For those of you who aren't familiar with Specialized saddles, the basic idea is that the saddle is built on a wide-angle, fixed tree in the western style, but no additional padding is added. Instead, the bottom of the saddle has velcro affixed to the bars and you attach the foam panels and shims (if needed) to customize the fit of the saddle to your horse. The foam panels and shims seem to be made out of a closed cell foam, so there isn't much compression and they are made to retain their thickness and shape even with the weight of the rider.
The Eurolight model is a pretty simple saddle, with a single skirt. The material covering the seat of the saddle is completely detachable and replaceable and Specialized makes seats in a variety of colors and materials (smooth leather, suede, sheepskin), so you can swap out the seats for different seasons/types of rides by unscrewing 4 screws. There is also a trail seat and an endurance seat (the endurance seat has more of a cut-out in the middle - maybe for more air to the horse's back?). The rigging is technically an in-skirt rigging - the billet strap(s) are attached at the bottom/middle of the skirt. The rigging can either be English with double billets or western with a single, wide strap. The stirrups attach directly to the bars of the saddle (which is typical for western-type saddles), but that feature means it is kind of a pain to adjust the stirrups because you have to remove the shims and panels from the saddle bars to adjust the stirrup position. There are additional options for English style stirrup leathers or western style fenders, tooling patterns, and the leather color of the saddle.
|My demo saddle on Nimo|
Anyway, the first thing I did was put the saddle on Nimo's back without a saddle pad and without any of the foam panels attached to the saddle bars. I will note that is not what the Specialized video recommended. Instead, the manufacturer recommends putting the thinnest panels on first and then adjusting from there by first assessing the angle at the shoulder, then assessing the angle at the back of the saddle and finally correcting any bridging, which is a totally logical process. (Note: One of the videos suggests that there should be a quarter inch of space between the bottom of the front of the panel and the horse's back so that there is room for the saddle pad. However, while I admit it's been awhile since my high school physics class, that makes no sense. To get a quarter inch gap between the saddle and the horse on both sides would essentially mean the saddle must be hovering over the horse. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't know how to make a saddle hover...Anyway, I do agree that the saddle pad needs to be taken into account, but a lot of pads actually compress to much less than a quarter of an inch, making their impact on fit negligible, in my opinion.) But I really was curious about how wide the angle of the tree was compared to Nimo's back. What I found is that the angle was pretty close to his conformation without any padding at all.
So my first step was to put the 1/2-inch panels on the saddle and put a white saddle pad on, so I could check for fitting issues based on the dirt marks from Nimo's back. (Some people have to use blue chalk because their horses are clean. I do not have this problem.) Because the saddle was new to us and I wasn't sure how it would fit, I definitely didn't intend to ride him hard enough to generate much sweat, so I wasn't expecting any sweat marks to be that useful. So I tightened the girth and headed out to the arena to mount up.
The very first thing I noticed when I got on was that angels started singing, the sun became beautifully bright, and I was transported to a stunning beach where all my troubles melted away - no wait, that was a feminine hygiene products commercial:) What actually happened wasn't so bad, though - the saddle felt incredibly stable when I got on. I hadn't even realized how much my dressage saddle was moving around, even when using a three-step mounting block, until I got into this saddle. That stability when I mounted translated into a very secure side-to-side feeling when we started moving.
The second thing I noticed is that riding with the wide endurance stirrups is very different than riding with regular English stirrups (even though mine are a little wider than normal and have cheese graters for treads). It wasn't long before my ankles were crying to be set free from confinement and my little toes were beginning to get rubbed. But because those issues were related specifically to the stirrups and not the saddle, I decided to ignore them for the time being.
After walking and trotting around the arena for maybe 15 minutes, I took Nimo out on the trails around the farm. They are very flat, but wind through a nicely forested area. The footing alternates between good and ankle-turning rocks with mud. For whatever reason, Nimo has come to love trotting on these trails as fast as I will let him. I always hold him back a little because I've felt a little insecure in the saddle, especially if he spooks, which he is prone to doing. This time, I really let him move out because the saddle seemed so secure and I felt a lot more confident. And that was when I was able to really test the saddle. After trotting for about 3/4 of a mile at about 12 mph, Nimo came to a screeching halt. THERE WERE LOGS PILED UP NEXT TO THE TRAIL...IN THE FOREST! WHY WOULD THERE BE LOGS IN A FOREST????!!!!! If I had been in my dressage saddle, I absolutely would have flown over his head and landed in those logs. But because the pommel is built up a little in the Eurolight, my thigh caught it on my way off, and provided enough of an obstacle to keep me in the saddle.
At this point, the stability of the saddle and the extra pommel height were making a pretty convincing argument for getting the saddle. But, I didn't need my white saddle pad test to know that the front of the saddle bars were not making good contact with Nimo's back. I could feel that there was something off about the fit, and my saddle pad confirmed it after the ride. So I added some shims to the front of the saddle and planned to ride again the next day, but this time using my Port Lewis Impression Pad that I got from the Reactor Panel company. (Note: Moss Rock Endurance also carries the pad for the same price, but Reactor Panel provides some fitting assistance when you buy the pad from them that Moss Rock doesn't.)
