Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'm Gonna Be in The Chronicle of the Horse!!

Well, this is just too dang cool! About a year or so ago, Sara Leiser, a reporter from The Chronicle of the Horse, contacted me about giving her some input on a tack cleaning article she was doing. I was (and still am) floored that someone on the Chronicle's staff even knew I existed, and terribly flattered that I was considered knowledgeable enough to rate as a source of information, particularly when Sara mentioned some of the other folks who were also contributing. Sara and I had a lovely chat on the phone, and the article was supposed to have been published in a couple months.

But the magazine business being what it is, bigger stories came up, and the article never appeared; I sort of forgot about it. (Ok, ok - I didn't really forget, but I did stop mugging the mail man for my most recent copy of the magazine, and no longer feverishly scanned the table of contents for the article.) Then yesterday, I got an e-mail from Sara, saying that her editor had decided the time was right to run the article - which (in case you hadn't already grasped this fact) I thought was very cool. So I guess it's back to laying in wait for the mail man ...

Also wanted to give a shout to two other folks who are gracing the pages of the most recent issue of the Chronicle: Patti Hopkins and Claudia Romeo, (respectively) Huntsman and Whip for the Old Chatham Hunt in Chatham, NY. Patti and Claudia are longtime customers of yours truly. Seeing their photo was a wonderful surprise.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"When I Was A Kid ..."

... I had one saddle that fit every horse I rode. What changed?"

I get that question a lot.

There are quite a few factors that come into play in the equation. For one thing, we're riding a much wider variety of horses than we did 30 years ago. When I was a kid (think the 60's and 70's), horses used for english disciplines were usually Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred crosses. They were all pretty much of a type: fairly lean and rangy, with good withers. Back then, I'd guess the average height and weight would have been about 15.2 hh and roughly 800 - 900 lbs.; anything over 16 h. and 1000 lbs. was a BIG horse.
Saddle design reflected that sort of average build. The trees were narrower and often more "banana" shaped; the panels' bearing surfaces were often angled like the roof of a house, and the channel between the panels was quite narrow. Here are two saddles - the older one on the left (probably from the early 80's, given the suede knee patches), and a newer one (about 2 yrs. old) on the right. The differences in design are quite dramatic.

Things started to change when we started importing Warmbloods. These horses made most of our Tbs look like third world refugees (remember that not only were the old-style Wbs considerably more substantial than the American Tbs, we wanted the SuperSized Wbs). We also started riding horses that, in the past, had either been driving, draft or western horses. So saddles had to change to accommodate the new equine physique - broader, flatter panels, wider channels and wider trees.

We also perceive our horses very differently today. In the past, they were methods of transport and work vehicles, much the way we modern folks look at cars, trucks and heavy equipment. They did the work no matter what, or they moved on. Girth galls, fistulous withers and saddle sores were not uncommon, and - except when they affected the horse's ability to work - were rarely a cause of great concern. Nowadays, horses (no matter how vital they may be to our well-being and happiness) are luxuries. In addition to a panoply of veterinary specialists, they have chiropractors, masseuses, dentists, crystal workers and psychics; they benefit from specially formulated feeds and supplements, their grooming products are aromatherapeutic, their shoes orthotic and their blankets magnetic. And if they're lucky, they have a saddle fitter, too.

Joking aside, I do see some horses with sores, white hairs and asymmetry/muscle atrophy due to ill-fitting saddles, but they're in a steadily diminishing minority. We're much more aware of the affect that saddle fit has on our horses (as are other equine professionals), and much more determined to get it right.

Another factor at work here is the incredible advances in veterinary medicine, particularly in diagnostics. The technology available today can pinpoint soundness issues with amazing accuracy. What once might have been diagnosed as a stifle issue can be traced to its exact cause, whether it's an ulcer, a painful ovary, or a saddle fit problem. Again, more equine professionals are recognizing saddle fit as a factor in soundness and performance.

Finally, I think we're becoming aware of just how important a holistic approach is to our horses' well being. A saddle that fits your horse perfectly will be of no use if there are other factors affecting performance: his shoeing, teeth, body alignment, diet ... you get the picture. And on the other hand, if all the other factors are fine and dandy, but the saddle's fitting poorly, there will be problems.

