As The Saddle Geek, I spend lots of time helping other people with their saddle searches. But I rarely have to shop for my own saddles, unless there’s a new horse in my life.
But I’m pretty glad I had a new horse in my life last fall, because it forced me to re-experience saddle shopping as a customer instead of a consultant. Shopping for my own English saddles, for the first time in several years, really hammered home the big wisdom nuggets that every saddle shopper needs. And in this post, I’ll share them with you–in roughly the order that they helped Jen the Geek with her (uh, my?) own saddle searches.
These are basic realities of the saddle shopping process that lots of people don’t see coming, and it makes their process miserable instead of fun. I had fun, and my saddle search was over quickly. But that’s because I know which mines not to step on. And today, I want to show you those land mines and help you walk around them!
Now, to make this fun, there’s actually two versions of this post:
- the one you’re reading right now, and
- an “extended cut” that talks in much more detail about Jen the Saddle Geek’s actual saddle search—including info about the horse I was fitting and exactly how I took action with these wisdom nuggets. Click here to get the extended cut of this post as an Adobe PDF file.
Tip #1: Budget a few hundred bucks for incidental expenses, on top of the cost of the saddle.
No matter how you shop for saddles, there’s usually some incidental costs. So smart shoppers budget for expenses like these:
- farm call fees and travel fees for saddle brand reps
- shipping costs for mail-order saddles
- gas to drive to and from tack stores
- adjustment fees for saddle fitters
- if you buy locally, calculate the potential sales tax
- accessories for your new saddle, such as new stirrup leathers, girths, protective covers, or saddle soap
If you’re lucky, you get to skip these expenses. But do yourself a fave and budget for them. If you get to keep the money, awesome. If not, you won’t feel so bummed that you went “over budget” for expenses you should have budgeted for from the get-go.
Personally, I budget about $300 per saddle for incidental expenses. If you expect a difficult search involving lots of saddle trials and lots of strikeouts, you might budget $500 or more for such incidentals. (Pro tip: if I save you from even one of those strikeouts in my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice service, I’ve paid for myself. And let’s just say lots of my clients were barking up the wrong trees when they first hired me!)
So, wanna see the cute horse that Jen the Geek was leasing and find out how much she spent on incidentals? To find out, you’ll have to nab the extended version of this post.
Tip #2: Even if you have a “most likely to fit” list, plan to try several saddles before making the final call.
You know that show The Bachelor? During the final episode of each season, there’s always this awkward moment where the bachelor tells the runner-up contestant, “You are an amazing person, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t feel right.”
Yeah. That happens in lots of saddle searches, too.
Here’s the frank truth: just because something fits you, at a technical level, doesn’t mean you’re going to love how it feels. If you’ve ever had a favorite (or hated!) brand of shoes, jeans, or bras…you know exactly what I’m talking about. For example, my feet are a perfect match for Birkenstock sandals. But I hate how they feel on my feet. Other people are nuts about them.
This happens to riders and horses, too. Sometimes, even when there’s a textbook perfect fit, and somebody just isn’t feeling it. And even if it’s a perfect fit and everybody loves it, sometimes you have to balance priorities. Maybe you sat in your trainer’s super expensive French high-end saddle, and you’re in love, but it costs a fortune. So in that case, do you value comfort over your budget? Or vice versa? Depends on your situation.
If you hit gold on the first try—and that does happen for some of my clients—that is awesome. But it doesn’t happen every time. Just like people don’t always buy the first horse they try, and some owners cycle through 2 or 3 bits before the horse is really happy and soft. Just like most women don’t buy the first wedding dress they try on, or buy the first car they test drive.
That’s one reason that I ask all my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice clients to rank their priorities on their intake forms:
- Comfort for the horse (spoiler alert: this is always my #1 priority!)
- Comfort for the rider / how great it feels
- Durability / how long the saddle will last
- Speed / how fast you can get the saddle
- Budget / how committed you are to your financial bottom line
- Looks and fashion / whether you want something that’s aesthetically beautiful and “on trend” or you’re flexible about looks.
