“How do I know if my local saddle fitter is any good?”
I get this question a lot from my mailing-list members, and I understand why. Picking a local saddle fitter can be scary and hard. You’re trusting this person with your money and your horse’s health. And if you’re new to saddle fitting, you may feel like you don’t have the right tools to spot a bad apple.
But even if you’re new to saddle fit, there’s things you can do to stack the deck in your favor. For starters, you can give yourself a crash course in the basics of saddle fit or get some custom, brand-independent advice about your case from Jen the Saddle Geek.
You can also learn to ask smart questions that will help you find a great fitter–someone who will be an ally in your search. To help you move in that direction, this post is about things I typically ask–and do–when I meet a new-to-me saddle fitter–and I meet at least three dozen new fitters every year during my work for The Saddle Geek, so this is a road-tested system!
1. Figure out why other clients like this saddle fitter.
“Why do people like this fitter?” is a more useful question than “Do other clients like this saddle fitter?”
Because you know how it is in the horse world. Think of your friend who has that awful trainer, but your friend loooooooves the trainer. Or your other friend whose horse has a terrible shoeing job, but she thinks her farrier hangs the moon. There’s always somebody who thinks a horse pro is the greatest, even if they’re actually terrible.
You’ll find the same problem with saddle fitting. Having great, rave reviews from clients doesn’t always mean that the fitter was a great professional who did a great job. It just means the client was satisfied. And some clients are satisfied with shoddy work because they don’t realize the work was shoddy.
So instead, ask people specifically “What did you like about working with [a particular saddle fitter]?” Look for an answer that’s better than “she helped me find the perfect saddle.” My ears perk up when I hear these three phrases:
- “She took the time to help me understand my situation, and I learned a lot from her.”
- “She explained exactly why I’ve been having certain problems lately, and it made a lot of sense.”
- “She provided excellent service and support even after I bought a saddle.”
Ask people to give you a play-by-play of what happened at the fitting appointment. Look for red flags, like “they just put every saddle in their truck on the horse until they found one that seemed like a decent fit.” (<—That’s a real story from one of my former clients, about a French brand rep. Yikes!)
Also look for green flags, like, “The fitter listened to how I responded to riding in a demo saddle. Then they brought out another saddle from their truck that was much closer to the mark, based on my feedback.”
And when you get a rave review for a fitter, ask these follow-up questions from the client:
- How many fitters have they used in the past, and how did this fitter compare to previous fitters they’ve used? If this person has only ever used one saddle fitter, they may not have much to compare their review to.
- Try to get client reviews from people you don’t know well. Friends are sometimes less candid than strangers. To do this, try searching online horse forums or Facebook groups for existing reviews. Sometimes you’ll luck out if you just Google the fitter’s name and read the first two or three pages of results. Or ask for reviews through online bulletin boards, mailing lists, or Facebook groups. If a fitter is good, their reputation will precede them.
That said, when you look at a fitter’s reviews, remember that no fitter has a 100% perfect batting average. Even a great fitter might have one or two bad reviews, in a sea of otherwise good reviews. And before you freak out about that, remember that your farrier hot-nails a horse every now and then. Even Olympic-level trainers sometimes meet horses or clients that they don’t gel with. And every vet has been stumped by a medical case, at some point. That’s called “being human and working with horses.”
I’m not saying that you should settle for a bad fitter or ignore mountains of bad reviews. I’m saying that you should look for a fitter who has more than just a reputation for good saddle fitting–because that’s only part of the equation. Look for a fitter who has a gift for educating clients. Look for a fitter who makes it right when things spin out of control. Look for a fitter who seems to be in their clients’ corner, not just someone who wants to hit their sales quota.
And read carefully between the lines of bad reviews. Some bad reviews are a genuine reflection of bad service and fitting. But sometimes, bad reviews come from buyer’s remorse or unrealistic expectations. As people sometimes say, “Trust but verify.”
2. Ask the fitter about their training and experience. Here’s exactly what to ask.
When you hire a horse trainer, you probably ask them about their previous experience. You ask who they’ve trained with. You ask if they’ve ever been a working student. You ask what kind of show results they’ve achieved over the years.
But people rarely ask saddle fitters the same type of questions. I don’t know why. Maybe people just don’t know what to ask? Or maybe they feel like there’s only one saddle fitter in town so they don’t really have an option?
Anyway, you don’t need to make this a police-style interrogation. But a few polite questions about qualifications can pay off. You’ll walk away feeling more confident that you’ve hired the right person. And you can test-drive the fitter’s ability to communicate well with you.
Here’s some things I ask fitters when I meet them:
2a. How long have you been working in the saddle industry?
