Monday, March 30, 2009

Sometimes, It's NOT the Saddle

A couple of weeks ago, a gentleman brought his mare to me, looking for a jumping saddle. I took a template and asked (as I always do) if the horse was having soundness or saddle fit issues. The gent responded that he'd just had his vet do a full work-up, complete with x-rays, and the mare was declared sound. But there was this one small problem with saddle fit: whenever he rode the horse, she'd go exactly four steps, and then try to buck.

I evaluated the saddle the gent had been using, and didn't see any major red flags. I felt the mare's back and found no soreness, swelling, lumps, bumps or thickening; there was no major asymmetry, and the mare walked and trotted quite sound. He longed her before we started trying saddles, and she went around fairly willingly, though - to my eye - there was something just a tiny bit off. Exactly what, I couldn't say, but something about her body use and the way she held herself didn't feel right.

The gent was on a somewhat limited budget, so we tried all the saddles in the shop that were in his price range that looked even remotely likely to fit. Every time, the result was the same: the mare pinned her ears and wrung her tail while being tacked up, and after the gent mounted, she'd go exactly four steps, drop her head and try to buck. Saddle after saddle after saddle. We even tried a saddle that was way beyond the gent's price range, but that had the fitting options the mare required ... and got the same result. We tried a Mattes pad, a Skito pad, a synthetic sheepskin pad, a girth with elastic, a girth with no elastic - all with the same result.

Finally I told him, "You know, I hate to tell you this, but I really don't think this is an issue with saddle fit. I'm not a vet, but I think there's something else going on here."

He wasn't too happy to hear that - understandable, given that he'd just spend a considerable amount of money having his mare vetted. He asked me what else could be causing the reaction we were seeing.

I replied, "Again, I'm not a vet, and you should discuss this with your vet, but it could be any number of things. It could be ulcers; it could be painful ovaries or some chiropractic issue. It might be neurological, it might be Lyme disease, or it could be a nutritional issue - vitamin B or vitamin E/selenium deficiency. I really don't know - but I am willing to say that I don't believe saddle fit is the problem here."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because we're seeing the exact same reaction every time, no matter which saddle or pad or girth we're using. If it was a saddle fit issue, we'd likely be seeing a different reaction when we alleviated the problem.

"Did your vet do any blood work?" I asked him.

"Just a Coggins," he answered.

"I'd recommend that you ask your vet about doing some diagnostics to find out what's causing this. I think you need to deal with the underlying cause before we can consider finding a saddle."

So yes, there are times when saddle fit isn't going to be the answer. Some problems may appear to be caused by an ill-fitting saddle, but their underlying cause might be illness or injury, problems with shoeing or dentistry, bad training or riding, or inherent conformation problems that cause unsoundness. And sometimes it's sort of a "chicken or the egg" situation: did saddle fit cause the soundness/behavioral/training issue, or did an underlying problem with soundness, behavior or training end up making the saddle fit badly?

Saddle fit's always a good place to start. But if the fitter doesn't think the saddle is the issue, or if you're getting the same reaction consistently, no matter what saddle you try, talk with your vet about which diagnostics would be most appropriate. Finding and treating the cause rather than worrying about the symptom is always the best route.

And by the way, if I ever find out what was causing the problem with that mare, I'll be sure to post it here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Twist and Shout

When discussing saddle fit for the rider, one issue that almost invariably comes up is twist width – I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the top three concerns, along with seat size and balance. Some people like a wide twist, some a narrow, and some like something in between; for some people it depends on the make and model of saddle, or whether it’s a jump saddle or a dressage saddle. But everyone has a preference, and it’s an important aspect of correctly fitting the rider.

I’ve heard lots of different theories regarding who needs which twist. Some people say men need wide twists and women need narrow twists. I am female, and can’t ride in a dressage saddle with a wide twist – I either feel as though my hip joints are being torqued out, or I fall back into a chair seat.

Another theory states that if you’ve had children (obviously, this one only applies to us females), you’ll want a wide twist. Well, I’ve had two kids, and still like a narrow twist; conversely, my co-worker Sara has never had kids, and she likes a narrow twist – while Edie, who’s never had kids, prefers a wider twist. Finally, there's Nancy, who's had one kid and prefers a wider twist. So I'm not thinking that particular theory holds water very well.

I’ve heard that it depends on the spacing of your seat bones, and found myself wading through an unholy number of exhaustively detailed e-mails from one of my Yahoo groups, explaining methods of measuring the distance between your seat bones and how that measurement should correspond to your twist preference.

I’ve heard of measuring pelvic tilt, crotch clearance, pubic arch, thigh size, butt size … and I’m still as clueless about who's going to prefer which twist as I ever was.