That's one reason I started this blog: education. The more info I can pass on, the better. Please pass my URL on to your riding buddies. And as always, if you have questions, just drop me a comment, and I'll be happy to do an post to (hopefully) answer them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fitting Options

I had a request a couple of entries ago for photos of some of the fitting options I'd mentioned. Here you go, with examples of how each is meant to work.

First is a trapezius or dropped panel:

This panel is useful for horses with a good wither and dips below it, like so:

The dropped part of the panel will snug into that dip and keep the saddle from nose-diving into the withers.
Next option is the K panel (named for Kay Hastilow, Master Saddler, QSF, who originated this design):
This configuration is good for a roof-backed horse with "shark" withers:

The extra panel depth works the same as a dropped panel, but is better for a more extreme conformation.
This is a wither gusset:
It's often used in conjunction with a dropped or K panel - again, to help keep the front of the saddle off the withers.

Here's a photo of an upswept panel:

The rear edge of the panel is curved upward rather than being squared off. This is a great help in fitting short backed horses (particularly if the rider requires a large seat size) and horses who are built rump-high.

Another helpful fitting option is an extra-deep rear gusset (don't have a photo of that - sorry; just imagine adding extra depth to the gusset). Works well for a horse with a big back-to-wither difference, and is sometimes used with the K or dropped panel.

While these fitting options (and others) are available from most of the better UK-made saddle makers, these photos are all of Black Country saddles. I'm going to make a shameless plug for Black Country Saddlery here and say that I absolutely love dealing with them. They deliver saddles to us in 4 weeks or less, and they FIT. If there's ever a problem, they make it right immediately (or as immediately as the Atlantic Ocean and 4 time zones allow - I've had Nikki Newcombe, their sales manager, reply to my e-mails on weekends and at odd times of the day and night). Can't say enough about the quality of their saddles or their customer service!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Going Into Detail #2 - Panel Contact, Gullet Width

Another element of saddle fitting is panel contact. The idea is to distribute the rider's weight evenly over as large a bearing surface as possible without impingeing on the horse's range of motion or spinous process, or getting weight out past the 18th thoracic vertebra.
I touched on this a bit in my last post, explaining how a deeper panel is often necessary for a horse with a big wither and/or a "roof" back. Now I'm going focus more on the rear of the panels. You want the panels to make contact with the horse's back over their entire weight bearing surface, like so:

In general, a gusseted panel such as the one in the photo above is often a good choice for a horse with a fairly flat back (flat side to side, that is), and a plain panel (photo below, bearing surface highlighted in green) is often a good choice for a more "roof backed" horse.

This saddle would not work on a broad, flat back - these panels would only make contact on the outside edge, and would create pressure points and very likely make the horse back sore.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. Here's a photo of a plain panel with a very flat bearing surface (it was actually too flat for our saddle buck!):

The channel between the panels must be wide enough so that the panels don't impinge on the spinous process. Here's a picture of a rather ancient saddle (the tree in this saddle is twisted, which is why it's sitting crooked on our model) with inadequate channel width (red highlights the panel's bearing surfaces, green shows channel width, and orange shows the width of the horse's spine):

While the channel must be wide enough to clear the spine, it can't be too wide. Too much channel width can allow the saddle to drop down onto the spine, can create pressure points on the inside edge of the panel, or can allow the cantle area to shift side-to-side.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Going Into Detail

As promised in my last entry, I'm going to go into more detail on the Heavy Seven, and the other issues that come into play.

First, tree width. Yes, the tree has to be the correct width; the points should lie parallel to the horse's back (as illustrated in the previous post). But in some cases, the tree can be the correct width and still not fit properly, because many other things come into play: tree shape, gullet shape, length of tree points and panel configuration all contribute to how well - or how poorly - a saddle fits. For example, let's say that you have a lean, high-withered Tb like this fellow here:

Here he is in a saddle with the correct tree width, but with the wrong panel configuration (too shallow):

As you can see, the saddle's sitting pommel-high; it will put the rider too far back in the seat and concentrate pressure on the rear half of the saddle rather than distributing weight evenly over the surface of the panels. And though you can't really tell it from the photo, there was also insufficient clearance over the wither, and the rider's weight would have caused the saddle to sit directly on the withers. (NOTE: This is one reason that so many horses with this conformation are labelled as "narrow", because without panel modifications, most saddles with the correct tree width will sit on the wither; hence the need to go to a narrower tree for clearance. This just causes more atrophy in the back and makes the horse even harder to fit properly.)

