Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trying the Pandora Saddle

Ever since I heard of Pandora saddles, I've been intrigued.  They're made of carbon fiber and weigh four pounds (before girth and stirrups, but still!).  They're nearly indestructible.  And they can be painted any virtually any color or pattern (seriously, their online gallery shows diamond checkerboard, racing stripes, glow in the dark, ombre, and many more options!), so that's an extra bonus over the boring colors of leather that are available (at least on most endurance saddles--there are some incredibly colorful saddles out there in the world).

So, since I board at Shar's house and we could therefore split the cost of the trial saddle (currently just the cost of shipping one or both ways, depending on whether they can set up a chain of people or not, but they may be changing to requiring an additional deposit soon), it seemed like it'd be worth it to check it out.  And it arrived!

Of course Shar got to try it out first, as I was stuck at work and in fact had other obligations so couldn't make it out there even after work on the day it arrived, so had to wait an extra day.  But Shar tried it on Flash, and even rode him around the block in it (even though he should be resting due to his shoulder, but she couldn't pass up a chance to take it on a real ride).  It took a little bit of fiddling for her to adjust the pads (there are pads made of memory-foam-like material that velcro to the saddle, and in addition to being able to shape the shims on a saddle you own if you want a perfect fit, they can be moved around (front to back, or farther apart or closer together) on the velcro to help change the fit from horse to horse.  After Shar rode Flash in it, her other boarder Holly showed up, so they tried it on the two horses she owns, including her endurance horse.  They didn't even bother with a girth on Ace--she mounted and rode without a girth at all!  They had to adjust the pads a bit between the various horses due to their different builds, but between the two of them, they felt like the saddle fit all three horses pretty darn well.

When I got there, I figured the TRUE test would be to see if it fit Arya.  She's been really hard to fit a traditional saddle to, because in addition to her being big all over (part draft), she's got wide shoulders.  Some horses' shoulder blades slide back and forth really close to their body, other horses (including Arya) have shoulder blades that kind of "wing out" when moving forward and back.  Plus they're just wide even when she's standing still.  So even though her back itself isn't SUPER wide (not as wide as a full draft anyway), her shoulders require a very wide tree in order not to pinch.

So when I got to Shar's I practically made a beeline for the saddle.  I knew they were light, but it was still lighter than I expected.  Wow!  I put it on Arya's back without any sort of saddle pad.  Not quite right, so I adjusted the pads a bit.  It still seemed to have a tiny bit more rock (curve like the base of a rocking chair, front to back along her spine) than her back does, but it was still amazing how well it fit.  Plus the pads are memory foam, so will compress a bit in the places it needs to to help the fit.  Shar came out and we played with the fit a little bit more, then she loaned me a thin felt pad (you're not supposed to use anything very thick under these saddles, since the pads that are velcroed to the saddle are cushy enough to act as a saddle pad as well, so you just need something to help with sweat and provide a barrier between the foam and the horse's back.  So we put the pad on, then the saddle, then the girth, and bridle, then I had to put on my gear, and then it was time to mount up.

Shar asked if I wanted her to take video of me mounting.  Uh, no.  Me mounting up is awkward on a good day, even in my own saddle.  This one has much less substance in the front for me to brace my hand on, so it was, indeed, rather un-graceful.  And at first, it felt kind of awkward--the stirrups are hanging from English-style leathers, so they're VERY moveable, and not nearly as stable as the fenders (WIDE leather) on my current saddle.  Plus the saddle is small in front (though the pommel is high) and it doesn't have any saddle bags on it like my saddle does, so it really felt insubstantial at first.  So the first few steps at the walk, I was a bit nervous, but I quickly felt how secure the seat of the saddle is (it's really high in front and in back), so knew I wasn't going anywhere front to back, and even sideways wasn't as insecure as I initially felt once I got used to it.

