Friday, December 18, 2009

Cause and Symptom

"I'll remove the cause, but not the symptom."

- Dr. Frank N. Furter, Rocky Horror Picture Show

Monday, December 14, 2009

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo (Choosing a Saddler/Fitter)

One of the most constant pieces of advice I seem to give people is, "Find a reputable fitter in your area, and have them come out and take a look/do the adjustment/give you some input."  Hands-on fitting is the optimal way to go - you can do a fitting assessment or see many adjustments that need to be made via photos, and bumping a saddle back up to factory spec is pretty simple - but particularly for more complex fitting issues, having a knowledgeable fitter there in person is the best way to insure correct fit.

I have dispensed this advice for as long as I've been fitting saddles, and I think it's pretty darn sound advice ... but someone recently threw me a curve.  "What I want to know, " this person asked, "is how to find someone who knows their stuff?  And how do I know that they know their stuff?"

And that, dear readers, is a damn good question. 

First, merely finding a fitter can be a fairly daunting task.  We're really pretty thin on the ground.  There are lists of fitters on the Society of Master Saddlers' website here, and on the Master Saddlers Association website here; some saddle companies list their fitters on their web sites, or their reps / retailers are fitters.  And I'm after Mike Scott to put a list of his fitting course's graduates on his web site, too.  But as I've written before (in "For the First-Time Horse Owner" wa-a-a-a-a-y back in Jan.), not all certified fitters are good, and not all good fitters are certified.  Certification is only as good as the organization offering it - some courses are outstanding, and some are little more than "how to sell our saddle" tutorials aimed at a company's reps.  Of course, so much depends on how the individual fitter uses the education offered - you can put forth the best, most comprehensive information available, but how and if someone assimilates and applies the knowledge is key. 

So, if certification isn't really a reliable measure, how do you find a good fitter?  In my experience, word of mouth is a pretty good indicator.  Check with veterinarians, with chiropractors, massage therapists, tack shop and barn owners, and other riders. Most people are more than happy to share their opinions.  If the overwhelming majority of people like or dislike someone, there's usually a pretty good reason.  I know some outstanding saddlers/fitters whose only certification comes from years of successful business and glowing recommendations from their customers, and I know some fitters who have multiple certifications and not much in the way of street cred.  The reverse is true, too.

Another thing to consider is your gut reaction.  No matter how highly recommended a fitter is, if there's something about him/her that you just don't like (even if it's something as basic as the attitude with which they walk into the barn), it may not be a good mix.  Personality does come into the mix with fitters, as it does with your trainer, vet or farrier.  I'm not saying you'll always agree with everything a fitter says, and s/he may make some suggestions that seem a little unusual (I've had times when clients have looked at me as though I'd grown another head), but if the overall feeling isn't a good one, you might want to consider it a learning experience and just move on to someone else.

In addition to reputation and personality, here's a list of things that I think are important to consider when you're choosing a fitter:

1)  Does the fitter listen to my input?  Does s/he take time to get a history of the saddles I've tried, and the fitting issues my horse and I have encountered? 

2)  Does the fitter ask if my horse is or has been experiencing any soundness issues?

3)  Does the fitter pay attention to my horse's reaction?

4)  Is the fitter willing to see if my existing saddle can be made to work, or is s/he immediately telling me I need a new one?

5)  If I do need (or want) a new saddle, what options is the fitter offering?  Am I being pushed toward only one brand, or am I being given a choice?

6)  If I'm trying a new saddle but don't feel comfortable in it, or feel it's not fitting my horse well, does the fitter take that into consideration?

7) (And this is my biggest peeve.)  Is the fitter telling me that the XYZ saddle company makes a saddle that will suit every horse and rider in the world?

As I said before, you won't get on with every fitter out there, and you may have to go through a bit of trial-and-error.  But if you can find someone who'll listen to you and take the time to make sure that you and your horse are comfortable and happy, it will be worth the search.

Friday, December 4, 2009

But It Doesn't FIT!

While we're talking about saddle construction, we're going to take a small side-trip here. This issue is one that just showed up on my radar recently, and I suppose I could save it for later, but I'm finding that writing while the idea is fresh usually results in a better entry.

I'm once again tapping into a subject I found on one of the bigger bulletin boards.  It's a tale of woe, of anticipation and longing and a wish that didn't come true - and it's a tale that could have had a reasonably happy (or at least not totally tragic) ending ... but didn't.

Someone (let's be really original and call her "someone") ordered a saddle for her horse - had the fitter out, had the measurements done, ordered the deluxe fancy leather / air panels / contrasting seat welting / bells and whistles Princess version once-in-a-lifetime saddle ... really shot the wad to the tune of about $5000.

