There have been periods in human history when a long held convention has given way to a radically different understanding; when new tools of discovery have introduced new truths and changed long held beliefs. Was it not widely believed for centuries that the world was flat?
The Current Saddle Fit Narrative
The current saddle fit narrative recognizes that all horses backs are different and therefore the best fit requires a certain level of customization best determined by a qualified saddle fitter.
This is certainly a logical approach and almost without exception, high end saddles are fitted by reps to individual horses.
We are the exception. Our view of saddle fit, born of years of committed study and new tools, runs counter to conventional wisdom.
With all the customization available today in saddles, why is it that so many horses still have sore backs?
It would be disingenuous to suggest that equine back pain has been alleviated. The widespread use of multiple pain reducing therapies clearly indicates otherwise. Chiropractors, acupuncturists, body workers and veterinarians are often frustrated by treating recurring back pain induced by saddles.
Has there ever been a thorough investigation of the saddle in its relationship to a horse’s dynamic back posture in motion?
Despite the billions of dollars spent in the horse industry, I am not aware of any saddle study commissioned by any equine organization anywhere in the world at any time with the intent of discerning the true needs of the athletic equine back in motion. At TCPS, this is what we have done for the past 25 years. During this time, we have conducted over 4000 experiments; an average of one every other day, 7 days a week. This is most likely more than have been done in saddle history. Our findings have led us to new truths about what horses need from saddles and to new processes for design and manufacturing.
Motion Model vs Static Model
While it makes sense that, at rest, all horses have different shapes, I would argue that the shape of all horses in correct motion and carriage is strikingly similar. We know this because we are always comparing and contrasting what we see in an individual horse with an ideal that has its roots in basic, natural horse physiology. As the horses’ conformation and means of locomotion have remained the same for millenia, the ideals of a balanced, straight and relaxed horse moving in harmony with its rider are enduring. Perhaps then we've missed the boat, being sidetracked by customization and not engineering and building saddles that appeal to the universal needs of horse physiology in motion.
Our process of understanding "saddle fit"
For the past 25 years we have maintained a group of horses whose sole purpose is to provide feedback on our experiments. Without their input design iterations become "human centric" instead of being "horse centric" and evolve around ease of manufacturing, convenience and cost.
These horses vary in age, size, breed, type and conformation. Most of them found their way to us because of back issues. This makes them ideal subjects as they tend to react more quickly and more noticeably to our experiments.
These horses are carefully managed in order to limit variables. They receive no medications, supplements or therapies of any kind. They are ridden by me in plain snaffles with regular nosebands, no martingales, breastplates or spurs. They are not longed. I ride them on a grass surface in an open field with gently rolling terrain.
I have made all of my judgements regarding saddle fit solely by how well, how completely, and how easily these horses achieve their best athletic movement and carriage with me aboard. With their patience and feedback and our drive to find a better understanding of their needs, we have learned an incredible amount.
Our Findings: A Surprising (But Not Unprecedented) Narrative Emerges
I began my own pursuit of the ultimate saddle fully anticipating the need to develop processes to customize saddles for individual horses. However, over the course of 25 years and the thousands of iterative design changes we have made with our saddle, one bit of data has been 100% consistent and quite surprising: our saddle “testers" have never diverged in their response to any of these changes. Their reactions have been unanimous; either all were positive or all were negative and have varied only by degree. This is a very significant finding.
Again, if we think of the common physiological needs of a horse in correct motion and recognize how much back shape in motion changes from posture at rest, this finding makes sense. Instead of responding to different back shapes with different tree and panel shapes, we have followed their directives and worked tirelessly on perfecting the shape and flex modulus that best meet their needs in motion.
(I say "not unprecedented" because many horsemen have had the experience with a particular saddle they've had during their career that seemed to fit almost every horse they put it on.)