Mar 15 / Tad Coffin Performance Saddles

by Kimberly Godwin Clark

In April 2015 I was invited by Lucinda Green to Tad Coffin’s farm. I would soon learn about an approach to saddle making and riding that would bring me much closer to fulfilling my horse’s needs. I am embarrassed to say that I really didn’t know what Tad did. I knew he was a saddle maker, but I already had a thorough education on saddles and saddle fitting. It came from a horse that had extreme problems. In the process of trying to address them, I had gone through countless saddles, saddle fitters and thousands of dollars, only to end up in exactly the same place I had started. The name of that horse was Birdie. I felt I knew all I needed to know about saddles, but also knew it wouldn’t hurt to get to know Tad. Besides, Lucinda Green had invited me.

Lucinda had one hour before she had to catch a plane so Tad focused on getting his important message across to her. This worked out perfectly because I got to be the proverbial “fly on the wall”. Observing everything he said without interacting. This enabled me to “connect the dots” as it related to my own horses. Almost immediately I knew this was a different approach to saddles. There were moments when I wondered why I had not had the same questions about saddles that Tad had.

Tad began by showing the trees from saddles for the past 50 years. For the most part, they all looked the same. Tad’s display of the saddle trees made me think that all the time and money I had spent on saddles and saddle fitters may have been in vain because all of those trees functioned in the same way. Essentially, they were the same with a few very minor differences. Each saddle company had proclaimed their design as “the holy grail” of saddle making. Tad’s question was obvious, “Why, with all the advances in technology, are saddles made in the same way as 50 years ago?”

Everything about Tad’s approach was different. From having the saddle shop attached to the barn, to trying each change in design on a variety of different horses. These very horses got the final say in whether it was a good or bad change. In 25 years he had never had a mixed vote. Either all of the horses liked the change or all of the horses vetoed it. They had a Gold Medal Olympian riding them and listening to everything they offered, so that was more than good enough for me. My interest was piqued, but the best was yet to come.

Before us stood a big, beautiful, relaxed horse standing on cross ties. Tad pulled out his phone and began to show us pictures of horse’s backs. He stopped at one and said this is of the horse standing here but it’s when he first arrived at my farm. I gasped inside. I thought of my beautiful Bird who I had retired two years earlier. When ridden, he was as inverted as a horse could be and not Jim Wofford, Elizabeth Madlener or other skilled horsemen had been able to help me to help him. After four years of efforts, Jim finally “fired” Birdie in 2013. He told me it wasn’t fair to keep trying to make him do something he either could not or did not want to do. I knew Jim was right and retired him from riding. This was extremely difficult because I had always known he was a great horse. Now, there in that picture I saw a back that looked like Birdie’s. The reason I had spent so much effort on saddles with the Bird was he had a weird back and it made sense the saddle was a likely culprit for his inverted carriage. Of course, even then I was looking at it wrong – I thought his weird back needed a special saddle. I would soon find out that his back could not develop properly because he could not bear the discomfort of conventional saddles. When a horse inverts he is carrying himself in an uncomfortable manner and this causes the horse even more anxiety. Tad’s horse had been 21 when he arrived and was to be put down because he didn’t want to fox hunt anymore. Tad pointed out that it’s very unusual for a horse to develop significant muscle that late in life – which I knew to be true – but before us was a horse with a beautiful, correctly developed back. My brain began to race. Could it be there was hope for my beautiful Bird??? Not only was he difficult to ride, but he told the story of being abused and beaten, most probably because of his defensiveness. Everyone who met Bird agreed he was an incredibly talented jumper with beautiful movement, if you could get a few relaxed strides. It had been years since I dared dream about the potential of this wonderful horse. At that very moment as I stood in Tad Coffin’s barn/saddle making “lab”, there was a glimmer of hope once again for That Bird.

Each point Tad made was common sense. Like it doesn’t matter how the saddle looks while the horse is standing in place. The saddle must be evaluated while the horse is moving. After all, riding is moving! If you ride regularly, your horse’s back changes week to week and fitting the saddle to his back once or twice per year makes no sense. In fact just fitting it to stick to the back discourages motion rather than encouraging it. Tad had created a saddle to sympathize with the movement of the horse’s back, which caused it to fit most horses and at the same time encourage movement rather than hampering it. You only had to pad it to compensate for the lack of muscle development. The more top line your horse has, the less padding he will need because the saddle will allow the horse’s back to move by giving to the pressure made by the muscles in the back.

Tad invited me back and I asked if I could bring a horse for him meet. He said, yes. By now I was convinced that conventional saddles caused horses at the very least discomfort and at the worst debilitating pain. I knew a horse did not necessarily have to be “back sore” to be hurt by the restriction of an unsympathetic saddle. As I studied the price of these saddles, I knew I would have to make some big changes. I immediately put one of my cross country saddles on ebay. I literally didn’t want to ride my horses in the saddles I had any longer.

