Fit is Everything - Infinitely Adjustable for Optimal Comfort & Performance!

Changes in the Equestrian Industry

ByJochen Schleese|July 25th, 2017

My sister Angelika Schleese runs our European operations, which – although fairly young – is expanding rapidly. As part of our regular conversations and communications, we here in North America are of course kept abreast of what is going on over there, so that we can align our global strategies for expansion and continued growth. Recently she gave me an update on some statistics that she receives from an organization in Germany she subscribes to, which led me to thinking about how dynamically changes are happening pretty much all through the industry. I will share some of these numbers further on with you, but first I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on how much has changed in the past 30+ years we have been in business here.

When we arrived from Germany in 1986 (when I was honoured to be given the position of Official Saddler to the World Dressage Championships – held for the first time outside of Europe!) we found things much different in North America than what we were used to from back ‘home’. Saddles were treated, for the most part, as commodities – used, abused, replaced when broken, and not really formally ‘fitted’ to either horse or rider – except perhaps with pad after pad after shim. There seemed to be really no one around who could actually fit (or repair!) the saddles properly; beyond the occasional reflocking perhaps (and you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we found in saddle panels!) It was not considered customary to even go out to the horse and do any kind of measurements before buying a saddle. For the most part, you bought a saddle and then tried to make it work. It either fit or it didn’t – and then pads and shims were added to the equation.

I remember one of the first jumping shows we went to at Sunnybrook Park in Toronto – featuring some of the top Canadian riders at the time. I was astonished to see how many keyhole pads, how many rubber pads, how many additional shims were being put under the so-called ‘close contact’ saddles (kind of ironic – as these pads tended to negate the whole concept…) Fit seemed to be a completely secondary consideration.

Before emigrating, I had traded my competitive event horse to a good friend who owned a tack shop in Germany for a starting inventory of 30 saddles – Kieffer, Passier and Stuebbens – but after these were sold, I began to build my own saddles. My first custom order came in 1987, and was the start of a huge and steep learning curve as far as design changes and anatomical fit requirements went. A few years later I began to concentrate on the apparent new demographic in the industry – women – and began working on saddles that accommodated the female anatomy (while making huge inroads on ensuring the horse’s conformation and biomechanics were absolutely taken into consideration).

It is gratifying to see how much has changed now – saddle fitting schools are gaining in importance in both Europe and in North America, and my ultimate goal is still to come to a commonality in the ‘language’ of saddle fit globally. Unfortunately, too much in this industry is still unregulated and it’s still often a case of buyer beware. We are happy to see how many of our former employees have been able to establish themselves in business all over North America – because at the end of the day – it still needs to be all for the good of the horse. Education continues to be a driving force, and even the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK has recognized the need for change in the traditions of its teachings – especially as far as saddle fitting is concerned!

The statistics support what we have long realized is the reality: the demographics in this market indicate that the riding population aged 50+ has grown by 10% in the last 5 years. (Maturing Female Baby Boomers are the largest part of not only our market share, but in general for the equine industry). The one huge positive from this is that this demographic has the most disposable income available – which benefits the equestrian industry as a whole, since the numbers indicate that this is spent on hobbies and sports (mainly golf and riding!)

The one consideration remains as a key topic of interest here – how can we promote the equestrian industry as a whole to the general public (and our riding friends) to ensure that it remains a viable option for funding to stay relevant? I think there is always more opportunity for collaborative and cooperative efforts within the industry; too many businesses and individuals seem to be jealously ‘guarding their territories’ instead of working together to share resources. Just my opinion – yours?