I hadn't used the impression pad before and it turned out to be kind of a pain. It can only be used when the temperature is below 85 degrees (Reactor Panel recommended below 80) and has to be stored in a temperature-controlled environment (i.e., my house). Well, if you are familiar with Virginia in July, you know that it doesn't get much below 85 until late at night. Luckily, we were having a cooler spell and the temperature was 84 when I got out to the barn that night, so I was good to go on a test ride.
The impression pad has two sides that velcro together in the center over the horse's spine (also something I don't really like) and each side has this special dough in it that sort of melts with the horse's body temperature and reveals pressure points caused by a saddle. You are supposed to ride in the saddle for 25-30 minutes at all gaits and then carefully take the saddle off and hold the pad up to the light (or drape it on the windshield of your car). If you see places where the thickness of the dough is significantly thinner or even see through it, those are pressure points. If there aren't any significantly thinner sections of dough, your saddle theoretically fits well, although even the company that makes the pad admits that you need to do more to check for saddle fit than just use this pad. I realized why after I did the test.
My adjustments gave me a very nice impression on the pad, although you'll have to take my word for it, because it was too dark to get a good picture. The issue was that the pad was so thick, I felt that it could have disguised minor fit issues because the dough would sort of smooth them out or even distort the fit of the saddle so much that a pressure point that didn't normally exist would be caused. So I decided to take this initial reading with a grain of salt and I planned to take my horse on a real ride the next day that would be a more typical conditioning ride of about 10 miles.
So my third ride was out at one of my favorite conditioning locations - the Shenandoah River State Park. I like it because the trails are always well-maintained, there are at least a few hikers and other riders out so that if I got into real trouble, someone would eventually find me (there is no cell phone service to call for help), but not so many to be irritating, and the terrain varies from rolling to short, steep climbs. I took Nimo out for a full 10 miles and while I didn't ask for his best effort, we did do quite a bit of climbing and some trotting as well, so I could make sure he worked up a good sweat. What I found after the ride was that there were a couple of narrow, slightly irregular strips of dry areas under the pad under the front half of the saddle. They weren't large areas that caused me great concern, and based on the shape and size, I suspected they might have been areas of mild atrophy caused by my current saddle. Thus, I thought it might actually be a good thing if the saddle didn't put any pressure on those areas, because it might allow them to regenerate a little. On the other hand, it could have been that my shims needed to be adjusted slightly, so I decided to keep an eye on it, but leave the shims alone for the time being.
By this point in my demo process, I was starting to really like the saddle, except for one thing. I was experiencing a sharp, stabbing pain at the very top of the inside of my thigh when I first got on. After riding for a few minutes, the pain would fade, and eventually go away. The first time I noticed it, I was sure that there was some sharp protrusion under the saddle seat, but there wasn't. I eventually came to suspect that the pain was caused by the wider twist on the saddle as compared to my dressage saddle (dressage saddles tend to have more narrow twists). It was at that point I remembered one of the Specialized videos saying that ladies just love the Eurolight because of the seat and I have heard some rumors that women like wider twists. For the record, I have only ever heard men say this and while I can't speak for all women, I can emphatically assert that I do not prefer a wider twist. Just because my body was designed to give birth to a large-headed baby doesn't mean I want to ride for 6 hours with my legs spread out over a wide stool. That said, as I continued to ride in the saddle, my body did adjust to the change in the seat and the sharp pain I felt at the beginning of the ride eventually went away, although I could still tell the saddle felt wider than what I was used to.
The day after my conditioning ride, I took the saddle to my dressage lesson. This may sound strange to people who do not routinely take dressage lessons, but I have found that, on average, my dressage lessons are more difficult than any conditioning rides I do. The conditioning rides usually last longer and for that reason can be a little rough sometimes, but in terms of sheer physical effort, nothing tops a dressage lesson with a competent instructor, in my experience. So I knew that if the saddle worked in the lesson, that was going to be important information for my decision.
Well, my instructor noticed right away how much more stable in the saddle I was and how much my leg and heel position had improved. I do want to point out that part of that stability and position improvement was due to the endurance stirrups and not the saddle. Having a wider base for my foot definitely helped me feel more secure. The lesson went really well except that neither of my little toes had any skin on them after my ride. They were rubbing against the stirrup because the stirrup leathers hadn't really broken in yet and instead of buying moleskin or putting band-aids on my little toes, I just suffered through it. Please don't ask me to explain that because it makes no sense to me...
By this point in the trial, I was really starting to feel comfortable in the saddle and I started to wonder if I even needed to try another saddle. But, I did want to use the full time allotted to me (10 days) to get as much information as I could. So I put the saddle through another probably three rides that week before I made my decision. I played around with the panel thicknesses and shims a bit more and I eventually ended up using the thickest panel (1-inch) with some shimming on the back of the saddle and a shim to correct bridging on one side of the saddle only. The most amazing thing about this process was that I discovered Nimo has some asymmetry in his back that I didn't realize he had. I think that much like when I decided to start trimming Nimo's feet myself and learned that they weren't as perfect as I thought, paying so much attention to fitting the saddle allowed me to see things I just hadn't noticed before.
