Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Becoming a Saddle Fitter

This is Edie Tschorn:
... and it's all her fault.
When I started working for Edie at the shop back in the late 90's, I worked part-time, selling saddles on-line and filling in for other shop employees on vacations and days off. I was a stay-at-home mom then, and the job was pretty much ideal: it was horse-related, I did most of my work from home, and if I was needed at the shop, it wasn't a problem, since my husband worked nights and could do "day care" with our sons.
Then came the day when Edie said, "Hey, Kitt - how'd you like to learn to do saddle fitting?"
Because it sounded interesting (and because I was totally ignorant of just what it would entail), I agreed.

Here in the US, learning the trade of fitting and repair can be tough. There aren't a lot of educational opportunities, and there were even fewer back when I started. Here were my options:

1) The Society of Master Saddlers' Qualification course. Located in the UK, you need 3 years' prior fitting experience (and you need to have taken their Intro course) to be accepted. The course teaches you what tree shape and panel configuration would work for a given horse, and how to assess a horse's fitting needs, but it doesn't cover flocking or repairs.

2) The Master Saddlers' Association. They will teach you to fit and to flock (no repairs), but (back then, anyway) you needed to be a County Saddlery rep to get in. I wasn't, and had no desire to be, so I didn't.

3) The Cumbria School of Saddle Fitting. David May will teach you everything, but again, it's located in the UK.

Luckily, Edie was determined to have me educated, and decided the best route was to hire a fitter to teach me. So my education began with Nancy Shedrick, a SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter. I learned about flocking and saddle design, and to do a Flair-to-wool conversion (which is kind of a cross between plumbing and surgery, since you need to open the panels and remove air bladders and hoses, replace it with flock, and sew it all back up).

I also attended one of Mike Scott's courses, which focused on saddle fitting with an eye to equine massage, which was something I'd dabbled in in the early 90's. (Mike has his own saddle fitting and equine massage therapy school now. Mike, if you'd gotten your act together sooner, my life would have been much easier!)

My next (and present) mentor is Patty Barnett of East Crow Saddlery. As I've mentioned before, she apprenticed for years with Gary "The Saddle Doctor" Severson, and took over his business when he retired. She's my go-to person when faced with a big, scary repair; she's talked me down off the ledge more than once and explained how to do some repair or retrofit that I wasn't sure I ought to be tackling.

I also attended the SMS "Introduction to the Principals of Saddle Fitting" course in Oct. of '07, and had a chance to meet Kay Hastilow, Ian and Andy Hastilow (no relation to Kay) and Annette Gavin, who were a few of the instructors.

There are also a couple of helpful books out there. One is Repair Your Own Saddlery and Harness, by Robert Steinke; another is To Handmake A Saddle, by John Harry and J.H.L. Shields. Lots of good info to be gleaned from both.

In addition to all of this "formal" education, there's been a lot of head-scratching, meditation, trial-and-error, pure inspiration and pure panic (like the time one of my very elderly and not very well-made flocking irons broke; I'd inserted about 16" of iron into a saddle panel and pulled out about 6"). I've deconstructed and reconstructed an unholy number of junker saddles that Edie acquired just for that purpose; I've spent hours practicing stitching and cutting and skiving and splicing. Edie (who has a real gift for mechanical reasoning) has helped me with a lot of the "nuts and bolts" aspects of repairs, like riveting and which drill bit to use. She also has a machine shop here on the farm, downstairs from the tack shop (you can see it in the photo, behind the tractor), which is full of useful and wonderful tools (Edie's as big a tool fan as I am).

My education continues, of course - one of the best things about this job is that there's always something new to learn: a saddle company comes up with a new innovation, or you run into a horse shaped like no other you've seen, or someone comes up with a new theory on saddle fitting. I'm also lucky in that I can contact any of the folks mentioned above to ask questions (which I do on a pretty regular basis) and share ideas.

All joking aside, I owe a lot to Edie - she's supported me and guided me, and always made sure I had what I needed to learn the job and do it right; she's been a great boss and an even greater friend. Thanks to you, Edie, this is the first time in my almost 50 years that I've been able to have a job with horses that didn't require a second job to finance it!

31 comments:

Boots and Saddles 4 Mel said...

I love you blog. I must admit that the whole flocking/fitting process is like one of those "mystery" jobs where miracles happen, I'm just not sure how. Your blog has taught me a lot. I especially liked the post on the tools - surgery indeed!

Are you still accepting photos for a fitting critique. I'm currently using a Duett Companion on my Arab for endurance and have been very happy with it. I'm just curious, based on the shape of her back, what your reccomendations are. I'm a featherwieght riding, so I'm worried that any problems are going to be a long time in showing up.

saddlefitter said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mel - I'm glad you enjoy the blog, and that you find it informative. And
I'd be happy to take a look at your mare and make some saddle recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this, this was really interesting. And you have inspired me to sign up for Mike Scott's next intro class!

saddlefitter said...

Anon, that's great! Mike's a good teacher with lots of knowledge to share. Please let me know how things go.

Anonymous said...

I will!

Anonymous said...

Kitt, I great to start learning the story behind the person. And the person(s) behing the fitter; Edie - tell her thank you for getting you started, and hubby, for watching the kids.
I may have missed it, did the Red Menace check in foal or not?
Val

saddlefitter said...

NOpe, Val, no foal, unfortunately. We're trying again this spring!

Mary said...