We went around the arena a couple times one direction, then a couple times the other.  One problem was that my protective vest is long in the back for protection, and the saddle has a high cantle in the back, so the vest kept catching on the saddle, which was annoying, but ultimately not an actual PROBLEM, per se.  However, it doesn't really do that in my current saddle.  The other big negative with the current setup was that the stirrup leathers are only an inch wide, plus they have zip ties on them to keep the end of the strap under control, so they were HIGHLY uncomfortable.  They'd need fleece covers, or I'd have to wear leg protection to ride very far in the saddle as it's currently set up, or if I bought one I'd probably want fenders instead of the thin stirrup leathers.

But the seat itself, even though it's hard (carbon fiber, painted, no padding at all, though you can add after-market padding in the form of sheepskin or even memory foam if you wanted) is actually quite comfortable.  Of course, I didn't ride far, but people who HAVE ridden far report that they're comfortable, and after my brief ride, I don't find that too hard to believe.  It has a big hole in the front of the seat, which is probably more comfortable for men, but also provides airflow.  It's funny, though, Shar asked how much space there was for Arya's spine under the saddle (you don't want the center of the saddle sitting directly on the horse's spine, but rather the side panels sitting on the muscles, with clearance for the spine in between), and so I reached under the front of the saddle toward the back to feel for space, and was like, "whoa--that's my crotch!"  I'm not use to there not being saddle there!  But I didn't actually notice the hole while riding, so either it's of neutral or positive comfort.

One thing, that's probably specific to ME, is that I tend to suck my legs backward while riding.  It's something Celena noticed when I asked for her help with my hip pain, and she had me not only move the attachment point of my stirrups forward on my saddle, but also work on keeping me FEET forward toward the horse's shoulder.  What feels like a "chair seat" to me is actually a correct seat, and when I feel correct, my feet are too far back.  Shar said she actually noticed when riding in the Pandora that she had to work at first to keep her feet in the correct position, and she warned me that I'd likely have the same trouble if not more so.  Sure enough, I had to consciously push my feet forward in order to have them in the proper position.  But due to the thinner stirrup leathers, it was much easier to put them there and even keep them there with this saddle than with mine.

After a few times around the arena at the walk, I was brave enough to trot, and while Shar said it took her a bit at the trot to find the proper position, I instantly felt comfortable, so that's good.  Of course, we didn't trot much, and it wasn't a very big trot (I stayed in the arena, but Shar took Flash out and around the block).  I didn't try cantering at all--it takes a very specific set of circumstances for me to be okay with cantering on the road/trail, and we're not ready at all to canter in the arena, especially a smallish one.

So then it was time to dismount.  My saddle has "bucking rolls" to the sides of the pommel, and that's where I put my hand to push off to stand in the stirrups and throw my right leg up and over.  This saddle has a high pommel (i.e. "oh sh__ handle), but absolutely nothing next to it.  It just drops off and disappears.  Heh.  So it took me a few minutes to find a way to brace myself and swing my leg over.  Sheesh, I'm so awkward.

Neither Shar nor I are expect saddle fitters, but it sure seemed to fit a variety of horses she has on her property.  It probably wouldn't fit an uber-wide horse like a full-blooded draft, or a mule with no rock to their back at all, but especially if one were able to add or carve a little from their own pads instead of leaving the existing pads as is, they'd probably be able to fit just about any horse.  And if one had multiple horses with fairly normal-ish backs, they'd be able to fit multiple horses with just one saddle simply by moving the pads around on the velcro.

