Technology has made equestrian pursuits more rider-friendly by giving us the manufactured saddle (also known as a production or factory saddle), a less expensive alternative to the custom saddle. This is welcome news for riders who are not ready to have a saddle hand-crafted to their unique specifications.
Minding Your Dollars and Sense
Money is the biggest issue here, as a custom-made saddle is pricey enough to lie tantalizingly beyond the reach of most of us. Aside from the dollars at stake, there are other considerations that might make it impractical to purchase one. For instance, novice riders may not yet have enough experience to know exactly what they want and need in a saddle. It makes sense for them to hold off on such an investment until they have spent more time on horseback.
The Power of Man and Machine
Equipment and manpower work together to create multiple units of each manufactured saddle, also known as a production or factory saddle. As those names suggest, machines produce the individual parts of the saddles in a factory setting and workers assemble those parts, with each person responsible for a particular phase of the operation.
This mechanized and streamlined process lowers the cost of producing each unit, making manufactured saddles much more affordable than custom-made ones that involve extensive and costly labor. Assembly-line methods also put the manufactured saddle directly into the hands of a customer, who would have to wait two to twelve months for a custom saddle to be built.
The Ups and Downs of Mass Production
Don’t let the assembly-line nature of manufactured saddles lead you to dismiss them automatically as inferior goods. Although industries characterize factory employees as “semi-skilled labor,” workers who spend many hours a day handling only one or two aspects of an operation can become very good at their jobs. You can get the same quality for the saddle on your horse as you’d expect for the car in your garage, and both products come to you via an assembly line.
Unfortunately, these two very different industries have more in common than the methods used to produce their merchandise. Just as there are tremendous differences in quality among the automobiles we drive, there is an enormous range of quality among the saddles we ride. Manufacturers create much of this bewildering diversity by incorporating different standards into one product line. Automakers build several models of cars under a single brand name, and saddlemakers do the same with their saddles.
This diversity caters to the different tastes and incomes of customers, but it poses a challenge for anyone trying to separate the good from the bad. The lowest-priced saddles in a company’s line may look similar to those in its upscale end, but its materials and workmanship are probably poorer.
A change of ownership or even a shift in management can also affect the quality of a company’s goods, so the saddle you buy today may no longer be comparable to one purchased from the same manufacturer a few years ago. For all these reasons, it is never a good idea to base a saddle-purchasing decision solely on brand name.
To make things even more confusing, quality can vary not only from one type of saddle to another but also from one part of a saddle to another. Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that holds true even for a production chain. If the performance of one employee is iffy or the quality of one piece is shoddy, it can affect the finished product. You see evidence of this in automobiles recalled for one defective feature in an otherwise well-built vehicle, and you see it in saddles compromised by faulty stitching in an otherwise well-constructed product.
From Cheap to Steep and Everything in Between
Price is a good indicator of a saddle’s quality, so use it as a starting point for your saddle shopping. Within the huge market of manufactured saddles, you will find an enormous range of choices, from saddles offered for one or two hundred dollars to those costing almost as much as custom-made saddles.
These differences generally reflect a saddle’s relative worth, with the quality going up as the price increases. The possibility of finding a true bargain always exists, but in today’s market you should expect to pay at least $500-600 for a well-made saddle that will see you through many years of service. Saddles that cost less than that generally suffer from inferior materials, sloppy workmanship, or both.
Boosting Your Buying Power
You can secure better quality with fewer dollars by purchasing a used English saddle. There are many legitimate reasons why someone would sell a good saddle, including a waning interest in riding or a changing mode of activity. Don’t overlook this option, as it gives you a chance to ride a better caliber of saddle than you could otherwise afford.
Another way of increasing your purchasing power is to find a custom saddle maker that offers its own versions of production saddles. These saddles include parts produced by machinery but boast superior materials and workmanship. You will pay more for one of these saddles than you would for a standard manufactured one but less than you would for a saddle crafted entirely by hand.
Once you’ve narrowed down your saddle options according to price, you still want to ensure that you are getting the best value for your dollar. The two most important factors to consider when assessing a saddle’s worth are material and workmanship. Pay attention to the following areas in particular:
• Saddle Tree: This is the most important part of a saddle and the one that most reliably predicts how well it will perform. If the tree is weak or broken, nothing else on the saddle will matter and no amount of padding will correct the problem. Follow the steps outlined in “Determine Saddle Tree Soundness” to check the saddle tree’s integrity.
• Leather or Synthetic: Leather should conform to the same standards we hold so dear for our own hides: It should be soft, supple, and free of laws. Don’t’ buy a saddle if its leather feels stiff, cracks easily, curls up, or shows damage. Synthetic saddles should feature high-quality man-made material (such as Equileather) and not cheap plastic that is too lightweight, thin, and easily torn to withstand much use.
• Assembly: Rivets, nails, screws, and stitching should hold the saddle pieces together, not staples and a prayer.
• Hardware: Look for rings, plates, and rigging hardware made of durable and long-lasting substances such as stainless steel or brass, and stay away from cheaper alternatives such as nickel.
• Stitching: Stitching should be closely and evenly spaced. If you notice irregular or broken stitching, the saddle will not hold up well.
• Stirrups: You need to sit in the saddle (whether on a real horse or a hobby horse) and adjust the stirrups as you would when saddling up for a ride. Check how easily you can slip your feet in and out of the stirrups, as this will be an important issue if your horse stumbles or falls.
Exercise Your Options, Literally
Even if the saddle passes all the preliminary checkpoints, you still need to give it a test drive to get a sense of how it feels. You will also need to learn how well it fits your horse, and let’s not forget that maddening metamorphosis that seems to occur shortly after you’ve already paid for a purchase. Just as the shoes that felt so good in the department store can start to pinch the minute you put them on at home, the saddle that seemed so perfect in the tack shop can make its imperfections known after you’ve ridden on it for a while.
To avoid true buyer’s remorse, always ensure that the manufacturer honors a reasonable return policy. You cannot expect to get your money back for a saddle that shows signs of wear and tear, so be sure to use a thick saddle pad to protect it during the return period.
Practice Makes Perfect
Scrutinize, touch, and ride as many saddles as you can, and pay attention to the way that various elements affect their suitability. Once you begin to use your eyes, hands, and buns to explore all the saddles you can find, it won’t be long before you become proficient in discriminating between what works and what doesn’t.
A saddle is a major purchase, and impulse buying is as ill-advised in the saddle shop as it is in the auto dealership. Take the time to choose a saddle that will serve you well for years to come.
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