In the end, I decided to buy the demo saddle. The adjustability afforded by the panel and shim system was just too fantastic to pass up, especially now that I knew about the asymmetry in Nimo's back. The saddle felt so stable on his back and as the stirrup leathers started to break in, I could tell the toe rubbing and ankle soreness would be fading. I loved the light weight of the saddle (12-13 pounds), the ability to switch out the seat to a different material, and all the fabulous d-rings for attaching an assortment of saddle bags, water bottles, sponges, and who knows what else. I also liked the design of the rigging - there was no bulk under my leg and it worked perfectly with a girth I already had, plus I think it added to the stability of the saddle by being placed closer to the middle and at an angle. There were just two things I wanted to change - I really wanted a suede seat instead of smooth leather. (Why would anyone want smooth leather on a saddle seat? It is my opinion that all saddle seats should be suede as long as the objective is to stay in the saddle.) I also really wanted to swap out the conchos for the same design (Horse Shoe Brand) as my bridle has. So I contacted Specialized to see if I could do those things and they said yes. They would ship me a new seat and conchos so I could swap them out and in the meantime, I could keep riding in the saddle, which I thought was a pretty good deal.
This is the point at which I ran into some trouble. It took several weeks to get the seat and conchos. And it turned out that when I got the seat, it was the wrong one. That was partly my fault because when the customer service lady asked me which seat I wanted, I realized I couldn't remember whether the saddle had the trail or endurance seat. (You would think they would have known which saddle they shipped to me, though.) Anyway, when I asked how I would know the difference, the lady said that there would be an opening at the front of the saddle for the endurance seat. It turns out that there is an opening for both seat styles, but it is bigger for the endurance seat. So, I mistakenly ordered the endurance seat when I should have ordered the trail seat. As for the conchos, well, apparently swapping out conchos is a real bitch and I had no idea how to do it. Apparently, even experienced saddlers have trouble getting the existing conchos out because I couldn't find a single YouTube video of the process or anything other than the occasional comment in a forum. I ended up messing around with the darn things over a couple of days and did finally figure out how to swap them, but two conchos still aren't screwed in as tight as they should be because my hands needed a rest from all the twisting. I think I'll eventually be able to get them in, but the process was a bit frustrating. Anyway, now I'm waiting on getting the right suede seat, and while that has been a time-consuming process, it is pretty cool that the manufacturer is letting me keep the original seat until I get one that I like.
To sum up my feelings about the saddle demo process and the saddle itself: The customer service for the demo option was pretty good. I was able to order through the manufacturer's website without a hitch and the saddle they shipped me was a great fit for what I was looking for. It was an almost brand new saddle, with only a couple of very slight marks on the billet straps, so it had probably only been ridden in a couple of times. There was the issue of the wrong girth being sent, but I feel comfortable saying that if that had delayed my ability to test the saddle, the manufacturer would have given me extra time. The other great thing about buying the demo package was that I was able to buy the saddle pad they included for the test ride for a reduced price and I was also able to keep all the shims and panels for a reduced price. Normally, the saddle includes one pair of 3/4-inch panels and a set of 6 shims. I was able to buy the 1/2-inch and 1-inch panels for half price, so I had a full set of panels and shims to work with. I love having the extra panels, so I can play around with the fit if I need to. The information that came with the saddle was also really clear in terms of how to fit the saddle and how the demo process worked (when the saddle needed to be returned, how it should be returned, etc.)
The saddle seems like it is well-made, although the underside probably looks a bit rough if you're used to well-finished saddles. The roughness is really necessary, though, both to keep the weight down and to allow the most adjustability. I did see some comments in forums where people weren't happy with the lack of finishing touches or even the leather quality, but I think the saddle seems durable and well-made. I can't speak for how many years it will last, but my guess is that if it is taken care of, there is no reason why it wouldn't last as many years as you wanted to ride in it. The panels and shims would definitely need to be replaced after a few years of hard use, I would expect, but the prices are pretty reasonable for replacements (I think it's less than $100 for new panels, and maybe $40 for shims) - certainly less than a single reflocking appointment would be in my area. My only complaint about it is that the billet straps are maybe 3 inches shorter than I would prefer. I use the fourth hole from the bottom on each side, and it just fits into a slot on my girth and barely stays tucked in. I guess I could buy another girth that is a little longer, but I really like being able to use the same one for both of my saddles.
I've been riding in the saddle for probably at least 6 weeks now, maybe a little longer, and even my dressage instructor has noticed how much my position in the saddle has improved. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Nimo's canter transitions and the quality of his canter have improved as well. I feel so much more secure in the saddle and I have been able to get my legs under me and connect with Nimo's sides in a way I never could in my old dressage saddle (this is why it was so important to me to have adjustable stirrup positions).
But for those of you who might be disappointed because I haven't written about the other saddles on my short list, you needn't be. It turns out that there is more to my saddle search after all...