Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Shim Sham Shimmy

So you live in the middle of a horse free zone, far far away from a reputable saddler or side saddle expert. Sending your saddle out for adjustments will not only cost you substantial shipping, but valuable riding time. Even then, the saddler will not have the horse handy to measure or study and will have to rely on your photos, descriptions and theories. So what do you do? You improvise!

I come from Saddle Seat Land where we do not pad saddles. The saddles are relatively flat. We like them close to the horse, with foam panels. We show without pads, but at home, to keep them clean, we generally put something glamorous and high tech like a folded bath towel under the saddle. In recent years, the invention of dressage baby pads in stable colors has classed things up in Saddle Seat Saddle Padding Land quite a bit. Finally a pad which fits the straight front edge of our saddles that doesn't come in navaho design or ugly fake fleece, and won't catch the bight of our reins with it's stiff, pointy front corner!

So you can imagine that the idea of all this padding, shimming and layering necessary to make a side saddle fit kind of freaks me out. The more layers you have, the more opportunity for something to go wrong. It's kind of like building a club sandwich. Take out the pick, and something like lettuce or a slice of bacon is likely to shoot out of the middle causing the whole stack to wobble and crash into your pickle.

Side saddle panels are wide for a reason. Not only does it accomodate the width of the rider's seat when her legs are modestly clamped together, it helps to distribute the weight over a larger square footage reducing pressure points on the horse's back. Adding shims or a pad which is smaller than the area of the actual saddle pannels will concentrate that weight over a smaller area, possibly resulting in a sore back for the horse.

Additional padding also makes my horse taller. He's 16.3 hh barefoot. Adding the saddle makes him about 17.2 hh. Any other padding or shims makes matters worse at an exponential rate. It's a long way down. When I'm ready to dismount from this contraption, I'm struck by the distance to the ground. I have to shimmy back to the left, put my hand on his rump, and jump for it. It's about as graceful as attempting to jump out of the hay mow. I may consider investing in a parachute. Or a ladies groom who will catch me and ease my delicate frame to the ground. Yeah right. Even my brave husband who is already familiar with hoisting me wouldn't risk getting between me, a 17.2 hh perch and the ground.

It also raises the center of gravity of the saddle and therefore the rider. But I must say, those side saddles are designed to stay put. The points of the tree come aways down the rib cage. Once the saddle in on, it's not going to move, even with the girth undone. That makes it rather inconvenient to adjust. The large safe on the left side is impossible to see around or under. The saddle is heavy enough and secure enough that it is hard to shift left, right or back. It's also pretty impossible to take it off, and steady it on one hip while you fiddle with pads with your free hand. You're better off putting the saddle back on it's stand and starting all over. So, shimming is a challenge.

For starters, my side saddle is a 22.5". And even though that is still a bit short for my fanny at the moment, it is at least 4 inches longer than your standard All Purpose saddle. That makes it difficult to use a manufactured pad. I've heard that some companies are helpful enough that if you contact them they will make you a special side saddle pad. Alternatively, Saddle Seat saddles come in 22" so the few pads designed for them would be more likely to fit.

Or you can get creative at home. I needed about a half inch rise to my cantle. I found a nice Wintec shim pad on sale which was far far less expensive than a fancy Mattes pad. I tried it under the saddle while at home on the rack, and in order for it line up with the cantle, I had to set it back at least an inch from the front edge. The pad is cleverly designed so that the front thickness is 1/4" and it gets thicker towards the back, with an additional layer added under the cantle. Even so I had my husband work on the pad with his die grinder, beveling the front edge to help it blend into the saddle.

I was pretty pleased with how this improved the saddle fit. I figured I had two choices to make it fit the saddle despite the fact that the spine is not long enough. #1, I could cut it into a lollypop shape and use is strictly as a riser, or #2 I could try to bevel the front edge and blend it in to the saddle. Naturally, once you've done #1, you can't go back and try #2. So we tried beveling it. It raised the saddle through the waist to the point that it also lifted the front a bit and instead of having a tight point in the front right behind his shoulder blade, I could slide my fingers smoothly along the whole front edge even while mounted.

