Image courtesy of Jessa Janes Photography with Paige Freeland
Finding a good saddle fitter can be like searching for Prince Charming only to end up in a pond full of frogs.
You keep hoping the next one will be better than the last but too often you’re left wading in the deep end, trying to figure out how to avoid buying another saddle that doesn’t fit.
Unfortunately, this has been my experience over the years until finally connecting with a highly skilled and expert fitter I trust. And after talking with several riders, it seems I’m not the only one who has kissed a lot of frogs. From getting saddles fitted that are too narrow or too wide for the horse’s back to saddles that put the rider in a less than ideal position while riding, riders face these problems no matter the discipline.
To get an expert perspective on all of this, I decided to reach out to qualified saddle fitter from the Society of Master Saddle Fitters of England and owner of Trilogy Performance Saddlery, Debbie Witty. With 30 years of experience fitting, designing, and developing saddles, some of the top riders in the world rely on her to keep their horses performing their best – including Debbie McDonald, David Marcus, Shannon Peters, and JJ Tate to name a few.
Debbie kindly took the time to chat with me about what she looks for in a saddle fitter, common saddle fit problems, and what brings her joy when working with clients.
Here is our interview.
Q: How did you first get interested in saddle fitting and how did that eventually lead you down the path to Trilogy?
Debbie: I was working at the vet school [Cornell] and I was running their exercise physiology program. My husband and I decided that it was time for us to start a family. I knew I wanted to continue working. So in 1990, I took over a local tack shop and started to learn about saddle fitting from one of the local distributors.
When you sit behind five horses a day, you learn to evaluate and assess every single step they take, where their hips are, what rein they’re on, how they carry their head, how they track with their feet.
I spent some time applying what I already knew about how horses move from driving and developing racehorses to saddle fitting before eventually getting my qualification from the society of master saddlers in England. After purchasing the distributorship for another saddle company and turning around their sales in just two years, I realized I wanted to create my own line of saddles.
Being in the field for so long, I knew what riders liked and didn’t like in a saddle. And, I had a good idea of what saddles and designs I wanted to create.
Debbie Witty, Founder of Trilogy Performance Saddlery
I went to England, met with a number of saddlers, and got the ball rolling. Once we started testing, Trilogy took off like gangbusters. It was really exciting.
Q: What types of problems for both horse and rider do you see most often with ill-fitting saddles?
Debbie: I think more than anything it’s a lack of awareness in general. Most people don’t know how a saddle should fit properly. There are a number of different things that come into play. The most common problem is the saddle sitting cantle low which creates too much pressure in the back of the saddle.
The second most common problem has to do with the saddle sitting too much to one side. That’s caused by the horse’s asymmetry and/or the rider’s asymmetry. When this happens, the saddle can create pain leading to muscle damage and atrophy.
Q: How does the design of a saddle impact fit and adjustability?
Debbie: I noticed most saddles don’t create a good balance point on the horse’s back. You have the curvy tree saddles that tend to rock on a flatter back horse and on the highly engaged horse that lift its back, making it flatter. Even with curvy back horses, their backs can become a little flatter the more they engage.
This means it’s extremely difficult to maintain or even obtain an accurate balance point so the rider can be positioned over the top of their leg.
Q: How have you been able to address these issues with your Trilogy saddles?
Debbie: I designed the saddles with a rear gusset (our standard is three inches) and a front gusset. This creates a system of two wedges that provides the rider with a nice balance point and helps to alleviate spinal trauma in the horse.
And then, of course, we have different shapes for different balance points on horses.
Q: As someone who has been on the wrong end of a terrible saddle adjustment, I know how important it is to work with a really good fitter. What kind of background and training should a fitter have? What do you suggest people look for in a fitter?
Debbie: I like to see someone that’s a good horseman. A good horse horseman can look over the whole horse and see if other things are going on besides saddle fit. Sometimes it’s a lame horse. Sometimes a horse will have problems in its mouth. And sometimes, you’ll come across a horse with chronic back problems like kissing spine.
So you need someone who can help you understand the big picture and where the saddle fits into it. That doesn’t mean we have all the answers. We’re not veterinarians. We’re not farriers or dentists. But, we do need to help with our piece of the puzzle.
I also think it’s critical to work with someone who listens and pays attention to detail. You don’t have to be a tremendous rider to be a good fitter but you do have to understand the locomotion of the horse along with the biomechanics of the horse and the rider. And you have to have the eye to distinguish the levelness in a horse, the levelness in the saddle, the levelness of the rider.
At Trilogy, we do a ton of in-house training with our saddle fitters, including continuing education regularly.
Q: We tend to talk a lot about finding the best fitting saddle for our horses but don’t always focus on what fits us best as the rider. What are some of the considerations riders need to think about when choosing a saddle for themselves?
Debbie: First off, it has to be comfortable for you. You have to find it easy to maintain the proper alignment so you’re not getting any pressure points. It’s just nice and even pressure. You want an easy drape of your leg off from your hip. If you can’t do that, you won’t have a really low center of gravity down around the horse. You’re not going to feel like you’re secure at all.
And then, of course, we find the right tree width and a panel system that actually fits your particular horse. That makes it more stable for the rider as well.
Q: I know for me that having a saddle that puts me in a better position increases how secure I feel on the horse. The right saddle becomes a confidence boost. What has your experience been?
Debbie: It’s not even security as much as effectiveness. Because you’re bolder, your braver.
I remember working with a really anxious and nervous lady who needed a saddle for her horse. She wouldn’t do anything other than walk on him. Every time we would talk that horse would come over to us and stop. The woman wouldn’t do anything about it.
Finally, I said to her, “You know what? You have to get gritty. You have to get tough. You have to tell this horse exactly where you’re going. You can get this horse to walk, trot and canter.”
And then I said, “This saddle is going to help you.”
She rode so much better just because she finally made up her mind that it was okay.
This is the greatest thing. I later got a text from her saying her horse bolted and spun but that she stayed with him. Then she said, “I love my saddle.”
That’s what it’s all about. Her trainer wrote me a note and said that she has figured it out. She has figured out that she can actually ride this horse.
Yeah. You’re exactly right. Once you feel more secure, you do feel more effective and all of a sudden things accelerate and snowball and in a positive way.
Q: What inspires you in your business and your everyday life?
Debbie: Seeing the positive change in the riders and horses feeds my passion. The right saddle can be transformative not only to the person’s riding but also to the well-being of the horse.
I had a recent client tell me that she’s been making progress by leaps and bounds with her horse after getting her new saddle. She feels so much more confident and her horse has become peaceful and happy with the changes.
That’s the reward and what gets me up every morning, solving problems and creating solutions for people and their horses.
If you’re looking for resources on how to determine saddle fit, check out these guides written by Debbie.
Find out more about Debbie and Trilogy Performance Saddlery on her website. Follow Trilogy on Facebook and Instagram.
Full disclosure: I ride both of my horses in Trilogy dressage saddles and highly recommend them. If only Debbie would create a western cutting saddle, I’d have one of those too.
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