse you then have to make it symmetrical again. Thirdly, and most importantly, you alter the balance of the saddle which in itself can cause problems.
Where you put the shims is a fascinating and rather complex topic. This is because it is influenced by the rider, how the rider sits, and how the asymmetry or crookedness changes, if it does, in motion and in different gaits. So that’s for another time!