Before I could return to Tad’s in May, I was seriously injured and had to be hospitalized. It would be a month before I was mobile enough to make the trip. I wanted to take two horses because I had learned early on that if a trainer didn’t know me and they initially met me with Birdie, they would think I made Birdie the way he was. I wanted to take Fellow as a character reference. I had ridden Fellow from the time he was green broke so he was a great representation of my riding and training. I called my good friend Betsy Novotny, an equine massage therapist and asked her to go. I thought she was someone who would want to know what Tad was doing. Plus I was still in a huge amount of pain and wasn’t sure I could make the trip alone with two horses. She was happy to come but would later admit that she too had thought to herself she was going to hear from another saddle maker with something to sell.

Betsy knew the Bird all too well. She had been at my farm for several years watching the struggle to reclaim him. Now, I was taking this extremely difficult horse for Tad Coffin to ride in one of his saddles. A horse who had not been off the farm for over two years, didn’t like or trust men AND hated to be ridden out in the open fields as Tad does. I explained all of this to Tad as I put Birdie in a stall to wait for him to calm down. Tad would ride Fellow first.

As Tad groomed and tacked up Fellow he asked me what my goal was with him. I responded that Fellow was a very special horse. He had already qualified for the regional championships in his first year of competition and finished 9th overall. “However, if you can improve him, I won’t mind!” As Tad rode up and down the drive in front of his barn, Fellow was excited and “up”, something he would do when at a new place. He would settle down after a period of time – most of the time. Tad came back to us and said he wanted to change saddles. He was riding in one of his test saddles and felt that Fellow was voting no to this iteration. I wanted to tell him that is the way Fellow always is – that he would settle in with time, but this was Tad Coffin so I kept quiet. The amazing thing was once Tad put the other saddle on; Fellow became perfectly quiet and relaxed immediately. Could it be that all this time, Fellow acted like a jerk on arrival at shows because of discomfort? I already knew that anxiety is often amplified by discomfort. Fellow proceeded to move more freely and fluidly than I could have ever imagined. True he had always been considered a great mover, but now he was an even more beautiful, expressive mover.

Next Tad turned his attention to the Bird. He spent quite a bit of time with him, moving slowly and methodically. I reiterated all the “things” about the Bird. I wanted Tad to understand that I didn’t expect any sort of miracle with this horse. The saddle may be able to help with physical issues but there was a huge amount of emotional damage to Birdie. Tad spent the next one and a half hours riding my Bird. He spent at least 40 minutes walking him, asking him to supple and reassuring him with a quiet ride. I never would have asked anyone to spend this much time on a horse that for all intents and purposes, was a lost cause, but I so appreciated it more than I can express in words. Slowly but surely he won Birdie over and performed one of many miracles I would see over the coming year. By the end of the session, I was in awe that this man had managed to take Birdie further in one and a half hours than a star studded cast had been able to in four years. Tad then told me he would like to ride Birdie again in two weeks. Huh? Did you just ask to ride Birdie again? This was more than I could have hoped for. Betsy and I floated home on a cloud. She had seen what I had. She too was convinced this was something very special. She wanted to come back with me in two weeks time.

I planned to take Birdie and Constant Star on my next trip to Tad’s. Star is one of TPR’s superstars. To say she is special would be an understatement. Star had won the Breeder’s Bridge to High Performance Contest held by John and Beezie Madden. My goal was for her to end up where she could shine the brightest for her breed and that she never lose the bright light that shines within her. My hope was that Tad might like her and help me to find her the perfect place in this world, not necessarily that his saddle could change her – after all she was already incredible!

Star was an amazing athlete, but she certainly wasn’t a horse for everyone. She would over jump obstacles she didn’t like 5 or 6 feet with ease. She was allergic to wood and would readily blame the rider if she rubbed or knocked a rail which thankfully she rarely did. She could get herself out of situations that most horses would never be able to pull off. This presented its own set of problems because she was so capable, she didn’t always learn from her mistakes. She could wait to a 3’3” oxer and jump from within the ground rails easily clearing it. The thing she did that I hated the most was jump a fence and with no warning upon landing begin to crow hop multiple times. When I say crow hop, she would put her head down and jump 5’ into the air, all four feet off the ground, one “hop” after another. The rider couldn’t get her head up and had to stay in the middle, waiting for her to cease. She did this with me, David Loman, Boyd Martin, Alyssa Peterson, Sharon White and Tim Bourke, just to name a few. I once asked David if she would ever stop doing it and he said probably not. He put a gag attachment on her that allowed me to get her head up when she put it down and it worked for a short time but Star became defensive and began to carry herself with tension. We had to take it off and go back to the old format that Star seemed to prefer.

