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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to note how rider size has changed in the last half-century as well, causing significant influence on the riding horse's back and importance of saddle fit.