In my experience, there are so many things that come into play when you’re talking about twist width that it’s only a small part of the picture. The set of the flap, the style of the saddle, the rise of the pommel, the placement of the stirrup bars and the overall balance of the saddle make a difference in how the twist feels. Example: I can ride quite comfortably in a close contact or jump-focus all-purpose saddle with a wide twist, because I’m shortening my stirrup. Think of sitting on a whiskey barrel: sure, you can do it if you bring your thighs forward, but if you try to make your leg hang straight down to get the correct ear-shoulder-hip-heel line, you’ll probably pop off like a clothes pin on a piece of pipe (or dislocate your hips).

Twist width is a determined by the distance between and the angle of the saddle tree rails. Since the rails should be parallel to the horse’s back, a saddle made for a wider horse will have a flatter rail than a saddle made for a “roof-backed” horse.

Here's the tree of a Black Country Eden, with the angle of the rails marked in red. This saddle works well for the scoopy, more "roof" shaped back:

Here's the same tree in a completed saddle:

By contrast, here's the tree of a Black Country Eloquence, which works for a wider, flatter (front-to-rear) back:

And here's the tree in a completed saddle:

As you can see, the twist on the Eloquence is wider than the twist on the Eden.

And just for comparison, here's the Duett Largo, which is designed for a very wide, very flat back (wish I had one of their trees to show you). The twist on this saddle is quite wide:

So - are there any saddles with narrow twists that work on the real barrel-bodies? Not really, at least in my experience. The problem with trying to get a narrow twist saddle on a real table-back is that you either have to have a much thicker panel to protect the horse from a too-steep rail angle, or you need to build a twist with foam on the seat, and both options will leave you perched up above your horse's back rather than in good close contact.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Caveat Emptor - TRY BEFORE YOU BUY!!

When someone sends me a saddle to sell on consignment, I often hear the following comments:

"The rep said it fit my horse, but within a week, he was so back sore that he was biting when I came near with the saddle."

"It looked fine on my horse in the crossties, so I bought it."

"I could only ride in it for 5 minutes, and couldn't girth it up."

"I bought it on-line."

"A wide tree Albion SLK fits my mare beautifully, and this is a wide tree, too - but it doesn't fit!"

What it comes down to is that many people will buy a saddle without trying it first - which can be a huge mistake. Let's look at each scenario, and find the fatal flaws.

1) "The rep said it fit my horse, but within a week, he was so back sore that he was biting when I came near with the saddle."

I touched on this in an earlier post ("For The First Time Horse Owner", posted on 1/30). Many reps are "certified" by the company they sell for, but that doesn't mean that they are truly well-versed in fitting all saddles; usually the company teaches them to sell and fit their saddles (sometimes, sadly, with more emphasis on "sell" than "fit"). Reps may receive as little as an afternoon of instruction to gain their "certification". This is not true of every rep, of course - there are some damn fine fitters out there repping for various companies, but reputation rather than certification is usually the surest measure of a fitter.

2) "It looked fine on my horse in the crossties, so I bought it."

Static fit can be very different from active fit. You must remember that a horse's back can and often does change quite dramatically when s/he moves, so what looks fine in the ties can be a whole different story when the rider's up and the horse starts moving. Also, a saddle that feels fine sitting on the buck in the shop may not feel the same on a moving horse, even if it fits your horse well.

3) "I could only ride in it for 5 minutes, and couldn't girth it up."

I don't know about you, dear readers, but if I were riding in a saddle that I couldn't girth up, I probably would not attempt anything other than a nice collected walk. My balance is fairly decent, but I don't think it's anywhere near good enough to ride an ungirthed saddle at the trot or canter, and - this could be my middle-aged comprehension of my mortality - for damn sure I wouldn't be trying any hills or jumps. (Not that I do jump ... but if I did. Just sayin'.) Anyway, it's impossible to tell how a saddle will really ride based on a sedate five minute toddle on the flat.

4) "I bought it on line."

Now, if you've ridden your horse in a wide tree XYZ saddle that was manufactured in 2005, and it's worked well for both of you, AND you're lucky enough to find another 2005 wide-tree XYZ on line, then it has a reasonable chance of working for you and your horse. But keep in mind that each saddle is unique, and the 2005 wide-tree XYZ that Frank made will ride a tad differently than the one Rob made. Also, each flocked saddle will be flocked uniquely; and if the saddle's used, it will have likely taken on the shape of the last horse it was ridden on, and may need flocking adjustments to fit your horse properly.

5) "A wide tree Albion SLK fits my mare beautifully, and this is a wide tree, too - but it doesn't fit!"

