Friday, September 23, 2011

Bare Naked Trees

The difference between hoop trees and standard trees has been discussed here quite a bit, but I finally have a bare hoop tree (pulled from a saddle that was the victim of a most bizarre accident, which I will chronicle in the future).  So I thought I'd take some photos so you can really see the difference between the two.  Keep in mind that the hoop tree is an XW, and the standard tree is roughly a medium, so the difference in width is quite dramatic, but I think you'll also be able to see the difference in breadth across the top of the pommel arch as well.

First, here's a standard tree:

And here's the hoop tree:

Now, here's the standard tree stacked on top of the hoop tree:

It's pretty obvious, isn't it?  The standard tree is shaped more like a peak roof or a pup tent:

And would be more suitable for a back like this:

Whereas the hoop tree is more like a dome tent:

Or a quonset hut:

And does a great job of fitting a back like this:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Saddle fitting is, at best, an inexact science.  Sometimes the laws of geometry and physics do not apply; sometimes the logical, rational route to solving a fitting issue drags you through the labyrinth and runs you into the dead end again and again.  Sometimes you have to listen to your gut, that hunch, that little voice that says, "Why don't we try this instead?" Because sometimes it's the creative, right-brain method that works best.  In light of that, I think it would be fair to say that saddle fitting is probably more art than science.  And in light of that, it's really no surprise to me that many saddle fitters have a very creative side and are often involved in the arts.

Stephanie Bloom is like that: saddle fitter and artist, and pretty damn good at both, in my opinion.  She fits and sells Reactor Panel, Phoenix and Native Pony saddles, and she does some of the most wonderful animal portraits I've seen:

To my eye, the thing that sets her work apart isn't so much the draftsmanship - which, admittedly, is superior - but the expression she captures.  When you look at her portraits, you don't just see a black Lab or a chestnut horse - you get a sense of each animal's personality and individual character, an idea of who they are rather than just what they are.  Stephanie works in chalk pastels, doing her portraits from photos; she's been doing commissioned portraits since 2009.

You can find out more about Stephanie and her work at

Friday, September 16, 2011

Psycho Fitter (Qu'est-ce Que C'est?)

Weekday mornings are usually pretty busy at our house.  My first precious cup of coffee is consumed while feeding humans, feeding dogs and cats, feeding the mare, packing lunch for me and snacks for our boys, making sure their back packs contain books and homework and helping my husband get them to the bus on time.  I get to enjoy my second cup in a more leisurely manner, sitting in front of the computer, letting the caffeine kick in while I read my e-mail, cruise my favorite websites and - as I was doing Tuesday morning - checking my blog stats.

One of my favorite stats is the "traffic sources".  For those of you who don't have blogs (or don't check your stats), it shows which web sites are helping people make their way to your blog; you can click on the link and see which post they're mentioning, what people are saying and who's saying it.  That morning, the top referring site was the Horse and Hound bulletin board, so I clicked on the link.  Someone named "Keeky" had asked about gel pads, and someone else had referred them to my Mud Season Grumps post, in which I detail the depth and breadth of my loathing for those miserable things.  Keeky replied ... well, you can read it for yourself here.  When I read, it, I nearly re-routed my coffee through my nose, then whooped and cackled so long and so hard that my husband asked me if I was laying an egg.

First, I'd like to give Keeky props for doing her best to spell "psychopath" correctly.  She came damn close - all of the correct letters were there, even if they weren't quite in the proper order, and that's a lot better than many people can do. I'm also extremely gratified to find that my writing so accurately reflects my true nature. Keeky, I'd like you to know that no one has killed either of my cats, and my husband is (so far) unbitten (though I'm not quite sure how you came to the conclusion that he was the one in danger of being gnawed). My ranting sprang from the normal day-to-day frustrations that come with being a horse woman and saddle fitter - specifically one "of a certain age" who, thanks to her hormones, spends a lot of time playing on the Mood Swings; who lives in a very rural part of the world where mud does indeed determine the frequency, location, length and happiness of one's riding, and who, if she doesn't get to the dojo (or at least run kihon and kata) on a regular basis, probably should, in the interest of public safety, be kept in the basement on a very short, very sturdy chain. Now, I'm sure this probably isn't improving your opinion of me ... but aren't you glad you're not my neighbor?

That said, there really is a grain of truth in the psychopath thing.  In reality, you have to be a bit of a lunatic to do this job - or to go into any equine-related field.  Most jobs in the horse world involve long hours, hard and dirty work, inclement weather, and - often - dealing with other lunatics.  And in a purely fiscal light ... well, just let me say that I don't know too many independently wealthy saddle fitters.  There's more truth than poetry (as Ma used to say) to the old joke:  "How do you make a small fortune in the horse world?  Start with a large fortune."

