Fit is Everything - Infinitely Adjustable for Optimal Comfort & Performance!

Saddle Fit and Endurance Riding

By Jochen Schleese|April 5th, 2015
Sharma Gaponoff competing in her Schleese saddle

Sharma Gaponoff competing in the 50 mile “Rides of March” – clever name!!

Endurance riders (and horses) are the marathon athletes of the equestrian world. Obviously, long hours of preparation and training go into every event.  Many endurance riders include dressage training as part of the curriculum to strengthen the horse’s back – in a properly adjusted and fitting saddle of course that allows the horse the necessary freedom to move at the shoulder and to engage his back properly.  Just as important as comprehensive training however is, of course, the proper equipment.

It is one of the biggest challenges for the endurance rider to keep the horse sound and healthy over the course of the competition – one of the most grueling of these is the Western States 100 Mile 24-hour Tevis Cup Competition. As such, I have heard directly from the author of “Tevis – From the Back of my Horse” (Sharma Gaponoff) what the preparation and the competition entail.  When in competition she trains three smaller rides/week (about 10 miles each) and one 50 mile ride/month.

Some horses can lose 100-200 pounds in a race of this length. The conditions are extreme – temperatures fluctuate between very hot during the day to almost freezing at night. The terrain is demanding and often dangerous. It is important to have a great support team, and the vet checks are rigorous to ensure the horses are sound enough to handle what lies ahead.

Funny enough, many European riders think that riders in North America suffer from the “American Loose Girth Syndrome”. A loose girth is not good, especially during the long hours of intense riding during endurance competition and training because the saddle will definitely be shifting which is very uncomfortable for the horse. A tighter girth gives the horse more support as well because the saddle stays where it belongs. Many riders believe that a tight girth is only for jumping, etc. and that when you are doing endurance competition, you don’t want the horse to feel as though he is constricted by the girth being too tight. You don’t need to squeeze all the air out of their lungs when the horses are girthed up, but definitely the saddles need to be snugly fastened and stay that way for the entire ride.

Without minimizing the necessity for a blacksmith on site because of potential shoeing issues, saddle fit is certainly the biggest problem due to the massive weight loss. A saddle that was fitting properly at the start will certainly show issues during the course of the ride given that the horse’s conformation will actually have changed within just 24 hours!

One of the best way to help the horse is to keep the saddle pad dry (change wet saddle pads).  Imagine you were to walk in your shoes all day with moist socks – your skin would get soft and start to blister. Some riders get off their saddles during the ride and run beside their horse: this gives the horse less weight to carry at least over short distances.  To counteract the effect of losing weight, most of the riders use cruppers and breast plates to ensure that the saddle stays in place, even for the up-and downhill portions of the ride. One of the best saddle designs ever developed is the McClellan army saddle, which was made for horses who were used in the military and had to be kept healthy in order to ensure survival of their riders; unfortunately it was discontinued in the 1920s, but its basic design is probably still the most ergonomically friendly for both horse and rider!

Saddle fit is critical even for shorter trail rides; indeed for any activity with your partner and friend – the horse! Now is the time to have your own saddle fit assessed before the competition season begins again in earnest, Call 800-225-2242 and ask to schedule your own 80 point diagnostic on-site evaluation!

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I have a 12 year old Pura Raza Espanol (PRE) horse who has proved to be a real challenge to fit saddle-wise. He is classically Baroque in shape with a short back, big shoulders, wide chest, and thick muscled mutton withers that have been the downfall of two saddles. After I noticed the deterioration of his back muscles I tried adjusting his current saddle to no avail. I had seen Jochen Schleeses videos online about saddle fit and how he developed the Obrigado saddle. I understood everything the Lusitano breeder mentioned in the video had been explaining to him. I was fairly certain that was the saddle for me so spoke to a number of women in my barn who ride in the Schleese saddles for feedback. After listening to the fourth woman rave excitedly about her Schleese saddle (my inquiries included an equine message therapist who owns a mare from the same breeder as my guy and rides in the Obrigado) I called for a fitting hoping for miracles. It was pretty close to that. Natalie put a 17.5" Obrigado on my fellow, which was ½ inch smaller than my other saddles. She assured me I wouldn’tt feel the pressure on my pelvis that always caused me to go with the 18"seat. The funniest thing was my horse’s expression. As we tightened the girth he turned and looked at me as if to say, "Hey what is this? It feels different." I got on and yes, there was a miracle. Or as close to one as one could get having a horse go from stiff on the bit and hollow through the body, to yielding in all places, rounding into contact and actually executing a 10 metre volte softly with no resistance. The counter canter no longer felt like I was seated on a whirling blender, with my horse twisting wildly under me as we came around corners. The canter was up in front and I started exclaiming about my new horse! Perhaps the biggest reveal for me was when I dismounted. For the first time in 2 ½ years I got out of the saddle with no pain in my lower back or left hip. My legs weren’tt even stiff. The saddle literally corrected my posture each time I felt myself slipping. It helped me regain that three point seat they all rave about in the books and there was no constant dragging my legs back to get them into position. I could not believe the fit of a saddle could make such a difference not only for my horse but for me as a 5'3" petite woman. I actually apologized to my horse for putting him through two bad fitting saddles. He is a very charitable fellow so I think he forgave me.

— Kelly Buziak - Edmonton, Alberta

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