Friday, April 15, 2011

The Mud Season Grumps

That was one bloody long winter.

I don't usually mind winter, even though it entails my mare looking like a yak, little riding and lots of lugging water, frozen manure, bad roads, oil bills and listening to my husband complain about it from November to May.  But this winter was a winter like nothing in the past 30 years ... or it seemed that way to me.  I remember winters like this when I was a kid, with 8' snowbanks and two-day blizzards dumping 36" of snow.  About the only thing we missed was the week-long stretch of sub-zero weather.  Anyway, all this has left me more than ready for spring, and we're only just well into mud season (which can last a couple weeks, or until the end of May).  Mix into this the fact that everyone I know has gotten away for at least a long weekend and I haven't gone anywhere since last September (AND I had to miss Johnny Clegg's tour - the first since '05), toss in the usual hormonal mood swings that accompany being "of a certain age", and top it with the fact that I haven't been to the dojo in two weeks, and you have yourself a crabby, grouchy old broad who needs to lose the CrankyPants before someone gets bitten.

To that end, I've decided to vent about Stuff  I Don't Like.  It might not help, but it sure as hell won't hurt.


I don't dislike saddle pads in general; even shim pads are ok - it's the "special" pads that bug me.
  • "This pad will make any saddle fit your horse" pads.  Not.  While shim pads and the like can be helpful "band aids" to temporarily correct minor fitting issues, and I'll be one of the first to advocate for their correct use, there's no saddle pad in the world that will make your saddle fit if it really and truly doesn't, and no pad in the world that will make every saddle fit your horse.  Brilliant marketing ploy, but not so great in the real world.
  • Gel pads.  They're hot, they're heavy, they don't breathe, they feel icky and they don't do diddly to alleviate pressure.  Think about it: when you poke one, the gel moves away from the pressure rather than doing anything to pad it.  They can also put pressure right on the spinous process (even if they have the space to accommodate the spine, they can get dragged down by their own weight and cause issues there), and I've seen them scald horses' backs when used in hot weather.  Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em. 
  • Lollipop pads.  They can put pressure directly on the spinous process, and when used to lift the cantle of a saddle with a too-narrow tree, make the tree points dig into the horse's back.  Ouch.
  • Impression pads.  They can be a useful tool in showing where the saddle's creating a lot of pressure, but they don't tell you why it's there.  Additionally, the ones I've seen are pretty bulky and can create saddle fitting issues that a regular thin quilt won't and that really aren't there to begin with.  Again, think:  your saddle seems to fit fine, but you want to check it.  You stick a 1" thick pad (keep in mind that one tree width = about 3/4") full of mushy dental cement or putty or whatever that squishy stuff is under it, and you don't think it'll show pressure somewhere?  Put on some thick, fuzzy wool socks and then stuff your feet into your dress-up shoes and prance about for a bit.  Then come talk to me about pressure.

Until science can come up with a way to truly quantify why a saddle fits (or doesn't) the individual horse and rider, until it can measure how each physical characteristic, preference and pecadillo comes into play and why some horses and riders seem to defy the known laws of gravity and physics, saddle fitting is always going to be more theoretical than empirical, more of an art than a science.  The saddle fitter can offer educated opinions and input, but in the end, that's ALL we can offer, and sometimes we have to face the fact that not every customer (whether two or four legged) will agree with our recommendations.  We aren't going to nail it every time.  We will run into horses and riders that we can't fit (or at least fit to our satisfaction), for whatever reason.  And if that happens, trying to cram our ideas down the customer's throat will NOT end well.  Just take your ego and get the hell out of the way.  Sometimes it's far better to send the customer on to another fitter with "I'm sorry I couldn't help you, and I hope you have better luck with Bunny Snugglebutt and HappyArse Saddlery."  Less headache for everyone.


Sometimes fitters make mistakes.  We'll take the tracing wrong, forget to mention a fitting option to a customer, screw up on the order form and write down the wrong color or size ... and that's when we have to put on the big girl/boy pants and say, "Yeah, I screwed up."  It might cost you some money to correct the mistake, but in the long run, it'll cost less than the damage it'll do to your reputation (and perhaps the horse's back) if you don't pony up.


