Two Interesting Cases from the Saddle Mortuary

It’s not often that I get asked to take part in a cull, but that’s exactly what happened last week.

The venue was a riding for the disabled center, where elderly, unused saddles were threatening to take over the tack room, forcing out newer, kinder-on-the-horse saddlery. It was time to free the tack room of this tyranny by an older generation of equipment.

After receiving a tip-off that it could get messy, I dressed in old clothes and headed off to the center, ready to do whatever it would take to get those saddles out.

What I found

It wasn’t pretty. More than 20 old saddles, in varying states of decay, were stacked three deep on the saddle racks. They outnumbered the saddles currently in use by at least 3 to 1.

This is what happens when ancient saddles that are well past their sell-by date (often literally – nobody would buy them, even on ebay) are given to RDA centers. People are donating from the kindness of their hearts, but unfortunately, very old and damaged equipment can’t be used.

Destination: the refuse tip

Back to the cull. What I’d been asked to do was sort out the saddles that were damaged or that weren’t horse-friendly by modern standards. (As you’ve probably noticed, saddle design has moved on a lot in recent years, taking in newer understandings of anatomy and biomechanics.)

I sorted the saddles into two piles: suitable for use by the center and unsuitable.

We ended up with three saddles in the suitable pile – these would be fitted to some of the center’s horses. There were 19 in the unsuitable pile.

The latter group shared a number of now-undesirable features that are common to saddles from over 20 years ago: wither-gripping gullets, spine-pinching channels and cheese-wire width panels. What’s more, they showed some sorry signs of ageing: lumpy panels and, horror of horrors, twisted trees.

The next stop for this lot would be the refuse tip. All would first be slashed with a craft knife first, to ensure that nobody else would pick them up and take them home. (Yes, I know people don’t have a lot of money, but most ponies don’t have a lot of backs either. These saddles would damage horses’ backs if used. They had definitely had their day.)

Despite this, the pile was interesting in its varied peculiarities. So, before the haul was shipped out the gate, I took a closer look at two of the saddles.

Tale 1 – A great saddle past its day

Even covered in dust and mildew, the quality of this aged dressage saddle was unmistakable. The leather was still fine. I doubt it was donated because it was unsellable – classic English brands will always sell online, no matter how old  they are.

And yet closer inspection reveals why it’s important not to be blown sideways by the famous name and the still-soft leather.

It’s fairly easy to see what’s happened here. The tree is an English spring tree, made of laminated beechwood. The tree is ‘open’, meaning it isn’t solid right across the seat – this keeps it flexible. The reinforcing comes from fine metal strips along the length of the tree.

With repeated use over many years, the tree has twisted. This is most likely due to continual mounting from the ground, with the rider’s right hand pulling on the cantle. Or, it may simply have twisted due to being stored badly. Who knows? No matter: it would be damaging to a horse’s back now and a repair sadly isn’t viable.

Tale 2 – An Early Flexible Tree

Another saddle from the remaining heap caught my eye. The tree moved as if broken, but apparently this was an early version of a flexible tree jump saddle, around 50 years old. Interesting… you can see for yourself how flexible it was in this 5-second video (2.8 MB) – Flexible seat

My curiosity was certainly pricked and I just had to look at the tree. I hadn’t brought my craft knife, so I grabbed the next best thing – the scissors from the desk drawer – and got stuck in. At least I could remove the panels and pull it apart.

Inside was a surprise.

Unlike saddles that have wooden trees, this saddle had a tree with leather sections right where the rider’s seat would be. In other words, the tree was part-wood, part-leather. How curious – its fundamental structure was compromised by materials that behave in very different ways.

The aim had clearly been to provide the rider with a closer contact jumping experience. But… how? On landing?

The main problem was that the tree only flexed in one place: right at the front of the leather section. The wooden section at the front was obviously rigid, so as soon as the forces reached a weaker area, in the form of the leather sections, it bent dramatically.

And wherever anything bends suddenly, there’s an inevitable pressure point. You can see the crease right across the seat in this photo. The only way it would make any kind of sense would be if the saddle were sat well forward on the scapula, so that the bend occurred in the lowest part of the back, just behind the withers. But again, why?

If you’re interested in a closer look, here’s the saddle once taken apart, being flexed manually. I was doing it one- handed, so forgive the camera movement (14secs, 7.1 MB) – Flex-tree-opened-up

Donating used saddles is still a go, though

Saddle design has changed enormously in the past decade. Newer saddles, particularly the adjustable brands, are incredibly useful to riding charities.

I guess the touchstone is this: Riding for the disabled associations care about their horses’ back health just as much as we do. Let’s donate equipment that we’d be happy to use on our own horses.

Please support your local center.


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