Fast forward about 6 months, to the arrival of the long anticipated saddle.  Not only was the saddle conspicuously minus many of the bells and whistles and Princess accessories "someone" had ordered ... it did not fit

This is a pretty sad story in and of itself.  But wait, it gets sadder:  according to "someone", the fitter adjusted flocking, adjusted the seat, and did everything but stand on his/her head and whistle a tune while drinking cider through a straw ... and the fitter could not make the saddle fit.

Sadder yet:  the fitter then tried to blame the bad fit on "someone" (even went so far as to infer that "someone" had packed on some poundage) and her horse. 

The denouement?  No refund.  Too bad, so sad, but the saddle was "someone's" ... lacking bells, whistles and Princess accessories, AND not fitting either horse or rider.  Eventually, "someone" did get the fitter to take the saddle back, but was still charged a 20% restocking fee (which, as any mathmatically gifted person can tell you, comes to a cool $1000).

Admittedly, I only have "someone's" side of this whole story ... but I gotta think, if "someone" is upset enough to air this whole experience on one of the major equine bulletin boards, something had to have gone wrong - and probably quite drastically so.  So, while we may never know just who fell down, or where, here are some possibilities:

1) The Saddler Messed Up. It does happen - I mean, we're talking about a hand-crafted item here, and as statistician Marge N. Uverror will tell you, human beings are fallible. But usually, if the saddler messes up, it's only one thing - sometimes one very big thing, like the wrong color or the wrong tree - but it's rare that the whole saddle is a fiasco. In the roughly 10 years we've been ordering saddles to template, we've only had a handful of "mistakes" come through.  And each time, the saddle company has stepped up and made things right.

2) The Fitter Messed Up. This happens, too - again, human fallibility.  And to be brutally honest, the fitter probably messes up more frequently than the saddler. Fitters are out there taking templates and photos, measuring the rider, writing orders, noting modifications ... basically getting all the bells and whistles and Princess accessory details correct. And if a fitter is really busy, has customers stacked up, has an uncooperative horse (or owner ... yes, they do exist) ... it's not that hard to mismark or skip over something. I bust my butt to make sure the template and photos are correct - I'll do a tracing over (and over, and over) if I think something may be inaccurate. And still, I've screwed up. Not very often, and not recently ... but I have before and I'd be foolish to think I won't again.  And when that happens, we step up and make things right.

3) The Horse Went and Changed. As I addressed long ago in the "Timing is Everything" post, horses can change quite radically in a fairly short period, particularly if it a youngster advancing quickly in training, a horse changing disciplines, or a seasoned campaigner coming back from a lay-up. To illustrate, I'm re-posting the photos that went with the "Timing is Everything" entry. This template, of a horse that was coming back into work after a month's lay-off, was taken in Oct. of '08:

Now, here's a template of the same horse taken in March of '09, after about four and a half months of gentle long-and-low work:

And here's a comparison of the two, with the '08 template in red, and the '09 in green:

That's a pretty dramatic difference.  The saddle ordered to the back in the first template no longer fit the back in the second template ... but in this case, instead of being a bad fit from the get-go, the horse "grew out of it" gradually, and after the tree was widened and the flocking adjusted, the fit was fine.

4) The Owner is an Unreasonable Lunatic. Again, this is not completely unknown ... but it's very, very rare. Most people are really quite reasonable, and usually, if the customer is unhappy, there's a reason.  And if someone has gone to the bother and expense of ordering a custom (or bench-made) saddle, it's hardly unreasonable for them to expect that it will be to spec, and it will fit.

In any or all of these cases, the best business practice (and the only one that will let me sleep at night) is to take the saddle back. It happens very infrequently - I'd say that over 90% of our bench-made (or custom, or semi-custom ... choose your term) saddles come as ordered and fit well - but it does happen. What's the sense in trying to make a customer keep a saddle that doesn't fit and makes them (and their horse) unhappy? Sure, you may make that one sale, but at some point, "someone" will be willing to step up and tell the world about their experience - and they will be well within their rights to do so.  Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertising, for better or for worse ... and frankly, that's the sort of press I can live very well without.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Like a Box of Chocolates" Part II - All the Pretty Flocking

As I've said before, one of the best things about my job is that I'm never quite sure what will be waiting for me on my bench when I arrive at the shop.  Often, it's a saddle with some serious visual impact:  the exercise saddle that needed the "repairs" repaired, or the elderly unit with duct tape on the panels and the note, "Can you fix this?". 

And sometimes, things start out so very, very run-of-the-mill, just-another-day-at-the-bench ...

About a week ago, I received an older Theo Sommer all-purpose saddle for a strip flock and C&C (cleaning and conditioning all the nooks and crannies while I have the saddle apart).  The saddle showed its age somewhat (turns out it's about 23 years old); the leather was a bit fragile and the flocking was relatively lumpy, but it had been meticulously maintained and the entire C&C took less time than scrubbing the dirt jockeys off the flaps of some saddles I've worked on ... Anyway, this saddle was so spectacularly unspectacular that I didn't even take photos ... until I started removing the flocking.

