Saddle Shopping: Albion SLK

I had a bit of a day at work yesterday, and spent much of the afternoon daydreaming about taking Poe out back, growing a pair, and letting him MOVE. It’s been a bit chilly and windy and he is a bit cooped up, but — what’s the worst that could happen? I let him run a bit and — what? He’ll never, ever, ever stop? He’s definitely not fit enough for that. So I figured I’d put my stirrups up and let us both have a bit of a workout.

When I got to the barn, the instructor who helped me with my bajillion trial saddles on Monday was there. She said Here, I have another one for you to try. She brought two out from a client’s locker. She set the first one on him and we both said HMM. It looked somewhat promising. Not fantastic, and it swam around a little bit, but Hmmmm. She set the next on him — an Albion SLK — and we both said OOOH. It looked really pretty darn good. It has a pretty high cut-back pommel designed for horses with shark-finned withers, which he doesn’t have, but that shouldn’t really matter. We chatted for a while about Albions, how people seem to love them or hate them. Then she left me to ride in it.

So I scrapped my back field plans and took him to the outdoor dressage arena. I swung my leg over and sat in that Albion SLK, and said HMM. And then I asked him to walk, and said OOOH. Wow. My leg just sat nice and sweet as, no knee poking into the thigh block or tree biting at my butt. Maybe this is what everyone keeps talking about, how when you sit in a right one you’ll know. So we went to work.

His Poeness has never seemed to care much about the wind whipping around (though it sure distracts me), but he is a sight-seer — and he always feels stiffer and shorter in that arena to me versus our indoor. I think he just doesn’t like the footing as much? So I struggled for a while to get him to listen to me and soften and stop staring over there and bulging that way and giraffing around please! We had some really nice moments, and worked on some leg yields, and tried to straighten up that right lead canter — and then he just started getting strong and barging around and I took him inside to see if we could get some better quality work. He was still a bit of a pill at times, and running through all my halts and half-halts (ugh, PONY), but we did get some nice work. It’s so impossible to say if he started out choppy and behind the leg because of the saddle, or the footing in the outdoor, or my lack of spurs (I wear them for flatwork but not jumping or galloping), or the day, or..? For the most part I just rode and did not think about the saddle (except to be glad that I didn’t hit that high pommel while posting, or notice that I wasn’t swimming around in it or fighting against it).

Right now it’s tied for #1. I felt like I stuck the canter better in the County, but it’s a poorer fit on him. I’m hoping I can beg another ride or five in the Albion. The instructor said her client doesn’t use it any more, so she’s pretty sure it’s for sale. (Though I did a quick search for them this morning, and am a little disheartened by the prices I’ve found… Though most of what I’ve seen have been Albion SLK something-elses [Ultimas or Brentinas or etc] and I’m pretty sure this one was marked just SLK, so maybe it’s a different model?) Please cross some fingers for me.

More Saddle Shopping

dressage saddles

First world problems: I’m in saddle shopping hell. I feel like I’m probably complaining too early, calling down the wrath of the dressage saddle gods (You think it’s bad now? You haven’t SEEN bad…) — but this is HARD. There are so many variables, and it’s SO MUCH WORK to try saddles. All of them have to be hauled into the barn to be set on him, and then there’s the mystifying experience of trying to guess how they fit. There’s a lot of eyeballing and hmming and jiggling the saddle around. I’m very lucky that there’s often one or two dressage instructors floating around who are incredibly sweet and generous with their time (and probably really don’t want to have to watch Poe laboring under an ill-fitting saddle for the next however long), and have taken pity on me and given me some really helpful comments on how the saddles seem to sit.

Once the initial assessment is done, I have to scrounge up a dressage girth, since I don’t own one, then haul the million saddles and the pony down to the arena to give them all a test ride. The stirrups have to be wrestled on and off each one in turn, and adjusted, and BLAAAH. All of this while trying to keep the pony’s wet nose off of them, while he’s high as a kite from being on lock-up and bored with all of this standing around being saddled. He does not understand that we are shopping for exciting expensive new things for him, and it behooves him to cooperate.

