Dream Jobs: Saddle Fitter
Sarah Steel uses her equestrian career to help horses and riders perform their best.
by Karen Braschayko
Sarah Steel has been riding since childhood, and she turned her love of equines into a business. As a saddle fitter in Yorkshire, England, she travels the countryside to help horses and their riders find tack that fits them well. Steel gets to meet many horses and horse people as she fixes broken equipment and creates bespoke leatherwork through her company Yorkshire Saddlery Repairs.
Saddle fitter Sarah Steel in her mobile workshop.
Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: What is your background with horses?
Sarah Steel: I have ridden all my life, showing Shetlands from the age of four. I then went on to be the longest active member of the Badsworth Pony Club, for 21 years, participating in many disciplines including dressage, show jumping, eventing, polocrosse, horseball and mounted games. I also hunt regularly with the Badsworth & Bramham Moor Hounds.
In 2001 and 2003 I competed in mounted games in France and Belgium on the England Mounted Games Association (MGA) team. In 2002 I was a member of the winning Great Britain Mounted Games Association (MGAGB) team.
I still compete to this day, and I’m now a county representative for the Nottingham mounted games team. I also teach at Pony Clubs and riding clubs. I enjoy being able to pass on my experiences and encouraging fellow riders to achieve their goals.
Sarah Steel's champion mounted games pony Gizmo.
I ride most mornings. My 32-year-old retired mounted games pony is the one I rode for the Great Britain and England teams. I also have a 14-hand bay mare called Bridie with whom I compete. I love competing, as it is nice to meet up with friends from all over the country and receive the rewards for all those early morning starts in the pouring rain.
Equitrekking: Why did you choose saddle fitting as a career?
Sarah Steel: Having spent all my life around horses and being a very practical person, it has been a natural path to follow. I have always wanted to work with horses, and since I was 16 I wanted to be a saddler. I found that many saddle fitters were unable to mend and adjust saddles. I saw a gap in the market for a saddle fitter who was also able to alter and fix saddles and bridles on-site.
I operate a mobile workshop during the spring and summer months at horse shows across Yorkshire, carrying out on-the-spot repairs and alterations for those who need them. The mobile workshop is also available to equestrian centers, rural events, riding clubs and Pony Clubs.
Sarah Steel travels the countryside to make saddle repairs at horse shows and other equestrian events.
Equitrekking: How did you train to become a saddle fitter?
Sarah Steel: First I did a horse management course at the University of Lincoln. I earned a National Diploma in Horse Management and the honors of Best Practical Student and the Groom of the Year.
Then I moved 300 miles down to Enfield, London, and trained at Capel Manor College. I was trained as a saddler and harness maker. I completed the Cordwainers Diploma in Saddlery there, and I was also awarded the national prize, the Worshipful Company of Loriners Bursary.
My program at Capel Manor College was a two-year course. I did saddle, bridle, harness, box work and lorinery. Lorinery is the metalwork involved in the saddlery and harness making process, such as buckles, stirrups and bits. After I completed my course, I trained as a saddle fitter with a saddler in Walsall.
To build Yorkshire Saddlery Repairs, I was lucky enough to receive a startup grant for rural businesses. This helped me with expenses like advertising, business cards, tools and a website.
Equitrekking: What is a typical day like for you?
Sarah Steel: I start early and travel to yards around the North of England. I saddle fit, reflock and mend broken saddlery. Then I go back to the workshop and make made-to-measure items, gifts and dog collars.
I also make items which are no longer available, such as for historical reenactments. I make bridles, window fasteners for railway carriages, and telescope covers, and I can make most things when needed. I love making things which are no longer available, as it’s not a run-of-the-mill item so it’s truly unique.
Tools and materials for saddle reflocking.
Equitrekking: What are the biggest perks of your job?
Sarah Steel: I love meeting new people and their horses, and I enjoy helping people who are having behavior problems with their horses.
An ill-fitting saddle can tip the rider forward or back and put them in front of or behind the movement, unbalancing the horse. From the horse’s point of view, an ill-fitting saddle can cause pinching, rubbing, coursing sores and can lead to muscle wastage. These actions can cause the horse's stride to become short, and this may result in lower dressage scores or refusals when jumping. It’s rewarding to make that better.
Equitrekking: What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?
Sarah Steel: Every horse is different and has different needs, so my challenge is finding the right saddle for each horse. I want them to be happy, comfortable and more compliable to work. I have to take my time and never be in a rush, as you could miss a problem. It takes patience, and many horses are nervous around strange people.
Equitrekking: What kind of working conditions can a saddle fitter expect?
Sarah Steel: Long hours and all weather. Just last week I did a saddle fitting in a thunder and lightning storm, and I got very wet. But it is a very rewarding job when you see horse and rider achieving their goals and performing to the best of their ability.
Sarah Steel's competitive pony Bridie.
Equitrekking: What have been your most rewarding moments as a saddle fitter?
Sarah Steel: I worked with an ex-racehorse that was rescued from a meat market. He was very thin and had severe muscle wastage all over. Due to a misaligned pelvis, which had not been corrected, he was very one-sided. After a full vet check and once his pelvis was realigned, we started work. Initially, we had to use many different saddles and pads, and we encouraged him to redevelop his muscles. He is now in a traditional English saddle without pads and competing at eventing and endurance rides. He was taken from death’s door and turned back into a healthy, active horse.
I met a horse called Rodney who was a crossbreed, son of with a traditional Welsh Cob and a Trotter. Cobs usually take wide to extra-wide fitting and have a rolling action to their movement, and trotters have a slender build with a more upright movement. Rodney, from the front, looks like a three-wheeler. His front legs are close together and his hind legs are wide behind. We had to find him a saddle which would not roll behind, due to his movement, but would also not restrict his shoulder. It was tricky, but we eventually found one.
Another was a horse called Bear and, unlike his namesake, he was a very sensitive horse. He was developing bumps along his spine and muscle wastage behind his shoulders. Bear has a very high wither and a very wide spine, and this was the problem, as his previous saddle was nipping him along his spine. We fitted him with a high wither saddle and an extra-wide gullet to clear his spine. Then we fitted him with a soft form riser, encouraging him to use his shoulders and redevelop his muscle. He is now developing nicely, and he has no padding under his saddle anymore, just a thin saddle cloth.
Equitrekking: If someone is interested in becoming a saddle fitter, what steps would you recommend taking?
Sarah Steel: Get as much experience as possible, not only as a saddle fitter but in all breeds, all disciplines, all saddle makes and sizes, and equine anatomy.
Then, find a training program. The Society of Master Saddlers is a great place to start in the U.K., but you can find other saddle fitter associations where you live, such as the North American Chapter of Society of Master Saddlers in the U.S. Always look for recommendations from people who’ve taken the course, and ask what the program involves and what qualifications you will gain.
Contact Sarah Steel at www.yorkshiresaddleryrepairs.co.uk.
Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.