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.
When Esther Mortimer enters her next CDI, there will be a maple leaf on her saddle pad. That doesn't seem surprising for a rider who was born in Canada and who runs M2 Dressage alongside her husband Harper Mackenzie in Millgrove, Ontario. However, Esther has represented Guatemala since she was a teenager. Switching her sport nationality with the FEI from Guatemala to Canada was a major decision, and a bittersweet one as well.
Why the change? Check out my article in Horse Sport Magazine to learn more.
I haven’t posted much about my own training or progress lately. To be frank, there hasn’t been much progress to post about!
Life got in the way a lot in 2021 & 2022. A busy work schedule, several serious family emergencies, injuries, illness, parenting teenagers, plus the ever-present Covid factor…something had to give. And most of the time, that something was riding. It feels like whenever I was just starting to get back in the swing of things, something else would knock me back down.
And that’s ok. We can’t do it all. All we can do is keep trying, keep moving forward.
Riding in a clinic with Tom Dvorak yesterday reminded me of that. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, wouldn’t even be pretty, but I did it anyway. When Tom asked what I wanted to work on, I said the most basic of basics: improving my position to improve my struggles with straightness, connection, and thoroughness.
And do you know what fixes most of those issues? Going forward. A lot more forward. For two years I thought I had Ronan in front of my leg and nicely forward. I was wrong. Turns out he has a whole different set of gears I hadn't even accessed yet! That one lesson, in which I felt completely inept and amateurish, resulted in a major breakthrough. Now that I know how truly forward feels on Rony McPony, I'm kicking myself for wasting the last two years, and I know he's thinking, "Finally, she's starting to get it!"
In life and in horses, going forward fixes (almost) everything.
That’s my deep thought of the day 😊
Canada’s Olympic dressage riders and national team members are household names among followers of the sport. But there’s a new crop of up-and-coming riders poised to enter the limelight that fans should be watching. Among them is 31-year-old Ariana Chia of Winnipeg.
To learn more about Ariana's inspiring journey, check out my article in Horse Sport magazine.
Hi. My name is Alison and I'm a tackaholic.
To some people, that phrase may imply that I have too many saddles, bridles, bridle pieces, halters, girths and more. I prefer to believe that I don't have enough horses. Either way, the end result is that a lot of my leather goods go unused for months at a time. They are stored in Rubbermaid bins, in my tack locker, in my garage, and possibly the trunk of my car. I do clean and condition them all periodically, but probably not often enough. So I reached out to saddler and leather care expert Christian Lowe, to find out the best way to store and protect tack. Here are his top tips:
- The biggest issues you are trying to combat are leather drying out or getting mouldy
- Avoid storing tack for long periods in tack trunks / lockers and bridle bags. They act like a Petri dish. Even saddle covers can pose a problem.
- Ventilation and climate control are your friends. A heated / air conditioned tack room or room in your house are ideal storage locations. Do not store tack in your garage.
- Prepare tack for storage with a thorough cleaning and light conditioning. Completely disassemble smaller items like bridles, and for larger items such as saddles, use a soft toothbrush to clean into all the crevices as much as possible.
- If you use a lot of water during cleaning, (which you shouldn't) allow the leather to air dry for a day before conditioning.
- Check your stored tack monthly. If it feels stiff, condition lightly with a good quality leather balm (it just so happens Christian makes my favourite one).
- If after a month you notice mould developing, find a new storage location. Leather care products containing tea tree oil can help kill mould spores but this is an issue you are better off avoiding, rather than trying to treat it.
- Girths are especially hard to clean. Mould typically grows on the elastic before the leather. Use a toothbrush to scrub all stitch lines and never store the girth over seat of your saddle. Hang it up to let the air get at all sides. If you must lay it over the saddle, do so over the cover or put a towel down first.
- If you must store your tack in a locker, hang some activated charcoal to help with air purification. (I found these with a quick Amazon search).
Christian's advice is very helpful for tackaholics like me. But I'll add my own words of wisdom: if you have too much tack, then buy more horses!
Like most plus-size riders, whenever I see a new article or study about the effects of rider weight on horses posted online, I break into a cold sweat. Not because of the article content itself, but because of the inevitable comments that ensue on social media. They range from the insensitive to the stupid, and often venture into the territory of downright cruel.
