Before I found my current "for keeps" side saddle, I bought what I thought was an absolute bargain off of Ebay. It was a c. 1900 side saddle with a £250 Buy it Now which was being sold by a saddler dealer with good feedback (but was not a side saddle specialist), the seat size was right for me and the tree width was a generous medium/wide which fit my horse, Senara (an Arabian), that I rode at the time, so in my excitement I bought it.
First things first, the leaping head needed a new washer put on it to keep the head the right side up and the over-girth needed re-attaching so I took the saddle to my local saddler who was trained as a master saddler. She tested the tree the same way I did and said it seemed fine. Although the saddler had no experience with side saddles, she said that re- attaching the over-girth and putting a new leather washer on the leaping head would be simple for her and that she would not charge me as she just always wanted to be able to work on a side saddle!
With the job done, next came the reflocking and fitting to my horse and I rang specialist side saddler, Laura Dempsey to come out.
Laura came out (and who by the way, is a REALLY, REALLY nice and patient lady!) and looked at Senara, took all sorts of measurements and templates off of her, asked me questions about Senara and what we planned on doing, my experience, etc. All very thorough even before she looked at my saddle. Then it came time to look at my saddle.
She started telling me about how it was late Victorian, and how the slightly dished seat it had would have been comfortable to ride in. She examined the stitching, tested the tree points and then tested the tree in a way I had never seen done before....
She held the cantle against her front as you would a normal saddle when testing the tree, but instead of grasping the pommel, she held onto the fixed pommed and tried to pull it towards her. Well, the saddle moved like I had never seen it do before!!!
Laura explained that she suspected that the tree was broken and that when a side saddle is tested like this, that there is not supposed to be any movement (I tested my current saddle like this and there is no movement whatsoever). She said that the saddle was unsafe as the fixed head is what gives you purchase when riding and that I wouldn't want to be riding and have it give way completely. Laura explained that the damage may not have been necessarily caused by the saddle being dropped or stepped on, but that the old glues and materials used to make the saddles, just give away and break over time, especially if a saddle has not been stored or taken care of properly.
Interestingly, when you tried to wiggle the fixed head, there was no movement but when the saddle was tested like the way Laura showed me how, there was ALOT of movement.
Sadly, Laura said that the saddle was best suited to being a collectible to look at and told me what sort of saddle I should be looking for AND how to test it. This knowledge came in handy when I came across a seemingly pristine 1930's Champion & Wilton saddle for a good price at an antique fair and tested it the way Laura showed me how, and I'll be darned if that fixed pommel didn't wobble around!
Lessons learned here? Caveat emptor on Ebay, test your trees before buying if possible (or make sure you can return a saddle if it is found to be broken) and take them to a specialist side saddler.
Oh, and that old side saddle is now "rustic decor" in a pub somewhere here in England!