Interview with Colleen Meyer, Registered Saddle Fitter
Occasionally, someone will e-mail me with questions about saddle fit. Unfortunately, this is something I can’t profess to know a whole lot about. There are, however, professional saddle fitters out there who can help people in this area. Colleen Meyer is one of them.
The only internationally recognized organization which certifies people for saddle fitting is based in the UK and is strictly for English saddles–so that is what this interview will pertain to. Though I, personally, haven’t ridden English in years, I did know just enough about the English saddle to be able to speak to (and understand!) Colleen during this phone interview. I’m sure many of you will find the information very useful.
Colleen Meyer, of Advanced Saddle Fit, is a qualified registered by saddle fitter and is one of about twenty registered by the UK’s Society of Master Saddlers living in the United States. Based in New Hampshire, Colleen has helped to fit thousands of horses, including Olympic competitors, over the years.
Can you tell us how you got your start as a Saddle Fitter?
In 2000, I moved back to the U.S. after working overseas for about twenty years. I bought a lovely horse, but couldn’t seem to find a saddle to fit her correctly. A neighbor was having a saddle fitter out to help her, so I decided to see if he could help me too. This man did work on my saddle, but ultimately made the problem worse. The next time I rode my mare, her withers started bleeding.
After leaving Foreign Service life, I was searching for a job. By chance I met the owner of a company that imported a particular brand of British saddles, and she encouraged me to sign on as a sales rep and learn to be a saddle fitter myself. I received a week of training from her in saddle fitting and sales. The procedure was pretty standard for saddle brand reps: help the customer to decide which model she liked best for herself, then measure the horse and “fit” the saddle to the horse upon delivery.
I soon began running into problems that I didn’t know how to solve, mostly having to do with saddles that were not level or were unstable when the horse was in motion. This included saddles that were supposedly made to measure for that particular horse. After some very frustrating experiences, I ended up going to England to visit the saddle manufacturer because I didn’t understand the problem and therefore couldn’t prevent it in the future.
In a nutshell, what I learned is that just because a customer likes the feel of a particular saddle for herself, that doesn’t mean that the tree inside that model of saddle can ever be made to fit that particular horse. Trees are the key to good saddle fit, and after seeing how much one tree differs from another in shape, it was clear that most of the problems I was encountering had to do with choosing the wrong shape of tree for a particular shape of horse.
I began to understand for the first time how dysfunctional the process of buying a saddle can be for horse owners, for horses, and even for sales reps who may not have access to enough in-depth training or enough choices in different tree shapes for every horse they encounter. This is compounded by the fact that there is very little in the way of non-commercial, professional-level training for saddle fitters, and consumers don’t generally have enough technical knowledge of saddle design and construction to know what hard questions to ask before they buy.
Not long after this, I decided to undertake the training I needed to become certified by the UK’s Society of Master Saddlers, which is the only professional qualification in saddle fitting that is recognized worldwide. I hired a British tutor – one of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in the industry – to teach me privately, and I made frequent trips back and forth to the UK for several years.
What do you look for when fitting a saddle for a horse?
My goal with fitting any horse is to get the horse to ‘neutral’. This means that I want the saddle to interfere as little as possible with the horse’s full range of correct motion. A good, neutral fit won’t solve a horse or rider’s challenges, but any fit that is less than neutral can certainly compound their difficulties. I think each horse is a unique three-dimensional puzzle with movement as a fourth dimension. I look at the bone structure of the horse’s back, the muscling, the balance of the body, the way the horse carries himself, and try to figure out what combination of fit features might give that particular horse a neutral saddle to work in. It’s a bit like finding a really good pair of shoes: it won’t turn you into a great athlete, but if you take them off at the end of a long day and you haven’t thought once about your feet, that’s a good fit.
When looking for the right saddle, I want the right tree sitting on the right sort of panel (the cushioned part beneath the saddle) for that particular horse. I might need to compare several different saddles to see which one works the best. The key is finding the right-shaped tree for each horse because even with changes in the flocking (which is the wool stuffing inside the panel) I can’t make a saddle fit a horse.
Riders may like they way they sit in a certain saddle, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best one for their horse. I work from the horse up to the rider, not the other way around.
The good news is that if someone has several horses and they aren’t too different from one another in back shape, then one saddle might work for multiple horses. I go for what I like to call a ‘track-pants’ kind of fit as opposed to skinny jeans. The fit shouldn’t be so precise that it won’t work as the horse’s back changes naturally over time. Some trees are very shape-specific and will only work well if the shape of the horse is exactly like the tree. Some trees are more forgiving and more “average” for a given back shape. If you have a wide, flat Quarter Horse and you have a tree that fits that shape of back well, it doesn’t need to be so specific to your Quarter Horse that you can’t use it on your Paint that has a very similar back.
What are some of the most common problems you have seen caused by improper saddle fit?
