Olympic medalist makes the ride easier for horses

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by Heather B. Hayes

Saddles used to be seen exclusively as a piece of equipment that aided riders, not horses. But that was before Tad Coffin got into the saddle-making business. “The fact is that saddles, as they have been historically made, hurt horses’ backs,” says Coffin, who captured an Olympic gold medal in three-day eventing at the 1976 Montreal Games.

Tad Coffin Performance Saddles, manufactured in a barn on Coffin’s 100-acre farm in Ruckersville, are so symmetrical and horse-friendly that, under them, horses have been known to make miraculous turnarounds in their performance and well-being. “Some horses that were lame suddenly become sound, and that’s because their ailment wasn’t due to a leg problem, it was a back problem, caused by an uncomfortable saddle,” Coffin says.

Even already-high-performing horses get better under Coffin’s signature A-5 jumping saddle. For this reason, serious riders don’t balk at its $4,200 price tag. Several equestrians from the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams own a Tad Coffin Performance Saddle, and it is considered the saddle of choice for top riders on the elite hunter/jumper and three-day eventing circuits.

So what’s the difference? Just about everything. Coffin stripped off all the leather on his own traditional saddle and started over completely. He rebuilt it using innovative computer-aided design (CAD) techniques, composite materials, old-fashioned craftsmanship and plenty of trial and error, coming up with a saddle tree (the solid inside foundation) and a padding configuration so perfectly balanced that it doesn’t pinch or inhibit movement.

Today, Coffin sells 400 to 500 saddles a year (as many as he and his crew of 10 can make). That volume generates annual gross revenues of more than $1.5 million. His saddles can’t be found in tack shops. A mobile sales force takes them directly to stables, so riders, coaches and trainers can experience them firsthand.

Equestrians are not the only believers; competitors are also converted. Some of them have asked Coffin to design and manufacture saddle trees for use in their brands. The former rider is ready for the opportunity, having just developed the ability to make rapid prototypes of tree designs. This allows him to print out full-size, completely scaled plastic tree models and make sure that they meet his exacting performance standards before he commissions the expensive forming tool needed to manufacture a specific tree.

“We’ll be able to take our ideas of how saddles should fit horses and provide a really high-performance saddle tree at a high volume,” Coffin says. “It’s not only a strategy to grow the company, but we see it as a strategy for having the most beneficial impact we possibly can for horses.” 

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