Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist Jochen Schleese travels much of the year, teaching his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy all over the world in conjunction with the German National Riding School, United States Dressage Federation, Ontario Equestrian Federation, Professional Trainers Verband in Germany, and at veterinary conferences in Brazil.
“It needs to become more of a habit, beyond constant further education and personal development, that riders, owners, (and trainers, especially), make saddle-fit evaluation as much of a regular event as shoeing and hoof care is,” he writes in his new book SUFFERING IN SILENCE.
Trafalgar Square Books caught up with Jochen on the road, asking him to explain the inspiration behind his book and whether good saddle fit for horse and rider is truly within reach for the “Average Joe” horse owner.
TSB: In your new book SUFFERING IN SILENCE you share a little about your horse Pirat—the book is even dedicated to him. You say that it was poor saddle fit that caused permanent unsoundness and ended his career. How has this impacted your development as a human and a horseman?
JS: What I did unintentionally to my horse has made me very much more conscious about the products that I make and the difference I can personally make in this industry. I don’t want horses to go through what my horse did; obviously, I can’t help every horse because opinions are ingrained (justified or not), and the business of saddle production is traditional and there will be great resistance.
It is interesting to me that some of the seemingly the very logical points that are made in my book SUFFERING IN SILENCE have not ever really been considered before—for example, the difference in male and female anatomy, and the anatomical requirements of the horse. Obviously, some of what I say is going to be controversial, but I want to stimulate awareness and discussion. The saddle-making industry will change (but slowly) if the impetus and request to do so comes from the consumer.
On the personal side, this quest has reconnected me to so many other equine professionals and fed my hunger for continuous knowledge. I have made many new contacts that have stimulated my further development with their research, which helped me to come up with the Saddlefit 4 Life training philosophy as a global network of all equine professionals dedicated to the comfort and protection of the horse against long-term damage.
TSB: Your book title and cover are quite provocative. Can you tell us what you hope they convey to the reader?
JS: Obviously, it is provocative and the cover is visually arresting so hopefully people will be moved to take some time to read it. Long-term damage to the horse and to the rider doesn’t come overnight, and while the repercussions are developing, the horse and rider both “suck it up” and “suffer in silence.” We want the reader to pick up the book and ask the questions, “What is this guy talking about?” and “What is he referring to?” and become curious about the contents.
TSB: What do you see in the future for the modern pursuit of riding and horsemanship? What role should saddle fit ideally play in that future? What role has it played in the development of equestrianism until now?
JS: The topic of saddle fit has very much come to the forefront in the last 20 years or so. When we came over from Germany in 1986, no one went out to barns to measure horses and ensure that their saddles actually fit. Saddles were treated like commodities—used, abused, and if they were broken, there was no one who could fit them or repair them. Buying saddles was a risky proposition—either they fit or they didn’t—and then pad after pad after pad was called into use to help.
We are happy to see that people now are educating themselves as to the options available, the products available, and the fitting services available. There is much more concern that the saddle fit the horse—but it seemingly still hasn’t become a mainstream concern that the saddle also has to fit the rider—that is, be gender appropriate. I speak with many human body workers who treat people with all sorts of back problems and other issues—without realizing that their patients are riders and may have been using equipment that attributed to the injury or illness. They don’t realize that “Are you a rider?” and “What kind of saddle are you riding in?” are valid questions that will assist them in their treatments. Therefore, we are also working to educate body workers as well as actual equestrians.
With a shift in the demographics in riding to more and more females, more and more problems will continue to arise unless everyone in the “circle of influence” around the horse becomes educated and aware of the crucial element of saddle fit. With the rising cost of maintaining a horse, saddle fit plays a critical role in ensuring ongoing back health for both horse and rider.
TSB: You state that the saddle should be customized to fit both the rider and the horse, and it is also true that it should be refit as both rider and horse change in shape, size, and conditioning. Many people will argue that such attention to saddle fit is cost-prohibitive—custom saddles are too expensive and saddle fitting experts charge too much for the “Average Joe” horse owner to make it part of their regular horse-care routine. What alternatives are available for those owners who can’t afford the best saddle or more than one saddle? What are some practical steps most people can afford to take to ensure their horse is not “suffering in silence” due to poor saddle fit?
JS: If the saddle is purchased from the get-go to fit the rider better, many problems can be eliminated, or at least limited. Many refits occur because the rider is unbalanced and uncomfortable, which then causes the saddle fit to the horse to be impacted.