Comparing tree widths, whether you're talking about saddles marked narrow, medium and wide or saddles measured in centimeters, is pretty useless. There's no standardization, so saying your horse needs a wide tree is open to a lot of interpretation. For example, a wide Frank Baines is wider than a wide (32 cm) Stubben; Passier's wide tree measures 28.5 cm., and Prestige's wide tree measures 35 cm.

Tree type and shape need to be considered, as well. A wide hoop tree will fit much differently than a wide standard tree; a 34 cm. Duett Largo, which has a pretty flat tree, fits very differently than a 34 cm. Duett Fidelio, which has much more scoop to the tree. Remember that panel configuration plays a large part as well.

So I'm going to ask you all to make me a promise: Never, ever - even if the rep (or your trainer, or your animal communicator, or your vet, or your mom) says the saddle's a good fit, even if it looks good in the cross ties, even if if felt good during the Five Minute No-Girth ride, even if you got such a deal on-line that it was nearly criminal, and even if it's the same tree width as another saddle that fit well - never, ever buy a saddle without trying it first.

Dispensing this advice may cut down on the number of consignment saddles I get in the shop, but it will also make me feel better knowing that it may have saved someone (and their horse) some pain and inconvenience.

To Shim or Not to Shim ...

... That is the question.

The answer? "It depends". There are situations where a shim pad can be a huge help and is actually preferable to flocking adjustments; there are some times when shim pads are a necessity, and there are times when shim pads will be of no help whatsoever.

Let's start with the "no help whatsoever" and work toward the positive. There is no shim pad in the world that will correct a truly bad fit. They can't compensate for a saddle that's too narrow or the wrong shape tree, and they can't compensate if the panel configuration is totally wrong for your horse. There are plenty of pads available that will claim to end your saddle fitting troubles forever, to make any saddle fit your horse, to improve your horse's performance and your riding ... But I've yet to find one that's of any help if the saddle really and truly does not fit.

As for them being a necessity: if you have a foam panelled saddle that needs some adjustment, shim pads are the only way to go. You can put shims between the panel and the tree, but they can move or slip out, while shims in the pad will stay put. Shim pads can also be a necessity when you have a horse with a long-standing and dramatic asymmetry for whom flocking corrections just aren't enough to "fill in the gaps".

Shim pads are a huge help when you're dealing with a horse whose back will be changing rapidly, such as an upper-level horse coming back from a lay up, or a young horse just getting into serious training. When you have a lot of rapid changes, particularly muscle growth, adjusting the flock repeatedly really isn't your best option. First, it's going to be very, very expensive to have the fitter out every 3 or 4 weeks to make adjustments (and taking flock out is tough to do without leaving divots). Second, repeated adjustments (especially removing flock) really aren't good for the integrity of the flock, and your saddle will probably wind up needing a strip flock (all old flock removed and replaced with new) much sooner than it otherwise would. Finally, shims allow you to make immediate adjustments to allow the muscles room to grow, which will prevent asymmetries from developing.

While shim pads aren't usually a long-term answer, they are a good answer for some issues, and are a valuable addition to a saddle fitter's tool box.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Herself, the Great Red Menace

As promised, here are some photos of my mare, Lyric. Is that belly (and the horrendously saggy topline) the result of 4 months of vacation and lots of hay, or is there a little resident in there?

If she is in foal, this is the time when the foal's growth will be very rapid. My vet, Greg Dowd, will be coming back April 14th to palpate again, and if there's a foal to be felt, it should be big enough for Greg to reach. I'll be sure to keep you posted!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Life Happens (Is That Mare In Foal?)

Winters are long here in VT, and since I don't have access to an indoor, I don't ride much. But I have my mare Lyric at home, so - fortunately - I still have horsey activities. I muck, groom, feed, blanket, unblanket ... and was utterly horrified the other day when I pulled her blanket off and noticed that her topline has pretty much vanished. Sure, she always loses condition over the winter, but this was way more dramatic than usual. She is twelve, admittedly, and she is a big mare (16.1, 1250 lbs., 8.5" of bone), and it's true that she hasn't been worked in 4 months, but still ...

Of course, the first thing that sprang to mind was, "Holy crud, will her saddle still fit?!?" I ride in a Passier Grand Gilbert with Freedom panels, and it's always fit her rather beetle-y shape beautifully. I started thinking quite seriously about a month of ground and in-hand work before I even consider saddling up and riding. I do have a Mattes shim pad and can "fill in the dips" if I need to, but have my doubts that it would be of much help in this case. I'll be posting some photos in a couple of days.