On this second trip, Birdie was worried until he stepped off the trailer and realized where he was. He took a great sigh of relief. I had not ridden him during the two weeks between because I didn’t want to betray his confidence by using anything but a Tad saddle. Instead I put him on the longe with a bridle only. Star moved into a stall like she owned the place while Tad tacked up Birdie. It was clear Birdie was much more comfortable this time. I had never seen the Bird take to someone so quickly, especially a man. The ride began the same with an inverted tense horse but Tad waited patiently and Birdie came to him letting go of his back and anxiety more than I had ever seen. My world changed forever that day. I would never look at saddles or horses the same again. The long battle to help Birdie overcome his anxiety had taken an unexpected turn. Before my very eyes, this inverted, tense horse was transformed into a beautiful, elastic ride. It took a lot of time and yes, Tad Coffin an extraordinary rider was on him, but it still achieved the impossible. Now, there was real hope where none had existed.

Star had always complained when you tightened the girth, by complaining I mean tried to bite your face off, but on this day she stood quietly as she was saddled. Tad rode out to his training field as we followed, excited to see what he would think of THE Star. Tad happily rode her at the walk, trot and canter and then popped her over some jumps in the middle of the field. After a few jumps she did a very mild “crow hop” with Tad and I said to myself, oh boy, here it comes, but it never did as she gingerly cantered away.

I didn’t want to ride my horses in anything but a Tad Coffin Performance Saddle (TCP saddle) and went on the quest to get one immediately. I found a used 2006 dressage saddle. There would be a transition period. I immediately realized my old dressage saddle had been holding me in a certain position. Tad’s saddle required me to be responsible for my own position, something I wasn’t even aware of until my legs could find no place to be. It didn’t take long to correct this and have my leg on the horse better than I ever had before. The previous saddle had put me in a fixed “dressage” position, and at the same time restricted me. This had unbeknownst to me prevented me from effectively becoming one with my horse. Tad’s saddle was like having nothing between me and the horse and I loved it. Something I loved even more was each horse’s tendency to offer to lift the back and step under from behind. They even did this while longeing. Finally, I could ride my beautiful Bird and begin to experience the entirely new horse he had become.

On my next visit to Tad’s, Elizabeth Madlener made the trip. I couldn’t wait for her to see Tad ride Birdie, since she loves him as much as I do. She had devoted countless hours to training him and trying to transform him into the horse we both knew he could be. This time Birdie came around even more quickly and Elizabeth said she was impressed with what she was seeing and it isn’t easy to impress Elizabeth. This fueled the fire to make the complete change to Tad’s saddles for the good of both the horses and my riding.

Next Tad came out of the barn on Star. She walked confidently into “her” training field with her back up and stepping far under from behind. Elizabeth stated, “This does not happen. Horses have to be warmed into this posture; they do not just begin there.” It only got better and it was clear Star was more comfortable being ridden than she had ever been before. Elizabeth later remarked that it was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen. I was now certain that much, if not all of Star’s “bad behavior” was due to the discomfort she had been experiencing. All the years she was in training with us, she had given her best, but also expressed her displeasure in the discomfort associated with what we were asking. She has never “crow hopped” after a fence to this day in a Tad saddle. David Loman, who loved Star as much as I did, said he regretted he hadn’t seen her behavior for what it was, discomfort, not disobedience. I felt the same way.

I had gotten Terry’s Dancer, a 5 year old Thoroughbred mare, just before I was injured in May. The people who had her were afraid of her and she was as frustrated and combative as a horse could be. I had begun longeing her before I got my TCP saddle and things were going along the way I thought they should. After one month, I was still waiting for her to stretch down and let go in her back, which she was hinting at but had not followed through yet. The first day I put the 2006 saddle on her, she lifted her back and began to trot in cadence from the first step. Astonished again, I called Tad to tell him about it, he was elated but not surprised at all. We take in 30 to 35 horses per year at Leighton Farm and I introduce longeing to all of them. I had never had a horse just lift their back and let go like that. Now it is expected.

By now all of my non-Tad saddles were sold. I needed to get a jumping saddle. I found a very nice 2012 Tad Coffin A5 close contact jumping saddle. Immediately I could feel the difference between the 2012 technology and the 2006 technology. Both TCP saddles were more comfortable for the horses than my previous saddles – which I want to mention were top of the line saddles. The horses clearly expressed this through lack of resistance, increased relaxation and offering self-carriage without much asking but they moved even more freely and expressively in the 2012. Once they experienced the 2012, they knew the 2006 wasn’t as comfortable, and they told me so, very subtly. I now had a new reality where rather than expecting the saddle to “do no harm”, I expected it to make the horse feel more comfortable – a therapeutic value?

