Saddle fitting lessons

After many, many saddles and endless experiences over many years with countless saddle fitters, I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, through experience and often expensive mistakes.DSC03470

Lesson Number One: Your saddle is only as good as your fitter. Find a good fitter.

A beautiful saddle that doesn’t fit is like a designer shoes (bought on sale!) that just don’t fit. They stay in the closet because you’re not gonna wear them. Although in this case you might put that saddle on your poor horse, who pays the price with a sore back. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Do everything you can do get it right. Get professional help. No, not therapy – a saddle fitter!

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Kristen of Saddle Solutions measures Starlight’s withers

But HOW do I find a good saddle fitter? Get recommendations from savvy (experienced) friends or trainers you trust. Beware that many people are very blind in this area  or have limited expertise. Ask around widely. If you keep hearing a certain name repeated as a good Fitter, then that’s probably your person. Check out their training and give them a try.

Lesson Number Two: An Independent saddle fitter is usually better for your purposes than one whose main agenda is selling a certain brand of saddles. Unless you are certain that you only ever want that one brand of saddle.

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Kristen from Saddle Solutions educates me about saddle fit.

Experience, Expertise, and Integrity are the most important qualities you want in a saddle fitter. Professionalism and reliability are nice to have, too! If the only one that fits those criteria who will come  to your area is the rep for a certain brand, you may have to use them. They will most likely be willing to work on other brands (ask); just be aware that their agenda is often to sell you one of their saddles, but it may not be the best fitting saddle for you or your horse because their product line is limited. This is why an independent fitter, whose only agenda is to fit you and your horse, is a better bet. He or she can recommend saddles/brands and/or objectively assess and fit what you already have.

Today Starlight and I enjoyed a fitting with Kristen Vliestra of Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com). Kristen is an independent saddle fitter with many years in the business and her deep knowledge and expertise were very helpful in finding a good fit for me and Star.DSC03482

Below, Kristen demonstrates with chalk the proper weight bearing surface on Star’s back. She helped me to understand WHY this is all so important. If we don’t get this right, we will cause our horses pain and possible long-term damage to the musculature and spine. It also causes discomfort (back or fork pain) for the rider as the saddle is off-balance and we’re put out of position.DSC03490

In the video below, Kristen explains this clearly…

And here you see us trying a saddle that turned out to be a good fit for both of us. It has not yet been flocked to Star, so the balance is not quite right yet: It is a little low behind.  Later, Kristen took care of that. If you felt under the panels, you would feel nice smooth contact (no bridging!), no pressure points, which makes Star happy. As for me: I sat down in it and said, “ah, nice comfy saddle,” which is exactly what it ought to be.

Life is too short for your saddle to hurt you…or your horse! Invest in building a relationship with a good fitter!*

*If you’re within driving distance of San Jose, I recommend Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com).

Saddle Fitting Fun and Games

Star and I are in the midst of saddle shopping. Our friend, Carolyn, has been helping us by doing wither tracings so that we can order saddles sent to us for trial and have a chance that they might actually fit.

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Starlight’s back labeled for a “wither tracing.”

What’s been amazing has been how fast Star is changing! We did a tracing on 3/20/16, and another one on 4/14/16, and she was substantially different in the withers. The first two weeks I rode her in a saddle that turned out to be a bit too narrow; when I realized it wasn’t working  I borrowed an Ansur treeless saddle while I started shopping for something that fits us both. Ah, happier horse!

I will soon transition back to a treed saddle because she’s VERY wide and I need a tree to get me up above her back a little so that my hips and back don’t get sore. The Ansur has been very useful for this interim time, but on such a wide horse it’s not great for me long term.  I’m looking at lots of options and I THINK I’ve just about got it solved. SOON, I hope!

Below we see the results of a more comfortable back and regular dressage work: muscles that are visibly and measurably changing.

Some pictures to illustrate:

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Starlight on 3/20/16 , after 3 weeks with Edie. Still has some bleached winter coat.

