Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Watching a top horse and rider at the top of their game is always a breathtaking experience. The partnership, athleticism, strategy and practiced execution of seemingly impossible feats manifesting before your eyes is artful and powerful. Every detail must be attended to, analyzed and executed. From the moment the horse softly steps into the ring, the synchronized efforts of a team produce what every spectator is hoping for, a spectacular, winning ride.
For a rider, there is no better feeling than when all the pieces flow together. “When the horse you ride is right there with you, mind, body and spirit, it’s a rush like no other” says Olympic Gold Medalist Will Simpson. “Sometimes it takes you by surprise, other times, you gotta fight for it. But when a horse works with you, wants it as bad as you do, well…What a Hoss!” smiles the seasoned showjumping legend.
Simpson is the first to applaud his whole team, from his grooms to his sponsors in making sure he and his horses are ready to compete. “Everyone works hard to make this happen, and nothing works harder than good equipment. Equipment is key, the right equipment, FITTED CORRECTLY, allows me and my horse to perform at our best.”
Perhaps the most obvious piece of equipment on a horse, the saddle can make or break a ride. More often than not, the saddle is detrimental if poorly designed and ill fitted, and is overlooked by many riders, simply due to a lack of education on what really makes a saddle comfortable for a horse. “Many riders ride what feels good to them, and they pad up or down depending on the horse they are riding. Riders have ‘their saddle’, but few horses have a saddle they can say feels just as good to them. Back soreness due to poor saddle fit is a huge issue in the show ring, from World level on down..” says Dr. Steve Engle, former US Team Veterinarian. “One of the most common things we see watching a horse in a saddle that does not fit is behavior while competing that is written off as a training issue or attitude, like rushing fences, swapping leads or bucking on the landing side. More often than not, horses are expressing discomfort and pain, and many times it is due to saddle pain.”
Dr. Steve Engle teaching a group of County Saddle reps during the MSA certification. An advocate of County saddles, Dr. Engle has watched horses transform from un-rideable to adding years and earnings to their competition careers. Married to Olympian Margie Goldstein Engle, he recalls a particular horse they had horrible pain issues with. “Alvaretto was a Grand Prix horse, 15.2 at the wither, but about 14 hands in the middle of his back. So swaybacked you would never believe he could jump at all, but being all heart, the horse produced a massive, tremendous jump. Plagued with horrible back pain, he would be almost evil when having his back examined. Kicking and biting, he made it clear he did not want his back touched. There was simply no saddle we had tried that worked for this horse.”
Dr. Steve Engle teaching a group of County Saddle reps during the MSA certification.
During this time, Margie won a County custom fit saddle while competing on another horse, and Steve (Dr. Engle) suggested they have their win fitted to Alvaretto. Gene Freeze, the owner of County Saddlery was contacted, and Freeze created a saddle for this horse that changed his life. Dr. Engle recalls the change in the horse: “Over the next few weeks and months, Alvaretto’s back changed at least 2 inches in height as he was able to now lift his back and his back pain dissipated dramatically. He went on to compete in seven World Cup events with my wife Margie. He retired sound and solid legged, although still swaybacked as hell..” he laughs. “The relationship my wife Margie and I have with County saddlery began with that horse, and it continues to this very day”. Margie has ridden in County ever since, and counts a huge part of her success to the County saddles her horses use. Her recent horse, 2018 Horse of the Year ‘Royce’ is another testament to the comfort of a well fitted County saddle.
Margie and Alvaretto Will Simpson has experienced this firsthand, while competing his famous mount, The Dude. It is what led him to switching to his current saddle sponsor, COUNTY SADDLERY. Ingrid Brown, MSA certified saddle fitter and Showjumper herself, reflects on the day Simpson first sat in a County saddle on The Dude.
“I had heard a lot about The Dude, he was a crowd favorite and I had seen him compete before. He was known not only for being a fast horse, but also one to buck and play wildly about on course, adding to the entertainment. My husband (Isauro Flores) and I were stabled next to Will, and when The Dude walked by, Isauro, a professional rider and extreme horse advocate, noted the difficult saddle fit conformation of the horse, and suggested to Simpson he try a County Saddle, which he rode on a mare with a similar back. I suddenly found I had lost my ‘rider hat’, and was compelled to put on my ‘saddle fitter hat’. After working with The Dude and determining what would be the optimum fitting saddle, Will took the horse for a flat session. Impressed by the difference in the horse, Simpson asked if he could try jumping in the saddle. I had no idea he meant in the CS104* Nations Welcome.” Simpson later quipped: “That is something you never used to be able to do, just climb on a new saddle you never tried and get around well in a big class. I LOVE that about County.”
Ingrid nervously tried not to pace as she waited for The Dude to enter the ring. Simpson had carefully walked his course according to his horse’s idiosyncrasies, and was ready. She recalls the experience: “ I can’t say I remember the exact course design, but the moment seared into my memory is The Dude coming through a vertical oxer one stride, and scoping over the oxer to then land calmly and carry on down a bending line to a tall vertical, only to have one rail. 4 faults. I felt my heart drop into my stomach. I felt like those 4 faults were mine, as changing saddles before such a prestigious class was unheard of. I watched Will deep in thought sitting at the back gate and plucked up the courage to approach him. He was obviously disappointed, but seemed also perplexed. He expressed to me how he had expected and panned for The Dude to land from the massive oxer, buck, drift and perhaps buck some more…and had walked the course over and over anticipating what he knew this horse to always do. Instead the horse had landed in balance and quietly cantered on down the vertical and the distance Will had planned for disappeared. Will saw it for what it was, the horse was comfortable, and it changed the ride. He didn’t suck back, he didn’t buck, but landed in balance and recovered his stride so well the vertical came up faster than expected. Simpson asked if he could ride the saddle again, this time in the Friends of TBird Grand Prix. This time, I was ready for the butterflies. Watching Will Simpson and The Dude in that jump off was thrilling, and his victorious win so very sweet!”
Will and The Dude
County Saddlery is represented in Southern and Central California by Tamara Solange, a Master Saddle Association certified saddle fitter whose experience as a trainer and rider for decades enables her to truly meet the needs of her clients and their horses. Solange has enjoyed countless moments watching horses transform during a saddle fitting or saddle trial. “The west coast is slow to the party”, she laughs, “County is a HUGE name in Europe and on the East Coast, and it is fun watching the tide turn on my home turf. I expect great things in the next year, and cannot wait to see it unfold. I am ecstatic to be part of the County team.”