In the midst of all the holiday excitement, it might be tempting to think about buying a saddle for your horsey loved one. What better gift to find under the tree on Christmas morning than a beautifully crafted saddle exuding that wonderful new-saddle smell?
I hate to be a grinch, but a few words of warning are in order if you see visions of new saddles dancing in your head.
Be advised that one person cannot possibly pick out a saddle for another person. A saddle is a highly individual piece of equipment that simultaneously must fit the needs of two individuals: the horse and the rider.
Saddle trees (the form on which the saddle is built) come in
various widths to accommodate the variations in horses' withers. How wide is the horse who will be wearing this saddle? Does he have high withers or mutton withers?
The saddle has to be fitted to the horse's back so that the rider's weight is well-distributed and does not cause the horse any discomfort. A saddle also must fit a horse so that the saddle does not slip unduly while you are riding. There will be proper clearance in various places on a well-fitting saddle.
A saddle also must fit the rider. If the seat of the saddle is too big, the rider will have no security and will slip around when riding. When the seat is too small the rider's security also suffers because you can't ride deep in the seat when you can't fit in there.
The leg flaps also must fit the rider's leg so that proper contact is maintained with the horse. A too-short flap is an annoyance and one that is too long seriously can interfere with your leg's position and effectiveness.
There is something very important to consider even before you get to the matter of fit, and that is the purpose for which the saddle will be used. Chances are you already know if your favorite rider rides western, English, saddle seat or side-saddle, but within these broad types there are dozens of different styles of saddles.
English saddles, for instance, come in forward seat and balanced seat styles. There are saddles suitable for dressage and those more suited for jumping; there are all-purpose saddles, too. There are deep seats and flat seats; some jumping saddles have virtually no knee rolls and others have thick, suede knee rolls. Does your favorite English rider prefer a cowhide finish or bridle leather?
If you are buying a western saddle, does the rider like lots of tooling? A little? None? Smooth seat or split cowhide seat? What about the stirrup covering? How much silver decoration is too much?
See what I mean? This requires about as much research as building a nuclear reactor. So what is a parent, spouse or loved one to do if you really want to give a new saddle for Christmas?
Take the smart way out and buy a gift certificate. Which brings up another subject: Where do you want to buy that saddle?
The two primary sources for new saddles are local tack shopand mail-order tack shops. Buying a saddle by mail order is very risky, but giving a gift certificate for a mail-order saddle is somewhat less so.
Buying a saddle from a local tack shop cuts down on a great deal of the hassle if the saddle has to be returned, but even here a gift certificate makes a lot of sense.
If the idea of handing over a gift certificate does not seem as exciting as presenting someone with an actual saddle, you might consider buying a toy saddle or cutting saddles out of riding magazines to accompany the piece of paper.
Because tack stores realize the importance of suitability and fit, most allow saddles to be purchased on approval as long as the saddles are returned in new condition. So you might even buy the most gorgeous saddle in the store and park it under the tree on Christmas morning. Just make sure that the recipient understands that it is a symbol and may have to be returned.
If you and your favorite rider do not have much experience in evaluating saddles, you also might consider giving a gift certificate for a professional saddle fitting.
This, in fact, is a great idea even for someone who has a favorite saddle. Saddles -- and horses and riders -- change shape and size over time and every couple of years a professional should re-evaluate the saddle's fit and condition. It may be that panels need to be restuffed to ensure the proper fit.
There is another saddle-related gift that makes a great stocking stuffer, whether or not a saddle accompanies it. There is a product on the market that consists of moist towelettes, impregnated with a leather cleaner and conditioner, that come in a pop-out dispenser. I tried some over the summer and they were great.
Don't forget that it will be regular cleaning and conditioning that keeps that new Christmas saddle in tip-top shape. Anything that makes this chore easier always will be a welcome gift.
Calendar of events
Tuesday -- Bill Lower Driving Clinic. Hunter's Creek Farm, Mount Airy. (301) 570-0099.
Jan. 8 -- Winter Dressage Schooling Shows. Evergreen Stables, Fulton. (301) 317-3342.
Jan. 14-16 -- Winter Show Series. Hunter's Creek Farm, Mount Airy. (301) 854-6865.
Jan. 15-16 -- Karen Lende Clinic. Maple Spring Farm, Glenwood. (410) 442-2295.