I dropped the panels and stuck my hook in one of the flocking holes, and pulled out:

Crimson, navy and lavender, oh my! 

I've pulled some multi-colored wool out of some old Stubbens and Passiers (much of the wool used "back in the day" in these saddles was remnant stuff from the garment and upholstery industries, so the mix was quite colorful and sometimes even included some metallic stuff), but large masses of solid, bright colors was something entirely new.  So I kept pulling:

And pulling:

Yes, that IS yarn mixed in there.  And curiosity led me to do the fire test to find out if it was wool or synthetic.  When I touched the flame to the end of one piece, it went up as though it had been soaked in gasoline - almost scorched my fingers - and had that "Burning Barbies" stench.  DEFINITELY synthetic!

And pulling:

The saddle showed no signs of having been worked on before, so I'm guessing that this is the original flocking.  While I've never heard of using yarn and would not have thought it worth much as flocking, I have to say that the panels were no lumpier than I'd have expected if the saddle had been flocked with plain old wool (particularly given the age of the saddle and the use it had obviously seen).

It's going to be a long time before I'm once again blasé about what I might find when I do a strip flock ...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From the Tree Up: Sub-topic - Adjustable Trees and Changeable Gullets


Please note that this post is not intended to bash, slander, bad-mouth, short-sell or otherwise denegrate  saddles with adjustable trees or changeable gullets. When used as intended, they can fill spots that other saddles don't, and - in some cases - offer far better quality than fixed-tree saddles costing about the same.  Lately, however, I've been running into quite a few folks who have some rather serious misperceptions about these saddles, and I'd like to make an effort to correct them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From The Tree Up - Panels (the Basics)

After you've looked at tree width, scoop and type, the next consideration would be the panels.  In this entry, I'm going to cover the basics, and explain panel modifications (and the conformations that need them) in a later post.

Basically, there are two main types of panels:  gusseted (which are almost always wool-flocked):

and plain panels (which are often but not always foam flocked):

The function of the gusset is to flatten and broaden the weight bearing surface in the rear of the panel.  This is a good thing for a broad-backed horse, but often not such a great thing for a roof-backed horse.  To illustrate, here's a photo of a broad-backed horse and non-gusseted panels:

The angle of the back is marked in green, and the angle of the panels is in red.  You'll notice that when the saddle is placed on the horse's back, the outer edge of the panel will make contact, while the inner edge will bear little to no weight.  Yes, it will squish down some when the rider's up, but not much, and the rider's weight will be concentrated in a fairly small area on the outer edge of the panel rather than being distributed over the whole surface.

Now, here' the same horse with a gusseted, flatter panel:

As you can see, the angles are much more agreeable with the gusseted panel, and there will be contact all along the weight bearing surface.

Now, to the other side of the fence.  Here's a roof-shaped back with a flat, gusseted panel:

In this case, the bulk of the weight will be borne on the inside of the panels, along the channel close to the spine, while the outer edges of the panels bear little to no weight.

Here's that same back with that more angled panel:

Again, the angles are far better, and you'd have panel contact over the entire surface.

Final word about panel basics:  adequate clearance in the channel.  The saddles shown above offer generous clearance for the spine, which will keep the rider's weight from resting on the spinous process.  And while you don't want to get too much clearance (too wide a channel will result in lateral instability), you certainly don't want to go to the other extreme, either:

This saddle wouldn't even offer clearance for the skinny end of a 2"x4" ... NOT something I'd recommend using on a horse.

Next up:  panel modifications, and the horses who need 'em.

Friday, October 23, 2009

From the Tree Up - Hoop Vs. Standard

The previous "From the Tree Up" entry discussed tree scoop, or the longitudinal curve (also called "sweep").  Now we're going to limit the discussion to the front of the tree - the gullet and pommel arch - and discuss the importance of finding the correct type of tree.  The standard tree is shaped sort of like an inverted "V", or a peak/gabled roof:

The shape of the gullet is like so:


This shape works many horses with "average" conformation (if such a term can be applied).  Even if you have a really wide "average" horse, a standard tree could work:

The hoop tree is more like an inverted "U", or a gambrel roof (and in some extreme cases, think Quonset hut):

With a hoop tree, the gullet is shaped so:
If you have what I refer to as a "table backed" horse, you might need a hoop tree:

Heh.  Fun with PhotoShop.  I sent it to Edie as a joke, and she thought it was pretty darn amusing, and had our web mistress put it on the web site ...

Here's what I really mean:

Now, THAT is a table-back.  Here it is with a standard w-i-d-e tree:

The shape isn't quite right.  The orange arrows show where there would be areas of concentrated pressure, which would wind up making the horse sore.

Here's the same back with a hoop tree. Note that it follows the shape of the horse's back much better.

