I am contacted almost everyday from folks that have picked up a pre-owned flexible panel saddle and have trouble their first time out with the saddle.
Sometimes this has to do with fit or functionality of the panels, but most of the time it has to do with placement of the saddle on the horse's back.
Because so many people have requested help with fitting a flexible panel saddle, I decided to dedicate an article to the subject.
Sox vs a Pad or Rug
Rule number one, never use a pad or rug that is over ½ inch thick under any flexible panel saddle. A thicker pad will prevent the panels from functioning.
Rule number two, when using anything other than Sox or Booties on a panel saddle you must tent the entire spine by pulling the pad or rug up into the spine of the saddle, from the front to the rear.
For optimal performance Sox or Booties are the best choice. Since Sox and Booties attach to each panel individually there is never any pad to mess with.
You just saddle up. This will make you the envy of your riding friends as you saddle up in half the time.
Saddle placement is where the first mistakes are made. When you look at a panel saddle you need to ignore the panels.
With a rigid tree saddle you place the front of the saddle bar 2-3 fingers behind the scapula. Think of the point at the swell base on a panel saddle as the front of the bar of a rigid tree saddle. It is from there that you apply that 2-3 finger measurement.
This will cause the panel to overlap the scapula by up to three inches. That is OK, because fingers are cut into the front of the panel that will allow that scapula full freedom of movement.
After placing the saddle, step back and make sure the saddle is level from swell/pommel to cantle. If it is not level, then the placement is off or you may need shims. (There are some extreme exceptions, but those are special cases.)
Cinching or Girthing up
Once the saddle is placed in the right spot and the top is level, it's time to check and adjust the rigging so that the girth or cinch will fall along the heart girth area on that horse.
When adjusting the crossfire rigging, be sure that the tension is the same on both straps that attach to the saddle. If the tension is not even in the rigging straps it will cause an unstable feeling when riding.
Rule number three when cinching/girthing up NEVER use one that has elastic attached to the buckles. Elastic cinches/girths will cause the saddle to ride like a car without shocks because the panels provide the give that the elastic would be providing to a rigid tree saddle.
So how tight do you tighten a saddle like this?
My best description is you tighten like you always have and then just a lil bit more. Basically, you are over tightening a little bit. Once in the saddle, reach down and feel the difference. You'll notice that the cinch or girth is not as tight as it was, that's the flex of the panel.
While saddling this type of saddle is different, it really isn't that different from what you were taught, so don't let it overwhelm you.
As always, if you have any questions never hesitate to contact me!