Now, that might also have to do a little with the placement of the saddle. When I saddled him Saturday, my Mom's reaction was "it's too far back". I showed her that I had two finger's width between the front of the saddle, and the edge of his shoulder blade. I don't really think I had that much the time before. So, we'll study this further next time.

Is it the pad, or the placement? You need to be careful not to get a side saddle (any saddle really) too far back and risk sitting on the weaker loin. Somewhere I read what the furthest point back in relation tothe last rib was, but I don't recall where. I'm fortunate to be working with a longer backed breed that can handle a full length saddle, but you still have to be mindful of where you are putting all your weight. Grey isn't fully muscled up over his topline this time of year. It will be interesting to see how his fitness level affects the saddle fit. Each time I will have to palpate his back for sore spots, and watch for tell tale dirty spots on the white pad to indicate pressure points.

So, while we're on the subject of shims, there really aren't a whole lot of commercial options out there. One which looks like a really brilliant idea are these Stick On Shims. I mean why not? That would take a lot of the slip-slide out. And it's a possibility with my side saddle because I have leather covered panels, not linen panels.

The stick on shims are actually an alternative use for this brilliant take on Butt Stikum. Also an alternative to having a saddler glue doeskin onto your leather side saddle seat.

In case all that saddle shimming and butt stikum fails, you shim your butt. In the immortal words of a colorful CoTH personality: "u not need bigger saddle, u need smaller fanny". But if you are happy with the size of your butt, and you think it is a bit asymmetrical, just shim that baby out. Butt Shims

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I will not be adding layers of fake padding to my breeches. You know someone was going to think of it though.


  1. I live in the deepest, darkest, far flung Colony, or New Zealand. Saddlers look at my sidesaddle with complete horror and none would dare touch it, although they might poke it with a stick to see if it will attack them. So I have had to get creative with a rubber bedroll. And I am still trying to source my own flocking irons.

    As for dismounting, I turn, shimmy over and slide down my mare's hind end like she's a kiddy slide. It's probably not dignified but it means I don't have to "jump" and risk collapsing my ankles and she doesn't seem to mind, although I do get a certain "look" when I do it... lol

  2. Best keep your husband and his grinder tuned up, since as Grey muscles up his shimming requirements will change...just one more thing to look forward to! I have a couple of those Wintec correction pads; I like the material and also that they are not too thick. I buy cheap used ones off ebay and hack them up as needed. I also bought a stack of hunter/jumper sized baby pads from Dover. They fit my saddles quite well, even the 22", though they don't quite fit the entire safe. I like them because they don't add any height and they are thin enough to not interfere with my aids.
    I'm from a broad saddle seat background myself and am well aware of the pad phobia. Most ladies starting out sidesaddle are pretty shocked at how far they are actually sitting above their horse's back, but you do get used to it.
    And while the cantle edge of the sidesaddle does sit fairly far back, the primary weight bearing point should be located where the rider's leg crosses the spine, approximately the mid-point of the saddle; this mitigates the length and lumbar contact.
    If you dissect several types of saddles and compare their trees you will find that side saddle and lane fox trees are very similar in length, construction, and contour, more so than hunter/jumper or dressage saddles. I'm referring to modern english sidesaddles, not those built on bars like Steele, Comal, or Tattersall which are all really western saddles no matter what kind of billets or stirrups are used.

  3. Anita... you're too funny!

    Robin, Yup, I was thinking about that whole muscling up thing and thought "maybe that won't be so "intersting". Pr'aps it will be a bloody nightmare". At least he isn't a hundred pounds overweight like he was last winter. His weight has been pretty constant now for awhile.

    I really do like this Wintec material too. One advantage I saw to hacking it into a lollipop was that I would have quarter inch shim material to play with.

    I stopped by the fabric store at lunch time and they have some decent quality quilted material, and I think I might just make myself a side saddle baby pad or two. The baby pads I do have are pretty close to having the cantle sit on the back edging. I might take out a new one that hasn't been washed two dozen times and see if it's any longer.

    I don't notice the saddle height too badly until I swing over and look down. I am glad I am riding a high headed breed. Grey isn't the most upheaded ASB (most days), but I can imagine a really level necked horse would look far far away down there.