#TeamWool vs. #TeamFoam: And the Winning Saddle Is….

#TeamWool, hands down.

In case you’re new to the series, this all started when my retired FEI horse refused to move forward under saddle and I decided to research saddle fit options, which kicked off my #TeamWool vs. #TeamFoam series. County Saddlery was nice enough to help out and provide approximately a million (OK, maybe something like 20 but it sure felt like a million) saddles for me to sit in and try on my various horses. With the help of fitter Allison Meyer, we spent a full day testing saddles on five horses as the saddle fit saga continued.

Once we narrowed it down to what would work, we had a chiropractor out, took a demo out on a hunter pace, and had a fitting follow up. Then I hit the road with three saddles: an air paneled saddle, a foam paneled saddle, and a wool paneled saddle, all in comparable tree sizes, to see what other horses liked best. And here’s what I’ve experienced throughout the #sisterhoodofthetravelingsaddles!

MSA Saddle Fitter Ann Mary Bettenson

MSA Saddle Fitter Ann Mary Bettenson showing us about saddle fit. Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

As I packed up and headed south to Virginia for the Land Rover Great Meadow International, I contacted my friends that own Artemis Equestrian Center, about an hour south of the show grounds, and got their buy-in to let me host a saddle fit clinic and test out my theory on saddles on some of their horses. Master saddle fitter Ann Mary Bettenson was able to join us, and share her knowledge on proper saddle fitting, and we invited some friends and decided to make an afternoon of it.

With three saddles in tow, we were all set for the clinic Thursday afternoon. We started out in the barn where Ann Mary let us compare saddle panels and construction, and the lovely Breezy, a western Quarter Horse that was new to the farm (she just arrived a few days before I did!) stood politely on the cross ties as we looked at different saddle fits and formations.

Next, it was time to ride. Fortunately, despite the heat, Artemis has a huge covered arena so we were able to test ride in some saddles and put the theory to practice. Air panels are supposed to never conform to any one horse, and be resilient to conform to all horses but are known to create bounce (and some horse just don’t like them). Foam panels are known as being good for people who ride multiple horses — like me, which is how I ended up with a foam saddle in the first place — because they never fully conform to just one horse and can mold to each horse for every ride. And wool panels offer the most custom fit, but may need some adjustments in flocking from time to time.

Breezy got to be my test subject, since we didn’t know each other, and she didn’t even really know English let alone have a saddle preference. We started with the air paneled saddle, and she was quite content to be-bop along. She didn’t understand my cue for canter, and we got the wrong lead, but I switched to what I remembered from some reining lessons years ago and she immediately responded, cantering on happily.

Saddle panels do make a huge difference in saddle fit - even when they don't look that different off the horse.

Saddle panels do make a huge difference in saddle fit — even when they don’t look that different off the horse. Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

Then we put on the foam saddle. She was a little irritated while tacking up but I brushed it off due to the heat (it was in the 90s, even in the shade!) and the fact that she had patiently stood on cross ties while we tried different saddles and now was in the ring repeating the exercise, this time with a rider. Until I got on. Her walk was shorter, and her facial expressions were slightly tense. The trot was choppy and needed more encouragement than the first ride. Then when I asked for the canter, I got pinned ears, a tail swish, two to three strides of awful canter, and a stop. I asked again and she flat out said no. Not wanting to be bucked off the very nice, patient horse, I patted her and returned to the mounting block for saddle #3.

The wool saddle (the same County I’ve been dragging around for the past two weeks to hunter paces and so on) was the last to try. She was quiet to tack up, and under saddle her walk was similar to the first saddle. Her trot was forward and easy. And then her canter.

I asked for the canter and she elevated into the transition, moving forward with ears up. As we went around the ring, she actually started to reach for the bit, round her back some, and soften her jaw. For an untrained English horse (she was well-trained western), it was a huge acknowledgement to me that she was most comfortable in this saddle. Wow!

After the clinic, the rest of the weekend was spent at Great Meadow International enjoying the competition, mistaking Jessica Phoenix for Elisa Wallace — whoops, go me … hi, Jess! — laughing at Boyd zipping by on a scooter that was too small for him, and chatting with Clark Montgomery’s parents about summer camp in Texas. And then I headed home.

Boyd Martin on a scooter at Great Meadow

Boyd Martin on a scooter at Great Meadow — I was laughing too hard to get a better photo! Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

The only missing piece was Tyler, the horse that started it all, who I still hadn’t had that a-ha moment with due to ribs being out and him being sore after the chiropractic visit. So I hauled the County Solution out of the car and tacked him up on Tuesday to see what we’d get. The medium tree was still a hair too wide, so I opted for the Mattes pad with shims, and he didn’t try to kill me on the cross ties — that was an improvement!

Out in the ring he started sluggish as usual, but without spurs and just a strong leg, he started to relax at the walk. The trot was more forward than I’d gotten from him before and then we cantered hand galloped. Guys, we hand galloped! Willingly, with ears up, and no threat to buck me off! We even did a few small jumps that included lead changes (that he offered) and ended with another hand gallop around the ring. This was the most forward this horse has ever been in all the times I’ve ridden him. Yay!

Clark Montogmery Loughlan Glen Great Meadow Nations Cup

Clark and Loughan Glen clearing the last fence on cross country at Great Meadow International. Congrats on your win, Clark! Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

So here’s what I’ve learned about saddle fit:

  1. High quality wool is resilient and can be reflocked as needed (usually 1-2x a year) to accommodate multiple horses.
  2. Reflocking is more affordable than I thought — just $50 — $150 on average (can be $200-$300 for an entire wool change) and it’s done on site, so you’re never without your saddle!
  3. Air panels are OK for some horses on the flat, and while not ideal, not necessarily detrimental either.
  4. Foam can harden over time and cause back pain and saddle fit issues even when the saddle appears to fit properly from on the ground, without a rider.
  5. EVERY County rep is either fully trained or also certified by Master Saddlers Association to ensure that they’re not just about selling a saddle, but about the actual fit to you and your horse. That was super impressive to me.
  6. I actually need two different saddles to work for my horses. Thank goodness they finance!

And that’s how I changed from #teamfoam to #teamwool. Many thanks to Ann Mary for confirming that yes, I do indeed have a freakish leg and need that high forward flap, and to everyone that helped with my research along the way.

So what’s next, you ask? Time to test half pads, and see how they can help — or hinder — saddle fit for those times when your horse is between sizes, or you ride multiple horses and need a quick minor adjustment. Stay tuned as I’ll kick that off in the weeks ahead!