Now, let's take it to the other end of the spectrum.  Here's a more "roof" shaped back:

If you try to put a hoop tree on this horse, note how low the saddle would sit, and how all the pressure would be concentrated on the ends of the tree points (provided it didn't bang into the wither first):

Same horse, standard gullet shape.  The weight is distributed the entire length of the tree points:

Next up:  Panel Configuration.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sometimes, There's No Answer

When I was going through my photo files, searching for different equine body types, I ran into this photo.  While it certainly illustrates an extreme of conformation, it wasn't particularly helpful, since this is one horse who has defied all my efforts to find a saddle that fits.  I e-mailed this photo to about every saddler / saddle fitter I know, and while they said, "You can try this tree and this panel," it was universally followed by, "... but even that probably wouldn't be optimal."  One suggested a good course of conditioning, dressage and abdominal lifts. (This horse's owner wanted to trail ride.  At the walk.  Once a week.  I knew that wasn't going to happen.)  One suggested a treeless saddle (that had been in the back of my mind), and a couple said, "Harness."  (That had also been in the back of my mind, to be perfectly frank.)

So here's my bête noir, my nemesis, my downfall, The One I Couldn't Fit (and incidentally, one of the kindest, sweetest horses I've ever met):

From the Tree Up: The Tree

Recently, my posts have wandered a bit from the real nuts and bolts of saddle fitting, and I'd like to get back to that sort of thing.  To that end, I'm going to do a series of posts about each component of the saddle, and how it affects fit.  And since the basis of how a saddle fits is the tree, I'll begin there.

First, we need a horse to fit - so, meet "Excitable Boy", aka "EB".

EB is an off-the-track Thoroughbred, 9 years old, who's spent the last 4 months in a steady program of dressage.  He's a bit rump-high, with a decent wither and a somewhat dropped back.  So, in addition to a tree that's the correct width, we need a tree that has some curve or "scoop" front-to-back.  I'm going to show two trees below, and then show how they'd fit on EB.

Here's the Black Country Eden tree:

And here's the Black Country Eloquence tree:

I PhotoShopped the two trees so they're one solid color, and removed the background on EB's photo - makes things easier to see - and put the trees on EB.  Here's the Eden tree:

And here's the Eloquence tree:

If you look closely, you'll see that the Eloquence tree, which is quite flat, bridges slightly.  While a panel modification could make up for some of that, it wouldn't be ideal.  The Eden tree, which has more scoop, is a much better fit.

Now, let's take it to the other extreme.  Here's Remmy, who's pretty flat front-to-back:

Now here's Remmie with the Eden.  I had one heck of a time getting the tree to sit correctly - even in PhotoShop!  If I made it sit level, the cantle popped up:

And if I made the tree have proper cantle contact, it sat pommel-high:

So the tree of the Eden is too curved, and would make the saddle rock back-to-front.

Now here's the Eloquence:

The flatter tree sits with good contact along its entire length, making it a far better choice for this flat-backed boy.

In my next entry, I'll be covering the next component of the saddle:  the panels.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy Saddle Fitter (A Visit to Larkin' Hill)

Tomorrow I'm going on a barn call to Margie Hutchinson's Larkin' Hill Farm in Old Chatham, NY (  This is one of my very favorite barns - it's a bit of a drive (about 75 miles one way), but it's in a beautiful area and is a lovely, professional facility; the horses are well-mannered and kind, and so are the people.  This is a barn where I often see a lot of members of the Old Chatham Hunt, as well (the Huntsman and Whip are both clients).  I always have a productive and enjoyable visit.

Much of what (or rather, who) makes it so is a little dynamo of a woman named Sue Smith, who organizes my visits.  She finds out who needs to see me, signs them up, does the scheduling, and - this is a biggie - makes people aware of my guidelines and their responsibilities.  She makes sure my visits run seamlessly, and it is GREATLY appreciated!

Just for giggles, here's a copy of my saddle fitting clinic guidelines (after each listed entry, I'll explain just why I came up with that guideline).  Note that the majority of these issues sprang from my inexperience at doing barn calls.  Honestly, most of my clients are really quite well-behaved, so my mishaps have been relatively few - but I have learned from them!

Saddle Fitting / Barn Call Guidelines

Thanks very much for inviting me to your barn. In an effort to aid organization and help things run smoothly, here’s a time-tested list of guidelines that I find extremely useful. Please review these, and feel free to make copies and post these prominently in your barn, hand them out, e-mail them – whatever method you feel is best to make people aware.

1) Each fitting appointment is 30 minutes; appointments for a template (tracing) and photos are 15 min. Please schedule appointments every 15 or 30 minutes; they should run consecutively with no gaps.

This rule came about when, at one barn, I waited an hour and a half for my first appointment ... and then another hour for the second one.  In all, I spent 7 hours at one barn and saw 4 clients.  NOT a good day ...