In theory, a great idea - as least to get an idea of static fit - but I've never seen this method work better than a standard template, and sometimes it doesn't work as well.  The casts and impressions we've received have arrived broken, warped, pulverized, squashed and, in one memorable instance, melted into a blob.  We even received one that we had to assemble - slide flange A into slot B until marks C and D are aligned.  It definitely kept us occupied for a while, but didn't look much like a horse's back when we were through.


Again, I'll preface this statement:  certification is all well and good IF there's a good education behind it.  What irks me is when a saddle co. will "certify" you as a fitter in a couple days or - in some cases - a couple hours.  I'm certified by one saddle company, and it's by virtue of spending an afternoon listening to a sales pitch, attempting to fit their saddles to a couple different horses and answering one question correctly.  The fact that the saddles didn't fit (and couldn't be made to fit) the horses we were working with seemed to be of little interest to the rep; my objections were met with "Oh, just add another shim and get the rider on, and it'll be fine."  To my mind, that doesn't make you a fitter - it just makes you a rep ... for whatever that's worth.


"My trainer wanted me in a _______ (fill in the blank) saddle so I bought one, but it made me and my horse miserable." If I had a nickle for every time I've heard that, I might not be rich, but I'd have a lot of nickles.  When I was teaching and training professionally, I never much cared what my students used as long as it fit them and their horse.  But some trainers ... I don't know whether they get a kickback from each saddle sold or what the motivation is, but there seems to be a good number of trainers out there who demand that their students ride in a particular saddle, whether it's a good fit or not.  Now, to me, that's sort of a contradiction in terms:  if you're a trainer, you want your students (and their horses) to perform to the best of their ability, since if they look good, other people will go, "Hey, that rider and horse look great.  I want to ride with their trainer."  If, on the other hand, your students look as though they have a hedgehog in their breeches and their horses are going around with their heads up the rider's nose, smart people might go, "Oooh ... that rider looks like they have a hedgehog in their breeches, and their horse's head is up their nose.  No, thanks."  Wouldn't you think it better to let the horse and rider be comfy rather than branded?  Chacun à son goût.


If a horse has a big wither, it seems that popular wisdom demands that the horse be fit with a narrow tree, even if the horse in question isn't all that narrow.  "Nothing else will clear the wither" is usually the reasoning.  Well, true - a narrow tree will usually make a saddle clear most withers; it also pinches the living hell out of the wither in question, makes the saddle sit pommel-high, and throws the rider so far into the back seat that they look as though they're water skiing.  So, in an effort to level things out, someone shoves a lollipop pad (see above) under the saddle, which may bring the cantle up, but ... again, see above. 

In the decade plus that I've been fitting saddles, I've run into precisely two horses who needed narrow trees. They also needed panel modifications - K or trapezius panels, wither or full front gussets, and deeper rear gussets.  And amazingly, after a couple months, that tree needed to be widened because for the first time, the the horse could use him/herself properly and the muscles had room to grow.   Both of those horses went on to need new saddles, because the narrow tree they'd started with couldn't be widened enough to accommodate the horses they grew to be.


As Edie always says, "Saddle fitting is NOT rocket science," but some people - fitters, saddle companies and customers - want take it to the other extreme.  They turn it into some sort of arcane knowledge that's a cross between alchemy and brain surgery, and to gain understanding of it, you must join the Anointed Society of Saddlefitters (ASS) by giving a pound of flesh, a quart of blood and learning the secret handshake.  Only then will you get the decoder ring.

Yes, you do need a basic working knowledge to become a fitter, and the longer you do it, the better you'll likely become.  Gaining an education can be a challenge (though it's more accessible here in the States than it used to be), and some people have a better eye and feel for it than others, but it's not tough to learn the basics.  If the saddle is comfortable for horse and rider, it doesn't NEED the Infinitely Adjustable Tree or the Ergonomic Shoulder Relief Panels or the 15-Position Billet System or the Gender-Specific Seat or the Matching Cup Holder.  Listen to the horse and rider.  See entry on "Ego" above.

I guess that covers the bulk of my dislikes - in the saddle fitting realm, anyway.  If we were talking more generally, I could add small trash cans, rude people, clowns (they scare me), maple nougat, Pamela Anderson (who has a sort of creepy bad-drag-queen-meets-zombie vibe - see "clowns"), wet socks, house cleaning and conventional society.

