Saddle Up for Success with Kerri Gaffney by Nikki Alvin-Smith

Saddle Up for Success with Kerri Gaffney by Nikki Alvin-Smith

As an experienced dressage trainer I have run the gamut of tack and equipment trends and useful tack realities. While like many of you back in the day I rode the horse in the saddle he came with and never questioned what that meant either to his comfort, his job or indeed my own, today it seems we have come to the other end of the spectrum. We have gone from taking it for granted that the tack fit to sincere analysis of every part of tack or riding equipment that touches either horse or human. There are sincerely good reasons for this and a host of clinical studies to back up the claims.

Have you entertained saddle fitting as a career? Do you have any interest in making a difference in the life of every horse and rider for the better? Even if you don’t wish to make saddle fitting part of your life’s work it is certainly an area of tack not to be ignored.

The Merry Band at the Catskill Horse was pleased to sit down with Upstate New York County Saddlery saddle fitter Kerri Gaffney to explore how her career evolved and how much work truly goes into making the match of horse/rider and saddle a good fit.

Here’s some insights Keri generously shared:-

CH: What is the best part of your job working with County Saddlery?

KG: County is a fantastic company to work with, they are all about customer service and a team (rider, trainer, vet, bodyworker, etc.) approach to saddle fitting. The level of customer service is what sold me on being a representative as I strive to have extremely happy customers.

CH: Please detail the different saddle fit points that are important saddle fit checks.

KG: The points of saddle fit that County has us check as a MSA trained fitter are these:-

1. They start with making sure the horse is standing squarely. One foot forward in the front can change the way the shoulders are set making one appear higher than another.
2. The position of the saddle, many people place the saddle too far forward. There is a "sweet spot" that the saddle should sit giving the horse plenty of room for the shoulder to move.
3. We check the angle of the points to be sure they match the angle of the horse's shoulder.
4. Then check that the seat is sitting level, that the pommel to cantle relationship is correct.
5. Check for sufficient pommel clearance, moving on to make sure there is even panel pressure and contact along the entire length.
6. Check the gullet/channel clearance - people often forget this aspect and horses whose spine sits higher than the musculature can be uncomfortable when ridden and asked to turn/bend. If the spine is hitting the panels is can affect how the horse moves.
7. We then check where the seat will put the riders weight - we want the saddle panels to end at or before the 18th vertebrae and the rider to be in front of that. The lumbar area is not meant to support any weight, so it is important to check this.
8. We check the saddle stability - if the saddle is shifting around it could be the wrong size for the horse, it can also be corrected by adjusting wool if it's a matter of an imbalance in musculature on the horse.
9. Check that the saddle is sitting centered on the horse as well. Again this can be adjusted with wool flocking to suit the individual horse.
10. Lastly but almost most importantly is the horse's reaction to the saddle. It's amazing to see them go completely different in a saddle they are 100% comfortable in!

CH: How many models does County offer?

KG: There are currently 7 models of jump/eventing saddles (with interchangeable options), and 4 dressage models (also with some different options).

CH: What made you choose County? Or did they choose you? How did you get into this?

KG: I was "in between" jobs and looking to do something else when I found the ad for the position as Upstate NY representative. I had to go through an interview process that included my review of my resume, references, phone interview, and a Skype interview with Gene Freeze - founder/owner of County. I then went for an intense training in Maryland which is when I was "sold" on being a rep. If I'm being completely honest, I went in with the mindset that I just wanted to learn saddle fitting since I see many sore backs when massaging, and wanted to learn more about the finer details of fitting. I didn't care if I ever sold a saddle, just wanted to be able to offer more insight to massage clients, but County is such a great company and fantastic product that I came back with a whole other mission - to get some lucky horses/riders into these saddles! The funniest part of all this is that I have been in a treeless saddle for about 15 years and never like any treed saddle I sat in. I begrudgingly took a ride in one of the dressage models when I got home from training and was blown away with not only how comfortable it was, but I could actually RIDE my horse in it. He has a terrible canter from his past life, fine on trail, but any finer collected work would make him like riding a pogo stick, and would appear I had never ridden before. In the County Perfection he's balanced and able to canter, and the saddle holds me right where I need to be and still so that he can hold it all together. Lightbulb moment for sure.

