Sunday afternoon found me dragging Arwen into the horsebox for a trip to the stableyard to see the fitter. We had a small triumph when, with the aid of a lunging rein looped around her bottom like you do with a stubborn foal, I managed to load her by myself. It was another small triumph when I also convinced her to stand still in the box, untied, while I closed the breeching bar and then attempted to lift the ramp. This last was an epic fail; I got it about halfway up before turning purple, and it was a miracle that one of the big strong dairy workers turned up when he did.
She travelled moderately well, not awesomely but not at all badly, and I was very relieved when I had a relatively sane horse to unload in front of one of my clients. It would be just like horses for her to act like a lunatic. The fitter had not yet arrived so I just stripped her travelling things off and held her while she grazed and watched the client – an exceptional equine artist, whom we shall call the Second George Stubbs, SGS for short – lunging one of his stallions. My dad went off home, leaving Arwen and me all alone off-site for the first time. Arwen didn’t appear to notice.
The fitter arrived to find a somewhat hyper horse and desperately excited me. I held Arwen, who fidgeted, while the fitter took down her details – age, breed, amount of work, discipline, and so on. Arwen took the opportunity to dig up some arena surface and got yelled at. Really, she is such a well-mannered horse, but of course she would perform like a nervous yearling when there were knowledgeable people around.
The fitter then took out a kind of bendy thing for measuring horses’ backs. She placed it on Arwen’s back and bent it until it fit the contours of her body, then put it on a piece of paper – it held its shape – and used it as a stencil to draw the shape of her back. Three of these measurements were taken, one just behind the scapula, one just above the last rib, and one on top of the horse’s back to take in the shape of the wither.
“Hmm,” she said, as Arwen stomped impatiently. “She’s going to be a complicated fit.”
I kind of expected that, but still heard the sad little tinkle of my bank account emptying at that point.
After that we put my old Solo on Arwen’s back and the fitter found several problems with it; mainly, that the pommel was too low over her withers, and that the panels didn’t come into contact with her back properly. I told her about the saddle’s excessive lifting when we jump, and she said that this was because of the poor balance and lowness of the pommel. She suggested some things she could do to make it fit better but confirmed that the Solo was never going to be quite a perfect fit due to the design of the tree and panelling, which couldn’t be adjusted.
Then the exciting part began. I led Arwie up to the fitter’s van and we started trying on different saddles. I’ll admit that most of them looked more or less the same to me, but the fitter would go “Hmm, not quite” and whisk them away again. All was going well when suddenly one of the resident pot-bellied pigs wandered around the corner. I’m dead used to the pigs, so barely noticed, but poor Arwen had never seen such a creature in her life before. She panicked completely and danced around, snorting loudly and trying to run away while I clung determinedly to her head and prayed that she wouldn’t kick the fitter. This was probably not the time for a desensitisation lesson, so the SGS helpfully removed the pig.
Monster gone, Arwen calmed down after a few minutes and we could get back to work. The fitter had narrowed it down to two choices; a Thorowgood T4 and a beautiful leather Kent and Masters pony jump saddle. I threw a bridle onto my somewhat freaked out horse, prayed that she wasn’t going to throw me in front of everyone, and got on with the Kent and Masters.
Arwen did what she always does. She was dancing like a maniac when I got on, but as soon as my butt hit the saddle, a switch flicked in her head. She settled instantly, put her nose down and got on her mind on the job, as if relieved to have something else to think about. We walked around the little arena for a few laps and although it is quite a scary arena with trees and benches around it, she just had a look and then dismissed it as nothing to worry about.
She rushed a little and poked her nose out when I asked for the trot, but I stayed calm and posted to the rhythm I wanted, so she soon relaxed and matched her stride to my posting. Worrying over, I could focus on the saddle. The first thing I noticed was how wonderfully small it was. Even my beloved Solo is a 17″, and this was a 16.5″. I spend most of my life swimming around in 18″ seats not designed for midgets. As the fitter so aptly put it, “There’s not enough of you for seventeen inches.”
The other thing I noticed was the lovely squishy seat. It was like sitting on a pillow. But most importantly, the saddle didn’t touch her withers and when I asked for a brisk trot-halt transition, it didn’t slip. Arwen, who as usual applied the brakes sharply and braced herself for her load to slip, seemed pleasantly surprised.
I asked for a canter and expected a bit of a buck, especially given her frame of mind after the pig incident, but she was perfect. Instant transition, relaxed canter. She was in working mode and a complete pleasure to ride. A flawless lead change and a few more laps of canter later, I hopped off and we tried the Thorowgood.
I could see that the Thorowgood didn’t sit as flush with her back as the Kent and Masters did, but I loved the way it felt for me to sit on, although it was a hair too small at 16″. Still, I liked them both. Arwen remained awesome and I asked the fitter to set us up a little jump to try out.
I wouldn’t have been awfully surprised if she had given me a stop or two. It was just a cross, about 40cm in the middle, but she doesn’t like crosses; also very brightly painted, which she dislikes, and the arena is small enough that our best turn to the approach is half a 7.5m circle. Luckily she is little and adjustable, so it turned out not to be a problem, and she took me straight to the jump and hopped over without so much as a glance. The saddle felt awesome. I could stay forward with more confidence and my body didn’t slide back. She also felt like she was jumping rounder, lifting her shoulders up instead of jumping flat.
We switched back to the Kent and Masters to jump with it; again, she was perfect. I liked both saddles, especially the Thorowgood’s squishy seat, but could see the Kent and Masters fit her better. We rode over to the fitter, who said that she preferred the fit of the Kent and Masters both on her and on me. Then she told me its price and I nearly fell off.
But, to make a long story short, after consulting with my parents and asking a thousand questions, I went for the Kent and Masters. The Thorowgood would have worked, but the more expensive saddle had a lot of things going for it. It had a greater range of adjustable gullets, it fit the two of us better, and above all, it was leather. I dislike and distrust synthetic as a rule, and while the Thorowgood was very high quality, it just wasn’t leather. Leather improves with use and age. I felt I could count on the Kent and Masters to last beyond Arwen’s working lifetime and into the next horse’s.
While we were deliberating, Arwen got bored of standing in the lunging ring and jumped clear over the 1.40m fence. I’ve seen a few wild horses try to jump out of the ring and none of them have managed it, but the next thing I knew, my little grey horse was trotting off to meet the broodmares. I rescued two large warmblood mares from her before she could kick them and opted to hold her until my dad came to fetch us. “Well,” said the fitter, “at least we’ve established that it can jump.” Indeed we did; she had all of half a stride’s run-up.
She was a bit stressy when we loaded, but got on quite easily, and pawed the floor of the box until we got moving. I was disappointed to find that she sweated the whole way home again and was drenched when we unloaded. Poor girl. I hate it when she travels badly.
This morning, I couldn’t resist taking her for a quick spin in The Wondrous New Saddle just to feel it again. It was so much fun, and she jumped like a pro, though I kept it down to 80cm in case she was tired from yesterday. She is jumping so much rounder and I feel so much more secure.
I don’t think I’m going to regret this.