A horse's body changes as s/he ages, as does a human's. Physical activity, childbirth (or lack thereof), work and genetics all play a part. As a horse ages, it's not uncommon to see a change in saddle fitting needs. Often, the abdominals aren't as toned in an older horse, which will allow the back to drop and the wither to become more prominent. Arthritic changes and general wear and tear come into play more and more, and they have an affect on the physiology, too. Often an older horse needs a tree with more scoop, and panel modifications (dropped panel, wither gussets) are often helpful as well.

So why this dramatic change in my mare's back? Well, I had her bred last summer. Vermont springs being what they are, I didn't want Lyric to foal too early and have to contend with a foot of mud (or snow!). We missed our window of opportunity in June thanks to the stud being on the other side of the country, malfunctioning fax machines and the Fourth of July, but we short-cycled her and got two good inseminations on a nice, ripe 38 mm. follicle in late July. Unfortunately, the follow-up ultrasound showed absolutely nothing going on. We figured we'd just left it too late and caught her in transition, and aimed to try earlier in the season this year.

But after I got over my shock at the state of her topline, I started looking at her belly ... Her normal hay belly is sort of evenly round, and now she's pretty pear-shaped - carrying most of her bulk quite low. And in spite of her tummy, she's rather lean otherwise, though she's getting about 40 lbs. of hay a day. My vet came to do spring shots, checked her teeth (which aren't at all bad), looked at her belly and said, "Let's palpate."

Again, nothing conclusive. She's so big that he couldn't reach in far enough to feel anything (I told him I still think he's a good vet, short arms and all), so we're going to check again in a month. If she is in foal, she's a little over 7 months along, and the baby will start growing quite quickly now; in another month, my vet's arm should be long enough to tell if there's anything there.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I am sort of starting to think about names. The stud she bred to is Devon Heir, so I need a name that begins with "D". Suggestions welcome, and I'll post photos soon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Importance of Accuracy

After re-reading my last entry, I got to thinking about how important accuracy is when taking a template for long-distance fitting. We use the misnomer "wither tracing" when we're actually talking about a more involved process, and sometimes people to send just that - a tracing of their horse's withers. This is only helpful for determining a small part of the overall picture, and only helpful for that small part if the tracing is taken in the correct spot.

So here's the bottom line: your template must be accurate for a fitter to make the correct recommendations. And while it's really not hard to take an accurate template, it is easy enough to make mistakes. If you're taking the tracings in the wrong spot, if your horse is standing with his/her head in an unnaturally high or low position, if your horse is resting a hind leg or isn't square, the template will not be accurate. And if your template isn't accurate, you're going to be spending beaucoup bucks shipping ill-fitting saddles back and forth!

Here are the ground rules:

#1) Your horse must be standing squarely on a level surface with his/her head in a relaxed position. Timing is important here: don't try to take a template when your horse is fretting about being fed or turned out with the herd - you want your horse calm and relaxed.

#2) Be absolutely sure you are taking the tracings in the correct places. If you're having problems locating the rear of the scapula for the first tracing, place your hand on the side of your horse's wither and have a helper pull the foreleg forward; you'll feel the scapula rotate under your hand, and be able to follow the rear edge of it as it moves. (You may also be amazed at how far back the scapula rotates when the foreleg extends, and will understand why you need to place your saddle on the horse's back rather that up on the wither.) Have your helper put the horse's leg back down, and again, make sure your horse is standing squarely on all four legs. Your first measurement will be taken three fingers' width (about 2" or 5 cm) behind the rear edge of the scapula.

To find the lowest point on your horse's back, roll a pill bottle, thick marker or piece of chalk down the wither to the back; it will stop at the lowest point.

To take a topline tracing, place one of the flexible curve on the horse's spine about 2" in front of the rear edge of the scapula, and conform it to the shape of your horse's topline. Remember to mark where it intersects with the first 2 measurements.

#3) Be sure BOTH legs of the flexible curve are pointing straight down toward the ground. If they're angled forward or back, it will distort the measurement.

Accuracy also applies to your photos. #1 above is a very good guideline for photos as well as the template. I'll add that being sure your photos are in focus and well-lit is necessary - I'm not talking professional quality here, I'm just saying that the fitter needs to see the horse clearly. Daylight is always preferred if possible; if not, a well-lit barn aisle or indoor arena will do nicely.

All these directives may sound a bit nit-picky, but this is one situation where "neatness counts" - the more accurate your template and photos are, the less time it will take to find the right saddle for you and your horse.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Long Distance Fitting

In a perfect world, saddle fitting would receive the consideration it deserves. There would be an ample population of good, knowledgeable fitters sprinkled throughout the land, dispensing good advice and bringing peace and comfort. Horses would never get back-sore, and riders would never get butt sore. And they all would live happily ever after.

