At a clinic I once attended, an instructor stood up and announced that she was worried about having to go out and purchase very expensive adjustable bar saddles from one of the “hot” manufacturers of the time (ex. Shively, Freedman, Crabtree). Right now in my lesson program we have 43 lesson saddles, and two of them have adjustable stirrup bars: one is a Crabtree (with a scar on it making it too ugly to show in) and a strange very small Barnsby which has an adjustable stirrup bar.
Many of our saddles at the LEC are probably 30 plus years old. Now I will say that most of the saddles that still have their manufacturer’s tag under the saddle flap, were made in England and most are from the top companies that still manufacture saddles today. I don’t think we have one saddle made from an Argentine or Indian company.
It is better to purchase an older, maybe really older saddle that is of a higher quality, than purchasing a cheaper, newer saddle. A saddle that is taken care of over the years should last 20-30, maybe even 40-50 years.
While we do have the kids and our lesson helpers “clean and condition” our lesson saddles, the best thing I have found to do with a saddle is to take it to our local saddle shop and tack wizard, Shelby Horse Supply in Simpsonville, KY, and have them “dip” the saddle into the giant vat of neatsfoot oil that they have.
The saddles are actually lowered into a giant plastic vat of neatsfoot oil for several minutes. I have found that this does a fantastic job. There is really no other way that you can get the oil into all the nooks and crannies in the saddle. And most of our riders just simply don’t do a good enough job.
Now you can purchase your own neatsfoot oil and make your own tub. Which is just what we decided to do last summer (the tack shop charges $22/saddle) with so many saddles that need dipped. But we had one small problem where to store this giant plastic tub full of really messy and heavy oil—and the oil was pretty pricey. We also didn’t have as big a tub as the tack shop. So after knocking it over several times and making a huge mess, it has been decided that it is well worth the $22/saddle. A saddle really only needs dipped maybe once every 2-3 years. But it does really make a difference in the lifetime of your saddles.
The trick as an instructor in providing saddles for your students which allow them to learn and develop the correct riding position, is to really look at a lot of riders and students and their position in the saddle. You will develop an “eye” to quickly see what fits well, and what doesn’t. Examples of both saddles which are too small and too big are shown below.
The rider should sit in the seat of the saddle without a lot of seat or length of the saddle behind them. I have been taught as a younger instructor that a rider should only be able to put a hand’s width behind their hips, when they are sitting correctly in a well-fitting saddle. Ideally the rider should have 3-4 inches of saddle flap in front of the stirrup leather and the rider’s knee.
The length of the saddle is determined more by the length of the rider’s thigh bone, than their weight. You can’t assume that a thicker, heavier rider will need a larger saddle. I have had some riders who will be of an average height, but once mounted you will realize that they have all their height in their upper body and not their legs.
It is important as an instructor to actually look at the rider sitting in their saddle, and your responsibility as an instructor is to enable the rider to learn this new skill as easily as possible. And as accomplished riders and instructors we do the know the length of time it takes to learn this amazing skill, horseback riding—the control, balance.
What Size Saddle Should a Rider Use?
Now I don’t claim to be a saddle manufacturer or saddle expert, these are just tips that I have learned from decades of teaching. At the LEC the lesson saddles are all numbered with brass saddle plates attached to the cantle of the saddles. We have simply numbered the saddles 1-45, and in no certain order or size, just as we simply get another saddle we add on another number. (Check out article on Saddle Numbering/Organization)
You really can’t say that a rider whatever their age, that they will need a certain size saddle, but I have listed a basic guide. After years of teaching and mounting riders you will find that each saddle manufacturer makes their saddle slightly different from the next. The trees can be slight wider or narrower—the stirrup bars are set further forward or further back, there are many variations. The basic guide we use is:
Rider’s Age (average height/weight) Length of Saddle
3-4 years 16-17 inch
5-6 years 17-18 inch
7-9 years 18-19 inch
10 – 12 years 20-21 inch
13-17 years* 21, 22 & even 23 inch
*I have found that at about the age of 13 years I rider will probably fit into the saddle that will fit them the rest of their lives. At age 13 it may be slightly large, but don’t worry soon it will fit perfectly.
The basic guide to fitting a rider is not really their weight or height, but more the length of their thigh bone. I currently have several 14-16 year old riders that appear to be a normal height for their age, but once they are riding, you suddenly realize that they are “swimming” in the saddle you have put them in.