In the next picture, not only has Starlight’s coat changed, but look how her weight and muscles are changing! A mere four weeks more of regular dressage work, including once a week trot poles (which she loves) is making a difference. While it takes many months – years even – to build the strength for true collection,  Starlight is learning to carry herself.

The shine is from daily grooming, Platinum Performance, and Chia Seed. Yes, she is doted upon and considers it the way things ought to be.

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Starlight on 4/14/16. What a difference a month makes!

It takes a village to raise a horse. My friend Carolyn helps me with wither tracings, calls dressage tests at shows, and is a sounding board and source of ideas and insight. She loves sensitive mares like Starlight and they were immediate friends.

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Girlfriends.

 

Saddle shopping trials

Does anyone out there ENJOY saddle shopping? I’m not talking about idly clicking through the gorgeous gleaming images of new saddles, imagining yourself riding oh-so-much-better because now you have the perfect saddle. Of course if I have the saddle of XYZ Olympian I will ride like him or her! I will look like this and my horse will also be transformed:

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Or sometimes my Diva side comes out and I am attracted to the blingy fancy saddles. Oh, I’m not going to buy one, but gosh, they are pretty, aren’t they?

 

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Yeah, I kinda want one, I admit it. But I know my trainer would kill me. Not to mention my husband.

Meanwhile, what to do? Well, the only saddle I own, a wonderful and comfortable Lemke dressage saddle, does not fit my new horse, Starlight. Tragedy! That saddle is so comfortable. So I am riding in a borrowed Ansur dressage saddle, which is a flexible tree so it fits (almost) anything. It’s a  Godsend and my mare really likes it, but she’s wide, so my hips don’t like it on such a wide horse.

I need a saddle wide enough for her, but with a narrow twist for me, and that will require a tree. It’s possible, but it is not easy.

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The Wow Competitor Dressage Saddle

Enter the WOW saddle, a modular saddle which I am explorin. I have just tried their basic model (the Classique), which my horse LOVED but I wanted a different seat. Loved the narrow twist but the seat didn’t quite work for my seat bones (not soft enough). So now I will try a custom assembled WOW with different seat, flaps, knee rolls, etc. Since these are modular saddles, a custom one can be assembled in just a couple of days and shipped to me to try.

If you are interested in information about the WOW, which is really a different concept for a saddle, here is the website:  http://www.wowsaddles.com. I’ll have another review of it after I ride in it more, but my first ride did impress me and my horse and I had an initial “WOW” experience. Unfortunately, they are expensive new and though they’ve been in Britain for years, they are fairly new here so they’re difficult to find used. That’s the bad news.IMG_0124.JPG

Here is Starlight, modeling the WOW Classique. Note the lovely sock protective covers for the stirrup leathers (keeps the leathers from damaging the demo saddle). Star’s coat is improving but is still changing from sun-bleached to black/brown as she sheds her winter coat. One month into our work together, you can see the muscling in her neck and topline beginning to develop, but it takes years to build the muscle needed for dressage so this will be a slow and careful process. This is a wonderful mare and I love working with her.

Our next demo saddle will be the WOW Competitor. Let’s hope it’s “the one” and I can stop spending hours on the computer looking at saddles and researching saddles and wondering if this saddle or that saddle MIGHT work…

 

 

Horses don’t lie

If your horse starts swinging its butt away at the mounting block and fidgeting when you try to mount, could it be telling you something?

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If only we would pay attention…

Or maybe the horse is rushing under saddle, bracing, has an under neck muscle, has difficulty coming onto contact especially through transitions or in lateral movements. Do you think saddle fit MIGHT be the problem?

I’ve only had Starlight a couple of weeks, but I was having all of the above issues and trying to figure out how to solve them. If I’d known her better, I would have diagnosed saddle fit faster, but 10 days into it, I realized it might be the saddle. I borrowed a flex-tree saddle (The Ansur Saddle) from a friend, and what an immediate difference! Happy horse!  Bending, flexing, no problem!

Unfortunately, this can’t be the long term solution for us because Starlight is such a wide backed mare that the Ansur becomes too wide on her for my hips to be comfortable. However, it’s a workable interim solution.

