Custom Saddles: Know What To Expect

The lack of industry standards for “custom” saddles makes shopping for one both a research opportunity and a learning experience. To begin, remember that hand-made and custom-made saddles are not necessarily the same thing, and “hand-made” may or may not mean good fit.

You should also realize that saddles from two different custom saddle makers are likely to be just as different, if not more so, than two different off-the-rack brand saddles. The key to fit is still primarily in the saddle tree, and secondarily in how it’s rigged (where the billets or rigging attach).

Who Needs A Custom Saddle’
Custom saddles generally come with a big price tag and a long wait. Before you begin shopping, determine if you really need a custom saddle, and if so, why. Consider custom if:

• You can’t get a good fit for your horse off-the-rack.
Conformation challenges like extra high withers, high-and-narrow withers, or low withers on a downhill horse might be better fit in a custom or semi-custom saddle. Also, conformation-changing injuries like withers damage that leaves lateral thickening or atrophied muscles behind one shoulder might require a custom saddle. Drafts, large warmbloods and miniature horses often need custom saddles due to their size.

• You can’t get a versatile-enough saddle off-the-rack.
Perhaps you ride a number of differently shaped horses and want one saddle that fits the majority of them well. Some custom saddle makers’ designs allow a more versatile fit than some off-the-rack saddles.

• Your horse’s work or performance requires an exacting fit or a special saddle design change.
A small saddle-fit problem can become monumental at long, hard distances or in certain taxing sports, such as to avoid saddle slipping in barrel racing. A custom fit might allow the exacting fit you haven’t found in an off-the-rack saddle.

Maybe you need a safe but historically correct Western saddle, a higher roping horn, a lighter-weight barrel saddle, particular thigh rolls or special tooling.

• Your body doesn’t fit the “average” or you have preferences that aren’t met in off-the-rack saddles.
You may want a seat halfway between two sizes, a flatter or deeper seat, or one that is narrower between your thighs. You may want that particular seat with a shorter flap, different rigging . . . in other words, you want to be able to specify numerous characteristics of your saddle.

Skip The Custom Route
You’re probably wasting money if:

• You ride Western and want personalized silver work for shows.
Silver work can be attached to your present saddle. Instead, spend the extra money on fancier silver and more of it.

• Your child may still grow, or you expect to gain or lose weight, or your horse hasn’t fully matured.
A series of used saddles can be bought and sold to fit the ongoing and changes may be a wiser option.

• Your horse gains/loses weight or muscling with the seasons or is recuperating from an injury.
Different padding systems under a saddle that is a reasonable fit may serve your horse better than a saddle that is a close fit in one season and fits poorly in the other. While we don’t advocate using a pad to cover poor saddle fit, some specialized pads can even out or redistribute the weight and improve a less-than-adequate fit in some circumstances.

• You can get a good fit in a quality off-the-rack saddle.Keep searching.

Everyday Pitfalls
If you’re sure custom is for you, beware of common mistakes that often surround the decision to go custom:

• Your trainer or clinician gets spectacular results on his/her custom-made saddle, and you can identify those who ride with this trainer because they also ride in that saddle.
The trainer gets such good results because he/she is a good trainer, not because of the saddle.

• Your horse is in a training program where he is muscling up, learning to round his back and come up under himself behind.
The exact fit you order this month may lag behind the new muscle and balance development by the time you get the saddle. Even if you choose a custom fit, you must check the fit periodically to detect problems.

• You hear that a custom saddle will allow your horse to move more freely and balance better.
First determine why he might have a ways to go in these matters: Consider the shape of his hooves and teeth. Do ground work or mounted exercises that will allow him to improve. Take a hard look at your own horsemanship as well. It’s also possible he’s already the best he can be.

• You or a professional take the measurements (or casts or tracings) for a custom saddle.
Remember that, as the horse moves, his back changes shape somewhat. Watch him at play as he arches, drops and curves his back. Fitting a saddle to a stationary horse and expecting a perfect fit on a moving athlete may be too much to expect. Some saddle makers take these changes into account in their trees and design. Some saddle makers emphasize the fit of the saddle while the horse is standing still, while others adjust the fit while the horse is moving. It is possible to get a saddle that fits well at a standstill and in all the positions for the horse’s back during a day’s work, if you know what you’re doing.

