We have a customer who's been sending us videos of various saddle fitters in action. I always enjoy seeing other fitters work, because I usually pick up some useful information or find a new way of addressing a fitting issue ... so I've been watching them whenever I have a spare moment. One of these fitters takes very detailed templates - in addition to the measurements we ask for (3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula, lowest point of the back and topline), she does a tracing every few inches along the back, as well as taking longitudinal tracings on each side, midpoint of the longissimus muscle. When she has her full set of tracings, she cuts them out, flips the saddle upside down, and "fits" the tracings into the panels. Based on this method, she will assess the fit of an individual saddle, note where it needs to be flocked, and judge its suitability for the horse. She then puts the saddle on the horse, ungirthed, and finishes the assessment. I'd imagine that, at some point, she has the rider try the saddle, but I've yet to see video of that.
There are plenty of good things to be said about this method. It's a painstaking, old-school way of doing things that's not seen much these days; it's something of a lost art and requires a lot of attention to detail, and it gives you a pretty detailed map of the horse's back. (Frank Baines Saddlery is about the only place I know of that still asks for templates like this, and only when they're making a bench-made saddle.) You can use this method to assess saddle fit, or to make flocking adjustments if the horse isn't available. It's also handy for the customer to have such a comprehensive template when they're saddle shopping. But there is one real drawback: the template is taken when the horse is standing still ... and what we need is something that fits your horse in motion. Yes, you can get an idea if the saddle is likely to fit the horse using the templates - we do just that all the time with our long-distance customers, using our 3-measurement template. However, using the template is only step one of the whole process.
The next step is to put the saddle on the horse and girth it up. Remember, flocking is soft (or ought to be, anyway) and will shift and compress under pressure. What looks like it might cause a fitting issue when comparing the saddle to the template can become a total non-issue when the saddle's actually on the horse and girthed to riding tightness.
The next step is to get the rider up and the horse in motion. Some horse's backs change quite radically when they start moving (this will be the subject of one of my future blog posts, so stay tuned!), and the saddle that looked pretty darn good compared to the template or while the horse is standing in the crossties can get ruled out pretty quickly when the cantle starts popping or it scoots up on the shoulder when the horse is being ridden. I've seen it happen time and again: I SO wish I had a dollar for every time I've assessed the horse's fitting needs based on the "still" back and template and lugged likely saddles down from the shop to the indoor ... and then lugged them back up the stairs when the active fit proved them unsuitable. Don't get me wrong - it doesn't always play out that way. Sometimes the first saddle I choose is the right one (and the more I do this, the more often that happens) ... but in all honesty, it's just as likely to be the second saddle ... or the third ... or ... And on the other hand, a saddle that looks pretty "meh" when compared to the template or when sitting on the horse in the ties can be transformed into utter perfection when the rider's up and the horse is moving. I've spent plenty of time haring back up the stairs to grab that saddle I'd given the thumbs-down in the initial go-round, too.
The final step is to have the rider really ride the saddle four or five or six times. The saddle that seems great on the first or second ride may take care of an existing fitting problem ... but by the third or fourth ride, it may be creating new issues of its own. Until the saddle's really been ridden, you just can't tell.
And here, gentle readers, is the Ultimate Kicker: it all comes down to what the horse and rider think. I can spout saddle fitting theory and physics and geometry, I can trot out evidence both scientific and empirical, I can make diagrams and write blogs and juggle saddles and tap dance ... and I've seen saddles that have defied ALL these things and been the one that made the horse and rider blissfully happy. When you get down to where the cheese binds, my opinion matters not one whit. Horse and rider have the last say.