Here’s the run-down of what we’ve tried so far:

  • New County Competitor: Current best fit: 17.5″ medium tree. Medium wide fits well with sheepskin half pad. The new Countys have flat panels that sit well on his back. (I actually don’t have a clear memory of how these sat on his back; I had the County rep out and am relying on what she told me about it sitting correctly. So, grain of salt, knowing she’s the rep for just that brand.) I felt like I was swinging around a bit in the seat, and like I was really sitting on the tree — it seemed to hit me in a weird place inside my thighs. But that could also be lack of familiarity with dressage saddles in general. Maybe the saddle needs breaking in. Maybe I just need to find my seat in it and it would do a world of good for my riding.
  • New County Perfection: Same fit as above. This has a different leather, deeper seat, and external thigh blocks. I felt more secure in this one and the canter in particular was awesome — I was just stuck right with him. Unfortunately this one also has the biggest price tag, and is way out of my range. I wonder also if I would end up not liking such a deep, holding seat?
  • Old County Competitor: 17.5″ MW (#4). This is the older model with the unfortunate banana panels. It badly needs reflocking; I’m still waiting to hear how much that could help the fit, because it’s fantastic to ride in, and a fair price. It seems to sit on him well with the sheepskin half pad — but I’m not sure I want to spend that much money for something I need to pad that looks so atrocious just sitting on him. Still, so comfy!
  • Stellar Calypso: 17.5″ wide tree. Never heard of this brand before. I expressed skepticism at the saddle shop about even trying a wide since he’s currently a medium, but she said it looked like a really narrow wide. It didn’t sit well on him at all, way too wide, so I didn’t even ride in it.
  • Bates Classic Dressage: 17.5″ adjustable with medium gullet plate. From the group of four this one sat the best on him — flattest panels, and sat the best on him (didn’t shift around much when jostled). This one has the Cair, but I know it’s also available wool flocked. Wish I could’ve tried the wool. The ride on this one wasn’t bad, but I also felt the furthest away from him; I didn’t have a great feel. One of the dressage instructors who’d seen me riding in the old County said my leg was better in that: the Bates put me a little behind the motion.
  • Thornhill Zurich: 17.5″ medium tree. In the initial fitting it swam around on him more than the Bates, and the billets were a little far back. This one has a deeper seat than the Bates. Riding: The instructor felt it sat better on him and that my position when walking was better (she left before I trotted in it), but I felt like it pinned me in a bit and I kept touching the pommel when posting. (Probably I post wrong. Probably everything about my dressage riding is wrong…) Didn’t like it.
  • Passier Grand Gilbert 18″ medium wide. In the initial fitting it swam around more than the Bates, and came up at the back a little. When I girthed it up on him I felt like the flaps were almost going back vs sitting straight — maybe the tree was a bit too wide and coming down on his withers? Riding in it I felt like I couldn’t wrestle my leg underneath myself — my knees were stuck in the thigh block. The instructor didn’t see my ride in it but we spoke about it afterward, and she said it may give me the best position in the long run — that my hips flexors are probably too tight right now to allow my thigh to open and drape downward properly. I may give this one another try with the fleece pad; two dressage instructors at my barn like the Passiers and think they should fit Poe’s shape pretty well. I did sit two other Passier models on him — I wish I’d written down the specs on them! Neither fit him quite right and I didn’t ride in either one.

I left the barn last night feeling grumpy and defeated. It’s such an investment and so hard to know the right choice, and SO SO many other options out there to try…

Saddle Shopping, mostly

Spring’s come so early this year! Two weeks ago I took Poe out on the road for the first time. He was fantastic: relaxed but engaged, happy to be out, just marching along. Last week we hit the back field. It’s gorgeous out there, all green grass and birdsong. I think that’s a month and a half, maybe two months earlier than we were out there last year. It’s totally dry, even all the low spots that were boggy forever a year ago. He was really lovely, even a little lazy, and went into the water jump straight away. GOOD PONY.

This past Sunday was the start of lock-in for the pasture horses, which sadly means he’s confined to the front two paddocks for at least two weeks while the pasture grass gets a chance to develop. The good news is we’ve had very little rain (knock on wood) so it’s not the mud pit it was last year. The bad news is there’s really not enough room to run and everyone’s been squabbling at the round bale, so every day I’m discovering some new gash. Play nice, boys!

I rode him inside on Monday to try a new dressage saddle(!!). I’ve been talking FOREVER about taking the plunge and getting one. Flatwork in my jumping saddle is honestly a bit torturous. The twist is so narrow that it tends to chafe. NOT GOOD. It also sticks me in a bit of a chair seat, and I just do a lot more fighting with it than I should. I have a very hard time not bracing against it in my downwards transitions, etc. The more I have been really paying attention with a thought toward a new dressage saddle, the more I’ve started wondering if I should be looking for a new jumping saddle as well…

It’s my habit before any major purchase to research, research, research. I’ve done a lot of reading about saddles and fitting and the woes, OH THE WOES, of saddle shopping — but the underlying theme seems to be that you just have to try a lot of saddles. Sit in every different brand and type that you can. The problem is it’s not just effortless to sit in a billion different saddles. I’ve put out some feelers, mentioned to lots of people at my barn that I’m looking for a dressage saddle — and a few people have said in passing that I can try theirs, but the offers never materialize into actual saddles that I can put on my horse and put my butt in. There are lots of online tack shops that will send out demos — to the tune of $40-50 in shipping each direction. The hassle of all of this is compounded by the fact that I haven’t really ridden in a dressage saddle before, so not only do I have no clue what will fit my horse, I have no clue what will fit me. I could easily spend half my saddle budget shipping trial saddles back and forth.

