Monday, March 9, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Saddle Shopping

This was a very exciting week for me as my saddle hunt finally came to an end.  You may have noticed I didn't mention what was coming next when I wrapped my tech fabric show coat series and the reason was I didn't know if this story would be ready to tell yet. Thankfully it is and I can't wait to share with you my saddle shopping journey.

There's a few things you should know up front, I don't own or lease a horse, I'm only riding once a week, and I haven't purchased a saddle since 1996. My riding experience is all over the place too. I grew up in the desert southwest and did everything from hunter / jumpers to barrels, western pleasure, and multi day trail rides in the mountains. I'm the absolute definition of a re-rider. I stopped during college, picked it back up again after settling down, and am now working on the next part of the path to horse ownership.

When going through the re-rider stages at lesson barns you find that you do your best to fit yourself to the saddle that fits the school horse.  Rightfully so, as that horse wears the saddle multiple times a day and you're only in it for 30 mins to an hour. When I learned to ride you basically had 2 options for a jump saddle, the most common and trendy saddles were the plain flap styles like the Crosby Prix Des Nations or the Colligate Graduate. There were also the big knee rolls with suede padded flaps like the Stubben Siegfried that I recall the adults enjoyed riding in.
Collegiate Graduate
Crosby Prix Des Nations
Stubben Siegfried

Me at a show way back when with my plain flap saddle.
When I started taking lessons with the eventers I noticed all of the beautiful monoflaps and dressage saddles they were using and realized I'd missed quite a bit in the evolution of saddlery. I also began to notice that in some of the school saddles my legs shot way out in front of me, in others the pommel was quite painful at the sitting trot or canter, and then some of the others were just too big. During the spring of 2014 I'd started asking if I could bring my old plain flap out and that worked for a bit but it just wasn't enough saddle for me to be comfortable and confident over fences when the heights started going over two feet. There was no way I would entertain my first cross country schooling in that flat as a pancake postage stamp.  Luckily, the lesson program picked up an older HDR Advantage that was quite comfortable for me and I really enjoyed using it for lessons.  I wasn't the only one that liked it though so lucky me if nobody else already claimed it for their lesson. In the late summer of 2014 I started asking my trainer about a saddle just for me and got the green light to start looking.

The first thing I noticed was my $1,000 budget was a reasonable starting point for a used saddle. I could pick up a used Stubben, Pessoa, Toulouse, Bates or HDR in that range no problem.  I thought I was in a great spot but then I realized I could buy any used saddle off eBay or from a tack shop but I wouldn't actually know how it fit me until I rode in it. If it didn't work out I was on the hook for shipping both ways to a tack shop or in the case of eBay have to re-list the saddle, hope I'd get all of my money back, and try again.  Shipping a saddle runs about $50 each way so each trial would cost me $100 and chip further away at my budget. This was about that time where I noticed that while I'm only 5'3" tall I have a 19" femur so I was going to need a saddle with a forward flap. There was also no guarantee that I'd receive the saddle as described and my suspicions were only fueled by the bad experiences on the Facebook tack group feedback pages. That's another thing I should have told you, I do way too much online research especially when making large purchases.

I decided that there were just too many variables to consider so I drove down to Dover Saddlery and spent two hours sitting in everything in the store. I learned that the leather on Ovation saddles is super nice for the price, that the cair panels on the Bates saddles make a hollow "thunk" sound when you tap them, and that new saddles in my price range would be pretty tough to break in on a once a week lesson schedule. I also saw that doubled and calf covered leathers were quite popular options and so many saddles had adjustable gullets. Everything had a padded flap, with all kinds of velcro blocks and knee rolls.  There was no pigskin or plain flaps anywhere in sight so there was quite a bit to take in.  I gave a pretty serious pause when I sat in Dover's house brand of saddles because of how soft and comfortable they were.  You actually get quite a bit of saddle for what they're charging so with that, I picked up a few little things and headed home to do more reading.
Ovation San Diego
Bates Elevation
Taking the trip down to Dover was a real eyeopener. If I could stash away a few hundred dollars more I could walk out with a brand new saddle, a free bridle if I brought along the sale catalog, and have the confidence in a no penalty return if it didn't work out. And hey, with my tax return coming in February it gave me plenty of time to watch sales and read reviews.  

The saddle in particular that I had my eye on was the Circuit Premier Victory RTF. It had substantial velcro blocks, a medium deep seat, narrow twist, and a hinge in the tree that would allow me to make minor adjustments for the school horses. I must have called Dover a zillion times asking about the lifetime warranty, how does the RTF work, what's the best way to care for the leather, etc. and they were nothing but gracious and helpful. 

Now, it's the dead of winter, probably just a few weeks before Christmas and I end up taking a lesson on a boarder's horse in the most comfortable saddle I've ever sat in. I still can't quite describe why it was so great but my legs fell exactly where they needed to and everything just seemed so easy.  When I took a closer look I saw that it was a Devoucoux Oldara. I filed that information in to the "it sure would be nice but there's no way I can afford one of those.  Maybe one of these days." section of my mind where the lottery dreams live and moved forward with my plans to purchase the Dover saddle. 

My tax return came in early February and a week later I walked out of the Branchburg Dover with my brand new saddle and was on cloud nine. I also got the free bridle, and of course had to have a new saddle pad to go with it.  Not to mention new tack sponges and pony treats to round out the trip.
My Dover Haul
I swear I must have bounced with excitement the entire hour drive to the barn the next day.  I took 45 minutes to tack up trying to get everything just right and of course showing everyone who asked. But then when I started my ride a few things came to light very quickly. First was the slight front to back rocking. The tree is more curvy than flat and that made for a not quite perfect fit even with a bit of adjustment. The next issue was the flap rotation.  Riding on the flat with a dressage length stirrup had my knee very close to going over the edge and when I shortened up one hole for jumping I was completely over it. Talk about crushed! I had read every single review, saved the sale catalogs, did countless comparisons and yet, it all came down to angles and fit. I sadly packed up and headed home and tried to come up with a plan B. Take another look at the Ovations? Keep an eye out for an exact copy of the HDR that I've lessoned in? I sadly took one more drive down to Branchburg to return the saddle.  There was absolutely no problems returning it for credit and Dover was absolutely wonderful to work with. 

My trainer signed on with Devoucoux days before I bought my saddle and I mentioned how much I loved the Oldara and if one came up please let me know but my budget is firm.  (Because who gets one of those in my price range right?) 

Well, I did. Apparently they had a used one and worked with my trainer to get it pretty close to my budget. It's got a small cosmetic flaw and I had to break out my credit card, but it is a totally sound and lovely piece of equipment. I took a day off work, headed up to the barn, tried it out and haven't let it out of my sight since.  I ended up doubling my original budget to get it but at the end of the day I have something that fits me wonderfully and is practically the opposite of what I thought I wanted.  It's a pretty flat seat with small fixed blocks and a wider twist than the Circuit.  The seat is also a touch wider than what I was riding in before and the balance is just right for me.  I'm truly grateful to my trainer for working out a deal for me and am so excited that my saddle search is over. I hope to keep this saddle for many years to come and if not I know it will carry a reasonable resale value.

My Devoucoux Oldara

So now, I've got the saddle, a bridle, tons of pads and oodles of assorted equipment.  I guess all I need now is the horse. One step at a time, right?

For next week we'll take a look at the Kerrits Tech Turnout Jacket which is on clearance at many of the online shops and is an awesome spring / summer weight rain coat. Until next week, happy riding!

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