So.  Shar was pretty enamored with the Pandora, and will likely be ordering one for herself.  I liked it plenty, but not enough to run out and buy one right now:


  • Light weight.  Switching saddles would be instantly dropping 20 pounds or so from the weight my horse has to carry.  However, in my case, I already weigh enough that 20 pounds is a tiny percentage of the weight I'm already carrying, so while it would help her a bit, probably not enough to deal with selling my current saddle to afford the new saddle.
  • Comfort.  The saddle seems pretty comfortable, though of course I'd need to try it out for longer and with a better stirrup setup to judge for sure.  It definitely allows the rider to ride in the correct position.
  • Versatility.  If one owned multiple horses but only wanted to invest in one saddle, this (or similarly-built saddles) would be a great solution.  I only have one horse and the saddle I currently have fits her, or I'd probably be a lot more excited to buy a Pandora.
  • Looks.  Endurance people LOVE to color coordinate, but usually have to settle for a boring brown or black saddle, whether leather or synthetic material.  But these are made of carbon fiber and can be clear-coated for a cool look, or finished with just about any paint job imaginable.  So you could go basic black, wildly garish, or anywhere in between.  You could theoretically even re-paint it later on to give it a new look.  People have put decals on.  People have used glow-in-the-dark paint.  The possibilities are literally endless.

  • Cost.  It costs $1300-ish.  That includes shipping from Australia, and various options but it's a lot of dollars.  It's actually about how much I'm into my current saddle for, so the dollar amount itself isn't a turnoff, but the fact that I'd either have to sell my current saddle before ordering and be saddle-less while this one gets built and shipped, or have $2600 tied up in saddles before receiving the new one and being able to sell the current one makes me pause before just jumping to buy this saddle right away.
  • Footprint.  The main reason it can fit such a variety of horses is that the rigid part of the saddle is so small.  It fits behind Arya's wide shoulders, for example.  However, that means that the weight distribution of the saddle isn't as much as a western saddle for sure, and probably not as large as some endurance saddles.  The pads are larger than the saddle, which does help, and they're wider than many saddles' panels (from spine channel to lateral edge), but of course anywhere there's pad without saddle above it, that part of the pad isn't necessarily bearing weight, which is good and bad, depending.  For someone of my weight, it may not be distributing the weight over a large enough area.  My current saddle has a pretty large weight distribution area for an endurance saddle, plus I use a saddle pad that has memory foam inserts that help spread the weight out more (and make up for any minor fit issues, though my saddle seems to fit her well).  Because the memory foam pads are built into the Pandora, your not supposed to use additional thick pads, though I guess you could experiment to see what works.  If I lose some weight, though, I think it'd be just fine.
So, if I end up needing a new saddle and lose some weight, Pandora will be high on my list.  If I get a second horse shaped differently from Arya (not likely anytime soon, though), Pandora will be one of the first saddles I think of.  But for now, I'll stick with my SR because I'm really happy with it and it fits Arya great.  But I was really glad to have the chance to try out the Pandora, and may just try it for a longer ride while we still have it if I get the opportunity.

Getting on.  Awkward.

Listing a little to the left.

Pretty good leg position, but probably a bit further back than it should be.

Bit of a chair seat, but probably not too bad.  In my case (defaulting to hunching forward when I freak out), it's probably more stable than the prior picture).

Really pushing my feet forward here.

Look at my using my hitchiker's thumb.  :-)  And look at Arya totally bored with this whole arena thing.  :-)


  1. So cool! I want to trial a Pandora but I'm unlikely to buy one unless I really get into endurance, and like you, I've got just over $1000 invested into a saddle that was professionally fitted to a part draft. I've been hearing nothing but good feedback about the saddle.

  2. So glad to read a real life review. Thanks for being so thorough!


  3. Yes, thanks for putting in a real life review. Two years down the track did you end up getting a Pandora?

    1. No, as I mentioned in the post, I'm happy with my current saddle and so is my horse. Plus I think I'm a little too heavy to have such a small-footprint saddle. Plus $$$$! :-)

  4. I really appreciated your review because I think we share a bit in common. I have a draft cross gelding with linebacker shoulders, high withers, and a short curvy back. We switched to Western a couple of years ago because it felt easier to fit him to a Western tree that would free his shoulders and not bridge. I currently ride in an endurance saddle on a Western tree. This Pandora just fascinates me! Thank you again.