So when Eurodressage recently posted an article titled "The Influence of Rider Size on Changes in Equine Back Dimensions, Muscle Tension, and Pain," I clicked with no small amount of trepidation. You can read the article yourself and draw your own conclusions about the limitations of the study design but here are mine: there are a few key points which plus-sized riders (and those who teach them) should take away from this study, even as the study acknowledges it’s hard to make clear correlations from the data gathered.
1. We all know this, but it’s imperative to ride a horse whose size, conformation, and soundness is appropriate for your weight. Check in with your vet and your coach / trainer regularly and ask for their honest feedback whether your weight is making your horse uncomfortable.
2. Ride in a saddle that fits not only the horse, but you as well. While this applies to all riders, it’s particularly relevant to those of us who are large / heavy. There are fewer saddles with large seat sizes on the market, especially in the used market, and not all horses have the back length to accommodate a bigger saddle. Big riders are used to sacrificing our fit for correctly fitting a saddle to the horse, but this study suggests that riding in a saddle that’s too small for the rider may create pressure points on the horse’s back, even when properly fitted to the horse. It’s worth the investment to get a saddle that fits you both.
3. Be prepared to face the uncomfortable truth - your horse might not always be appropriate for you. As age and injuries take a toll on your partner's strength and soundness, or if you weight increases, compromises might be required. This may mean reducing workload and / or ride frequency, committing to losing weight, or focusing more on activities like ground work or long lining.
Just keep showing up. Today wasn’t the first time I’ve heard these words of wisdom, but I was reminded why they are perhaps the most valuable words of advice for riders of every level in any discipline.
When things get too busy, too stressful, too cold, or just too hard, it’s tempting to put riding on the back burner and take a little break. Don’t. Just keep showing up.
When every ride feels like two steps backwards, keep showing up. When your mind is spinning from stress at home or at work, keep showing up.
When winter sucks away every ounce of your motivation, keep showing up. When you’re overwhelmed with anxiety or frozen with fear, keep showing up. When you suddenly have a breakthrough, keep showing up. When you hit that goal you’ve been working towards for months, keep showing up.
The only way to make progress is to just keep showing up, day after day, week after week. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
Did you make any New Year's resolutions for 2021? If you want to focus on fitness to improve your riding, you're not alone. Even Canada's Olympic hopefuls are hitting the gym and consulting with fitness experts to develop off-horse programs that enhance their performance in the saddle.
Fitness is something my own coach has asked all her students to focus on this year - ALL of us. We come in all ages, shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of injury and obstacles to overcome, but we can all improve our stamina, core strength, and hip flexibility - essential ingredients for anyone wanting to get better at dressage.
So when Horse Sport asked me to interview Team Canada rider Jill Irving about her fitness regime, the timing was perfect. Jill shared her top 5 tips for staying fit to ride:
1. Train for life, not just for a specific goal or sport
2. Make time for fitness every day
3. Engage your core when you are doing anything
4. Improve stamina with a cardio activity you love
5. Find balance between good nutrition and the occasional reward
For more details on Jill's personal plan and training tips, read the full Horse Sport article here.
In any clinic with two-time Olympian Jacqueline Brooks, two things are guaranteed: there will be lots of laughter, and there will be lots of analogies and images used. From asking riders to picture themselves as the pole in the centre of a carousel horse to imagining they’re riding a roller coaster heading up a steep incline, Jacqueline uses a creative approach to help riders create the feel she is looking for.
Jacquie recently taught a clinic at our barn at was fascinating to watch how she used the same visualization technique with every horse and rider and how it applied to each of them, whether working at First level or PSG. The simple idea of imagining themselves riding down a hill, or up a hill helped every rider improve their horse's balance and self-carriage.
It was so interesting, I wrote an article for Horse Sport about it - you can read it here.
Do you ever wonder what the judge is thinking as you're making your best effort to get through your dressage test without a mistake? Spoiler alert: No, they don't hate your horse, and yes, they can hear you cluck.
Canadian FEI 4* judge Brenda Minor recently shared some inside knowledge with me for a Horse Sport article titled 10 Things Dressage Judges Really (Really!) Want Riders to Know.
What's at the top of her list? Brenda really wants riders to know that judges are on our side. They want us to have a great ride and they love being able to reward great work with a great score. She also wants us to know that judges are human too, and mistakes do happen. In cases where the judge misses part of a movement (due to a sneeze, spilled coffee, flying test papers or any number of mishaps that can occur in the booth) judges are trained to give the rider the benefit of the doubt with a positive score.
Want to know more? Read the full article here:
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.