Saddle fit and your new saddle - from a tree maker's view
We are no longer building saddle trees. We have two saddle fit videos available on our westernsaddlefit.com website. Western Saddle Fit - The Basics, aimed at riders, is available either on DVD or streaming on Vimeo while the six hour series Well Beyond the Basics, aimed more for professionals but understandable by anyone, is available by streaming on Vimeo. (We left this website up because we have had many requests to keep the information available.)
After a lot of thought, decision making, money and time, you finally have your brand new saddle! Congratulations!! However, it is important to recognize that it takes a few hours of riding to really work in a new saddle. In talking to saddle makers, they say 10 hours of actual riding is really a minimum to get the saddle fitting like it will for the rest of its working life, and one maker felt that things would still change for up to 100 hours. So just in case it doesn't feel like everything is perfect that first ride out, don't be too worried. Here's some hints to help you during that "breaking in" period.
The shearling needs to pack down.
It doesn't stay nice and thick and fluffy, but while it is in that brand new stage, it will affect how your saddle fits. The new shearling is basically acting like an thin, extra blanket, so the saddle will be sitting higher on the horse than it will when it is broken it. One saddle maker we know measured his new saddle over time and said it moved down almost an inch on the same horse with the same padding before it quit settling.
This also will make the saddle a bit less stable than it will be in the future. Just as using excess padding causes you to have to cinch tighter to keep the saddle from rolling, so the new shearling may allow the saddle to move around a bit more than it will after a few hours of riding. So if the saddle shifts a bit more than you would like, give it some time. If it fits your horse, that excess movement will change when the shape of the bar becomes more defined through the skirts as the shearling packs down.
Both the time it takes to settle and how much it finally packs down really depends on the type of shearling the saddle maker uses. There are different manufacturers of shearling and the saddle makers say they act differently. Some makers like one type and some like an other, so it isn’t necessarily a quality thing - just a “different” thing. (Note, this is for real shearling. We aren't talking synthetics here). You may find yourself needing a bit thinner padding at the start until the shearling settles in.
The leather will soften up a bit.
The same kind of thing goes for the leather as the shearling. If the skirts were well blocked and the saddle is well constructed, there shouldn't be a lot of changes in fit as the leather loosens up a bit. But it means that any stiff edges will soften a bit and conform more to the shape of the horse, letting the bar contact the horse more fully. If the shape of the tree matches the general shape of the horse, the more the saddle gets used, the better the fit will get.
Leave the breast collar off.
We strongly recommend (and would actually prefer that it be an absolute rule) that you don’t ride with a breast collar for at least the first 10 hours with a new saddle, and preferably longer. That way the saddle will be totally free to “find it’s own spot” on the horse where the shape of the tree best matches the shape of the back. By not using a breast collar you for sure won’t be holding the saddle in the wrong place. (Please see our Proper Position of a Western Saddle page for more information.) If the saddle is held too far forward with a breast collar, it not only creates real problems for the horse, but it also affects how the shearling and leather get broken in.
The other advantage to leaving the breast collar off is that you will get used to where this saddle puts you – a combination of the way the seat is built in the saddle and where the tree fits on the horse. It will probably feel different than your old saddle, and people can be tempted to hold the saddle out of place (rather than let it find its rightful place) in order to make things feel more like they are used to. If you ride for a few hours with the saddle in the proper place (because it will go to where it best fits if you let it) you will be familiar with how this saddle feels by the time the break in period is over. Then if you do decide you want to use a breast collar, you’ll be adjusting it to where the saddle really fits on the horse rather than putting the saddle too far ahead and holding it there with the breast collar (which, as I believe you are aware by now, is one of my pet peeves!) And maybe you will decide you don't need one after all...
So hopefully these tips will help alleviate some possible concerns as well as help you learn the proper position for this saddle on your horse more quickly than you might have otherwise. But the best advice we can give you is - enjoy the ride!!
(And for any saddle makers reading this, please feel free to comment, adding to what we say or giving your opinion on it. We enjoy hearing what you have to say.)
Anytime I'm breaking in a new saddle, I try to alternate my mounting on the near and off sides for a while. This keeps any stretching of the near side stirrup leathers to a minimum; it's not uncommon for the off side stirrup to ride a hole shorter after a few years - and that's just one of the reasons far too many of us don't sit our horses straight. Besides which, it's good basic training for any saddlehorse and takes quite a bit of limbering up for some of us, yours truly included!
I tend to alternate mounting sides as much as possible, no matter what stage of break-in of the saddle :) It's good for me and for the horse's training as well as for the saddle (not just the leathers, but also the tree), not to mention good for the horse's back.
I don't ride Western myself (though I love this blog; it's pretty nifty how the saddle structure and fit is similar, and how it varies, between saddle types). So; something I've been told, but never experienced, is that a new Western saddle also creaks until the leather is softened up by breaking in. I've been told that putting talcum powder between the jockey and the skirt helps with the noise, but I don't know if that's desirable.
With an English saddle, when it's new or it's just been adjusted, it's a good idea to ride without a saddle pad entirely for the next 10 riding hours or so. Not just because the wool will settle, but also because the horse's sweat combines with the natural oils in the wool to make the wool settle into just the right shape, and stay that way. Of course, there's leather between the English saddle's wool flocking and the horse's back; I don't know if that makes a difference to the settling process.
So, is it at all similar with shearling? Do you want to use it straight on the horse's back while the shearling is settling? Or do you want to use a (probably very thin) pad even at first, to protect the saddle and the horse's back from each other?
Regarding leather squeaking - we'd need to hear from some saddle makers about that. It isn't anything we have experienced, so maybe high quality leather doesn't squeak as much as lower quality leather? Can't answer the question, though we have heard about the talcom powder trick too.
As far as using a Western saddle bare on the horse's back for fit reasons - not a good idea. The flocked panels on an English saddle are not only an integral part of how the saddle fits, but also the padding between the hard tree and the horse. With western saddles, it is the shape of the tree, not the shearling, that determines how the saddle fits. It should be even thickness over the whole bar surface and while it adds some padding, it really isn't very much and it won't affect the shape or the fit to any degree. Blankets or pads under the saddle are necessary for the padding between tree and horse. They make up a component of saddle fit that is beyond the control of the saddle or tree maker, but are also very important.
So I use a good greasy saddle conditioner (I like Aussie Conditioner) and slather it on the undersides of everything and between all layers of leather that aren't well-glued together as I go through final assembly. Then I sit/push/mash/twist everything on the saddle to find squeaks and to begin softening the leather, and ratchet down the riggings on the drawdown stand.
For packing down the shearling, I've read (but haven't tried) about lightly spraying the shearling with a VERY dilute solution of liquid glycerine saddle soap before riding, which should speed up the packing/felting process.