2) It’s very helpful if you’re ready to go a little before your scheduled time - that is, tacked up (if you’re going to ride) or horse in the ties and saddle ready for me to look at (if I'm doing a static fit, evaluation or template). If you have multiple saddles, allow 1 hr. per appointment.

This was a result of having to wait for people to catch their horse, groom their horse, tack their horse and/or longe their horse before I could look at saddle fit.

3) Please remember there’s a maximum of 8 appointments per visit, with a maximum of 16 saddles total.

One barn wanted me to arrive at 8 am and stay until about 6 pm, and just "be available" for anyone who wanted to come in that time frame.  (This situation was also a contributing factor to Guideline #1.)  I'm -pushing 50 now, so my stamina isn't what it was back in my 20s and 30s.  Sixteen saddles, or about 8 hrs., is the absolute maximum I can do and feel as though I still have wits enough left to do a good assessment or adjustment.  Much more than that, and I tend to stare vacantly, and maybe drool a bit.

4) I'm afraid I can't evaluate or work on your saddle if you aren’t on the schedule. I’d be happy to set up an appointment with you for another time, or if another participant has cancelled, you are welcome to take their spot (see below).

When I first started doing barn visits, I wanted to be as nice as possible and accommodate everyone who wanted me to evaluate their saddles (and yes, I was trying to drum up business).  So, if I had a 10 minute gap and someone asked me if I'd just "take a quick look," I'd usually say yes.  And this was the typical scenario:  Owner had to catch horse in paddock.  Horse had invariably rolled, so needed to be groomed.  After grooming, owner remembered that a friend was using her saddle in a lesson, which would be over in about 10 minutes.  When she got the saddle back, she needed to tack up and change into her riding clothes.  By this point, my next scheduled person (who always seemed to be right on time) had already been waiting for 15 minutes ... So I came up with Guideline #4.

5) If you’re  unable to keep your appointment, please either give me 24 hours’ notice (802/375-2298 or or someone to fill your spot; otherwise, please be /ware that you'll still be responsible for your share of the barn call.

I showed up at one barn expecting 7 clients, only to find that 5 had cancelled, and no one bothered to tell me.  I was a touch cranky that day ...

6) Repairs and complete re-flocks need to come back to the shop with me. We can ship the saddle back ($35 shipping charge), or you can come to the shop to pick it up. Time and cost estimates available on request.

No trauma behind this one.  People would ask ...

7) It’s very easy to run late if you’re trailering in. I want to be fair to everyone, but I have to give consideration to clients who are ready at their scheduled time. If you’re running late, please call the host barn or my cell (802 / 379-4137) to notify. If you’re more than 15 min. late for your appointment, you will have two options: You can wait for a break (which often happens), or for the end of the day. I will do my best to accommodate you if time allows. Or, you may re-schedule for another time (please note that you will still be responsible for your portion of the barn call charge).

This is pretty self-explanatory.  I've dealt with horses that didn't want to load (one day, Edie and I spent 90 minutes convincing Lyric to get on the trailer), and it seems to be a given that you'll hit road construction or bad traffic when you're hauling a horse trailer.  But this is just a little incentive for people to get going a bit earlier and allow extra time.

8) Please understand that I cannot bring saddles for people to try. If you can send a template and photos to the shop prior to my visit (or if you have tried a specific saddle someone bought from us and you know it works for you and your horse), I can bring one saddle per person, with a maximum of 2 saddles total. Please be aware that I can bring only new or demo saddles.  Another option is to ship saddles down based on your tracings and photos, and I will evaluate the saddles when I come.  If you’re unsure of your ability to take an accurate template and photos, I’m happy to do it for you (there is a $35 charge), and send (or you can pick up) saddles for trial.

- couple of times, I did try bringing a selection of saddles.  Unfortunately, I drive a crew-cab pick-up with an open bed, so my space is limited (particularly since I also need to bring tools, a table, and paperwork; plus, I usually have to bring multiple saddles back to the shop for repairs, strip flocks, or to sell on consignment).  Our inventory is quite large, so even if I stuck to new saddles, I still wouldn't have enough room.  And saddles are amazingly easy to lose when you're schlepping 12 or 14 of them here and there ...

9) Note to the organizer: It’s helpful to me to receive a schedule three or four days prior to my visit, with each person’s name, time, description of service needed (i.e., template and photos, re-flock, evaluation), and e-mail address or phone number (form below). That way, I can contact each person to confirm and save you a little organizational work!

It's helpful for me to touch base with each customer to re-confirm their time and the service requested.  Sometimes, people won't know that I do templates and photos, or are under the misconception that I'll be bringing saddles for people to try.  This just helps get all my ducks in a row.

So off to Larkin' Hill tomorrow for 7 clients.  It's nice to say that I'm really looking forward to it!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dear Fellow Saddle Fitters: Pay It Forward. Good Karma Counts.

