My first saddle was a thoroughbred exercise saddle. Not exactly the most comfortable and barely had space for my knee much less a knee roll. But it was light and little pig-tailed, standing on her tippie-toes Ashley was able to hoist it over the side of a horse, so I was elated.
When I started riding competitively, my very first trainer, Bobby Vanous took pity on my little body perpetually propelled out of the tack, and gave me one of her old Butets. I rode in that Butet up until my move to Portland, where the desire to ride professionally inspired me to spend the money on necessary tools. Everyone in my barn rode in (insert expensive French saddle here) and my boss was quick to suggest that I do the same. The rep came out, had me ride in a few saddles and a few months later I had beautiful new saddle that supposedly had panels to fit a variety of horses.
I thought I was happy enough. My saddle was beautiful and the leather was so delectably soft. I have always been a bit of an under-rider, more comfortable in the soft half-seat so I thought my inability to sit in the tack was simply my bad habits resurfacing. I could barely sit the canter, it always felt jarring, like I was constantly fighting to keep my seat-bones underneath me. I worked a lot without stirrups and eventually got more solid but I always felt like I was forcing myself to sit; forcing and stiffening my spine and thus stiffening against the horse.
The saddle didn't end up fitting a lot of the horses the way I would like, I ended up spending thousands of dollars on every kind of half-pad in order to accommodate the barn full of withers, shoulders and spines. With all this excess padding, I lamented a feeling of disconnection between myself and the horse. I felt like I was always hovering above the horse instead of down and around where one can really feel the horse move.
I started my own business a few years later and cringed as riders would borrow my saddle and (gasp) leave sweaty girths on the seat. I kept my eye out for a lesson saddle but nothing looked appealing until a perusal through Gallop's, where an old Tad Coffin piqued my interest. For a 12 year old saddle, the leather was in good condition, the billets looked pretty intact and the thigh and knee-rolls were pretty minimal. Everything one could want in a beginner saddle. My parents had a Tad Coffin exercise saddle and in hindsight my interest was primarily nostalgic because it didn't look or feel anything like the french saddles I had acclimated myself to.
I took it on trial and I planned on having my kids ride in it- goodness knows, why would I forsake my buttery soft french friend for this 12 year old, grain saddle. The week went by and kids rode in it but I planned on having a trial on my lesson pony before I bought it. I can't remember why I didn't ride little Bandita that day but some how this old, hard-looking saddle made it on to my jumper. And the very moment, I threw it over her wither, she thanked me for it. Primarily, it is vastly lighter then any other saddle I have recently ridden in. The lack of extraneous panel padding, seat padding, takes pounds off the horses back and gives the ultimate feeling of close-contact. Zisel walked and I could feel every ripple of her shoulders, every footfall of the hind as her pelvis rotated her rump up and forward. She walked in a way that I had not yet felt her walking, she was happily forward and active (and if you know mrs. diva, this is not an activity up until this moment she had taken too kindly). This engagement continued throughout all of our work and never, up until that moment had I felt this centaur-like connection with a horse. I loved it but with the sparse thigh and knee blocks and the uber flat seat and pommel I was wondering how in the heck I could possibly jump in it.
Again, Mrs. Diva is the ultimate test. When I say she has a superb hind-end I'm not kidding- she kicks and I mean double barrel kicks up and over the standards at almost all jumps. How I managed to stay with her in my carbon seat-belt is besides me but I really thought the Tad would make it impossible to stick with her much less stay on her. Here again, the 12 year old tad defied all expectations. When I needed to sit, I could sit; when I needed to be soft, I could get out and be soft and never for a moment did I get ahead or behind her motion jumping. She jumped every jump with incredible ease and the Tad gave me confidence to jump faster, higher and much, much wider.