The horse’s back can tell a story. I can often tell where blood flow has been restricted by an improperly-fitting saddle. Over the years, I’ve seen a range of issues resulting from poor saddle fit, from bleeding sores on the horse’s back, to nerve issues, to behavioral problems such as rearing. A horse might also stiffen at the neck or poll or even hold his head in the air when the saddle is impinging movement. Often they will try to splint soreness in their backs by stiffening their muscles, and this in turn might restrict the flexion of the hocks.
If the horse can’t use his back correctly through the full range of motion, it is likely that inflammatory problems will develop, as they would in human athletes. It may take days or it may take years for chronic inflammation to become clinically obvious. Some horses are very, very stoic and they just soldier on. Others get labeled as bad, dangerous, or stubborn horses, when pain is the real problem.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know what’s going on under the surface. I’ve learned that sore hocks and lower back pain often coincide though. Many people are quick to inject, but the real problem could be poor biomechanics. That isn’t always fixable, but a good-enough, neutral-enough saddle that will allow the horse to develop the capacity for a full range of bio-mechanically correct motion is usually a vital part of the process.
I’ve heard riders say that they want to wait until their horse is older to get a properly fitting saddle (because he’s growing still. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s extremely important to have the right saddle when the horse is young. This will help prevent chronic problems in the long run. This doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive, custom saddle, by the way. Simple often works best.
How important is the saddle pad?
There are two myths that surround saddle pad use (with English saddles). One is that if your saddle fits well, then all you need is a plain cloth pad to keep the dirt off. The second is that you can use a pad to correct saddle problems. Neither of these is true. The wrong tree cannot be corrected with a pad, but under certain circumstances, a therapeutic or corrective pad can be very helpful. But you still need the right shape of tree for that back, and you need to have a very clear understanding of what you aim to accomplish by using any sort of “special” pad.
I don’t recommend memory foam pads, and, while I like sheepskin pads, most people who use them are using them for the wrong reason. The memory foam won’t hold off saddle pressure (it just flattens out under the places you are trying to cushion) and sheepskin is not shock-absorbing. Sheepskin is skin-friendly if you use it directly on the skin, and it might help with air-flow, possibly keeping the back a little cooler, but it provides very little cushioning and no protection from shock.
There are some good reasons to use therapeutic pads, but an ill-fitting saddle isn’t one of them!
What about girths?
Girth fitting can be tricky sometimes. A lot of times, it just takes trial and error to see what a particular horse likes. Again, it’s important to note that you cannot correct a saddle fit problem with a girth. There are some trendy girths on the market that claim to keep your saddle stable or somehow improve shoulder freedom, but I would think through the physics a bit before accepting scientifically unsubstantiated claims.
Stability in a saddle comes from a good match between the horse’s bearing structure and the saddle’s bearing structure, not from a super-tight girth or one that has a shape with magical properties. You can’t fit an ill-fitting lid to a pot by tying it down: it actually has to fit. The same is true with trying to bind down an ill-fitting saddle so it won’t move around: it’s a bad idea.
Another thing to remember is that what may appear to be a girth problem could actually be a saddle problem. I’ve noticed that the horses who seem most prone to rubbing from the girth are grays, chestnuts, or narrow-chested horses, but any horse can get girth sores. Some British research has demonstrated that this is often related to a poorly fitting saddle that moves around on the back and causes friction in the girth groove. This study series also demonstrated that too much elastic in a girth tends to destabilize the saddle. People often assume that a very stretchy girth will be more comfortable, but pressure testing suggests that the opposite might be true.
There is a fairly new girth on the market called the Fairfax girth, which shifts the pressure of the girth onto the horse’s sternum. An excellent study published in the British Veterinary Journal demonstrates that this girth improved the test horses’ foreleg extension and retraction and also resulted in greater hock flexion, but the test subjects were all ultra high-performance horses with optimally-fitting saddles. Honestly, I haven’t found this result to be replicable with every horse we’ve put this girth on. You simply have to find what works for your horse!
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to tell us?
It can be very helpful to work with a qualified saddle fitter. Sales representatives working for saddle companies often offer to help fit your horse, but you have to remember that they will usually recommend only their brand of saddle (which may not be best-suited for your horse). I know this because I worked as a brand rep before becoming a qualified fitter. I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing for the horses I was fitting, but at the time I only knew what that particular importer thought I should know to be an effective sales rep.
Most of what people read about saddle fitting in riding magazines is one version or another of the so-called ‘Seven Rules of Saddle Fitting.’ These often-used rules for evaluating fit are not completely useless, but I would recommend they be taken with a big grain of salt. For starters, they are basically limited to what you can see about the fit of a saddle from the outside, largely ignoring the true foundation of good fit, which is tree shape. Secondly, they are only helpful for evaluating the saddle as it sits on a horse standing in cross-ties, not a moving horse loaded with a rider.
The most important key to a correct fit is finding a tree that fits your horse. With the right tree as the foundation of the fit, corrections can be made as needed. If I ruled the world of saddle fitting, I would make every company selling saddles be completely open about what trees are in their saddles. This will only happen if consumers in large numbers start asking hard questions about the saddles they are buying for their beloved equine companions.