Anyone who’s gone through the process of buying a new or used saddle knows it’s not always easy. Finding a saddle that fits the horse, rider, and the buyer’s budget can be a lengthy and frustrating process, and it doesn’t end with the purchase. Saddles require ongoing evaluation and maintenance to ensure optimum fit and performance. Professional saddler Christian Lowe is here to help, with seven tips to make the most of your saddle fitting appointment.
1. Not all saddle fitters are created equal
It’s important to understand the difference between a sales rep and an experienced, professional saddle fitter. While most brands train their sales representatives in the basics of fitting, it takes years of training and hands on experience to develop the necessary skills. While Lowe is a sales representative for Albion Saddlery, he stresses that his primary role is to help find the most suitable saddle for his clients, even if that means recommending a different brand. “A true professional will never sell you something inappropriate,” says Lowe. “Finding a good fitter requires some homework. Reputation is a better indicator of skill than certification, so it’s critical you find a fitter that has a reputation for service, integrity, promptness, and who is respected by reputable trainers, massage therapists, and other boarders. Ask your network of trusted horse professionals, including your farrier.
2. Follow-up is as important as the first fitting
Buying a saddle is the beginning of a relationship, and a fitter’s reputation for follow up service is key. If they are so busy selling saddles, when do they have time to refit yours? Your new or new-to-you saddle should be rechecked in the first 6 months without exception, and then at six to 12-month intervals after that. So, finding a fitter that is available for that is important. When you find a fitter, ask the following questions in writing:
3. Don’t be scared of sales reps
Many saddle sales reps are amazing to work with and typically have access to a saddler’s services,” he says. “For example, my primary role with LIM group (LIM owns CWD, Devoucoux, Butet and Albion) is to support the representatives when adjustments and repairs are needed. The saddles don’t have to leave the country for service, and I’m in constant communication with all the reps. Some brands do not have that support, so it’s important to ask what their policy is and who pays for shipping the saddle to from the workshop."
4. Set realistic expectations
Your appointment will go much more smoothly if you have realistic expectations for what a fitter can and cannot do. While changes to the flocking can make significant improvements to fit, there is no magic saddle with unlimited adjustability to fit every horse. A fitter cannot change the shape of the saddle’s tree itself and can only widen or narrow a saddle typically by 1.5 centimetres. Even a “custom made” saddle is built on the manufacturer’s stock tree. If that tree does not suit your horse’s shape, no amount of customization or adjustment will make it fit.
5. Schedule regular maintenance
You book your horse’s dental check ups, vaccines, and farrier visits on a regular schedule to avoid problems; Lowe recommends doing the same for saddle maintenance. “The ideal interval is every nine months,” he says. “Never wait more than 18 months between appointments at the very most. Clients sometimes wait until problems develop, then they are frustrated to find there are no available appointments for weeks or even a month.”
6. Be prepared for your appointment
Respect your fitter’s time and be prepared for your appointment. Your horse should be in the barn, clean, dry, and ready to be tacked up when the fitter arrives. Gather your boots, helmet, and be dressed to ride should the fitter request it. Avoid feed and turn in / out times if possible. Ideally, everyone who has a say in the fitting (parent, coach, spouse, massage therapist, etc.) should be asked well in advance to be present. It’s also helpful for the fitter to know ahead of time if your coach has a bias toward a certain brand or is sponsored by a brand.
8. When you find the right saddle, stop looking
Saddle shopping is a bit like finding a life partner. When you find the right one, it’s best to stop looking. There will always be newer models with more options that can be tempting, but a well-fitting, high-quality saddle should last for years.
About Christian Lowe
Christian grew up low level eventing and working for a prominent eventing stable. In his early 20s before homing in on saddle making and fitting, he worked in the wholesale and retail saddlery trade. It was in these jobs that he realized saddle fitting was the future. He scraped the money together for a flight to England in order to shadow one of England’s top saddleries as they fitted saddles around the country. Upon his return to Canada he connected with David Nangreave, a master saddler whom he apprenticed with from 1997 to 2001. Until 2018 Christian worked independently, selling, fitting and occasionally making saddles. During this time he worked closely with multiple brands, offering warranty and repair services. When Butet was acquired by the LIM group he jumped at the chance to come on board and take care of their saddlery needs in Canada. He has now returned part time to saddle-fitting for the iconic Albion brand. As a long time fan of Albion, he is excited to be working with them in this capacity.
Test ride – Albion SLK M3 Royale
Although I’m not in the market for a new saddle myself, I couldn’t resist when Christian offered me the opportunity for a test ride.
Christian brought out 5 different dressage models to evaluate (of course he also carries all purpose and jumping models.) Each differed slightly in terms of seat depth, panel shape, knee block shape and placement, and trim. The base models featured full grain leather while the more expensive options offer calf skin.
Ronan is an interesting horse to fit, because although he is broad in the back with a large shoulder, he’s quite narrow at the wither, as are many senior horses. After assessing the different models on Ronan and showing me how he evaluates the fit, Christian selected the SLK M3 Royale for my test ride.
Albion describes this saddle as follows: “The Albion SLK Royale Dressage saddle is a deep seated dressage saddle. It is constructed on the Adjusta Tree that has been exclusively engineered for a totally adjustable tree. This saddle also features wool flocked panels to further customize the fit of the saddle to the horse. The Albion SLK Royale Dressage saddle features full Italian calfskin for the seat and pads with moulded flaps. Available in two seat widths, standard and narrow.”
Immediately upon mounting my first impression was of a saddle that was very neutral, if that makes sense. Nothing stood out in terms of feeling too wide or too narrow, with no areas of discomfort. I felt centred and supported, without feeling “locked in.” Because of my ample thighs, I often feel restricted by large thigh blocks, particularly those on an angle. In this saddle the blocks are placed in such a way that they supported my leg without interfering with it. Perhaps because of the super soft, grippy leather, there was no sense that this saddle needed to be “broken in.”
At walk, trot, and canter I felt balanced in the seat, able to keep my upper body centred and my legs hanging underneath me without fighting to maintain my position, both with and without stirrups. I particularly appreciated the soft, well-padded seat that seems to provide a bit of shock absorption in the sitting trot, without feeling bulky or interfering with my ability to feel the horse’s back.
Ronan moved freely underneath me and felt no different to me than he does in my own saddle, which I think is a good indication of his comfort in this one.
Overall rating – 5/5
It’s tough to find anything to fault about this saddle. It’s exquisitely made, exceptionally comfortable, and comes with the peace of mind associated with a quality brand like Albion, plus the assurance of having a professional saddler responsible for after sales service and maintenance.
My husband (and my wallet) were relieved to know I still love my custom Paramount saddle and am not planning to replace it. If I were, however, this Albion model would be a top contender.
Pricing for the SLK Royale begins at $5695. The M3 model I tested starts at $7000. While the price point is high, it’s comparable with other brands of similar quality.
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.