I have a Prestige Dressage 2000 which I think may be too small for me. I had my husband take pictures of me on my horse yesterday, and I would like your opinion as to whether the saddle appears to be too small. When I bought it, I was told that it was 18" and I measured it, but the button or pin is elongated, and it could have measured anywhere between 17 and 18 from the button or pin to the middle of the cantle. I did not know then that the serial number contains the seat size. Now that I know that, the saddle actually is a 17", 35cm. When riding in it, it feels like I am being pushed forward and kind of perched up on it rather than being able to sit deep. I am used to huntseat saddles and am just getting into dressage, so it may just be me having to get used to a different feel. If you wouldn't mind looking at my picture and telling me if you think it fits or is too small, please tell me how to send a picture to you (I don't know much about blogs). Thanks very much.

Mary

saddlefitter said...

Mary, I'd be happy to take a look and give you my input. You can e-mail photos directly to me at kitt@trumbullmtn.com. When I receive the photo, I'll be in touch!

Wynne S. said...

I just got back from Mike Scott's intro saddlefitting class. I LOVED IT! I cannot wait to take the full course. In the meantime I am going to shadow my neighbor, David Young, some more (if he will let me- I think he will). And Mike said he would let me observe him also. I am so excited! Thanks for inspiring me, Kitt! And for keeping a great and informative blog, too.

hidzra said...

hi. Can You give me Your e-mail adress? I'm from Poland and I'm looking for any informations about saddle fitting courses. Maybe You can help me ?
Thanks Magda
my e-mail magda.waszkiewicz@tlen.pl

Anonymous said...

where can i buy flocking tools?

saddlefitter said...

You can buy flocking tools from Windmill Saddlery Supply here in the States, or from Abbey Saddlery or David May's Cumbria School of Saddlery.

Amy said...

WoW What a story! You were so incrdibly blessed to have had those opportunities. I am a young stay-at-home mom right now and I would give my right arm to have the job you had to start out. I am now looking into going to Mike's school. Do you have any tip/advice for someone wanting to break into saddle fitting as an independant fitter? Love your story!

saddlefitter said...

Thanks for the kind words, Amy. I guess my only bit of advice would be to take every opportunity to learn everything you can from any source you can - not just Mike's course (which is probably the best available for independent fitters, especially here in the US), but from books, seminars, vets, fitters, trainers - wherever you find anything. Sometimes all you'll learn is that you don't agree with what is said, but often you'll pick up a new bit of info or a new way of approaching or looking at a problem. And don't be afraid to ask questions, no matter how silly you might think the questions might be.

Mandy said...

I found your comment on a forum then linked to your blog. I am thinking about becoming a saddle fitter, but I am a little clueless about my plan. Some programs are very complete and some companies offer "certification" program that I don't have much confidence in. Where should I start?

saddlefitter said...

Hi Mandy -

Mike's course is probably your best bet - it's independent of any saddle co. and gives you a pretty darn comprehensive education. The SMS course is great, but doesn't cover much in the way of flocking or repairs. Feel free to e-mail me if you have other questions.

Mandy said...

Do you think it's realistic/doable for someone like me that has a full time job to become a saddle fitter?

saddlefitter said...

Hi Mandy -

Mandy, I guess that would depend on how flexible your schedule is, and what educational path you choose to follow. Mike's course requires fairly large chunks of time, and if your schedule could accommodate that, then I'd say "yes." If not, your best bet would probably be to find a fitter with whom you could work one-on-one weekends, evenings and vacations. The Cumbria School might be a happy medium, since David has you for about a week but requires no follow-up (though he does offer more advanced classes).

Mandy said...

Thank you so much for your advice. I really appreciate you spending the time answering my silly questions. You said David's program does not require follow up. So I am done after the week of classes? Don't I need to practice under supervision?

saddlefitter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
saddlefitter said...

You're very welcome - happy to help out. The link to David's website is http://www.saddlerycourses.com/default.htm. Apparently you attend as many times as you'd like, and he does offer both flocking and repair courses (as well as some others geared toward producing tack and hunting equipment). I don't believe follow-up is required, but you could definitely ask - based on the contact I've had with David, he's very helpful.

Mandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mandy said...

Thank you so much for your information, I figured out what I want to do. You are right, I think David's program fits me the best. I am interest in flocking, repair and bridle 1 & 2-this is the order that I will take my time to finish. Now here comes second round questions....how do I get more experience under some supervision?

saddlefitter said...

The best way to get practical experience is to find a saddler / saddle fitter to work with. Some will take the "why should I train my competitors" attitude, and some will be willing to help out. If you run into problems, let me know, and I'll see if I can find someone who'd be willing to work with you.

KataCat said...

Hello - just wanted to add the MSFC (msfc.nl)course to the mix. It is an in-depth and intense course currently based in the Netherlands - distance learning plus seven days in NL.

I passed my final exam in May. Having been looking for a way to train as a saddle fitter for years, and not being eligible for SMS training this was a gift!

And I'm off to David May's for flocking training in November. Just turned 40 and doing something I love :) ... looking forward to the learning continuing til I stop.

Your blog is helping with that, thank you!

saddlefitter said...

KataCat, thanks for the info! I just learned about the course myself in the last couple days, and I'm glad to hear of another educational opportunity out there.

Anonymous said...

Are there any saddle fitting/saddle repair classes in Texas?

saddlefitter said...

No classes in that area that I'm aware of, sorry - the ones I know of are either in the eastern US or in the UK/EU. However, you might contact Suzie Fletcher-Baker in Colorado (sfletcherbaker@aol.com) and ask if she knows of anyone running classes in the western US. Good luck!

Sheri Mayor said...

How do I find out more info about Mike's Course?

saddlefitter said...

Sheri, more info on Mike's course at http://www.saddleguy.com/home_page.php.