If you’re not convinced yet…it’s also my experience that planning to try multiple saddles can help you manage the emotional rollercoaster of saddle shopping. If you keep telling yourself, “Maybe this next one is the one!” and desperately talk yourself into a saddle that you don’t completely like…you’re setting yourself up for a crash.
You fall in love, then you’re crushed. You start to despair. And when you get emotional, you start to do bad things. Like raise your budget, even though you can’t really afford that!
At this point, you might be thinking, “Okay, I see your point, Jen. I can brace myself to try two, maybe three saddles. But if I try multiple saddles, won’t that also raise my incidental costs? Which you were just talking about above?”
Yes, trying multiple saddles can sometimes raise your incidental costs. But here’s some ways to save money and still try multiple saddles:
- if you’re ordering by mail order, work with a vendor who sells tons of suitable tack and can send you 2-3 saddles in the same box. Cheaper by the dozen, literally.
- hire a saddle fitter who carries multiple saddles that are possibility for you, not just one or two saddles that might work. That way, you can get a lot of bang for your farm-call buck.
- try your friend’s saddles to learn more about your general preferences. That way, when you do pay money to bring in a saddle, there’s a good chance it’ll work for you.
- hire someone like Jen the Saddle Geek to whittle down your list of candidates, so that instead of trying 10-12 doomed-to-be-losers, you only have to try a small handful of potential winners.
How many saddles did Jen the Geek end up trying? To find out, you’ll have to nab the extended version of this post.
Tip #3: Reduce your stress level about “how long it’s taking” by having clear action steps and set deadline dates.
Often, saddle shopping feels like it’s taking forever. And some of that is out of your control. For example, you can’t force a particular saddle to come back into stock, or to suddenly appear on the used market. And you can’t make a local saddle fitter answer your emails and phone calls (although, pro tip: when it comes to saddle fitting, phone calls usually get taken more seriously. I know that’s quaint, but saddle fitters practically live in their cars between fitting appointments, and compared to emails and texts, voicemail is easier to check + answer in a moving car.)
But you can reduce the grind of saddle fitting, and keep yourself sane, by setting clear milestones. For example, you can set specific personal deadlines for how much time you’ll allot to these activities:
- research potential brands, models, and saddle technologies
- make a short list of saddles that deserve closer investigation
- gather contact info for relevant vendors and fitters
- order saddles for trial or take them on trial from a fitter
- make a final decision about a saddle that you’re waffling about
- how long you’re willing to wait—for example, how long you would wait for a particular brand or fitter to deliver a saddle to you
- conditions under which you would raise your budget, and by how much money
- if you need to sell your old saddle to afford a new one, all these same calculations but as they apply to selling your old saddle. For example, how long will you advertise your saddle privately before you consider consignment? How long would be an acceptable “waiting time” before you get a final sale?
My personal advice, as someone who’s advised a lot of shoppers: start by making a concrete list of tasks. Then get out a calendar. Set clear deadlines for how long you’ll spend on each step. For example, maybe you tell yourself “I will research local saddle fitters for a week, and by Sunday, I will call at least two of them.”
As Tim Ferriss likes to say, “What gets measured gets managed.” If you treat your saddle search the way you treat your horse’s farrier schedule, or your riding lesson calendar, or any other important horsey calendar in your life…you’ll probably be done sooner and spend less time spinning your wheels.
How long did it take Jen the Geek to shop for one dressage saddle and one jump saddle? You know the drill by now…to find out you’ll have to nab the extended version of this post.
Tip #4: No saddle, no matter how adjustable, will fit every horse in the world.
Let us take a moment of silence, to mourn the death of this dream: a saddle that will fit every horse.