So, a couple weeks ago I coughed up the dough to have the County rep out to fit His Poeness. County keeps its prices a bit of a mystery (and the range of prices I found on used Countys was crazy wide), so I knew that they were expensive but not HOW expensive. The rep has a good reputation in my area, though, and I was up front with her about my budget when I contacted her. I basically said that I didn’t know how much her saddles cost, but I was pretty sure they were out of my budget, and she said she’d leave me more than enough information to help me find something that would work, whether it was a County or something else.

The good news: Poe is very easy to fit. There is nothing funky about his back or shoulders or withers and he is not a princess. Right now he is a perfect M in a County, standard flap. He fits well in their flat panels. Because he’s just 6 (well, nearly), a MW and using some additional padding for now seems like a very smart choice — something he could grow into. The bad news? The model I felt most comfortable in: $5,000. HA. Hahaha. Ha. That is, for some perspective, about what I paid for the horse, and five times the cost of my other saddle. It does not, if you were wondering, also do laundry or give massages.

So I was a step ahead of where I began. I know to look for MW, and a 17.5″ (maybe 18″) seat. Lo! Behold! Right at my barn, someone selling a MW 17.5″ County Competitor, excellent condition. So I tried it on Monday. We both stood staring at it on him, a bit bewildered. I made the motions I’d seen the saddle fitter make. The tree seems to fit his shoulder well. Concerningly, the back of the panel sweeps up off his back in the last few inches. I don’t know what that means, exactly. Is it something that can be fixed with flocking? Padding? Is it just designed that way? So I stuck it in the back of my mind and girthed up to ride in it. And it felt great! I loved it, especially at the canter. Oh the canter! I felt so with him, so stable. The new Competitors I’d tried when the rep was out seemed to hit my seatbones funny, like they were having a fight with the saddle’s tree. I couldn’t tell if that was just because I hadn’t quite found the sweet spot (your seat in a dressage saddle is WAY different from your seat in a jumping saddle — as my inner thighs reminded me the entire day after the test rides), or because it was the wrong shape for me, or — ? (Should saddles be such a mystery?) This Competitor felt fantastic. No tree prodding at me. So I went home and emailed the rep for her opinion on the fit of new vs old, and I did some more reading.

More sad news: the older models were made with more banana shaped panels (vs the flat panels they now use), which can work well for horses with sway or j-shaped backs, but can otherwise cause rocking. So comfy for me though! I was already lined up to try it in my lesson tonight, so I’m going to ride in it again, and check for rocking, and see what my instructor thinks. I asked the rep if the banana shape was something that could be fixed/altered/mitigated through reflocking, but haven’t heard back. Obviously I am not going to spend all this money on something that doesn’t fit both of us, but it would be really nice if the perfect thing could just land in my lap. I want my comfy dressage miracle!

This post is monstrously long already (must update more often), but quickly — I took him in the back field again on Tuesday. I hemmed and hawed a little about it before going because of the lock-in thing (after my VERY forward dressage ride on Monday I turned him loose in the arena and he ran around like a mad man — even threw in a buck, which he never does), but it was SO NICE out that I went. Probably a mistake since we got nothing done. He was VERY excited. About a minute after we got out there, the horses in the farm behind ours (separated by a line of trees) went galloping in for dinner, and it was all over. I couldn’t get his brain back for more than a moment at a time, and he felt like a powder keg. We walked and walked, changing direction over and over, asking for this bend, that bend, this bend, that bend. It was boring and stressful and not what I wanted to be doing — but you have to ride the horse you have. I always get so in my head in these moments, paralyzed by the thought that I should be doing something else to address this mess. Maybe I should be pushing him on? Let him run it out? I’m afraid if I let him go in those moments we will lose all steering and brakes, and may become a bolting bucking mess. Even though he’s never bucked, and never actually bolted. He has taken off out there a few times, just lost his fool mind and tried to charge off in his own direction. I feel like I should stop that behavior before it starts by not letting him trot when he’s being an idiot. But if I don’t give him a chance to misbehave I can’t correct the misbehavior? But I’m a chicken and I just want him to not misbehave in the first place. BAH. Anyway — we ended up trotting a bit out of view of that field, and through the water (good pony), and I was able to get two short canters out of him. He was difficult to bring back after the canter, though, and kept offering to canter all on his own, so we called it a day after only 30 minutes. I’d really wanted to bring him back there for a long, long trot and some nice cantering to help him get out all that excess energy, and I feel like I failed miserably in that goal. Que sera…

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