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Hi Amazing Schleese Folks! I started my big, bold Morgan gelding, Sherman, under saddle lightly when he was four years old after two summers of lunging and long-lining. By the time I actually sat myself on his back, he was well-versed in both voice and rein commands, and it appeared that our future was, in the words of Tom Petty wide open.Late in that first under-saddle summer, Sherm experienced a growth spurt, and my beloved favorite saddle was no longer wide enough for his broadening back. I replaced it with a wider version of the same saddle and continued our light ring work through the end of that season. Over the next eight months, however, Sherm continued to grow...and grow...and as he grew, my attempts to keep up with his width led us down a dark path. The wider-enough saddle, I failed to notice, had far exceeded the appropriate length for this short-backed breed. It took far too long to figure out that with every stride, the saddle was bumping him in the loins, and his own free movement was driving it up over his shoulder blades, where the tree points were digging into his sensitive tissues. Being a game, eager-to-please horse, Sherm tried for a long time work in this saddle, but finally at the end of his 5 year old summer, he just stopped, literally. This always-wants-to-be-first, leader-of-the-pack, eager, ready, forward horse literally refused to work under saddle at anything but a walk. Sometimes I could lunge him with the saddle on and get some trot work, but no canter, and often these sessions, which had been so good when he was younger (and wearing a saddle that fit his younger, smaller body), deteriorated into running, bucking, balking sessions that frustrated us both. Clearly, something was not right. Concerned and afraid of causing damage I could not undo, I actually gave up riding for six months. I took time off and seriously looked at changing equestrian careers-- Sherm would be great at driving; maybe I could convince myself that I'd enjoy CDE if that's what it took to keep him happy. It was a disappointing and depressing autumn as I felt I'd lost my partner just when he'd finally gotten mature enough to enjoy. Fortunately, my veterinarian had purchased her first Schleese earlier in the year, and had been so impressed that she posted her personal testimonial on her Facebook page and was talking about the saddle to anyone who was interested in listening. I gave her a call to ask if she was still happy with it after a season's use, and to ask her if she thought perhaps Sherm was a Schleese candidate. With the help of the awesome doc, I tried several Schleeses out of her tack room, saw first-hand the incredible difference that the Schleese size and shape made to Sherman, and was able to find a used one on eBay just before Christmas-- a JES Elite with an upgraded shoulder-relief #2 panel. I rode in it a dozen times before Sherm's official Schleese saddle fitting in February, and even those few rides demonstrated to me that I'd made the right choice. Gone were the fussiness and ear-pinning during tack-up. Gone was the resigned, low-energy response to mounting. Gone was the balking, the inversion, the head tossing, and the running out from under me in the trot (when I could get it). Sherm was again moving forward, being his normal goofy-gelding jolly self, and working for me, despite the intermittent nature of our work (without an indoor arena in upstate NY in winter) and despite both of us being out of shape after six months off. It was starting to feel like I had my boy back again; that alone was wonderful. In February we had our fitting with the ladies from Schleese, who visited us on one of this past winter's many brutally-cold days, and the saddle was evaluated for its appropriateness for both horse and rider. The evaluation was great for Sherm-- just about the only saddle that would fit such a short back-- and acceptable for me (my butt could use a size larger, but we'll have to manage for now). Adjustments were made to fit Sherm exactly, and we were released to get both our butts in gear, firmed up, and slimmed down. More winter misery interrupted a serious return to training for about six weeks, but over the past month, Sherm and I have been back at it, and I cannot rave enthusiastically enough about what an amazing difference this saddle has made. Sherm is happy to work, eager to do what I ask, delighted with himself and his own progress (he is a Morgan, after all). We've returned to some casual ring work, but have spent a great deal of our getting fittime out on cross country and hill-climbing hacks. Over hill and dale, up and down steep grades, across country at all three gaits, through big what was that?! Swooping Morgan spooks, this saddle does not budge-- it doesn't shift side to side; it doesn't ride up his shoulders, not even going down steep hills! It sits right where it's supposed to, all the while giving him the shoulder freedom he needs to stride out comfortably. The level of happiness, cooperation, trust, and pleasure Sherm clearly demonstrates during every ride out just breaks my heart with joy. He is once again the phenomenal go-pony his heritage and his personality shape him to be. Though we've been enjoying every minute of rollicking out there in the wide open spaces, we'll get back to serious dressage work again in a few weeks, having scheduled ourselves for a boot camp weekend with our favorite trainer. None of the joy we're experiencing, nor the fantastic plans we're making, would have been possible without your amazing saddle. Thank you, Schleese, for giving me my boy back again, and for setting us free to love riding together. We're not going to the Olympics, or to Rolex, or to Dressage at Devon. We're regular ammies, out there as often as we can get out there around running a farm and holding down a day job. But Sherm deserves a saddle that fits, and I am thrilled at the benefits of a happy, comfortable horse. We'll continue to keep up with regular fittings, and may one day graduate to a custom Obrigado (drool-drool)! Thanks to you, our future truly is once again, wide open, and we could not be more appreciative.

— Trish Pierce - Elmira, NY

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