Saddle Shopping: 2014 Edition

I’m back saddle shopping.  It is super depressing but I’ve found it really helpful to look back on the posts I made 2 years ago when I was doing the same thing.  So, for the sake of my future self, I’m going to talk about this go-round too.  (Future self, I hope you never have to look at this.  Saddle shopping sucks.)

For the last 2 years I’ve been riding in a 17.5” Max Benz Grand Prix Spezial.  It’s a lightweight monoflap that I really like, but that I’ve been suspecting has grown too narrow for Poe.  (Or, more accurately, Poe has grown too wide for it.)  A friend gave me some rave reviews on a saddle fitter she’d just had out (Ann from, and since I’ve never had the Max Benz looked at for flocking or fit, I thought it was a good time to do that.
I really liked Ann.  She confirmed that the Max Benz is way too narrow for him.  She said my jumping saddle (17” M Beval Natural) is also too narrow for him, but less bad than the Max Benz.  She shifted some of the flocking around but it’s just really not workable for him, so I have not ridden in it since.  I miss it.

Ann was moving to Virginia the day after my saddle fitting (of course) so didn’t have any demos with her.  A friend at the barn had an 18.5” 33cm (MW-ish?) Thornhill Zurich on trial that she let me try.  Ann liked the fit on Poe, but I felt like I was sitting on a beach ball, and also swimming around in the 18.5” seat.  She recommended trying a 17.5” or 18”.

Later that week I got my hands on a used 18” 31cm to try (weirdly marked a wide at the tack shop, but the stamp was 31, which is M).  It didn’t sit as well on Poe – too narrow, rode up his shoulder – but the seat size was better for me.  I still hated the twist – felt like it was trying to jam my thighbones apart.

Next I started trolling ebay and used saddle sites for MW County saddles, since those had been a good shape for him 2 years ago (he’d taken a M then).  I found an older brown Connection, 18” MW with forward flap and gussets.  (Did I mention it was brown?  I really love brown saddles.)  The forward flap sounded great for me, the gussets possibly good for him to help with his flat back, so I had it shipped to me for a trial.  My mistake at the time was not having a fitter lined up to look at it when it arrived, since I thought I’d be able to reasonably tell how it would fit.  Well, it turned out to have almost no flocking beneath the pommel and panels, and I could not tell at all how it would fit once it was actually flocked correctly.  Total heartbreak because I did ride in it and LOVED it for me.  So much love.  It rode like the old Competitor I tried 2 years ago and also loved.  (Funny because I did not like the brand new Competitor I tried with the County rep 2 years ago.)  I frantically emailed and called 3 (4?) different fitters in the area, but did not hear back from any of them in time.  The trial was only 3 days so I had to send it back.  I’m still pretty bummed and frustrated about this one, as I think it was pretty irresponsible for the tack shop to ship me something that was so wonky without giving me a heads up.  And because I really f’ing loved sitting in that thing but suspect it would have been too narrow for Poe once it had flocking in it.

Next, I took my own tracings and sent them to the much-touted Trumbull Mountain.  Their recommendation is a hoop tree, specifically the Duett Largo.  So they sent me an 18” 34cm Duett Largo to try.  It rocks a little and spit the pad backwards while I was riding, and shifted up onto his shoulder a little.  I felt like it was sitting on a beach ball, and the stirrup buckle was noticeably under my inner thigh, which was annoying.  Looking at the pictures of it now I think the flap is a little too straight for me too, pushing my heel behind my hip.  I have sent pictures to Trumbull Mountain but have not heard back yet, so not sure what their next step recommendation will be.

My trainer brought an Equitation out for me to try.  It was not a great fit for either of us.  It was okay enough that I rode in it for my lesson.  The flap was too short and it also rode up on his shoulder (I think too tight under the stirrup bars for him).  I don’t remember the style/specs but I understand it was custom made for someone before Jane, so I think it’s pretty individualized.