Moral of the story: if the horse is acting weird or giving you a problem, look first for pain. 

Horses are honest and they don’t lie or plot ways to make our lives difficult. They live in the moment and just tell us what they are feeling. We owe it to them to pay attention and do our best to make their working lives comfortable and rewarding.

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Starlight: much happier in the Ansur saddle. Too bad about the ugly water truck in the background. Strange color as she sheds out her bleached winter coat.

All I want for Christmas (besides love, joy, and peace, of course)

Sing with me!

On the First day of Christmas, my true love gave to me One Blingy Bridle... (http://www.dressageextensions.com/ProductDetail.asp?KEY=21885)

Look at it glow!

Look at it glow!

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On the Second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Two Fancy Boots…(https://www.smartpakequine.com/search/search?searchTerm=de%20niro%20boots)

No break in! Lots of calf widths/heights, too.

No break in! Lots of calf widths/heights, too.

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On the Third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Three Favorite Saddles

http://en.voltaire-design.com/palm_beach_saddle.html

Lemke dressage saddle

Lemke dressage saddle

Voltaire jump saddle

Voltaire jump saddl

http://www.lemkesaddle.com/sample-page/

and http://athleticequine.com/freeform-treeless-saddles/

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On the Fourth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Four Black Patent Leather Horse Bootshttp://www.peopleonhorses.com/Boots.htm

People on Horses boots

People on Horses boots

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On the Fifth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Five Perfect Ponies!

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Finn - Perfect Pony

Finn – Perfect Pony

Ellie - Perfect Pony

Ellie – Perfect Pony

On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Six Saddle Pads

http://www.seamsright.com (super pads available in almost any color/trim combo, wash beautifully and hold up well), Mattes eurofit pads would look so nice on my ponies (but are expensive), BucasMax pads are always a favorite http://www.ridingright.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?

Bucas pads come in four colors

Bucas pads come in four colors

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On the Seventh Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Seven Back on Track products…

A blanket to soothe my horse's sore muscles and promote recovery.

A blanket to soothe my horse’s sore muscles and promote recovery.

Gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days!

Gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days!

http://www.backontrackproducts.com

a back brace for when my back hurts

a back brace for when my back hurts

 

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On the Eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Eight Kastel shirts (in eight different colors!)…

Find at your local tack store or http://www.dressageextensions.com/KyWordSearch.asp

Kastel shirt - SPF 30 and so comfy and cool.

Kastel shirt – SPF 30 and so comfy and cool.

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On the Ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Nine Mikmar Comfort girths (for those five perfect ponies)…http://www.dressageextensions.com/ProductDetail.asp?KEY=27841

Mikmar Comfort Girth - stretchy, grippy, revolutionary comfort for your horse. Comes in jump sizes, too!

Mikmar Comfort Girth – stretchy, grippy, revolutionary comfort for your horse. Comes in jump sizes, too!

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On the Tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Ten cans of Effax Lederbalsam (to keep all that tack conditioned).

Effax - available just about everywhere and the best product I've found.

Effax – available just about everywhere and the best product I’ve found.

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On the Eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Eleven bottles of Equifuse Gleam (for all those pony tails)….

Smells great and works wonderfully. Even Finn's scrawny tail looks good with this stuff, and Ellie's thick Haflinger tail combs out easily.

Smells great and works wonderfully. Even Finn’s scrawny tail looks good with this stuff, and Ellie’s thick Haflinger tail combs out easily.

http://equifuse.com/all-products/grooming-products/gleam-moisturizer-shine-serum

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On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve Massage Gift Certificates…because after riding those Five Perfect Ponies, I think I will need it!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Blessed are the meek...

Blessed are the meek…

May your season be filled with peace, joy, and love, and Ponies of all sizes and shapes!

Does my saddle have to hurt me?

Ideally, your saddle should give you the support you want without hindering or constricting you. And it should not hurt either you or the horse! This is harder to achieve than you would think.

Ideally, your saddle should give you the support you want without hindering or constricting you. And it should not hurt either you or the horse! This is harder to achieve than you would think.