A while back, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in getting a good saddle fitting education here in the States.  Yesterday, I had a chance to see it from the other end.

I received an e-mail from a woman named Kelly, who lives in eastern Canada and is taking Mike Scott's saddle fitting course.  One of the requirements for Mike's course is that each student spend time doing internship and observation, so she asked if she could stop by the shop on her way down to the course in South Carolina.  Remembering how Edie and I had struggled to advance my eduaction, I agreed.

I was very impressed with this woman.  Her dedication and drive to learn were obvious:  not only is she committing serious time and money to this course, she asked a lot of excellent questions and had some really fine insights and ideas.  But she was running into one big sticking point: she hadn't been able to find anyone who'd let her intern and observe.  Where she is, there are few fitters (and those fitters are mostly reps for one saddle company), and their overwhelming attitude is, "Why should I train my competition?" 

I was lucky - I only ran into one fitter who felt this way when I was starting out.  That attitude didn't bother me much back then, but - considering what a long, bumpy trip it's been - it really, really bugs me now.  And, hey - all you fitters with that attitude?  Here's why:

First, I really think that any saddle fitter worth the title has to be aware of the shortage of good fitters here in North America, and is sort of honor-bound to help educate someone who's sincere about learning.  I mean, this is for the good of the horse!  It isn't all about you

Second, it's not easy to become educated.  Sure, you may have had to go to the UK to learn, or may have had to apprentice with someone, and may even have encountered that same attitude from the fitters you approached when you were first starting ... but does that mean you need to perpetuate it?  The laws of Instant Karma definitely apply here:  if you're willing to help someone else out, it'll come back to you.  Give someone a leg up along the way, and they'll likely return the favor.  And even if they don't, it's just the right thing to do.

Third, that attitude makes me wonder if you're insecure about something.  If you're worried that there may be areas where you lack knowledge, or that the person you help now may someday know more than you, then it's up to you to continue with and add to your education.  Given the dearth of good fitters out there, I honestly believe that there are more than enough clients to go around, even if the number of good fitters doubled.  And that leads me back to my first point.

Ok.  Verbal spanking done.

One lesson I've learned in all facets of my life is that you can learn something from everyone you meet.  Being open to sharing what you know - and being willing to listen to feedback - can add a lot to your knowledge base.  It may be that the only thing you learn from the other person is that you don't like their method ... or it may be that fresh eyes on a familiar situation can offer some really neat new insights.  I've taught dressage, martial arts and, most recently, started sharing what I know about saddle fitting.  I love to teach, I've learned a lot, and, as my Sensei Jon Bottomms taught me, it's a wonderful thing if someday the student might surpass the teacher.

So if there's anyone out there who has questions, please don't hesitate to ask.   And if you'd like to learn more about Mike Scott's course, check out

Monday, September 14, 2009

Saddlers Vs. Fitters, Fitters vs. Reps (Semantics?)

I've always been fascinated by words, and by the fact that they can have so many meanings.  When I say, "boot", I usually think of something that goes on my foot, or on my horse's leg.  In the UK, "boot" is the trunk of a car.  When we say, "trainers", we're often talking about our riding instructors; in the UK, "trainers" are sneakers.  And (my favorite) when we talk about Curlies, we're often referring to Bashkir Curlies, a breed of horse (  In the UK, "curlies" is slang for pubic hair ... so you can imagine the uproar at Black Country Saddlery when we sent them a template for a woman who wanted to order a saddle for one of her Curlies ...

Anyway, another word (or phrase) with different meanings here and Across the Pond is "saddle fitter".  In the UK, a saddle fitter is someone who helps you find a saddle that fits you and your horse. A saddler (or master saddler) would be the one to adjust the flocking, alter your billet configuration, and do similar work to adjust the fit of your saddle or do repairs. 

Over here, "saddle fitter" is more of a broad term.  In addition to finding the right saddle for horse and rider, we often do repairs, flocking adjustments, retrofit saddles ... just about anything.  This is mostly because of the lack of standardized education here in the US; in the UK, the saddlery business is much older, larger and more structured.  There are Master Saddlers, Allied Trade Members, Qualified Saddle Fitters, and more - you can read about all the different "Categories of Membership" at

I've always had mixed emotions about saddle fitters (whichever definition you're applying) who rep for a saddle company.  As a saddle fitter, I think it's my responsibility to find the right saddle for you and your horse, whichever company happens to make it.  Admittely, I have the luxury of working for a shop that has a relatively huge inventory of new and used saddles; we carry new saddles from about a dozen different companies - and often multiple models from each company -  and our used inventory is massive.  That gives me the opportunity to find the right saddle for each horse and rider without having to worry about making my sales quota or getting (or losing!) a commission.  My situation is relatively rare.