This is a better question than “How long have you been selling Brand X?” or “How long has your saddle business been open?”
That’s because good saddle fitters and bad saddle fitters can move around a lot. It’s a sales industry, so turnover tends to be high, and the best/hottest products are constantly changing. Even the best fitters will sometimes switch brands, found their own independent businesses, pursuing training or apprenticeships, or whatever.
But knowing how long someone’s been in the saddle industry overall can be useful recon. The longer someone’s been in the industry, the better your odds that you’re talking to a good fitter.
And if you’re lucky, asking “How long have you been in the saddle industry?” inspires the fitter to tell you their whole range of previous saddle-fitting experiences.
That said, like everything in this post, having many years in the industry isn’t an automatic win. Some terrible fitters manage to bounce around for years. They chase away their bad reviews by moving from brand to brand and region to region.
So while many years of experience are a plus, measure their years of experience against the other things I mention in this post.
2b. What kind of training have you received in saddle fitting? Was that training program affiliated with a particular saddle brand? Was that training done independently?
You’re likely to get one of four answers to this set of questions:
1. “Yes, I have professional training and/or certification. I got it from an organization like the Society of Master Saddlers or Mike Scott’s saddle fitting program in South Carolina”
2. “I have not pursued a certification program. But I was an apprentice to another saddle fitter for many years, and now I’m in business for myself.”
3. “I received in-house training by the saddle brand I work for (or used to work for).”
4. “I am actually another kind of horse professional (chiropractor, masseuse, vet, etc.). I’ve picked up saddle fitting along the way because it’s related to my primary job.”
Honestly, you’ll meet good and bad fitters from all four of those training routes. Certification is expensive and time consuming, so some excellent fitters don’t go that route.
But these three things are almost always true:
- more training in saddle fitting is usually better
- more time spent on the job, working directly with horses, is usually better
- having training from multiple sources, or exposure to a wider variety of brands and perspectives, is usually better.
In my experience, some customers strongly prefer fitters with professional certification. And it’s true that fitters who pursue certification tend to be serious about educating themselves and others. The Society of Master Saddlers, for example, is widely respected for its time consuming and intensive training process for saddle fitters. SMS-certified fitters even have to return to Britain occasionally to get re-certified. So it’s not surprising that most people who survive SMS training are good fitters. Sure, I’ve met a few who didn’t impress me, just like I’ve met a rare Pony Club A or B graduate who didn’t impress me. But on the whole, if you survive that kind of gauntlet, you’re pretty good at what you do.
All of that said…there are plenty of good fitters without certification. In fact, in some cases, it doesn’t sense for a good saddle fitter to get certified. As a simple example, suppose you specialize in fitting used, French-style, foam panelled saddles. Society of Master Saddlers training focuses on British wool-flocked saddles. In that situation, then, getting SMS certified wouldn’t make much financial or logistical sense.
And even for fitters who do specialize in British wool-flocked saddles, there are good training courses in the USA. For example, Mike Scott’s saddle fitting course in South Carolina is popular. Many of Mike Scott’s graduates have successful US fitting businesses without getting SMS certification. Mike Scott’s course is very intensive. And, incidentally, a fair number of his graduates do pursue SMS certification later in their careers.
My point is, it’s reassuring to find a saddle fitter with certifications. But there are many good fitters without certification. What’s most important is to find someone with either lots of experience, or lots of supervision from better pros, or both.
If in doubt, ask this follow-up question: “Can you tell me a little bit about what your training course looked like? I’m curious.” Most fitters are happy to describe how they were trained.
But if you meet a fitter who only has brand-specific training…well, that makes life complicated. The truth is, brand-specific saddle training varies a great deal.
Some brands have very rigorous training programs that last weeks or months. Some brands even fly their reps overseas to see the saddle factory. And some brands continue to supervise their trainees over periods of months or years. That kind of on-the-job training can produce a fantastic saddle fitter.
But other brands have training programs that last just a few days or hours. And even with a great teacher at the fore, such a course won’t make you a great saddle fitter. Think about literally anything in the horse world that you mastered after a two-day seminar. Couldn’t think of anything? Me neither.
So if someone told me they only had brand-specific saddle fitting training, my follow-up questions would be this:
- “How long and intensive was your training?” and
- “How long have you been on the job?”
Experience can often compensate for a minimal amount of initial training. And of course, if in doubt, just keep asking more questions. Like the ones in the rest of this post.
2c. What are some common fitting challenges you see with <fill in your horse’s breed and your riding discipline here>?”
Believe it or not, this question isn’t about assessing your fitter’s level of experience or whether they can fit your horse effectively.