Maybe it’s part of getting older, but about a year ago I suddenly decided I was done with having saddles that hurt me. “There has to be a way,” I thought, “to find a saddle that fits both me AND the horse!”

Oh yes, I had tried the custom made saddle route. Don’t get me started. No really, just don’t. Instead, I’ll just say that after much suffering and spending lots of time, money, and effort, I DID find two saddles (not custom made) that fit both me and my horse comfortably, and we are living happily ever after (so far). Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past 10 years and, oh, probably 10 different saddles I’ve bought and sold (don’t even ask how many I tried)…In my defense, there have been a number of different horses, and there were jumping, trail, and dressage saddles involved. Oh yes, I have far too much experience in this area.

So let’s talk about rider fit. Some things to consider when saddle shopping:

  • Seat size measurement varies between saddle brands and models. There is no real standardization, although there is a “standard” way to measure seats. I am not always a “17” in every saddle, just as I don’t always wear a size 8 pants.  It’s not about weight per se, although of course the size of one’s posterior does make some difference.

Important to saddle seat fit are the length of the rider’s femur, the depth of the saddle’s seat, the rise of the pommel, the twist (see below), and the amount of room you personally like to have. All these will determine what size will feel comfortable to you, and no one can tell you this ahead of time although they may guess based on your height and weight. 

  • Flap length – determined usually by the length of your femur (thigh bone) and how short you like your stirrups.
  • Forward or straight flap – think about getting a more forward flap if you tend to ride with shorter stirrups – either dressage or jumping – or your knee may tend to go over the front of the flap. Very annoying. Even some dressage saddles can be bought with slightly forward flaps.
  • Depth of seat – a personal preference but I laugh when some people say, “I only like open seats.” Ha! I say “Ha! Ha” because I too used to say that, but my present saddle is very deep and soft and I love it. Keep an open mind and see what works. You may change your mind over time, especially as your riding style – or your horse – changes.
  • Twist –  Many women prefer a more narrow twist so that they can keep their knee rotated in. You can see the Twist indicated by the yellow lines in the picture at Right. A wider twist may make it hard to get your leg around the horse and Saddle Twistyour toes will tend to turn out. On the other hand, a wider twist might feel just right to you. Believe me: the twist matters. A lot.

Fit determines comfort, but a saddle could fit your dimensions (leg length, seat size) and still not feel comfortable to you when you ride in it. Passively sitting in the saddle at a trade show or in a shop will not do it, because a saddle in motion feels different than a saddle sitting on a saddle stand.

You MUST ride in the saddle before buying it! Don’t let anyone – saddle fitter, friend, salesperson – talk you into buying a saddle model that you have not ridden in unless they will take it back unconditionally if you don’t like it after you’ve tried it.

In addition to the Twist, the Flap, and other measurements, saddles also vary in how WIDE they are in the seat (the part where your bottom rests), and how much and what kind of padding the seat contains. This heavily influences rider comfort. Some of us have sharp pointy seat bones (yes, I confess, I’m one of them), and we have endured a lot of soreness over the years.  Not only calluses but boils, sores, ’nuff said.  I’ve had saddle fitters half-jokingly suggest I have surgery to get my seat bones filed down (they are that sharp – and no, I am not thin); trainers suggest that if I continually grip with my buttock muscles to try and put a pad of muscle under the seat bone, then maybe they won’t hurt. Hmmm…wow, that is just too much work and my horse is not happy with all that tension.

I’m here to tell you that you do not have to put up with sore and painful seat bones any more (preach it, sister!). There are saddles out there that WILL NOT HURT.

In my case, the solution was a narrow twist and a wide, softly padded seat for the pointy seat bones. Some saddles that I tried had seams that were placed exactly where my seat bones rested: OUCH. Major pain. I had to find a saddle that was wide enough that my seat bones stayed on padding not on hard seams. Three children, you know….wide seat bones, I guess. But this is why each of us must try the saddle ourselves. What I like and what you like will probably be different because our skeletal structure may be different. Saddles that felt good to sit in did not work once I trotted and cantered. They might still be soft, but maybe they were slippery or too wide in the twist, forcing me to grip in order to stay with the horse. Complicated? Yep. Got to actually ride in the saddle.