For a fitter who's also a rep, it can be a very different story.  On the one hand, I know some excellent fitters who are also reps, but will work on the fit of mostly any saddle, and be perfectly honest in their assessments of saddles and fit (and I have to say that these fitters are in the majority).  But human nature being what it is (and economic reality and commissions being what they are), some fitters will try to sell you one of their saddles ... whether you need one or not.  The main problem in that situation (ethics aside) is that there's no single saddle company, no matter how many models they make, that produce the perfect saddle for each and every horse and rider.  Even the best saddle companies - the ones that offer multiple models with a bazillion fitting options for horse and rider - can't satisfy everyone.  Having a choice (both for you and for the fitter) gives you a wider range of options, and increases the likelihood that you'll find the right saddle.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Let Me Get my Crystal Ball ...

Multi-tasking is a way of life for those involved in horses, and I'm no exception. In addition to my saddle work and the care and feeding of this blog, I have several other responsibilities: I answer customers' e-mail queries, I create and Photoshop ads, I write informational articles, and I monitor the shop's presence on the Internet. As a result of the last task mentioned, I spend a fair bit of time cruising the larger bulletin boards to eyeball what people are saying - about new, must-have products, about fitting issues and concerns, and about us. Recently, on one of the larger bulletin boards, I came across a thread about saddle shopping. Quite a few people were making glowing recommendations for the shop, praising our customer service and the quality of our saddles, and I was feeling all warm and fuzzy inside ... until I read a post from someone I will refer to as "Cranky Breeches". Cranky Breeches was bemoaning the fact that we ask "tons" of questions and make people "jump through hoops" by asking for a template of the horse's back and some photos before we make saddle recommendations. We were quite the unreasonable task masters, according to Cranky Breeches. TMI, TMI.

This threw a large bucket of cold water on my warm fuzziness, let me tell you. I went from injured pride to indignity to composing a scathing reply to CB all in a matter of about two minutes, but finally common sense kicked in. The recommendations we were getting outnumbered CB's complaint at least 10 to 1, and here I was getting my shorts in a bunch. I needed to get over myself and look at this at least somewhat objectively. (And besides, other posters on the bb came to our defense. Neener, neener.)

If you look at the list of info requested, I wouldn't say that we're asking the customer to "jump through hoops", but in fairness, we do ask for a lot of info.

Why? Because in order to make intelligent, comprehensive recommendations about saddles, we need as much info as we can get. Because we don't want our customers to spend the bulk of their saddle shopping budget shipping unsuitable saddles back and forth. Because we want to make this whole process as productive and painless as we can. And because occasionally, we get these sorts of inquiries (and I swear before the horse gods and goddesses, I'm not making these up - these are real inquiries, ver batim and in toto):

-"I'm riding my horse in a medium tree Pessoa, and it doesn't fit. What would you recommend?"

- "My mare's back was ouchy after our ride today. I think it's my saddle. What's wrong with the way it's fitting?"

- "My horse was on lay-up for the last two months, and gained a lot of weight. What tree width do I need?"

- "My horse goes funny to the right, and won't pick up the right lead canter. Does this mean my saddle doesn't fit?"

- A photo of a saddle sitting on a saddle buck, with the query, "Is this saddle the right size for me?"

- A photo of a horse's head (or in one memorable case, its rump), with the query, "This is my horse. What saddle would fit?"

- A piece of paper with two parallel lines drawn on it. One is labeled, "Back of my butt", and the other is labeled, "Front of my crotch"; below the two lines are the words, "Do I need a 16" or a 16.5" seat?"

Now, I'll admit that we have a pretty knowledgeable staff here - we all have the ability to make educated guesses and recommendations based on a good description of the horse or how the saddle's fitting (or not), but the inquiries listed above require "Let me lay hands upon my computer monitor and I will tap into the Divine Universal Saddle Fitter Consciousness and tell you what you need." And while we're pretty good, NO ONE is that good.

If you want to find a saddle that works for you and your horse, you need to do your homework, particularly if you're doing it long-distance. If we can't put our hands on the horse to assess the fit and watch the horse go in each saddle with you riding, we need your help - you need to be our eyes and ears (and hands). It's not necessarily easy or convenient, but for those customers who have no shops or fitters nearby, it may be the only way to find a saddle that works for you and your horse.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"I Think That I Shall Never See ..."

... a debate as heated as treeless vs. tree." (Apologies to Joyce Kilmer.)

I ran into a really interesting topic on one of the bigger bulletin boards today, comparing saddles and bras - it was such an unusual juxtaposition (to my mind, anyway) that I just had to read it. The original poster was comparing treed saddles to bras made of wood (!!!), and saying that treeless saddles are far better.