The new 2015 TCP Dressage saddle arrived in late July. With this saddle, the horses moved lighter, more up in front and offered even more on their own. Gone were the days of struggling to convince my horses to carry me. They freely offered it. They were more relaxed from the start of the ride and took far less warming up. Whether on the longe or going under a rider, all of the horses at Leighton Farm jumped ahead in their training. Fellow easily moved up to second level movements in dressage. He offered little to no resistance in the shoulder in and travers. I had to step up my riding to catch up with my horses but that was easier too. I had never been very good at sitting the trot – after all I was 45 when I began show riding. I had galloped racehorses for 30 years and probably never sat the trot once during that time – at least not on purpose. When I had tried in the past, it was miserable. Now, immediately, I could sit the trot in comfort!!!! And that Bird? Well he began to hack around the farm like a normal horse. I know that sounds less than impressive, but one word I never heard from anyone when they described the Bird was normal. On more than one occasion I was hacking about the farm and someone would ask, “Who are you on?” When I responded Birdie, they would be amazed.” Once, even Elizabeth told me she had not realized it was Birdie I was riding until I had gotten very close. The transformation continues and although Birdie is still Birdie, he’s a much happier and rideable version of his former self. I do not know what the future holds for us, but I am excited to find out. That is something I never imagined I would be able to say.

Tad asked me to try something with some of my horses. I would need to borrow a good quality conventional saddle. Put this saddle on the horse in his stall for 25 minutes and observe his or her behavior. Then, change to my 2015 Tad Coffin Performance Saddle and leave it on for another 25 minutes to observe the behavior of that same horse. I asked Betsy Novotny, an experienced equine massage therapist and also a scientist by trade to help. The results were remarkable. One horse in particular displayed obvious behavior in response to each saddle. With the non-Tad saddle he paced in his stall, cribbing on anything he could find. I thought it might be because he knew he was about to be ridden. His back did palpate with some reactiveness both before and after the non-Tad saddle was applied. Then we put the 2015 on him. He hung his head and was quietly relaxing in his stall within two minutes. No cribbing, pacing or unrest. When we removed the saddle, his back palpated with no reaction whatsoever. How could this be? Each horse displayed similar results, but Gus’s reaction was the strongest. Tad now has a video on this very subject that shows horses with serious problems such as bucking and the therapeutic effect of his state of the art saddles.

I was riding in a clinic recently in a small group of young and green horses. One of the horses would buck after fences – sometimes. The rider was riding defensively. The consensus was it was a young warmblood who was being naughty. What I saw was a good rider and a horse that was trying to communicate his discomfort upon landing from a jump. I have seen this behavior after a jump often with both green and not so green horses, it was so with Star. I believe that the horse jumps as many fences as he can stand and when he’s had enough, he acts out. This horse had a kind eye and I think he was making his best effort under the circumstances. We will probably never know if I am correct because I did not know this person and felt I would be out of line to step in with my opinion unless asked. I did make a call to a friend who “knows everyone” to see if she knew this girl, but she did not. Upon telling her about the situation she said this made perfect sense to her. In fact she had my horse, Terry’s Dancer for the winter months. I do not have an indoor and I wished to continue her jump training. She told me Terry had started to do a “victory dance” sometimes after jumping a small line. This is something Terry had never done with me. Now she felt certain it was because she wasn’t riding Terry in one of Tad’s saddles. I took one of my TCP saddles to her to see if Terry would stop this behavior. Diana told me that the behavior had progressed to the point where Terry was ancy at the mounting block and tense to ride. Terry was tight in her body but cooperated fully with Diana and as she walked around the arena I saw Terry’s demeanor change from defensive to relaxed. They trotted poles and small jumps without incident. Diana was amazed at the transition in just one session. I look forward to updates from her because, of course, I left the saddle with her.

Creating and developing this saddle technology is a passion for Tad Coffin. He is a man driven by the horses who desperately need a voice. He hears the horses who have somehow found a way to live with the discomfort of conventional saddles. He hears the horses who cannot endure the discomfort of conventional saddles and are being ruined, thrown away and even euthanized. All while they cry for help through their resistance, anxiety, nervousness, perceived bad behavior, soreness and lameness. Tad Coffin hears them. His goal is to change the conversation about saddles, starting with the potential they have and the harm conventional saddles do to our horses. He wants others to develop saddles with the health and comfort of the horse as the priority. Tad Coffin produces a top quality saddle that can offer any horse a level of comfort and freedom that no other saddle can. He is financing all of this research and development himself. It is the only saddle company I know of that works on improving the technology of the saddles it produces each and every day. It is the only company I know of that gives the horses the last say in what changes are made to the design.

I look forward to the next miracle I will experience because of Tad’s work, when I place Tad’s saddle on a horse that has suffered for his lifetime and we take the first steps forward to his new life.