This is why my friends and I refer to it as “saddle shopping hell.” You may want to jump off a saddle hellcliff before you’re done, but persevere. Great saddles do exist!

How do I find this perfect saddle, that will fit me in the leg and seat, allow me to perfectly communicate with my horse, AND (of course!) fit my horse, too? We’ll address the horse fitting side in another article, but here are some ideas on how to find a comfortable saddle for YOU.

  1. Work with a competent, experienced saddle fitter who represents a brand that works for your horse. IF you have such a person in your area, treasure them. They will help you find the right saddle and then keep it fitted as needed. Bless them. Sadly, really good saddle fitters are few and far between. I must issue the warning caveat that far too many saddle representatives are much more interested in selling saddles then in truly fitting you or your horse with the right saddle. Ever tried on something at the store that looked ridiculous on you, and the saleslady is gushing, “oh that looks adorable on you!” (Yeah, right, you think. You can’t fool me. That is not my color.) Unfortunately, some sales reps are those sales ladies. They don’t care how it looks or fits, they just want to sell it. How to find a good rep or fitter? Ask around. Ask your friends, trainer (be advised that some trainers get kick backs from sales), check yelp reviews, etc.  The word gets around on good and bad fitters and reps. NOTE: ask more than one person, and be sure they’ve had their saddle for awhile. If they just bought it, they might be still be in the honeymoon phase. Try to find someone who has lived with these saddles for awhile. Ask for references, if need be. NOTE: The Society of Master Saddle Fitters certification does NOT guarantee that the saddle fitter is knowledgeable, competent, or honest. Certification consists of a two week course (http://www.mastersaddlers.com/courses.htm) that must be completed.  Clearly, some useful knowledge is acquired, but whether they can APPLY that knowledge to real life varies considerably. Saddle fitting is an art as well as a science, and some people can do it, while others are just not very competent, regardless of their certification. Ask around.

  2. If you are an experienced saddle buyer (and know how to check saddle fit yourself), there are some great used saddle sites out there and you can save a lot of money buying used! Three that I’ve worked with and had excellent service from are: https://www.fine-used-saddles.com/saddles/pc/home.asp (top quality inventory, very knowledgeable, will help you figure out what you need if you ask for help); http://www.yoursaddles.com (excellent inventory, also very knowledgeable and helpful; shipping is less expensive); http://www.frenchusedsaddles.com (just bought my jumping saddle from them, and everything was great. Limited number of brands, but beautiful saddles and competitive prices, free outbound shipping and a generous one week trial). There are many others, but I haven’t worked with them so I can’t vouch for them. Of course you can also try private sellers, but you often cannot work out trials with them, so you have to know exactly what you want. If you’ve had the chance to try the saddle (maybe someone in your barn owns it) and you KNOW it will work for you, then by all means buy it without a trial. Otherwise: buyer beware.

  3. Consider treeless saddles. If treeless saddles are new to you, recognize that they have come a long way and some of them can be used without a special pad and are visually almost indistinguishable from a treed saddle. The benefit of treeless is that you don’t need a professional saddle fitter (ever! the saddle flexes and adjusts to changes in the horse). The treeless company can advise you on sizing, and if your horse goes well in it and you like it: success! Read my articles on “why I sometimes ride treeless” and “treeless saddle reviews” for some pointers.


Curious about what ended up working for my pointy seat bones, and also fit my round barreled, low withered New Forest Pony? Finn does dressage in a 16.5″ Lemke Dressage Saddle (Angel Model). Softest, most comfy saddle ever (really!), and it helps my leg fall in a very correct position, while giving me nice support. I can sit Finn’s big bouncy extended gaits in this saddle. http://www.lemkesaddle.com You can see Finn wearing it in the short video in the article, “Now we Piaffe!”

