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.


quietann said...

Another blog request: fitting saddles to "odd shaped" riders! My horse is actually a fairly easy fit, but I am not. Does anyone make dressage saddles for the older, slightly overweight *short* woman with hips, and um, a behind? That don't cost a fortune? We are common enough, but most dressage saddles are designed for someone 5'6" or taller, with long legs and not so many "womanly curves."

Jump saddles seem to have more variety and I am not having so many problems there...

Meghan said...

Yes, we are sadly bereft of good saddle fitters where I live. The only "saddle fitter" that I know of is not actually a saddle fitter, but a woman who uses a gel pad to pressure test your saddle, then whips up a $300 "corrective pad" to fix whatever crappy saddle you happen to be using. Um, if I had $300 to spend on a saddle pad, I wouldn't be using a crappy saddle! Everything I've read says that "corrective" saddle pads are not a long-term solution.

I actually had my current saddle pressure-tested, and it was bridging a little, but the "saddle fitter" failed to point out that my saddle (a Wintec with the changeable gullet system) was adjusted too narrow for my horse! It was waaaay high in front, and once she added the shims on top of the gel pad, it sat several inches above my mare's back. Of course my mare about had a fit when I got back on her, and we stopped the "saddle fitting" at that point. We experimented by putting the extra-wide gullet in (she measured out as a medium, but she has wide shoulders, so a medium wasn't doin' it for her) and the saddle appears to fit her much better now.

My question is, when a horse measures out (according to the Wintec gullet gauge) as a medium, but requires an extra wide gullet to make the saddle sit level (it is still not perfect, but it's close) and not pinch her shoulders, is that a sign that the saddle is a really poor fit, or just that the gullet guage does not account for shoulder width? She's doing well in this saddle, and this is a mare that is not shy about letting us know when she doesn't like something. I realize it's hard judge something like thi without seeing it, but I thought I would ask.

Anonymous said...

So how do I make those assessments without spending $300 (and risking my saddle) for a fitting?

saddlefitter said...

quiteann, that's a great idea - thanks. There are saddles out there that have a broader seat area and a more modest flap (Passier Relevant comes to mind first). Let me look into that!

Meghan, the fitting issues you're experiencing could be related to where and how the gullet gauge is being used, or it could be a panel configuration or tree shape issue, or a combination. If you'd like to send photos, I'd be happy to take a look.

Anon, $300 for a fitting?!? OW!! Is that the norm where you are? If you can let me know where you're located, I'd be happy to see if I can find someone more reasonable.

Val said...

What a wonderful surprise to find your blog! I was so impressed when I worked with your saddle fitter and purchased a saddle from Trumbull Mountain last month. Now I am dually impressed by your blog: an excellent resource. Like quietann, I too am short. I purchased a saddle with a shorter flap and I cannot believe the difference in comfort and function. Thank goodness for knowledgeable saddle fitters!

saddlefitter said...

Thanks, Valerie - glad we were able to help you find something, and glad you like the blog! I'm lucky to work with some very good fitters here at the shop.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog. I got a link from the Enlightened Equitation Forum (Heather Moffett). I LOVE learning about saddles and trying out different ones. I went and re-read all your past entries; they are very educational. I always want to learn more about saddle fitting because I think many people have no clue and don't really want to learn, they just place the saddle on their horse's back and if the horse doesn't complain they pronounce that it fits. I don't own a horse, so I ride lots of random horses who may or may not have tack. I went through many saddles trying to find something comfortable for me and something I could easily fit on multiple horses. The 2 saddles I ended up with are Fhoenix Vogue Dressage(Heather Moffett) and a Barefoot all purpose. I'm not anti-treed saddles, but I found that treeless saddles are a better solution when riding a bunch of different horses (ONLY WHEN PROPERLY FITTED!!!).
I will be following your blog with great interest! Thank you for discussing my favorite topic.

Liz Goldsmith, EquineInk said...

I count my lucky stars to have the pleasure of working with Gary Severson. I think it's been almost 12 years now. If you don't ever have the chance to work with someone who knows what they are doing it is really hard to evaluate them. One other criterion that I'd include is, does your horse move better after your saddle is adjusted? I had a well known saddle fitter work on one of my saddles when Gary was unavailable and my mare immediately started bucking after every fence. It turned out that he had overstuffed the saddle and it was pinching her every time she landed!

saddlefitter said...

sumire7, THANK YOU for noting that a treeless saddle must be correctly fitted - so many people believe that they can just take a treeless and plop it on any horse and resolve all their saddle fitting issues. It's nice to hear from someone who uses a treeless saddle on a regular basis speak out regarding fit.

Liz, Gary is one of the first fitters I ever had the opportunity to watch work - he's quite awesome. I also work closely with Patty Barnett, who apprenticed with him for about 5 years and finally took over for him when he "retired" - she's my go-to for major repairs and walks me through the things I'm learning. She also does the work that I'm not set up to do. Can't say enough good about Patty and Gary.

Anonymous said...

So, how am I supposed to know if my saddle fit woes are due to an incorrect tree size, or the fitter overstuffing the panels? It seemed to fit fine before the fitter "flocked" it up!

saddlefitter said...

Anon., if your saddle was ok until the fitter adjusted it, please contact the fitter and let him/her know, and give him/her a chance to correct the issue. Any fitter can make a goof, and most that I know appreciate the chance to make things right.
If you can't get things straightened out with the first fitter, try contacting another (preferably independent) fitter in your area and get another assessment. If you need a name, please let me know where you're located, and I'll see if I can find someone in your area.

froglander said...

Hard to find a fitter, and then hard to get them to come out and work with you! Ugh, had someone, saw them twice, but when I actually wanted to /buy/ a saddle, (she is an independent saddle fitter but sells some brands like Black Country and Albion) I haven't been able to get a hold of her to set something up for I don't know how long. So I am going the long distance route and working with Nancy :)

saddlefitter said...

froglander, sorry to hear you're having problems getting the fitter back out. I think there may be a future blog post regarding this - thanks for the idea. I'm sure Nancy will be able to help you out.