Now, as a saddle fitter, I obviously have an affinity to treed saddles, since one of my sources of income is adding or removing flocking to adjust the fit of one. But I'm not a hard line anti-treeless type; my main objection to treeless saddles comes when there's no clearance for the spine, and the saddle sits directly on the spinous process - not a good thing. There are treeless saddles out there - Barefoot and Heather Moffet are two - that have a system of panels with a channel between them, and sometimes they're a perfectly adequate answer to a horse's fitting needs. However, they do tend to lack lateral stability on some horses, and the lack of a tree makes it pretty easy for an asymmetrical horse and/or rider to moosh them out of shape. But if they work, so much the better; I'm of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought.

When it comes to saddles and saddle fitting, I often compare it to shoes: "Getting a saddle with far too wide a tree and thinking you can make it fit by adding pads is sort of like getting a pair of shoes 3 sizes to big and planning to make them work by wearing two pairs of thick socks," or "Trying to fix the fit of a too-narrow tree by adding pads is like trying to fix the fit of too-small shoes by adding another pair of socks." While I do think those are accurate analogies, I think fellow saddle fitter Galadriel Billington's ( comparison of saddles and backpacks illustrates the treeless vs. treed issue very well.

I've hiked many, many miles carrying both framed and frameless backpacks. A frameless pack is fine for a day hike if you're just carrying your lunch, water and a few incidentals, but for longer hauls with bigger loads, I like a pack with a frame. Instead of allowing the entire load to drop to the bottom of the pack and hang just on the pack straps, the frame allows the weight to be distrbuted vertically and more evenly between shoulders and hips.

To carry the analogy even further, I'll use the example of having spent many hours lugging my sons on my back. I've carried them piggy-back, in a sling, and in a Gerry pack with a frame. Again, I found it easier to carry a listing, wiggling, jouncing 30 pound toddler in a framed pack than any other way. (And while I'd like to think that I'm not quite as unstable in the saddle as my wee ones were in the Gerry pack, it did give me a tremendous amount of empathy for what my mare must go through when I'm sitting unevenly.)

Of course, there are positives and negatives to both sides of the treed vs. treeless issue, as there are to most things. I've seen ill-fitting treed saddles do serious damage to horses, and I've seen ill-fitting treeless saddles do damage, too. I've worn frameless packs that rubbed my shoulders raw, and worn framed packs that wore holes in my hips. If the basic overall fit isn't correct, there will be problems, whether there's an internal frame or tree - or not!

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Can't Bring Back the Dead

In the 10 years that I've been doing tack repair, I've tackled some saddles that were pretty close to their last gasp. In a lot of those cases, the repairs have cost more than the saddles were actually worth - and I've told the owners so. But often it was a case of sentimental value: someone's first saddle, or one that they've had and ridden in for years, or one that was a gift from someone long dead. And I'm a wicked sucker for that sort of thing - I'll freely admit that I still have my first saddle and bridle (a red western pony-size set with brass tacks), as well as my old western saddle, and my mom's western tack. When it comes to horses and their paraphernalia, I'm nothing if not sentimental.

However, I know when I've met my match. I'm flabbergasted that someone thought this saddle was salvageable - though at first, it didn't look too bad:

A patch on the knee pad, and a few stitches on the flap. No biggie.

Then I looked at the front:

The panels needed to be sewn back on - again, not a huge deal. But then I saw the condition of the front of the panels:

And then I turned it over:

Yep, that's the foam inside the panels that you're seeing. Obviously, someone decided duct tape would be a good fix.

Obviously, this was one for the trash can. There's a lot I can do - but resurrection is beyond me!

Exercise Saddle, Repaired

I finally finished the repairs on the exercise saddle. It was a bit of trial-and-error, since I've never encountered anything quite like this. I wanted a sturdy repair, given that the area that needed repair will be taking a beating from the stirrup leathers and rider's boots. The flap leather wasn't in the best of shape, and a small patch seemed too fragile. I scratched my head, measured and cut, tried and discarded a couple of ideas, and finally decided that I ought to just cover the entire bottom of the flaps:

I cut the patches and skived the edges; then cut Vs in the bottom edge of the patch so I could bend it around the bottom of the flap evenly. I glued the patch to the saddle, clamped it, and left it to dry. Then, I started sewing. I followed the original stitch lines, but skipped every other stitch in an effort to stress the leather as little as possible (lots of little stitches means lots of closely-spaced holes, which isn't a good idea when the leather's compromised ... which this leather definitely was!). The existing seams were a bit uneven, which translated into the stitch lines being a little crooked, but I kept telling myself that function was the important thing here(as much as it galled my rather obsessive-compulsive soul).
Next, I cut patches for the panels, skived the edges, and glued them on. No stitches, since I didn't want to sew all the way through the panels, and the panel leather was too tired to tolerate them (if you look closely at the underside of the flaps, you can see the V notches I cut):

The saddle went home this past Monday night, hopefully to have at least a few more months of exercise rides. If there are any more problems, however, the owner really needs to invest in a new saddle.