As we say in Vermont, "Oh, AYUH."

In reality, finding a good fitter can be tough, and finding a saddle that fits can be even tougher. And if you don't have a fitter in your area, what are you to do?

While having someone there doing hands-on work is really the best possible scenario, it is possible to do long-distance saddle fitting if - and this is the key part - if you're working with a fitter who's good at remote work ... and not all fitters are.  With an accurate template and a good conformation photo, a long-distance fitter who's good at their job can make some very detailed recommendations about what saddle might best suit you and your horse.

I'm going to be wicked lazy and just post the links to the pages I've already made. To see instructions for taking a template (also known as a tracing), go to To see the photos that should accompany them, go to Go ahead and take a look - I'll be here when you get back. And don't be intimidated by any of this - usually the hardest part is getting your horse to stand still and square!

Now that you're back, let me explain how all this info translates to a fitter. First, the tracings. #1 tracing shows us what tree width your horse may need in any given saddle, and whether a regular tree or hoop tree would be best. It also tells us if modifications may need to be made to the front of the panels (wither gussets, trapezius or dropped panel, etc.) #2 tracing shows us what we need for a bearing surface on the rear of the panels: flat, angled, or somewhere in between. #3 tracing shows us what tree shape we'll need, and what rear panel depth and configuration will be necessary.

As for the photos, the conformation shot gives us an idea of your horse's overall balance and conformation. Is your horse a little rump-high? Are we dealing with a big shoulder? A short, forward girth spot?  A short back? This info helps us refine our recommendations. If your horse is a little rump-high or short backed, an upswept panel might be a good option. A big shoulder might require a saddle with a short tree point.

The photo of you in your current saddle is another tool of refinement. If your ABC saddle is a 17" wide tree and it's sitting pommel high and your leg is coming off the front of the flap, we know that you'll need a wider tree and either a longer/more forward flap or a larger seat, AND we know that saddles with trees and flaps similar to the ABC probably aren't going to be good choices for you.

Even with this info it may take a bit of trial and error, so if the first saddle isn't quite right for either you or your horse, I ask that you send some photos of that as well ( so I can see what the problem is, and what steps need to be taken to correct it. It might be that you need a different tree width or seat size, or perhaps a different saddle would be a good option to explore. But with patience and perserverence, you can find a saddle that works for you and your horse.

Friday, March 6, 2009

One Saddle, Multiple Horses

Though I'm not often a fan of generalizations, I think it's pretty safe to say this: there's no such thing as a "free" horse. Horse ownership is not an inexpensive endeavor. Even if there's no initial cash outlay to obtain said horse, there are the costs of housing (whether you board or have to maintain your own barn, acreage and fencing), hay, grain, vet, farrier, equipment ... When you add that all up, you're talking about a very substantial amount of money.

And if you own two or more horses, your costs increase exponentially. So it's no wonder that a good number of my multiple-horse-owning clients would love to find a saddle that will work for both - or in some cases, all - of their horses.
Is this possible? In some cases, yes. And sometimes - to quote a line from an old Calvin and Hobbes strip - "A good compromise leaves everyone mad."
If you have horses that are all of a similar physical size and type with similar backs and fitting requirements - say, a pair of barrel-bodied Arabs, or a few lean, high-withered off-the-track Thoroughbreds - it's possible. Not optimum, but possible. The general rule of thumb is to fit the widest horse, and use correction pads for the less wide horse(s). This is a situation in which a foam-flocked saddle is the best solution, since the foam will not begin to take on the shape of an individual horse. I know quite a few trainers who specialize in working with a particular type of horse - Thoroughbred eventers or dressage warmbloods - who have just one or two foam-flocked saddles that they use on the horses they work, and it works out quite well.
But say you have two very different horses - let's use the examples I mentioned before. You have Ed, a 14.2 hand Arab with a low wither and a back you could serve dinner on:

You also have Bob, a 16.3 hand OTTB with a "roof" back and a good wither:

These two conformations are so radically different that there's no one saddle that will fit both of them, no matter what kind of corrective pad you use. Ed will need a flat tree (and very possibly a hoop tree, to boot), a shallow rear gusset and perhaps an upswept panel; Bob will need a more curved, standard tree with either a K or trapezius panel and wither gussets, and perhaps a deeper rear guesset. A saddle that would work for Ed would sit down on Bob's withers and bridge, while a saddle that would work for Bob would rock, and perch on Bob's back like a party hat. In this case, two different saddles would be an absolute necessity.