Hi, I’m Al Hicks this is the story ABOUT saddle building and EASY FIT SADDLES.
When I met my wife Sue, almost 40 years ago, I had had very little experience riding horses. I grew up around my grandparents who had lived through the horse and plow era on the farm and there was no way a hay-burning horse was going to take up residence there. But when Sue came along and she had horses, I had to learn quickly! Trail riding was the passion of her and her family. Nobody ever took or gave a riding lesson other than, “pull right to go right, pull left to go left, pull to stop”. Thankfully they had forgiving horses that took care of me. Sue’s uncle organized a “guys ride” for a week every year. It was great but when we went for a swim at the end of the day I was surprised that they too had blistered knees and butts from the “great” day-long rides we did, day after day. I look back now and wonder how the horses felt.
Several years on, Sue and I were married, had 2 young daughters and an acreage big enough for a few horses. At ages 5 and 6 the girls started in Pony Club and so started our real education in the art of horseback riding. We all started going to riding lessons. And we drove the girls to Pony club events. And we kept trail riding.
We had a friend down the road who played polocrosse; he invited us to come to try it. I was immediately hooked. To me, it felt like hockey on horseback! Now, this was really a reason to improve my riding skills. The best part though was that it was a sport my family could take part in together. But this is also where my interest in building a saddle really started. To take part in polocrosse you cannot have a horn on your saddle. Serious polocrosse players use an Australian stock saddle. Where do you get a good Australian stock saddle that will fit a North American (cool climate) horse?
Most good stock saddles are built in warm climates and fit a narrower type of horse than you typically find here. Even when we changed from riding quarter horses and got thoroughbreds we just didn’t get a good fit. The more serious we got about our sport and the more we rode, the more we saw problems like white spots on the withers, wither pockets, sore backs and people with sore backs and hips and knees.
I should just say here that we got really serious about polocrosse. We had a polocrosse field on our property and rode almost daily, often riding more than one horse, practicing our skills and training horses; we always had a few new ones on the go. As a family, we travelled and competed in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Texas and Florida. Sometimes we trailered our horses and sometimes we rode borrowed horses. We went to Australia and competed in several tournaments, including the World Cup, where we came dead last, but we were there! We went to France and competed with several European countries and won. Our daughter competed with a US junior team in South Africa. We were into it.
I love to delve into things, reading everything I can find on a subject, taking things apart and seeing how they work, how they can be improved. Saddles and saddle fit became my new passion. I got to know a local, well-respected saddle maker who eventually moved his saddle-making business into my shop. Together we discussed saddle building techniques and materials, saddle fit, took saddles apart, rebuilt them and discussed how we could improve saddles.
Through my reading, I came across an article from Deb Bennett, “Who’s Built Best to Ride?”. This article describes anatomical differences between men and women and how that affects their position and balance when riding. When my wife Sue read it she was hooked on the idea of making a saddle for women, not just for her but also for the other 85% of riders in Canada who are women. We knew that a narrow saddle twist was a key component, but not the total solution. Female versus male pelvic structure was analyzed and Sue rode in a multitude of saddle seats in search of the ultimate seat. Of course, not all women are built the same nor do they all like the exact same feel, so I started with a seat that was contoured to accommodate both a male and female pelvis. Then I developed a shimming system that individuals could customize to their own preference. Add to that the adjustable stirrup placement and now we have a saddle that individuals can customize for themselves to achieve the most balanced and comfortable ride.
A large part of my time was spent developing a method for measuring a horse’s back. This is an ongoing quest as a horse’s back is a very complex set of angles and moving parts. I believe I have read and studied every saddler’s methodology for measuring horses. I have taken courses including one with Master Saddler Sue Dyson. I have tried numerous methods on our own horses who continue to stand patiently while I mark their backs with chalk pens, place measuring devices on them, feel, poke and prod and try and make those numbers into something measurable. I am still a big fan of Denis Lane’s measuring system. I felt that I had to expand on it as his card system could not accommodate some of our large cold-weather horses here. Nor could they accommodate the heavy horses that many people now ride. Just an interesting side note, one day I measured a Clydesdale and a quarter horse one after the other and they measured the same, but by no means does that indicate that all horses are built the same!
Tree design and construction were other big components of the saddles. I worked with another experienced saddle maker and we developed a polymer tree based on his previous work with polymers. I wanted something lightweight that could be shaped to individual horse’s measurements. It was a lot of trial and error, mixing various percentages of components, incorporating a variety of strengthening materials and then testing the trees to find a material that with screw hold qualities equal to wood. Over and over. I continue to look at and test new materials and refine the design. I also looked at old ideas: Cable rigging, patented by Hamley saddles at the turn of the last century, failed to work with wood and rawhide trees of the day but is now easily embedded into the polymer tree. Single strap stirrups, also patented by Hambly over 100 years ago, reduce the bulk under the leg, eliminate the need for the cut-out in the tree bars for stirrup leathers, and allow for the forward and backward adjustment of the stirrups. Innovative thought, modern materials and incorporation of some old ideas long forgotten, allowed us to create a truly unique saddle tree.
The National Research Council recognized Easy Fit Saddles was on to something innovative and has supported me by providing grant money. With these funds, I can afford to continue to strive for improvement by exploring new ideas and materials. Additionally, the market has confirmed that I am on the right track, giving positive feedback, and backing it up with saddle sales. The quest for the “ultimate saddle” is ongoing and my dream of building good, quality saddles that are comfortable for men, women and horses, will continue.