Last Saturday I had Cordia Pearson out to the barn (I contacted her while I had the County Competitor on trial, and she was the only one of the bunch to respond to me).  She’s a general saddle fitter; Thornhill is one of the brands she reps.  She agreed that the Max Benz is way too narrow, and did not like Jane’s Equitation (which fit with our assessment), nor the Duett Largo.  She commented that he is very large and very barrel-shaped but seemed skeptical about the need for a hoop tree?  She did not like how the tree of the Zurich fit him, but thought the Thornhill Danube (18” W) was perfect.  I rode in it and hated it less than the Zurich or Largo, but did not love it like the Connection.  She left it with me so I can ride in it for my lesson with Jane tonight.  I’ve been thinking about it since though and I think it will be a pass; the thigh blocks are really far down on me, so they are functioning as knee blocks, and it also pushes my foot behind my hip when my stirrups are short enough for comfortable posting.  I also don’t feel like I have a spot to sit in it – I kind of shimmy around up there and can’t really sit down into/with him.  This is probably bad riding but I don’t think I should have to suffer through fighting the saddle to improve.

In between all that I’ve set a bunch of other random stuff from the barn on him that has not worked.  I should be writing these down, I know, but I haven’t been.

So, here are my problems: He is wide and barely with a broad, long-sloping wither and big shoulders.  Most saddles ride up on his shoulders throughout a ride.  His back is not super-curvy; historically a lot of what I’ve set on him has rocked.  (Separate problem: I am spending a fortune on shipping and saddle fitters and feel no closer to “the one.”  :(  Also, I have to do this all over again to look at jumping saddles.)

Summary of what we’ve tried this go-round:

Thornhill Zurich 33cm
For Poe: Ann liked the fit; Cordia did not.
For me: Do not like – the twist was way too wide.  Felt like it was trying to put a bend partway down my thighbones.  For seat size, I was swimming around in the 18.5”; 18” seemed more appropriate.

County Competitor 18” MW
For Poe: Could not tell; flocking was a disaster.  Probably would have been too narrow?
For me: Love.  Lots of love.

Duett Largo 18” 34cm
For Poe: Some rocking, spit the pad back.  Moved up his shoulder some?  (I did a bad job with paying attention to that part.)
For me: Too wide in the twist.  Like with the Zurich, I felt like I couldn’t really sit on him.

Thornhill Danube 18” W (33cm? need to check)
For Poe: Cordia liked the fit; this does seem to be the best of the bunch so far for him.
For me: Better in the twist but still couldn’t find a sweet spot. My knees tended to jam up in the thigh block. Flap is probably too straight for my leg, pushing it back under me.  Thigh blocks too low.

Back Field

I wonder if there’s a way to get WordPress to just put “Wow, oops! It’s been a while since I posted!” at the top of every new post I write…

Yesterday afternoon Poe and I ventured to the back field for the first time this year. It’s open for walking and trotting along the tops of the hills, with cantering and jumping tentatively back on the menu today. Considering how much damn snow we got in the last few months (including all that stuff not even a week ago), I’m surprised how dry the footing is already. Anyway, we did a lot of walking, and only had one incident with a horse-hungry phantom in the bank complex. One minute Poe was motoring along, nice and relaxed, and the next he’d spun around and darted back the other direction. He gave it up after a couple strides though, and was pretty easily convinced to walk past the lurking scariness.

I think it’s the first time since fall that I’ve put his three-ring elevator bit back in. It’s a Happy Mouth double-joined pessoa mouthpiece, and it’s gotten a bit raggedy and chewed looking, so I stopped by the tack shop yesterday and ordered another. Now I kind of wish I’d waited, as he spent most of the ride chomping at it and curling up to duck behind it, so I’m not sure it’s our best cross-country bet any more. That said, when I finally asked him to trot he was glorious. He stretched through his back and took this lovely buttery contact and powered along. We had one firm discussion about who was in charge of setting the pace, and after that he half-halted really quite nicely, all things considered, and was just a complete joy. THAT is my trot right there. All morning I’ve been calling up the swingy happy powerful feeling of it as balm against the office grind.

Upcoming plans: I’m out of the country May 10-26. Poe is supposed to go to my trainer for a couple weeks, but I haven’t been able to iron out the exact schedule with her yet, so I’m trying to temper my hopes.


So, once again, bad blogger. A lot’s happened since my last update…

First, I rode in a clinic with David DeWispelaere in April. I really enjoyed it, and intended for a long time to write about it — but less than a week after the clinic, Poe came out of the pasture lame. NOT HAPPY. I’d taken him out back for walking and trotting hill work on Tuesday and had a really nice jumping lesson on Wednesday. He felt a bit sluggish by the end of the lesson, so he got Thursday off. Then Friday, lame. LAME. I called my friend Lennie, who happens to be one of the most knowledgeable horsepeople I know, and she graciously came out to the barn to watch him jog. It was definitely left hind (my eye for lameness is terrible, but this was pronounced enough even I could see it). He didn’t seem to want to place the foot, so Lennie felt it was an abscess brewing, and best thing for it would be chuck him back out in the field and wait.