The All-Important Tree
As with off-the-rack saddles, finding a tree that distributes your weight properly is both essential and a challenge. Some off-the-rack saddles have trees that will fit a variety of horses well. These aren’t necessarily the more expensive saddles, but generally you get what you pay for in saddles.

Always ask what types of trees the saddle makers use. The answers will vary widely. Some make their own trees with their particular understanding of the horse’s moving anatomy. Of those that do, some sell them to other saddle makers as well.

Some trees are guaranteed for life against breakage. If you can get a tree similar to the one you’re interested in ordering, and put it on your horse, you’ll readily see where it does and does not fit.

Some saddle makers will loan out trees. Even if you already know the tree will fit your horse, it’s a good idea to ask to look at the trees your saddle maker uses and ask him to show you the features.

There are many facets of saddle fit and balance, and multiple combinations of tree shape. It is not unusual to research, order and purchase several custom saddles before you find the one that is really right for you and your horse.

Try It First
We can’t stress enough the importance of trying out similar saddles by the maker of your choice before you order. You may be able to get a loaner saddle from the maker. Several makers have trial saddles just for this purpose, although they may ask you to put it on your credit card while you have it.

The often-used method of sitting on the saddle without stirrup leathers or girth (in order not to decrease the new sale value of the saddle) is less desirable than cinching up and going for a long ride. If at all possible, do the latter.

Are They More Expensive’
Yes. You’re paying for the custom craftsmanship, for the design, and sometimes for the fitting. Some makers’ base-price models are competitive with off-the-rack saddles, but rise significantly when you add on options and changes. If you’re looking at a saddle from outside the USA, be sure to ask about import fees.

Questions To Ask Saddle Makers

• How do you get feedback on your saddles’ fit and function from riders’
Some saddle makers are also riders. Some work closely with trainers or other riders to ensure that their custom products meet the needs of the users. Others don’t ride and just specialize in the artistry. Look for a saddle maker who understands horse anatomy and movement and knows how saddles fit properly and function in your own discipline.

• What is the guarantee’
Some saddle makers will buy back any saddle they make, however, if your tooling is sufficiently personal, it likely won’t be returnable. Some saddle makers will fix flaws, or only take the saddle back if there is a flaw?”fit may not be considered a flaw. Some guarantee the trees. Others guarantee the whole saddle. In most cases, the guarantee is for “normal” use. Find out what this means before you purchase the saddle.

• How long is the wait’
Waits range widely. Some saddle makers also make a number of saddles to sell immediately for customers who can’t wait. These may have the options you want but won’t be exactly to your specifications.

• Do you take trade-ins’
Some saddle makers also repair saddles and sell them as used. While you may not get as good a price as you would if you sold your old saddle yourself, you also won’t have to go through the effort of selling it.

• How will my horse’s measurements be determined’
Some custom saddlers will build whatever you ask for, and it’s up to you to decide what you want. Others give you instructions on measuring your horse’s back. Still others give professional fittings, some with specialized measuring tools.

• If my horse’s back shape changes, what can be done to adapt the saddle’
English saddles have an advantage here because the panels can be restuffed or reflocked. Find out if the saddle maker will do this, how often this can be done and the costs.

Bottom Line
An Internet search will yield hundreds of saddle makers. Some good craftsmen don’t have web sites, however, and some are busy enough by word-of-mouth advertising that they don’t advertise. Ask in-depth questions and document the responses. Be careful about who takes the measurements for your saddle and note who will be at fault if the saddle doesn’t fit properly.

Know what you want when you go in to talk with the saddle maker. In other words, do your homework. Look at and ride in as many different saddles, by different makers, as possible before you make a decision.

The best results will come if you can go to the saddle maker and say, for instance, “Make me one just like this except with longer flaps/fenders, and a higher cantle.”

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Advice From The Saddle Makers.”
Click here to view “English Custom Saddle Makers.”
Click here to view “Options Include…”
Click here to view “Western And Other Custom Saddle Makers.”

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