Sommer Saddles and Top Rider Shelly Francis

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

For the past eight years, top dressage rider Shelly Francis has trained and competed all of her horses on Sommer Saddles. Since 1995, Master Saddler Marty Haist has worked closely with the saddle founder, Theo Sommer, who developed and patented a revolutionary, handmade thermoplastic polymer saddle tree. The company designed a saddle especially for Shelly and calls it the Sommer Spezial. It is the Sommer Spezial on which she rides her top three Grand Prix horses, Doktor, Danilo and Rubinio as she continues to receive high scores in national and international competitions. 

When coaches, trainers and riders notice the uniqueness of her saddles, she replies, “I don’t notice the saddle when I’m in it because I feel my horse’s movements.” Flexing and contouring with each move, the high-end Sommer Saddles are better for the horse and more comfortable for the rider than conventional saddles.

Lightweight and providing good contact with the horse, they have a secure, deep seat with excellent spinal clearance that allows the body to naturally and perfectly position itself. “These saddles have been super comfy for me and my horses.”

Twenty years ago, Marty spent the necessary six years to become a Master Saddler under the tutelage of two Masters in England and then began working with Sommer Saddles in Germany. It is important to note that a saddler fitter trains for as short as ten days as opposed to a Master Saddler who trains for six years. Sommer Saddles are handmade in Pirmasens, just South of Frankfurt, in a village known for being the historical shoe-making capital of the world.

Other saddles may wear out in the seat area by the leather beginning to wrinkle or holes developing in the leather. Marty describes the brand in more detail, “These special polymer saddle trees are flexible yet strong enough to hold its shape and better for the horse than other saddle trees made from wood that are too rigid for a horse’s back."  He continued, "It’s impossible to wear out one of these saddles." 

For the last 10 years, Marty and wife Beth have wintered in Wellington from November to April at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival and their mobile units continue to travel throughout the United States sponsoring and selling at many national dressage shows.

They have built a strong relationship with Shelly over the years and, when in the area during the Wellington competitions, will tweak her saddles for the growth and changes in her horses to prepare for her trips to Europe to compete for the USA Dressage Team. Since meeting Shelly eight years ago, Marty and Beth have followed her at all the competitions. Proud of the saddles they produce and also proud of Shelly, Marty smiles, “she’s been doing great.” The feelings are mutual, Shelly says, “Marty has done a tremendous amount keeping the saddles fitting well. He’s always on the job to change a little here or a little there depending on the horse’s growth or development. He’s been a godsend to me, that’s for sure.”

Now the saddles are made by Theo Sommer's son, Alexander René Sommer, who sent his own son Philipp to spend a year with Marty to fit saddles in the United States. Marty says, “The Sommers are like family to us.” After Philipp's USA experience, he set up a school in Germany to train saddle fitting to students learning to become Master Saddlers.  

In 1973, Sommer Saddles in cooperation with the great design master Egon von Neindorff, created a new and fully adjustable dressage saddle made of this material using top quality leather and stitching. The following year, Theo Sommer provided the equipment for equestrian and Olympic champion Josef Neckermann that prompted Theo Sommer to receive Germany’s National Innovation Award “Staatspreis" in 1976 for outstanding achievement. In 1991, Sommer provided the equipment for the French national dressage team. Two years later, an improved mix of materials made Sommer Saddles adjustable during their long life-span (each saddle comes with a 30-year warranty). These saddles are so adjustable; they will take a horse from three years of age in its training all the way to Grand Prix, all on the same saddle.

Shelly said, “I’ve been depending on both Beth and Marty to keep me equipped with saddles, clothing, everything. They’re very helpful. If I find I need something at a show or under any circumstances, they’re right there to help.”

To contact Marty about a Sommer Saddle call 918-830-4178

To contact Beth about tack email

Shelly Francis and Danilo Photo: Dressage Headlines

Shelly Francis and Danilo Photo: Dressage Headlines

Shelly Francis and Doktor Photo: Dressage Headlines

 Shelly Francis and Danilo Photo: Dressage Headlines