The next Wednesday he was still about the same, maybe a touch better than that first day. The vet was coming out to float his teeth anyhow, so I called ahead to ask that he watch Poe jog, throw the hoof testers on him, etc before doing his teeth. The vet kindly squeezed it in. He saw the same left hind lameness, but couldn’t find any reactivity with the hoof testers, no heat, no swelling, no difference in pulse between the legs. He didn’t have time for further diagnostics and couldn’t tell anything based on what he’d seen. So I set up an appointment the following Monday (soonest I could get someone), and put him on a couple days of bute.

Monday the second vet watched him jog on and off the lunge, did the hoof testers, and did some flexions. Poe was a total brat about flexing his left stifle. He wasn’t fantastic about his right either, but worse for the left. No real heat or swelling, and no difference in the jog before and after the flexion, but he also wasn’t able to hold it all that long. Inconclusive. We were set to do nerve blocks next, but Poe was a bit fried and refused to have the twitch put on, and reacted rather violently to the vet’s attempt to get the needle in without the twitch, so we scrapped that. He is usually an easy horse to handle so the whole exam was a bit disheartening. Much moreso because we were no closer to an answer than we’d been last week. The vet advised I give it another couple of days, and set another appointment if there was no change, possibly bring him in for x-rays.

By Wednesday there was no difference. I don’t have a truck and trailer, so hauling him up to the clinic was not a great option. A third vet was able to schedule to see him on Saturday. He’s the one who usually handles emergencies so they don’t schedule him, but I was very flexible about when I could see him so he worked me in. He repeated everything we’d done Monday, with a bit better success on the flexions, since Poe was feeling more cooperative. Same result: he flexed fine. Back in the barn the vet pulled out the hoof testers — and voila! Tenderness in the left hind. It was the first time Poe had reacted to them, but there was a definite, repeatable reaction. Probably a stone bruise. And a huge, huge relief. The vet had also brought out the thermography camera, so he had a look at both of Poe’s back legs with that. Really cool little device — and also a relief to see no difference in heat between the legs. The vet felt there was a small amount of swelling in the left stifle, but nothing super alarming.

He prescribed a 3-week course of bute (2gm twice a day for three doses, then 2gm once a day for 10 days, then 1gm once a day for 10 days), and said I should ride him. Nothing super strenuous, stick to large figures, no jumping — but he felt the bute would address any inflammation, and that moving would help him strengthen/loosen whatever he’d tweaked, and things would either improve and be fine or get worse so we might have a clue what else was going on. We discussed other options too — injecting the stifle, taking him in for x-rays — but we both felt this was the best next step. So, after over 2 weeks out of the saddle, I got to climb on the pony-face again! It was a fantastic feeling just to walk and trot him around the arena.

That was mid-May. I honestly feel like we’ve still been getting back into work since then, which is kind of pathetic since it’s been 2 months and he wasn’t out of work that long. I feel like he’s had good days and bad days, though. He’s consistently more comfortable on the footing in the indoor, but sometimes he feels pretty great in the outdoor too. We went back to jumping a month ago. We haven’t done a lot, but he is SO so excited and happy every time we do.

I’m still freaked out that my horse is secretly broken, though. Every tiny bobble and misstep scares me. I’m terrified I’m doing wrong by him somehow, that I will ruin him. So, I’m trying to take things in baby steps. Baby baby steps. I’ve launched Operation: Super-Stifle! and am walking him up and down the hills out back at least once a week. It’s something we can do even in this insane heatwave. (A couple weeks ago we had a heat advisory all week, with temps around 100 and insane humidity — so that was a week of a lot of baths and zero riding, which hasn’t helped the feeling that we’re woefully unprepared for anything right now.) This Sunday we’re going cross-country schooling at Steepleview. I’m prepared to quit the minute he starts feeling tired. I’m also using it to gauge whether or not to sign up for their recognized show over Labor Day weekend. Some moments I feel like it would be the most fun thing ever and we just have to go do it — and other moments I remember how showing leaves me wanting to vomit the entire week beforehand, and pretty much every moment during it that we aren’t running cross-country. Still, if I never show the nerves will never get better.

