November 2016, WFP Clinic, Great Meadow, VA.
By Anne Crowell and Abby Carter
Q: What saddle features do you look for when fitting the rider?
A: Neutral comfortable saddles. I like a saddle that does not interfere with anything, and which becomes a natural extension of your seat. The saddle is not there as a bucket to hold you on! Some people like sitting in a bucket, and they’re normally the people that don’t have any core strength.
Q: What do you want to see as far as block placement for the rider on a dressage saddle?
A: On some of my saddles I have the blocks placed on Velcro so I can move the block to suit me. I find this quite useful. The block in dressage certainly needs to offer support, if you need support in front of your thigh. It needs to, also, not block you in the wrong position. You need freedom to move your lower leg. You need to not rely on the saddle to hold your position. Your position should be strong enough that the saddle is just a very useful addition.
Q: What is your opinion on a good general purpose saddle for lower level event riders that can’t afford both a jumping and a dressage saddle?
A: You don’t have to have a dressage saddle to do “brilliant” dressage. On my novice horses, I often do dressage in a jumping saddle. If you do want to use a GP, it’s got to be soft enough in the knee roll so that you can shorten the stirrup without feeling that the knee roll is pushing you away. It’s got to have a long enough flap so that when your stirrups are down, you’re not catching the top of your boot on the lower edge of the flap.
Q: What questions should a rider be prepared to ask the saddle fitter during a fitting?
A: The rider should communicate to the fitter that they want a saddle that is not restrictive, and many saddles are. Saddle fitters often get into trouble when they have to fit saddles that are big enough for larger riders. Oftentimes these saddles are far too long for the horse’s back. When the horse is short-backed, you need a smaller saddle that is more neutral so that larger riders can still fit comfortably.
Q: How have you been involved with saddle development for the event horse and rider?
A: I’ve worked with Albion Saddlemakers since 1987. They’ve been a great supporter of my career. They’re real thinkers and can make adjustments to solve issues. They can think outside the box, and this is very important. There are no limits to saddle fitting. I had to have a special saddle made for Lionheart (2012 Olympics), as he was having trouble with his flying changes. Since he was a little guy, Albion made a saddle that was shorter in length for him, and that still accommodated my height. Saddle fitters and makers must be flexible and adaptable.
Q: What red flags suggest that a horse has an equipment issue?
A: Resistance, discomfort, shortness, tension through the back, and tension in the horse’s face. I want the horse to look comfortable in the gear. People sometimes worry only about the gear and not the fit.
Q: What are the most common equipment issues with event horses and riders?
A: Saddle length and size is a problem. Some saddles are too big and others are far too small and tight across the spine. Many saddles are too restrictive through the panels.
Q: How do you feel about neck straps for event riders?
A: I am known as a neck strap man! The neck strap is much less common in Europe than it is in America. I’ve had years of people criticizing me for using a neck strap. Now, I think I’m setting a trend. I am old enough to set a trend. Now that there are top riders using neck straps, people feel that they can too. There is a stigma about using neck straps and that is ridiculous. People think that using a neck strap means that you can’t ride. I wasn’t allowed to get on a pony without a neck strap. I’ve ridden with a neck strap around Badminton. I might not hold it once, but I wouldn’t go out of the start box without it. I feel naked without it. It would be like going around a racetrack without a seatbelt. It’s there as part of the gear, and it has a lot of uses that people are unaware of. It’s a very good training aid for both horse and rider.
Q: How do you feel about quality half pads or shim pads for making minor adjustments to saddles?
A: I’m a pad person. I do like pads, but I’m very aware that pads should not make the saddle tight! I have helped design saddle pads that are thinner and fit the horse well (Prolite). All my horses are fitted by Albion, so I’m starting with a saddle that fits. Through working with Albion, I’ve realized that saddle pads don’t always increase performance. Oftentimes a simple numnah is best. As a dressage rider, you’re not usually on the horse for a long time, and you’re normally in balance! Event riders can be on the horse for a long time and the applied pressure can be “thumping.” Oftentimes, we’re semi-unseated or we get in the wrong position. A well-fitted pad can offer a bit more support than just the flocking in the saddle. I am a thin Prolite person when it comes to pads. Do make sure the pad is long enough for the saddle.
Q: What are common mistakes with bridling and bitting?
A: I often see nosebands that are too low, which can cause pressure between the bit and noseband. I don’t want to see tension in the horse’s mouth. Bits that are too low in the horse’s mouth are also a problem. This encourages the tongue to go over the bit, which is a disaster.
Q: What about over bitting?
A: Normally, my daily bit would be an egg butt snaffle. Bits sometimes need changing. We can be quite bad about moving on. When we find a bit that works we tend to use it every day. I think a lot about bits. I think you need to work out what bits suit you as a rider. People have their own bits that work for them. I’ve seen a lot of loose rings this week at the clinic. I personally would not compete a horse in a loose ring. I would hardly use one, because they don’t suit me.
Q: What is the purpose of a figure 8 noseband?
A: Some horses like the pressure to be higher up the jaw. This type of noseband can help hold the jaw more still and stop the jaw crossing higher up. Also, it does give good space between the bit and the noseband, which helps eliminate tension.
Q: Of all the innovations in tack design what, if any, have made the most difference?
A: Improved panel design. I am very aware about giving the horse space through the panels so that he is not compressed in the spine. Free spinal movement is very important.
Q: When fitting the young horse, many people are reluctant to invest in a good saddle before the horse develops. What is your opinion on this?
A: Saddles are becoming very expensive, and I understand that people may be reluctant to spend the money early on. When you’re a professional, you’re likely to have a selection of saddles that fit a variety of horses. I have 40 saddles in my yard. Riding is my profession and my life, and I have to have choices. When you’re a private rider, you should do your best to get a good saddle for your horse. Try buying a good second hand saddle. Many young horses do put up with bad saddles. You can see the effects, down the road, of the bad tack that the horse has been educated in. It is quite an issue. It is an investment, but when you look at the overall cost of the horse, the saddle cost is really negligible. You owe it to your horse to cater to his needs. It’s your job as a rider.