CH: Please detail your credentials for both Master Saddler and also for your bodywork business.

KG: I have been a Licensed Veterinary Technician since 1996, I stopped working in animal hospitals about 10 yrs ago. I started working for a veterinary rehab facility at which time I became certified in Equine Rehabilitation. I am certified through the Animal Rehabilitation Institute in FL - I had some amazing instructors during this intense course- one of them being Dr. Hilary Clayton! I am Master Saddler Association trained through County Saddlery- this was also an intense course taught by Gene Freeze and a few of his instructors that have been in the business for 30 plus years. All of my Licensing/certifications require that I do Continuing Education, which I love. At least once a year I attend veterinary conferences to keep up with that CE aspect of it. I am also a book worm and have a whole library of equine rehab reference books that I read to keep the brain working.

CH: What is the most common misconception about the process and/or importance of saddle fitting?

KG: I hear all the time - but we always used to ride horses in whatever saddle we had - why does it matter now. To which I reply, when you know better you do better. The other thing I hear commonly is, "He's always been in a Medium tree." I think Medium sounds neutral to people, while the term Narrow or Wide seems too specialized. I hear quite often that people think the horse needs a hoop tree. This is just nomenclature for a tree that is widened at the top as well as widening the entire tree. It keeps from creating a nutcracker effect when adjustable trees are just spread wider at the bottom and don't account for the top. Can't make a V fit a U.

CH: What can people do if they don’t have the $$ to make a big up front payment?

KG: First: most people have lots of unused tack lying around that they could sell to get some cash. But the best part of County is we offer financing. 0% for 12 months through State Farm, super easy process, I just did it for my own County saddle. There is also a program through County that works a bit differently but is ideal for some people.

CH: Do you/County offer and return programs for people who want to trade in or trade up or simply need to sell the saddle?

KG: We don't do trade ins, I just give people the names of good places to get their saddles sold easily and for the best price they can get. On mew County saddles there is a five year warranty.

CH: Do you offer flocking and fitting of other brands?

KG: I only work on County saddles for a few reasons, mainly time, but also I never got into this to be a full time saddler. I have several people that I send people too for any repairs/flocking of other brands. Part of buying a County is that you have me in the area to work on them exclusively and relatively inexpensively.

CH: What is the best experience you have ever had or positive change you have seen when you have fitted a saddle correctly?

KG: The most instant change I have ever seen was on a horse that had a poorly fit saddle. He had a sore on his withers from it. He had started to bolt after jumps, and refuse to do upward transitions. During the demo session when asked to go from walk to trot he would pin his ears, and then suddenly get this look on his face like, "oh- it doesn't hurt!" By the third saddle he was easily picking up the transition.

Another horse was a client that bought a County used/online, someone had switched the tree from a narrow to a wide unbeknownst to the new buyer. The horse had been bucking people off for a few years before they realized the saddle was the issue. County found the issue with the tree and remedied it for them. Within a month the horse was back to his sweet easy to ride self.

CH: What kind of soundness issues can be caused by an ill-fitting saddle?

KG: Obviously sore backs, but some lesser known issues are hock and stifle problems. If a horse isn't comfortable enough in the saddle to round up and use their backs, they go a bit inverted in the back which causes the pelvis to tilt, and the joints of the stifle and hock can bend and push off the way they are intended too. It's a lot of wear and tear on joints that already do a ton of work. Signs of bad saddle fit can start small, the horse may not like being touched/brushed, ear pinning when the saddle is presented, biting at themselves or you, cold backed, bucking, refusing jumps, bolting after jumps, along with several other issues that people sometimes chalk up to bad behavior.
CH: What about rider size/fit? How does this factor in?

KG: It matters more than most people think. If you are constantly just a little out of balance, falling forward or backwards - first you are working harder than you need to, second, that pressure is put in greater force on one area of the horse's back. Too big of a seat and you grip to keep yourself where you belong in the saddle, too small is just uncomfortable and will effect how you ride as well.

CH: What is the guarantee you offer if someone purchases a saddle and are unhappy with it?