It’s about assessing how well the fitter explains things to you, a saddle-fitting novice.
If your fitter explains things in clear and straightforward ways that you can understand, you’ll learn more from working with them. If they sound like they’re talking nonsense, or they can’t explain themselves, you should be nervous.
And te answer that should REALLY put your hackles up is, “Well, I sell saddles that fit all horses and riders. It’s not a breed-specific thing.”
Yes, there are brands that have pretty versatile lineups of saddles that fit many horses and riders. And yes, there are some very rare brands that truly are 100% custom from the tree upward and could theoretically fit almost all horses out there.
But let me assure you, if you asked a top-notch bespoke saddler or fitter this question, you would get an actual answer to your question about the breed-specific or rider-specific challenges on the table. You would not get “Well, I can fit all horses and riders.”
Remember, your fitting situation might feel unique to you, but an experienced fitter has probably dealt with similar horses challenges before. So if someone avoids a specific question about a specific type of horse or rider, you should be wondering if they can actually answer the question.
If in doubt, ask again. But if they still can’t tell you the common challenges with (for example) fitting a short-backed horse and a larger rider, or fitting a very wide horse, or fitting saddles for tall riders…back away slowly and find someone who can explain those challenges to you.
If you don’t have such a person in your area, Jen the Geek’s Digital Saddle Advice Service might be a good fit for you–and yes, you can absolutely use that service AND use a local saddle fitter, or we can help you assess options for local fitters in your area. Here at The Saddle Geek, we’re fully committed to brand independence, so we don’t sell saddles. That means we’re potential allies with your local fitters, not competitors.
2d. Do you also do saddle repair?
Taking saddles apart, and putting them back together again, teaches you a heckuva lot about saddle mechanics and fitting. So fitters who pursue training in saddle repair tend to be excellent saddle fitters, too.
To be clear, a lot of good fitters don’t have the time or the need to get trained in saddle repairs. Good fitters are often crazy busy already with fitting saddles for clients. But to make an analogy with computer geeks, if you’ve taken the time to learn computer programming, you’re probably a computer geek. But if you’ve also taken the time to learn basic computer repairs and learn how to build your own PC? Then you’re definitely a computer geek.
It works the same with saddle fitting: I’ve met plenty of fitters who are true saddle geeks, with or without repair training. But the ones who pursue repair are definitely saddle geeks.
In my experience, there are three tiers of saddle repairs. Each requires more training than the last. And the more training someone has, on top of their saddle-fitting training, the more impressed you should be:
Basic – replace worn saddle billets, adjust wool flocking, replace the worn elastic on a girth
Intermediate – convert foam panels to wool, widen or narrow a saddle tree by using a tree press, add knee or thigh blocks under a saddle flap, add knee or thigh blocks under the flap
Advanced – repair a torn saddle seat, shorten or lengthen saddle flaps (especially shortening by removing leather from the top of the flap), remove a broken tree from a saddle and insert a new one, replace worn-out knee rolls, or add knee rolls to a plain flap.
And if you’re wondering how awesome some of these repair-specialists-who-also-do-saddle-fitting can be, here’s two examples: Patti Barnett of East Crow Saddlery in Connecticut and saddle maker Suzie Fletcher-Baker of Masters Saddlery in Colorado.
3. Work with a fitter that’s kind of hard to get.
Good farriers are busy and hard to get. Good vets are busy and hard to get. And unfortunately, good saddle fitters are often busy and hard to get.
I’m not talking about fitters who never answer the phone because they’ve got the business sense of a paper plate.
I’m talking about fitters who do answer the phone but have a very full calendar of clients.
When you needed a new saddle like yesterday, it’s tough to wait a few weeks. Or, in extreme cases with super good fitters, you might wait well over a month.
But good fitters tend to have more work than they can take. Saddle fitting a sales industry, and you just don’t survive in saddle fitting unless your calendar is chock full of clients who are whipping out their checkbooks.
And that means that busy saddle fitters tend to be good saddle fitters.
Now, as with everything in this blog post, this is a rule of thumb and not a litmus test. Some fitters are new to the biz or just moved to a new area, so they might be very available even if they’re excellent.
And some fitters might be busy for reasons that have nothing to do with skill. For example:
- they sell a saddle brand is trendy or hot in your area
- they inherited a list of clients from another fitter who left the region or switched to another brand
- they only do saddle work a few days a week, so it doesn’t take much to fill up their appointment calendar
- they sell a brand of saddle that requires constant maintenance that can only be done by a small group of qualified people (I’m looking at you, saddle brands that use FLAIR panels and brands that adjust tree points asymmetrically on purpose)
But again, when combined with other things on this list, a hard-to-get fitter can be a good sign.
