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!