We have done a “Net Present Value” (NPV) calculation and determined that it is actually much more cost effective to buy the right (i.e., fully adjustable to the horse) saddle from the start that can be changed to accommodate the changing conformation of the horse, than to buy a very inexpensive saddle (likely not fitted to the rider) that may work for a year and then has to be exchanged for the next inexpensive saddle. (The NPV calculation states that if you do a side-by-side assessment of what you would spend to adjust vs. buying a new saddle and invest the difference every year for 10 or 15 years, which is the average life of a saddle, you would be financially significantly ahead!)
You wouldn’t drive your car for years without changing the oil or buying new tires. Similarly, we consider saddle-fit assessments and adjustments should be part of the regular maintenance for the ongoing health and optimum performance of the horse!
As a less expensive alternative, I recommend a consultation with an independent saddle ergonomist to find a used adjustable saddle. Consulting with a saddle ergonomist will firstly fit the rider and provide him or her with a saddle that is fully adaptable to the horse(s). Many people make the mistake to buy an inexpensive saddle on their own or through a saddle fitter who doesn’t understand the importance of fitting the rider first, or they end up with a saddle that is really only “adjustable” by changing the flocking. True adjustability means being able to also change tree width and tree angle.
There are good, previously owned, fully adjustable saddles available through various reseller sites that would be excellent alternatives to inexpensive non-adjustable saddles that will likely cause problems down the line.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.
JS: It was in Buenos Aires where I lived for the first seven years of my life. After I saw a gaucho chasing an emu with his bolo and I felt that he was one with the horse, I bugged my parents continuously to let me become a rider. They took me to the local riding school. I was six and it was a day I will never forget. The entire family went, and my little brother was wearing a red sweater. I remember his horse took off with him and all you could see was this red thing bobbing in the distance. I thought it was so cool, and I wanted to do the same thing! (But my parents were freaking out because the horse had bolted.)
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.
JS: That was several years later, once we were back in Germany and we already owned several horses and ponies. As kids, my brother and I did all kinds of crazy stuff with them. We were avid fans of the “Spaghetti Westerns,” especially when the bad guys were run out of town “tarred and feathered” [a common form of public humiliation on the American Frontier] and sitting backward on the horse. I played the bad guy once—I had to roll in the mud and my brother took one of our feather pillows, tore it open, and dumped it over me. I sat backward on our Shetland pony (no saddle, no bridle) …and my brother smacked him on the butt. Our pony took off. Without me.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
JS: I appreciate honesty and loyalty in a friend, someone I know who will stick with me through thick or thin, tell me the truth, and never stab me in the back. I consider my wife my best friend, although I am fortunate to have three men in my life who also meet these criteria.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
JS: Horses have this sixth sense that all animals seem to have. Horses sense whether people are mean or kind. I remember when my wife first learned to ride, she would take my horse Pirat out on a hack all by herself—but I knew he would take care of her (and he did). This massive animal could essentially do whatever he wants with us, but he willingly submits to do what we want if the intention is right. Unfortunately, they also are forced to submit to many cruel owners. I always say that horses cannot consciously misbehave—they merely react.
I think horses bring out the best in us, which makes us better people and humble in their presence.
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback or with a horse that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
JS: I would like to work with riders with disabilities. The joy that horses can bring to them physically, emotionally, and socially, is truly indescribable.
I would also love to play polo or polocrosse for the adrenalin rush.
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
JS: No particular breed comes to mind—other than that the horse has to be big enough to carry me. Probably a Baroque style horse, as they are closest to earlier horses and have the best survival instincts. My book would be a survival guide. (I know that women and men think differently about this question!)
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?
JS: Anything my wife cooks…preferably healthy, nutritious, and filling. I prefer home-cooking to going out because I eat out all the time when I’m on the road!
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect vacation?
JS: Being together with my family. Anywhere. We love to play games and spend time together.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
JS: A couple people come to mind: Michael Jackson, Anthony Robbins, and Xenophon! I guess the latter would be the most interesting as the first author of how to train a horse in 400 BC. With the knowledge I have now I think we could have had a real wisdom exchange.
TSB: What is your motto?
JS: Positive thoughts bring positive results. You are the master of your destiny.
SUFFERING IN SILENCE, the new book by Jochen Schleese, is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
“Many rider errors have their origins in poorly fitted saddles—to either horse or rider. Too many times these issues are simply ignored and that is why I cannot thank Jochen enough for bringing them to our attention in this book, which every rider who loves his horse should own.”
—Walter Zettl, Dressage Coach and Clinician and Author of Dressage in Harmony and The Circle of Trust