July 18, 2012

Fitting My Fjord - Hello Centerline, Hello Balance

By Paulita Neff
Fitting My Fjord - Hello Centerline, Hello Balance

Contributed by Mariah Plumlee

Shortly after purchasing my Fjord mare, I set about purchasing her a saddle. I knew I was a dyed-in-the-wool English rider, but I had also learned to love trail riding, My mare was calm and sure-footed, and I had visions of us training for a competitive trail or a hunter pace. (My real dream is an endurance ride, but it is early days).

This was my first time owning a horse, and I was excited to put all my opinions to the test about buying quality tack. For so many years, I had been riding other people’s horses in other people’s tack, and I was ready to make some of my own decisions.

So what to do? Buy a custom fit saddle? How much should I pay? What style saddle? I found I had trouble committing. If I went with an all purpose then it would hard to do dressage. If I went with a dressage saddle, I could never jump, and where were all the D rings I would need for my trail adventures?

My mare’s age and my own lack of experience added to the confusion. What if her back changed shape after we had been working for a few months? What if she just died? Then I would have a custom fit saddle that wouldn’t fit any other horse around. My Fjord mare is very drafty and not very tall. She is not just broad, but extra wide. Did I want a balanced, dressage position? Would I be comfortable doing some low jumps that way? I just didn’t know. And I wasn’t ready to custom fit an elderly unknown quantity.

I was perusing treeless saddle information on the internet and coming up with more questions that answers when I found a Duett Rondo 2 for sale on eBay. It was a good price. Duett is a saddler that makes special wide trees saddles just for wide horses. I found out from other Fjord enthusiasts that they had had success with this brand. So in the middle of my research about treeless saddles, some of the information I’d read about treeless saddles made me concerned that I weighed too much to ride without a tree distributing my weight and that I would hurt my mare’s back. I had no intention of doing that.

So the Duett arrived in the mail. Unsure of myself, I had two different people come and evaluate its fit. With a Cashel wedge pad, both saddle fit professionals clucked with satisfaction. That saddle fit. My mare certainly didn’t seem to mind it. She was never sore and her shoulders had free movement. We took lessons and trail rides.

But my bottom started to hurt. I’ve mentioned that I am heavy. If I rode on the trail for more than hour, I would be gritting my teeth by the time we got home. Sitting the trot in the ring was impossible, I couldn’t relax into it, because my seat bones were so sensitive. Now, it is a cruel thing to have a willing horse, a trail, and no way to ride comfortably.

I borrowed a friend’s treeless saddle one day for a trail ride. And it was a disaster. The material was slippery and squeaky, and I couldn’t get the girth tight enough to save my life. I slipped to the right and to the left as we walked up the trail, but my bottom didn’t hurt. It actually felt good. The treeless saddle was soft.

As we went on our usual trail ride, I noticed that instead of kicking my mare’s sides gently to trot, all I had to do was lift my seat. Conversely, when I wanted to walk, her response to my half halt was immediate. As we climbed a small hill, she broke into the smoothest canter I had ever felt. My mare has never cantered for me without prodding. I mulled this all over as we squeaked and shifted along.

She was responding to my seat aids. She was spontaneously moving in new ways. What was that about? Didn’t her saddle fit? Over the next few months, I would borrow my friend’s saddle when the thought of a long ride in the Rondo was just too much. Each time we would squeak out into the woods, I would notice my mare’s spontaneous movement. At 23, you don’t take that stuff for granted.

As the months went by, I came up with a hypothesis. Either I was riding better because I was relaxed, unconcerned about my bottom hurting. Or, the mare was just enjoying herself more. This was a new concept for me. I was ready to make a change if the saddle wasn’t fitting. But her saddle did. I could just tell by her body that she was happier in the crappy squeaky treeless saddle. I could feel her and she could feel me.

But what about my weight? And what about that god awful squeaking?

At this point in the story two things happened to bring all of these issues to a head. One, my husband finished building the horse house he had been working on. I was going to bring my mare home. Another was that someone offered me a free Arabian. A free 28 year old Arabian. I couldn’t buy two custom fit saddles for TWO elderly horses with unknown futures. And man oh man did my bottom hurt.

Based on my experiences with the occasional rides on my friend’s dodgy treeless saddle, I was ready to ask some serious questions. So I called Paulita Neff. I explained my situation to her. Heavy lady with old mares, each with utterly different body types. Could I ride them in one treeless saddle? At my weight? With their sway backs?

Paulita was great. She had me send pictures of the mares, and pictures of me. She suggested a Freeform Saddle for me, and explained that it was the ‘real’ version of the knock-off I’d been occasionally riding in. She said it would be easier to girth up, though never as stable as a treed saddle. She also recommended a pad with extra structure in it, to keep my extra weigh off the horse’s back. The cut-back style would accommodate the high withers of the Arab and not affect the Fjord.

I was very pleased. One saddle, two horses. If the horses died or went lame, I could take the Freeform and use it on any other horse. The prospect of never again having a sore bottom was a very welcome one. Would I really get what was I paying for, or was this new saddle going to be the same thing with a high price tag? I wondered.

Paulita explained her return policy, which was quite reasonable when compared with my local tack shop’s. My local tack shop wouldn’t even let me try riding in a new saddle, and only new saddles could be custom fitted to my Fjord mare’s back. Paulita wanted to me to actually take a few rides in her saddle before I decided. She reminded me to follow the directions and not to be afraid to make small adjustments. The stirrups on the Freeform she recommended to me were adjustable, and for the first time in my life I could ride with ‘dressage’ legs if I wanted.

Hello Center Line, Hello Balance!

When my saddle arrived, I took it carefully to the barn and tried it on my mare. I was absolutely shocked. Shocked. What I had been missing was A LOT. There was NO squeaking. The grip was fantastic. And the seat was soft. My legs felt a little funny, and during that first ride I had to get off a few times and futz with the stirrups. First they were a little too short. Then I pulled the seat up and moved them back as far as they would go. That was better, but they were too far. So I got off again and pulled the seat up, my mare’s ears swiveling at the sound of the Velcro. Another quarter inch in the right direction and it was a completely different story when I got back on. Hello, center line! Hello Balance! I was sold.

I kept the saddle. I had my instructor check me out in it, and she said she had never seen my leg position look so good. I know, I said. I can feel it. Finally.

It has been a few months now. My mare has moved home to my house and we go on lots of rides. My bottom doesn’t hurt, not ever, not even a little bit. I check my mare’s back for soreness and for even sweat patterns regularly, as per Paulita’s instructions. So far, so good.

Because of my mare’s age, I treasure every ride we get to take together. The saddle, however, will last me through many more horses. Please give a treeless saddle a try. I had no idea what I was missing.