With today’s saddlemakers, it is not unusual for saddles to be 22, 23 and they will even custom make you a 24 inch saddle. With the older saddles you may find it more difficult to find a longer saddle for your taller riders. It is important to note that you should actually measure your saddles, not just simply take the word of the saddle’s size from the manufacturer. Some brands are historically known to “run big” or “run smaller”. The Barnsby saddle company who also manufactures today’s Shively saddles run on the longer side. For example when you measure a Barnsby saddle you will find that it may say 21 inch on the tag, but in reality with a tape measure it may run more 21 ½ inches. Along with that the Whitman or the Crabtree saddles (both same manufacturer) actually run a little shorter than the manufacturer’s tag says.
Here at the LEC we have a guide with all of our saddles listed (and yes we have measured each saddle ourselves, never trusting an “eye” or what the saddle may actually say). Copies of these guides are hung all over the stable, so if for some reason an instructor needs another saddle, they can simply look at the Measurement List, and tell one of the assistants which saddle would work.
How do I know if a saddle fits correctly?
Below are several photos showing correctly fitting saddles, saddles too big, saddles too small.
NEED PHOTOS HERE
Secret Tip from an instructor with a lot of experience:
Do you have a child that simply can’t seem to get their legs back under their bodies?
Some little children have a real time getting their legs back under themselves, which in turn, makes it difficult for the child to learn to post and often this child will complain about their back hurting. Because instead of their legs helping them post they are using their lower back to post.
Or maybe you are having trouble getting a child ready to compete in a tournament, but this child really struggles with pulling their legs back, which in turn forces them to over-arch their lower back and tip their shoulders forward.
Good Trick is to put them in a saddle which is about 2 inches too small. You may have to let them ride in this saddle for 6-10 lessons. This doesn’t work well for adults, as they will complain—that the saddle is bothering them or their bottom is hanging over the back of the saddle. But it works great for the kids, this shorter tree and base just simply forces them to sit “over their legs”.
* remember the ideal body position for the rider is to be able to drop a line from the rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel. Some small children really have difficulty with this and I have found this trick of putting them in a saddle that is too small or too short for the child, actually forces their leg position into the correct position. Once the rider has the feel of the correct riding position with their legs dropped under their bodies), then you can put them back into the correct sized saddle.
Another Tip from an Instructor with Years of Experience:
Horseback riding is a skill that takes years and years of practice to learn and be proficient. As a riding instructor, your job is to make the learning process as simple to learn and also keep the rider as comfortable as possible. If you make it difficult and uncomfortable, you will not have students, and therefore your career will be short-lived.
From a background of teaching a lot of beginning riders, from ages 3 to 73, I have learned some tips that have made learning easier and more comfortable. Also remember that any rider must feel successful at the end of the lesson, if they come away from each lesson as a failure—“I just can’t get it”, I feel that as an instructor you are failing.
Not long out of college, I found myself teaching in very few students in a cold, dark barn. My first few weeks, I was teaching about 12-15 people each week. How the heck do you get people to come out to a barn in December, from a location about 30 miles from the next large town? Fortunately for me, the stable owner had in the past taught an Adult Education course in Horsemanship. Since those early days, annually I still have upwards of 8 sessions of Horsemanship for Adults (with several variations: Beginning Horsemanship, Intermediate Horsemanship, Western Horsemanship, Beginning Polo, and Recreational Riding) taught at my facility. These are usually a bunch of middle-aged adults who have very little if no riding or horse experience, they are simply looking for something fun to do and a way to get out of the house (our Winter terms are historically much larger than our Summer sessions). Most adults have no riding experience and often do very little in the way of exercise.
You as the instructor teaching these adults must find ways to not only get them to learn this new skill, but find ways to keep them feeling safe and secure, and making it feel like they could learn this sport, that is attainable.
With all beginning riders, I have found that by starting them with stirrups too short – especially adults, that they will feel more comfortable in a “chair seat”, than with their legs dropped directly under their hips. Now I know that a lot of purist riding instructors, will simply fall to the ground screaming in pain from this statement, but this is simply a method that I find works for me. I have found that adults (remember most people spend the majority of their days sitting in a chair, either at work or in a car) are simply more comfortable and balanced sitting in a “chair seat”, then suddenly finding themselves balancing five feet off the ground with appropriately long stirrups.
The first few lessons should simply be spent giving the rider confidence: confident that they can get the horse to stop, confident in the fact that they can get the horse to turn, confident that they are not going to fall off with every step and confident in the fact that maybe, just maybe they might be able to learn this new skill.