KG: The fit of the saddle is completely guaranteed (assuming the owner goes with the tree that was recommended). If the tree size ends up being wrong somehow we fix that with no cost to the owner.  They also have 15 days upon receipt of a new saddle to return it for any reason if they aren't happy with it. Custom saddles (changed flap length, embroidered, custom piping, etc) are also returnable but the deposit is forfeited. Demo saddles are sold as is, but people have the option of taking those on trial first to be sure they are going to be happy with them. County saddles carry a five year warranty.

CH: How does the brand County compare in the market place, budget wise and also construction wise?

KG: Price wise from what I have seen with comparable brands we are right on point, maybe a little more than some brands, but definitely less than others. Construction wise, the saddles are handmade in England starting with the laminated wood tree. We use the best wool available as well which makes a huge difference as a lot of the synthetic or lesser quality wools bunch/mat up - like having a pebble in your shoe for the horse.

CH: What makes you saddest and happiest when you are out working on horses and fitting saddles?

KG: The happiest I get is watching people try the saddles and the moment they find "the one"! County saddles all sit a bit differently and it depends on the riders’ structure how it will feel to them in each one. Sometimes the very first model they try they fall in love, sometimes they sit in a few models until they find the one that "puts them right where they need to be". It's that exact statement I have heard every time a client finds the one that they love. Saddest is that some people can't justify the expense and will continue to use equipment that is potentially hurting the horse. Horses are so tolerant, some more than others, and will continue to go on despite being in pain. In a correctly fitted, well made saddle they can do so much better. Like one of our slogans says, " You have a better horse than you think, County can prove it"

Editor note: What a great slogan.

CH: How does massage and other therapies fit in to the saddle fit program and vice-versa?

KG: Well massage and rehab are the whole reason I was interested in learning about saddle fitting. The saddle fit can effect so much, even down to a horse recovering their stride better after landing over a jump. But the sore backs that I see and come back to month after month in some cases can be very frustrating- I can massage and "fix them" at the time, and give exercises to help increase core strength and level out imbalances, but if they are sore every time they are ridden it's a vicious cycle.  The horses I have seen that changed saddles when the owner realized something is wrong. I am able to then help them get the horse back to feeling better sooner because of my rehab training.

CH: How long have you been doing this and what would you say to someone wanting to enter the saddle fit business?

KG: Well I have been working with/riding horses for 36 years, I have been an LVT since 1996, I became certified in Equine Rehab in 2010. I joined the County team in April of 2016. The saddle fitting business is steadily growing as people become more aware of the necessity of it. That being said there is plenty of competition out there so you need to go above and beyond with customer service, and your knowledge and continued learning to try and make a career out of it. 

CH: Any upcoming events/saddle fitting clinics/new products or promo pricing you’d like to highlight.

KG: There is a saddle-fitting clinic we are doing in the Syracuse area this month- people can contact me if they would like to find out more about that. I am also always available to come do clinics for clubs/barns, etc. Watch for me at the upcoming area shows- I plan to attend as many as possible and will have demo rides available at certain ones. Also have a few shows that are County sponsored so people competing may win a nice County coat, hat or sheet for their horse!

If you are interested in booking a saddle fit check up with Kerri or are interested in trying a County Saddlery product on your horse please contact Kerri at or telephone her at 585-645-9093.

Kerri is happy to provide references for her work. Here are just a couple of her satisfied customers:-

Linda V.-
When I began my search for a new dressage saddle, I realized two things:  I had to have a variety of saddles to actually try AND I knew I had to have a saddle fit expert.  I found both my requirements when I hired Kerri Gaffney for the job!  She worked tirelessly with me in finding the perfect saddle and the perfect fit.  I love my County dressage saddle and I loved working with Kerri to get that.  Be assured that I’ve passed her name onto my equestrian friends!

Megan B.-
"Thanks to Kerri, I am thrilled with my new County Fusion dressage saddle. Balance is so important for both the horse and rider. During the appointment I was able to sit in each saddle to see which one fit me, and Kerri did an excellent job finding the proper fit for my Thoroughbred. I am also looking forward to working with her on a regular basis to keep up on any necessary adjustments."