I’m been riding for over forty years. Suffice to say I’ve owned a lot of saddles; jumper, dressage and now western. Like all of us horse owners, I’ve had to change saddles in order to get the right fit for my horses: different horse, different saddle. Or a different saddle if the horse’s musculature changed dramatically.

But one constant throughout is that no matter what saddle make or model, invariably I’d eventually find myself leaning left. The saddle would also end up leaning left. Over the years my scoliosis has worsened, and you guessed it, the curvature of my spine makes me lean left. It also caused my right hip to be slightly higher, rotating forward when mounted, making sitting centered in the saddle while riding a challenge. Through the years there have also been various falls from horses that have further damaged my back and other body parts. This is all typical wear and tear we horsemen and women learn to live with.

And while I’ve spent a lot of money and time getting my saddles fitted for my horse and to balance it so that I’m not sitting left, I gave little attention to my saddle pads. I assumed if the saddle fit well, then a basic pad should be all I needed. Anything more was a gimmick. Turns out I couldn’t be more wrong.

This summer I bought myself a gorgeous western trail saddle and had a fitter come look at it on my Dutch Warmblood. The saddle fit was fine. But I was still shifting left and not feeling balanced, even when the saddle was centered. I initially put this down to getting used to sitting deep in the trail saddle, an adjustment from my decades in dressage saddles. But then my coach suggested I use a shim pad. I tried out a friend’s pad and bought and returned several others because it just didn’t help. I read about CoopersRidge and the owner, Derrick Moran, offered up a free fitting to see if he could help.

Derrick watched me ride my horse in the pad I’d been using and asked me to describe my position: seat, lower legs, thighs, back. I told him the truth ‒ I felt unbalanced, leaned left and couldn’t tilt my right hip out. I explained this was an issue that has plagued me my entire riding career. He listened and then got to work.

We tried on three versions of the shim pad until landing on one with a single shim on the left, then double shim on the right, plus front shims on both sides. And it changed everything. My right hip was able to open up, and I was balanced in the center of the saddle. Plus, the shims were amazing shock absorbers, so my back and neck got a reprieve from the impact of my horse’s stride.

Adding to the before-and-after revelation was how my horse’s movement changed. Derrick described my gelding as moving disconnected, like two different horses back to front. That changed with the shims. With the saddle in the right place my horse moved freely and used his back beautifully.

As a rider and a journalist, I wanted to know more about shims and how they work, so I sat down with Derrick and asked him for more details:

HC: Why is a correct-fitting pad so important for horse and rider?

DM: If the pad or saddle don’t fit properly, then it will create issues. For example, if a pad is too short and saddle is on the edge of its seam, then it’s creating a pressure point, like walking with a pebble in your shoe. Our pads are seamless where the saddle is touching the horse.

How does a rider self-evaluate their saddle and pad combination?

Questions you should ask yourself as a rider are: is your saddle dispersing the weight? Is the horse hollowing out or coming up and contracting through the abdominals and pushing up through his back? Is he hollowing away from any pressure points? Do you feel a disconnect back to front of your horse? Is the horse moving freely and dropping his head down? Is he wanting to drop his down, does he want to move forward? Are you getting the movement and performance out of your horse that you feel you should be? Are you feeling sore when you get off your horse? Any pain in your lower back or hips, shoulders, or neck? You shouldn’t be getting sore. If your back is sore, it usually means you’re fighting to get back into the first position. If you’re feeling any of that it probably means your saddle is out of balance.

What is the best method for placing the saddle and pad onto your horse?

You put the saddle on the horse’s back and you make sure the tree points are parallel. You go to the front of the horse and you look back. If the tree points are parallel and symmetrical to the withers and not flaring or pointing out, then you’re starting with a good saddle fit. Next, look at the gullet, making sure there’s a wide symmetrical gullet that goes all the way down, at least 3-4 fingers minimum that come down the saddle. And once you have that in place then we use the slide and stop method. Every pad and every saddle has a stop point. You place your saddle and pad up on the withers, then slide it down and it stops. You can feel that stop point. That’s a very important part of saddle fitting. We tend to put saddles 2-3 fingers farther back from the shoulder to allow the shoulder to have more movement, so it’s not blocking it.

If you re-stuff your saddle, won’t that have the same effect as a shim?

With today’s new saddles, manufacturers are moving away from wool because it’s too expensive to use. Instead most are now made using foam, synthetic wool or felt. You can’t stuff a foam saddle and you have to look towards an under pad to take away that impact and pressure zones because you can’t shim those. To any consumer getting their saddle stuffed, ask the fitter if they are using the exact same wool as the manufacturer, I’ve seen a lot of saddle fits out there that are using different wools that are balling it up and causing pressure points in the horse’s back. You have to watch that they put it in thin strips. A lot of corrective saddling can only go so far because the fitter can only move the wool or flocking less than half centimeter.

What are the benefits of a “shimable” pad?

One reason for using a shimable saddle pad is for the horses themselves; pre- and post-show season I’ve seen horses lose up to 100 lbs. Age is another big factor in how a horse’s shape and fitness changes over time, then there are nutritional and environmental issues, a change of workload or an injury to horse or rider. All of these factors can be address by using shims. Instead of getting your saddle flocked every six months you’re able to get the shims to get you through that season, especially a lot of horses going south or have a big show season, they lose a lot of mass and get leaner.

What is the biggest change you see in a rider using the correct shim?

The three words I like to hear are ‘I feel centred’, ‘I feel balanced’, or ‘I feel even.’ And when a rider looks down at the horse’s shoulder they can see how much more movement there is and the horse stretches out through the back and is coming up through his back more.

Biggest take-away for readers?

Start with a good-fitting saddle, do the slide and stop and put it in proper position which is creating balance for the rider. It’s all about getting the right pad and saddle combo for that rider. Balanced rider, balanced horse.