But Eddie Izzard makes me laugh - especially when he's in action transvestite mode - so it all balances out.


SallymetHarryHorse said...

love it love it!
It’s nice to read the anti-gel pad comments, i've never understood how something that move away from pressure can alleviate pressure?
Also adore Eddie in action mode, Eddie doing Star Wars is always funny.

Now That's A Trot! said...

There are a lot of people I think I will be linking to this post in the future, particularly when it comes to things like the gel pads!

And regarding the narrow trees, I am amazed at how often they get recommended for horses with high withers. One local shop's rep told me high withers automatically meant a narrow tree, without seeing my horse or asking about the rest of his build.

Claire said...

IMHO, high withers usually are a sign of atrophy behind the wither caused by an ill fitting saddle... and with many fitters, than then becomes a vicious circle.

and i was always taught one's saddle should fit the horse with NO pad under it, and then if you do put something under, it should be very thin purely to keep the saddle clean. saddle pads/cloths/numnahs etc never used to be "correct"

a useful post.

saddlefitter said...

Claire, a lot of withery horses do have atrophy because of ill-fitting saddles - I see it again and again. Most people don't know that there are other fitting options that can be used to accommodate a big wither (K or Trapezuis panels, etc,), and some saddles companies (foam paneled saddles in particular) don't offer them, so they bring out the narrow trees and make the issue worse.

As a fitter, my aim is to make a saddle fit with only a thin quilt pad under it. Some people do like to ride with extra padding (a lot of the endurance and competitive trail riders, for example) or like the look of a sheepskin half pad as a "fashion statement", and in those cases I have to take that into consideration. But in an ideal world, the pad would do nothing more than keep the saddle clean, as you said.

Barefoot Basics said...

LOL, does it feel better to get that off your chest? Great post it seemed a long winter in the UK as well.

saddlefitter said...

It *does* feel better, actually! Thanks for listening!

Val said...

My winter was very long too.

Can I add some general ignorance to the list?

Let's add using double saddle pads to ease the discomfort of a pommel high saddle, super-tightened girths, and highly trained riding horses that do not stand for mounting. Or how about waiting for a horse to "work out" of visible discomfort due to physical or tack-related problems? Sorry, I guess this winter was more bitter than I realized. ;)

Anonymous said...

I just finished spending 6 months looking and hunting for a saddle to fit my standard QH. It amazed me how if I spoke to one fitter I would get one answer and if I spoke to another I would get another answer. I swear some "fitters" out there use a flippin' magic 8 ball to answer my questions. I did finally find a saddle...$1000 more than I wanted to spend but I had been beaten up enough and just took the next saddle that fit my horse and that I could tolerate. I had been so excited to start that journey and it ended up being a torturous experience!

saddlefitter said...

Anonymous, sorry you had such a bad experience. While some horses and riders are harder to fit than others, it really *shouldn't* have been such a nightmare. While each fitter usually has their own opinion about saddles and fitting, most can agree on the basics and find something without such a hard time.

Nancy, smiling! said...

Bunnysnugglebutt and Happyarse saddlery? I'm in! My husband sent me your BLOG, lovely man that he is. He's right...full of all kinds of good info. Funny too!

Nice to meet you virtually!

saddlefitter said...

Thanks, Nancy. And thank your husband for me, too. Bunny Snugglebutt is one of my recurring "characters", but sadly, she doesn't seem to have a great reputation ...

Anonymous said...

Had I not finished my coffee before opening my computer, my fellow train commuter would have been treated to the less-than-pleasant sight of foamed milk coming out of my nose. I worked part time as a saddler's assistant for a decade and was giggling out loud at parts of your rant. Thanks!

Oh, and mud season? Here in Norway we've had mud season since August. Freaky weather.

Anonymous said...

Here's another point of view on gel pads relieving pressure points. The gel moves not to allow the pressure through, but to surround the point created by the pressure, thus equaling out the pressure.

saddlefitter said...

Anon, I'm still not buying it, sorry. I understand the theory, but in practice, I've never seen it work that way. I've even gone so far as to try gel inserts in my shoes ... with the same results I've seen in saddle pads. They're definitely on my "Ick" list.