I know. I know. There are certain saddle brands that would have you believe their saddles are “infinitely adjustable” and will “fit every horse.” And it’s true that some brands are quite adjustable indeed. On some saddles, you (or a saddle fitter) can change the tree width, panel shape, girth billet placement, knee block placement, stirrup bar placement, etc. Some brands will even let you swap out one saddle tree for another. Not surprisingly, these features often come at a price. Swapping out a saddle tree, for example, will often cost you $800+ and change how the saddle feels under your bum.
But…there is simply not a saddle that will fit every horse. “Versatile” does not equal” universal.” There are some things you just can’t change about a saddle.
And when I was shopping for Bell, a half-lease horse that I’d only known for 3 months, I had to keep that in mind.
For example, look at all the versatile features of the two saddles I bought for Bell:
- a user-adjustable gullet system, meaning I can adjust the tree width across a pretty wide spectrum by swapping out the steel gullet plates
- a flexible girthing system, which allows me to hang the billets on different parts of the saddle instead of praying that one set of billets lines up correctly
- wool-flocked panels, which can be subtly adjusted to fit the contours shapes for the horse’s back.
And those are great features. Truth be told, in the 6 months that I’ve owned these two saddles, I’ve used them on 6 different horses. And with various adjustability tweaks, the saddles worked great for those horses.
But in that same time span, I’ve ridden three other horses who didn’t fit into these saddles.
So, if Jen the Geek knows literally the entire English saddle market and can pick such versatile saddles…what exactly is “wrong” with her current saddles that keep them from fitting every single horse she meets? More details about that in the extended version of this post.
Tip #5: Even if it’s a “forever saddle,” think about resale value.
Look, I’m all about keeping stuff for as long as you can. In fact, I still drive the 1996 Honda Accord EX that I learned to drive in as a teenager. I love that car, and I intend to drive it into the ground.
But nothing lasts forever, and that’s doubly true in the horse world. Horses change shape, get injured, gain new skills, change jobs, etc. Riders also change shape, get injured, gain new skills, and change jobs.
So even if you intend to keep your saddle forever, remember that circumstances might change. Do your future self a favor by thinking about resale. Maybe your “forever horse” turns out not to be forever, and now you’re scrambling to get a saddle for your next horse. Or maybe you switch disciplines, by choice or because your horse is not suited to your previous discipline, and your old saddle is holding you back.
Many clients for my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice service find themselves in a big hurry to resell their old saddle in order to finance the new one. And then, they’re crushed to discover that the saddle that they “never planned to resell or replace” isn’t worth as much as they thought, or is a challenging resale.
So to avoid being that “future panicky self,” here’s some questions I like to consider, when I’m shopping for a saddle and deciding how much I care about resale value:
- Can I foresee a likely reason that I’ll need to resell this saddle?
- Is this saddle likely to be an easy resale or a difficult resale?
- If I resell this saddle, will I need to recoup a large portion of my investment?
- Am I financially comfortable enough that resale isn’t a big deal to me? Can I count on being financially comfortable in a “worst case scenario” in the future?
- Do I live in circumstances where having a “spare saddle” that fits none of my horses seems okay? (Example: maybe you’re a trainer who rides lots of client horses, you run a lesson program, you’re a horseless rider who floats between barns, etc.)
Guess what? Jen had a nasty, yucky surprise that made her suuuuper glad that she answered these questions. You can find Jen’s answers to the questions above, and read about the yucky surprise, in the extended version of this post.
Tip #6: Don’t buy fittings, such as stirrup leathers / girths / saddle pads, until you’ve bought a saddle.
When saddle buyers get frustrated, they often express that frustration by purchasing saddle fittings. After all, if you can’t find the right saddle, at least you can find some stirrup irons / stirrup leathers / girths / pads / whatever that you like. Right?
But as the kids say these days…could you not? That is a terrible idea. Let me explain why.
Because buying fittings without a saddle in mind = you don’t know what color, length, or size you really need. For example, not all saddles have the same length and angle of billets. If you buy a girth now, it might be too short or too long.
Your new saddle’s stirrup bars might be very close-set or wide-set to the saddle tree, which would affect the thickness of the ideal stirrup leather.