To that end I did a little ride-a-test schooling thing a few weeks ago at my barn. You could pick any test, ride it once for the judge, get feedback and a mini-lesson about how to improve that test immediately, then ride it again. I had the best score ever, and while I was tense I did not entirely lose my mind when we hit the ring, so it was an improvement. It helps that the judge was Jodi, who I used to train with. And she had some awesome advice for us, and some really concrete specific thing we should be working on. Namely: shoulder-fore at the canter, especially on the right lead. Do not let him trick me into hold his head up with the inside rein to that direction. Use the long walls instead of circles until he’s more balanced. We have not been doing this enough — I know it will help us enormously, and need to start busting it out now that the weather’s broken.

Okay, this was a really rambling catch-all, but I think I hit all the highlights of the last couple months. Oh! Except the saddle! I bought a dressage saddle. Update for another time.

Poe walk, July 2012

Clinic: David DeWispelaere

I intended to do a blog post about this clinic right after I rode in it – but time got away, and away, and away. Here, instead, is an article I wrote about it for the latest edition of Cross Country Magazine.

David DeWispelaere is a Grand Prix rider and trainer known for his use of classical dressage methods, emphasizing lightness and harmony in the communication between a horse and rider. He regularly conducts clinics throughout the United States and Europe. This April, he spent three days teaching at several farms in the west metro.

I rode my 6-year-old gelding Poe in one of David’s sessions, and audited several others. What stuck with me the most about David’s approach was his softness, patience, and calm attention to each horse’s emotional state. Before my ride, I caught part of a session with a young, sensitive mare. David had her rider go with a longer rein on a 20-meter circle, encouraging the mare to find her own balance while soothing her nerves with this simple exercise. In very little time the mare relaxed and stretched down, going in an even rhythm. Once she was calm, David had her rider “try to get a little closer to her” by shortening the reins slightly. The mare stayed even, round, and comfortable, and the pair were able to go on to cantering around in the same calm attitude – a nice accomplishment given the mare’s history and greenness.

I’m an adult amateur event rider with a young horse whose attention span and interest in dressage is still a work in progress. I’m currently trying to teach him to carry himself like a horse instead of a giraffe, so my work with David was largely focused on encouraging Poe to relax and seek contact.

David began our lesson by asking about our background, then had us show him how we typically warm up. Once we were ready, he put us on a 20-meter circle with a long rein, then asked that we gradually spiral in to a smaller circle, always encouraging Poe to stretch into a long contact. David emphasized that when the horse is going well, we should leave them alone: “That’s when he should go the best – when you do nothing, when you leave him alone when he finds the right way.”

I was impressed by David’s use of simple instructions and movements to educate both the horse and the rider. On the smaller circle, he asked me to reach forward to touch Poe’s neck with my inside hand. It revealed instantly when my outside aids were effective and when they weren’t. Without a good connection in the outside rein and Poe’s respect and understanding of my outside leg, giving away the inside rein would make the circle bigger. This is a concept I’ve read and heard a thousand times – a simple, classic exercise – but something in the way David showed me created a lightbulb moment. His awareness of how this exercise guided my horse’s attention and attitude was key – it taught me something new about the purpose of the pattern, rather than just its mechanics.

Throughout the lesson we used simple tools – enlarging and decreasing the circle, serpentines – to try to show Poe that he’s responsible for his own balance. (I love my horse’s big head, but I am NOT interested in holding it up for him!) “If he loses his way,” David said, “show him the right way again. Then give him more freedom. We want him to go round because he reaches for the contact, not because you have to hold him there. It should feel natural for him to go round.” It’s been hard to kick the instinct to try to “help” my horse by shortening the reins and asking more loudly, but ultimately it should make him into a more thinking, willing partner.

Probably my greatest take-away from this clinic is the value of patience. Though there were plenty of appearances of Poe’s giraffe impression, when I continued to ride the patterns calmly, patiently, and correctly, he eventually figured out that it’s easier and more comfortable to stretch down. He started to take more responsibility for his own way of going, and tune into what I was asking him. David and I also discussed other tools for getting Poe’s attention, including changes of gait, backing, and in-hand work.

I enjoyed David’s soft, thoughtful approach to each horse he worked with, and his emphasis on trust and communication. For more information on David, visit

David DeWispelaere

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