And if you’re serious about getting onto a fitter’s busy calendar, here are my suggestions:
1. Call them, don’t just text them or email them. I hate picking up the phone too, but it shows a seriousness of intent that texts and emails don’t always show. You want to stand out in a crowd of potential clients.
2. If you’re seriously looking to buy a saddle in the next X number of weeks, say so on the phone. Saddle fitters live and die by their sales, and they deal with a lot of tire kickers. If you are really serious about buying, they may work harder to squeeze you in.
3, When you leave a message, be very clear about the area in which your horse lives, what kind of service you need, and what phone number they can call to reach you. Sometimes fitters have cancellations or can squeeze you in, but they can only do that if they know exactly where you are and what you need.
4. If you can, watch a friend’s appointment with a fitter before booking your own appointment.
If you’re lucky enough to have this chance, take the time and do it. Because really, when it comes down to it, the best way to recognize a good saddle fitter is to watch them work.
You’ll also have these advantages, compared to watching a fitter work on your horse:
- When it’s not your horse, you can devote more time to watching the fitter instead of tending the horse.
- When it’s not your money being spent, you’ll be more honest with yourself about whether you really like the saddles being pulled out of the truck.
- At most fitting appointments, someone will ride in a demo saddle or a freshly delivered made-to-order saddle. This is a valuable part of an appointment to see from the ground. Watch the fitter closely and ask questions if you want.
5. When you’re around a saddle fitter, ask “Why?” a lot.
When you’re a noob to saddle fitting, it can be easy to clam up around saddle fitters. And it can be intimidating to ask questions.
But take it from me, a curious person who owes the creation of The Saddle Geek to hundreds of fitters who have “talked shop” with me: Most good saddle fitters are passionate about their craft. The good ones love when people ask questions. They’re eager to share what they know, and they’re eager to educate, within the limits of their full appointment calendars.
So if your fitter isn’t dropping wisdom-nuggets left and right during your conversations, ask more questions.
Your fitter might be staying quiet because, frankly, some other clients really don’t want to learn. Some fitting clients are overwhelmed by the details and just want the fitter to “deliver the goods.”
But you do want to learn, right? Most people do. And if that’s true, then make it clear that you’re eager to learn.
Tell your fitter that, so he or she will feel free to talk you through things. Break out your “why?” and “what’s that?” and “can you tell me more about that”?
Don’t be a pest when they’re evaluating your case for a moment, or concentrating on an adjustment. Saddle fitting is all about balancing a series of complex details, and sometimes your fitter will need a moment to process.
But don’t be a wallflower either, especially if they’ve just offered you an explanation and you want more details.
You’ll know reaaaaaal fast whether you’re dealing with someone who knows what they’re talking about. Or not.
6. Ask about return policies, warranties, reflocking, and what to expect after purchase.
Let’s be honest: the real profit, in saddle fitting, comes from selling brand-new saddles. Demo saddles have a slim profit margin, and used saddles have an even slimmer one.
As a result, some unscrupulous fitters will drop you like a hot potato once you’ve written a check and they’ve delivered your saddle.
Other fitters know that happy customers, in the long term, are more likely to become repeat customers and refer other business.
So in my experience, one of the hallmarks of a great fitter is their follow-through service after purchase.
Good follow-through has two dimensions: good policies and good service.
Good policies include things like “a good return policy” or “booking a follow-up appointment 4 to 8 weeks after delivering a wool-flocked saddle.”
Good service is a more nuanced thing, and it separates the great fitters from the mediocre fitters.
For example, if your order gets messed up at the factory or isn’t quite what you expected, does the fitter help make it right?
Will the fitter help you out of a tough fitting situation, like, “I just got a brand-new off-track Thoroughbred and his back is going to change dramatically, so can we talk about padding solutions that will get me through a few months before we talk about a new saddle?”
Your Final Pep Talk
By asking the questions above to prospective fitters, you’ll not only feel more confident about their credentials, but you might also feel like the fitter is an ally. And you might discover a wonderful new equine professional in your area.
But if you’re not sure which fitter to call in your area, or even which brands to explore, consider The Saddle Geek’s online saddle advice service. Jen the Geek geeks out over all 175+ English saddle brands out there, so when she evaluates photos of your rider and/or horse, she can point you to the brands and models that make the most sense for you. And that’s a great first step toward figuring out which local (or distance!) saddle fitter might carry the product lines that will suit you best. To learn more about The Saddle Geek’s online advice by video, click here.