So what would have to be done to the saddle? The panel would obviouosly need to be thicker in the rear, but it would also need to be modified in front; in this case, a wither gusset:

and a dropped or trapezius panel:

The combination of these two panel options will "fill in the dips" below those big withers and lift the saddle up off the wither. The photo below roughly shows - in green - where the weight bearing surface will be on a "standard" panel; the red lines show the weight bearing area of a saddle with a trapezius panel and wither gusset:

UP NEXT: Channel width and panel contact. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 24, 2008

"The Heavy Seven"

When it comes to saddle fitting, everyone has an opinion, and it can sometimes be tough to get much of a consensus. Theories abound regarding tree shape, panel shape, foam panels vs. wool flock vs. synthetic flock, you name it - and most fitters will happily debate different viewpoints ad nauseum. But there are seven points regarding saddle fitting put forward by the Society of Master Saddlers that are generally accepted as truths. So here are "The Heavy Seven" (how many of you remember that George Carlin riff?) of saddle fitting.

1) The points of the tree must lie parallel (or within 10% of parallel) to the horse's back - not the shoulder, but the back. Points of the tree and angle of the back are highlighted in red:

This means the tree width is correct. Here is a tree that's too narrow (angles highlighted in green):
#2) There must be even pressure under the tree points from top to bottom. In the photo above, there will be more pressure toward the bottom of the points; if the tree's too wide, the pressure will be greater at the top of the points.

#3) The channel between the panels must clear the spinous process.

#4) There must be adequate clearance between the gullet and the withers. "Adequate" will vary from horse to horse - sometimes it will be 3 fingers, sometimes 1. "Adequate" just means that the saddle is sitting in correct balance and at no time makes contact with the withers.

#5) Balance of the saddle must be correct, with the deepest part of the seat being the lowest point. Here's a saddle with the balance point too far to the rear:

Here's a saddle with much better balance:

#6) The panels must make even contact with the horse's back, with no bridging or rocking.
#7) The tree of the saddle cannot extend past the 18th thoracic vertebrae, which is the location of the last rib and therefore the last part of the back capable of bearing weight.
So there you have the seven basic points. Next entry, I'll go into greater detail on each point.

Friday, November 21, 2008


"Numpty" definition: a raw beginner with no experience whatsoever. (Thank you, Kay Hastilow, for introducing me to this wonderfully descriptive word.)

Numpty ... that would be me in the blogosphere, and - honestly - with technology in general. I mean, I don't have a PDA, BlackBerry or iPhone; my computer monitor is one of those big honkin' dinosaurs that takes up three-fourths of my desk, my cell phone doesn't take photos (at least, I don't think it does) and my 12 yr. old son is my in-house IT guy. You get the picture. But in spite of being somewhat techno-phobic, I thought it might be nice to have a blog to record my saddle fitting experiences, not only to "think out loud", but also to share my experiences in the hope that someone may learn something from my journey.

Just to pad my profile a little, I'll let you know that my name is Kitt Hazelton, and I've been a saddle fitter at Trumbull Mtn. Tack Shop, Inc. for the last 8 years. I've been very lucky to have been taught by some wonderful and knowledgeable people, including Mike Scott, Nancy Shedrick and my present mentor and hero, Patty Barnett. I also attended the Society of Master Saddlers Intro course in Oct. of 2007. I do fitting, flocking and some repairs. I'm the shop's dressage specialist; I consult with customers in-house, and travel to barns for fitting adjustments and to take templates and photos for folks who are saddle shopping. I'm also lucky to work with a great bunch of women: Edie Tschorn, the shop's owner; Nancy Okun, our endurance and competitive trail specialist, and Sara Ineson, our hunter/jumper and eventing specialist. We all have our specialities, but we all pinch hit for each other on vacations and days off.

Saddle fitting is at best an inexact "science" - just when you think you finally have it all figured out, along comes a horse who breaks all the known laws of physics, gravity and saddle fitting. But that's one of the things that makes this job so interesting - it's never the same twice, and there's always something new to learn.

UPDATE:  Though I know that those of you who've been following my blog for a while are aware, I want to let any newcomers know that I left the shop in 2013 when its physical location moved, and am no longer affiliated or associated with it in any way.