Voltaire Palm Beach jump saddle

Voltaire Palm Beach jump saddle

For jumping, we found a lightly used 17.5″ Voltaire Palm Beach. This saddle is very minimalist in structure, light weight with small knee rolls and very close contact in the flaps. Very secure over fences and a very soft seat. Great saddle and works well for both of us. Good for short backed horses, too!

Finn in his Lemke dressage saddle, getting ready for the Piaffe Clinic

Finn in his Lemke dressage saddle, getting ready for the Piaffe Clinic

Saddle slipping or riding the round barreled horse

Round bellied Ellie

Round bellied Ellie

It wasn’t Ellie, but another round bellied horse. We were having a pleasant hand gallop out on the polo field, and I was just thinking, “oh how nice this is, how lovely this feels”, when there was a rustle in the bushes, and…

 the horse leapt sideways at 90 mph, my saddle slipped, and as my old riding teacher used to say, “he went east, and I went west.”

Darn. It always hurts when I fall off, and I always cry. I just do, from the shock of it. And there was dirt in my mouth, too, because I landed facedown. Yuck.

These days I seem to pick breeds that are, well, low withered and round bellied. The kind that tend to slip saddles unless you stay really, really well balanced in the center of the horse. I usually am fairly well balanced, but sometimes the horse decides to do something unexpected and your weight can pull the saddle over. Once that saddle rolls, you are toast.

How do you keep saddles stable on rotund horses with low or no withers? Since that accident, I’ve spent a lot of time and experimentation figuring it out.

1) Fastening the Girth SUPER tight is NOT the answer – it decreases performance and is very uncomfortable for the horse. http://www.thehorse.com/articles/33540/girth-pressures-impact-on-equine-performance  NOTE: Horses generally have a hollow along their belly right where we tend to put our hand to check the girth tightness, thus giving us a FALSE sense of how loose we think the girth might be. Instead, put your hand underneath the horse, between the fore legs, and check the girth there. We should be able to get 4 fingers snugly under the girth. If you can’t do that – it’s TOO tight. Poor horse. Of course, you can’t do this once you’re ON the horse. At that point, you’ll have to guesstimate.

2) The RIGHT kind of girth makes a big difference. There will be as many opinions as riders on this, but I have a few thoughts and a few cautions.

(a) Avoid fleecy, very padded girths, as they tend to be slippery

(b) Avoid girths with elastic at only one end as they tend to pull the saddle to one side

(c ) Be cautious with any girth with elastic, as it is easy to over tighten them, especially if you tighten it from the saddle. Our leverage is greatly increased when we girth from the saddle. Elastic is fine, just be cautious.

(d) Anatomic Girths, which are contoured so that they have more surface area on the belly (more gripping area) and cut out around the elbows, DO help. Personally, I use the County Logic (available at http://www.countysaddlerystore.com/county-logic-girth/), which comes in dressage or jumping length, or a Mohair girth (http://www.actionridertack.com/p-78-montana-cincha-dressage-girths-natural-mohair.aspx), which grips and absorbs sweat. Note that many endurance riders use mohair it tends to prevent girth galls. I get my mohair girths from http://www.actionridertack.com.

3) Your saddle should fit well so that you do not need a lot of extra padding or shimming. Thick pads will destabilize your saddle and cause more slippage.

4) An anti-slip pad can be helpful. Here’s one you can put under any saddle pad, between the horse and the saddle, and it will help keep things in place. These really do help, I’ve used them! SmartPak Air + Non-Slip Pad $19.95 www.smartpakequine.com. However, they can be pretty sweaty.

(5) A well fitted breastplate can help to stabilize your saddle but it won’t do much if you don’t have the above pieces in place. I’ve had saddles roll seriously even with a breastplate on, so don’t count on your breastplate to save you.

(6) Be grateful for those round bellied horses. They teach us to be better balanced riders. But do get a good anatomic or mohair girth, a well fitted saddle, and maybe a grippy pad of some sort – just in case. The cost of a good girth is nothing compared to a trip to the doctor or emergency room. Just saying.

Ellie - a fat three year old straight from pasture

Ellie – a fat three year old straight from pasture