If you end up buying a calfskin saddle, you might need calfskin-lined stirrup leathers.
In some cases, you may even want a low-profile buckle on your stirrup leathers—like the buckles on these Prestige leathers or these Beval Italian leathers—to avoid a bump on your upper thigh.
If you buy a calfskin or doubled-leather saddle, you may need to shop for calfskin or doubled-leather stirrup leathers.
Regarding saddle pads, the length and angle of your flaps can affect the ideal shape for your saddle pads.
Or if you size up to a bigger saddle, sometimes the saddle will be too long for your current pads! (That happens a lot with half pads.)
You get my point. Don’t buy fittings until you’ve got a new saddle in your barn aisle and can shop accordingly.
In the end, Jen did have to buy some new fittings to match her new saddle. Find out which ones in the extended version of this post.
Tip #7: If you do it right, your saddle search WILL eventually end. You will not live in saddle shopping hell forever!
Real talk: I absolutely love saddles. I love running this blog. I love helping people with their saddle searches.
But being the actual saddle shopper? Dude, being the shopper is always stressful. It was stressful even for me, although I know my stress level was like 3 out of 10. By contrast, when most clients hire me, a lot of them are already at 8-10 out of 10.
So I was glad, in a weird way, to revisit being “the actual shopper” and experience that stress. Because it gives me so much empathy for you, my readers, and my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice clients.
Even as Jen the Saddle Geek, there’s some yucky parts of saddle shopping that I can’t avoid. I can’t make UPS trucks deliver saddles faster, especially from overseas or from other countries. I can’t magically clear my local saddle fitter’s schedule so she can be at my barn to reflock my freshly-arrived saddle tonight or tomorrow (although amazingly, Amanda made that happen…perks of living in the same town as your local fitter!). I can’t guarantee that, even though I know a saddle is a great potential match for me and the horse, that I’ll strike gold on the very first try.
But boy, did I get to skip a lot of the frustration—and it gave me so much empathy for those of you who are DIY’ing it and don’t get to “press fast forward” the way that I do. For example, I knew right away which brands and models were likely to work, for the horse and for me. I knew right away what the fair-market prices were for those saddles, new and used. I knew where I was most likely to find those saddles—who to call, which consignment vendors to check with, which classified ad sites to comb. I knew what to do with the saddles once I got them on-site—for example, what simple tests I could run to see if the saddle had serious potential and was worth paying for a reflock, or buying new fittings, or whatever.
And that is more than half the battle. And once you’ve got the right saddle and it’s all over, you won’t believe how fast the yucky feelings fade. You move on. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s what I want for every single one of you.
If you want to press fast forward on your saddle search by getting me involved in your search, click here to learn more about my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice service. Because at the end of the day, I founded this blog because I love seeing people—and horses!—move on to happy and comfortable riding. Whether you achieve that through my free advice or my paid products, I love knowing that you care enough about your horse to “hang in there” through the tough experience of saddle shopping. And I love being able to make it easier for you!
Surprise! This time Jen won’t beg you to get the extended version of this post. You can just read how it turned out:
It took about 4 weeks, all-in, for me to try 4 saddles and keep two of them.
I probably invested about 6 hours of total work:
- about 2 hours of research and logistics,
- 2 hours of trying the saddles on my own, and
- 2 hours spent with the local saddle fitter to get my wool flocking tweaked.
But man, the stress of being in limbo—of not knowing when I’d be able to ride again because I didn’t have an appropriate saddle—made it feel like a lifetime. For those of you who are saddle shopping for months or even years, I raise my glass to you! Y’all are some brave, patient people!
If you’re still shopping—or you have “that barnmate” who is!—and you’re ready to press fast forward by enlisting my help, here it is one more time, a link to my Digital Saddle Fitting Advice service. Would love to help you move forward with your search and ride off happily into the sunset, as quickly–or maybe even more quickly?–than I did with my last search.
Keep your chin up, saddle shoppers of the world!