As a fitter, I have to deal with difficult customers, difficult horses, Self-Appointed Experts, long drives to barn calls, people trucking in hours late for appointments (or not showing up at all), problem saddles, unrealistic expectations, zombie saddles, sheep manure and the odd pill bug.  I work in an arcane, antiquated profession, in which a tiny number of the world's population have a good working knowledge.  Most people outside the horse world (and a surprising number inside the horse world) have no flaming idea what a saddle fitter is, or what we do. On the rare occasion I attend a social gathering that is not horse related, and someone asks me what I do for work, there's usually a moment of dead silence when I say I'm a saddle fitter.  It's almost as confusing as when I used to reply, "I'm a dressage trainer."  Let me tell you, it's rarely a jump-starter for conversation (though given my rather reclusive, psychopathic nature, that's not necessarily a bad thing).

But the upside of this job - for me, anyway - is the challenge, and the fact that there's always something new to learn.  And - though admitting it may put a little shine on my gnarly reputation - I enjoy helping horse and rider find the saddle that works for them, and seeing them ride away happy. As my co-worker Nancy says, we're not really changing the world for the better ... but I do think, in some small way, we may be making at least a small part of it better for the horses and riders we deal with.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Changeable Gullets - The Details

I know, I know, we've covered this subject before.  However, according to my blog stats (which I check from time to time), the posts that consistently get the most traffic are the ones about adjustable trees / changeable gullets.  Given that I've just had something of a revelation regarding certain gullet plates, I'm going to share this little nugget of info, since I think it has a lot to do with some fitting issues I've run into, and shows even more clearly why these saddles aren't the perfect answer for every horse out there. 

First, let me say that there are changeable gullets, and there are changeable gullets.  (There are also changeable heads - note the Albion Genesis models - but that's a different kettle of fish, and not one that I know much about yet.)  So ... there are quite a few saddles that offer the changeable gullet system - Anky, Pessoa, Collegiate, Wintec, Thorowgood - but the ones I'm most familiar with are the Wintecs and Thorowgoods, so I'll confine myself mostly to those two, though I will say that I think the Ankys and Pessoas have one of the easier systems to work.

First, let's take a look at the basic gullets.  Here's a Wintec standard extra-wide plate:

And here's one of the Wintec Wide plates (it has three:  wide, wider and widest; this is the wider):

Now, here's the Thorowgood xw:

 And the Thorowgood xxw:

Thorowgood offers two different types of plates:  The S bar (bottom, for square cantled saddles) and the R bar (top, for round cantled saddles).  The R bar, which has longer points, is better suited for a horse with a good wither and is used in their standard and high-wither models (and the standard Showjumper saddle); the S bar, with shorter points, is better for a lower-to-no wither, broader horse.

Now, here's the Wintec medium plate sitting on top of the Thorowgood medium plate.

And here's the Wintec medium plate compared to the head of a Black Country tree:

Have you noticed anything about the Wintec plates?  There's something unique about them, something not found in the head plate of fixed tree saddles or on the gullet plate of any of the changeable gullet saddles.  Here are some hints, in case you haven't found it yet.

Here's the Thorowgood medium gullet plate:

Here's the Black Country tree:

And here's the Wintec medium plate:

And the Wintec Wide "wider" plate:

Before I divulge the unique feature (which you've probably already recognized), let me say that the issue that I'd  run into rather frequently when fitting the Wintecs was that even when the angle of the tree point (the lower part of the plate) agreed with the horse's back, the fit just wasn't right.  At first, I'd put it down to the CAIR panels, which need to have the rider up to really evaluate fit ... but getting the rider up wouldn't improve the issue.  Switching out the plates didn't make the fit better, nor did flocking or shimming.  For the life of me, I could not figure out what the problem was ... until I received an e-mail from a fellow fitter that mentioned "that damned kink" in the Wintec plates.  

I'd handled those plates for years, but never really looked at them.  So I grabbed a plate, put it on my bench, and spent a few moments studying it;  Yes, there was definitely an inward kink about halfway down the leg of the Wintec plate ... and the lower part of the plate flared out ... This creates two different angles in the gullet plate - one above the kink, and one below it:

And when you compare these angles, they're quite different:

Now, when the gullet is installed in the saddle, the kink corresponds roughly with the top edge of the panels, so technically the lower part - which would be the tree point on a fixed-tree saddle - is one angle, and that angle should be parallel to your horse's back.  However, in my experience, this design creates the potential for a great deal of pressure right at the top of the panel.  On some horses, this doesn't seem to create issues, but on some - especially those for whom the panel placement isn't quite perfect - it does create a substantial spot of pressure ... and there's nothing that can be done to correct it.  And when I see the "straight leg" on other changeable gullet plates, and on the head plates of the fixed-tree saddles, I look at that inward kink and wonder "Why?"