Monday, December 19, 2011

Fallacies (More Misinformation)

Having been in this profession for more than a decade, you'd think I'd have heard the bulk of the available info - both good and bad - about saddles and fit.  However, humans are nothing if not innovative, so there's often something new stirring out there.  Sometimes it's a new fitting diagnostic or a new saddle design, sometimes it's a new fitting theory or a new dingwhacket guaranteed to cure every saddle fitting ill on the planet.  But the one "new" thing I find unceasingly amazing is the amount of (what I feel is) questionable theory that I seem to trip over every time I turn around ... and the people willing to believe it.


My saddle fitting training and philosophy states that the saddle should spread the rider's weight over the largest possible weight-bearing area (without extending past T18) and maintain contact with the horse's back throughout the panel when the horse is in motion.  So I was quite surprised when I read this post.  My first impression was that it runs very counter to what I've been taught, so I read it through a few times, trying to understand the author's point (and keeping in mind that, while he's quite fluent in English, it is not his mother tongue).  I think I get it:  the saddle can't press too heavily in the rear of the panels, it shouldn't put pressure on the loins and it must fit the active back ... and I couldn't agree more.  However, if the Holy Three (tree width, tree shape and panel configuration) are correct, there won't be tons of pressure or "visual indents under the panel wedge" (which in my experience often come from a too-narrow tree), so the saddle doesn't need to "rock slightly at the cantle".  I can understand using upswept panels to keep the weight-bearing surface on the safe side of T18, but the word "rock" is really throwing me here.  This could be a misunderstanding on my part, or it could be an example of the differences between the UK school of fitting and the "Continental" school ... but if the cantle lifts when the horse is in motion, there's a fulcrum point somewhere that's causing the rocking, and that's causing a pressure point, and that's not good.


This reminds me of the old saw, "Fighting for peace is like f******g for virginity ..."
Recently, someone sent me photos of their horse and saddle, hoping I could shed some light on an ongoing fitting problem.  Her chiropractor/saddle fitter had recommended using front shims to "create some room", since the front of the saddle seemed tight.  When I saw the photos, it turned out that the tree was substantially too narrow for the horse, and the shims just made things worse.  "But the fitter said there needed to be more room in the front of the saddle, and the shims would help create it."

I can follow the thinking here:  if you add shims to the front of the saddle, they take up space; if the saddle's a little too wide, they can make up the width and lift the front of the saddle, making it sit level instead of nose-diving. So if you add shims to a tree that's too narrow, yes, you'll lift the front of the saddle and create more room between the horse's wither and the pommel arch ... but you're creating even more pressure under the tree points.  Following that logic, if the waistband of your jeans isn't roomy enough, you should be able to add a couple pairs of granny panties and create more room.  And trust me, one will be just as uncomfortable as the other.  If the tree's too narrow, adding more bulk under the tree points is the last thing you should do.


Customer calls and is interested in trying a Frank Baines Capriole, says she rode in one and loved it to pieces, most comfortable saddle she's ever been in, and wants one for her horse.  When I ask if she's ever tried one on her horse, she says no; when I ask what sort of horse she has, she says she has an older Thoroughbred mare with big withers and a dippy back.  Problem here is that the Baines Capriole fits flat as a pancake, and putting one on a horse with the described conformation will probably make it bridge like a plank over a ditch. But I asked the customer to send tracings and photos, just in case the "big withers and dippy back" was less extreme than it had sounded.

When the info arrived, the mare indeed proved to be the opposite end of the spectrum from "flat".  I contacted the owner with some recommendations, which included a Black Country Eden, a Frank Baines Reflex, an Albion high-head and an older County Competitor (the kind that looks like a leather-covered banana with billets).  But the owner wouldn't let go of the idea of a Capriole.  "But won't her back come up with training?  When she's doing dressage, doesn't her back come up?"

I agreed that it would and it should, and asked just how old "older" was, and what level the mare was presently working.

"She's 18, and we're just starting to work at Training Level," was the reply.

Now, I have seen horse's backs change to an amazing degree with correct training, and it's not uncommon to see dramatic muscle development happen ... but in an 18 yr. old horse under an ammie owner and just getting into Training level?  Not so much, honestly. I told the customer all my reservations and doubts, but she insisted on trying a Capriole.  She sent photos to me, and the saddle was showing daylight under the panels - plank over a ditch, indeed.  Needless to say, her fitter nixed the saddle, her trainer nixed the saddle, and her vet nixed the saddle.  Finally she settled on a Frank Baines Reflex (which fit the horse like a glove and turned out to be fine for the rider, too) ... but she told me her next horse is going to be a LOT flatter in the back.


"My horse needs a wide tree."  "My horse needs a 34 cm. tree." "My horse needs an extra-wide tree."  I hear this day in and day out.  And given some of the fitting information available on some saddle companies' web sites, it's understandable - width is one of the most frequently-mentioned facets (and sometimes the only facet) of saddle fitting.  I've even had customers tell me that reps have told them, "As long as the tree width is correct, everything else will be, too."  And while it's a vital part of the saddle fitting equation, it's not the only part.


Take a look at this.  Get past the reindeer "fur" saddle pad and click on the "How To Fit Your Horse" link on the left.  Please do not send me tracings made to these specs.  Please ... just don't.  


One of the most diplomatically sensitive areas of saddle fitting is seat size.  To some people, large seat size means "your arse is huge," and they can get downright cranky if you infer that a 16.5" or 17" seat might be a tad ... snug.  While the size of your back yard does play a part in the seat size you'll need, remember that the length of your femur plays a part here, too.  So if you're 5'9" and long-legged, please don't be offended if your saddle fitter mentions an 18" seat (or an 18.5" or 19" seat in the snug-fitting brands like Duett and Lovatt and Ricketts).  That said, there are times when a larger seat size is NOT the answer; I've dealt with lots of tall, skinny riders who'd spent years trying to stabilize their leg when they couldn't reach the knee/thigh block and swimming in seats that were miles too big.  Sometimes the answer for the tall skinnies is a smaller seat size and a modified (longer and/or more forward) flap, so if you're 5'9" and weigh 130 lbs., that may be the better option.  (If you'd like some in-depth info on fitting the rider, check out my Saddle Fit for the Rider article on the shop's website.)

If you run into any info you wonder about, check it out with a reputable saddler/fitter.  And if you don't know one, you can always leave a comment here or send me an e-mail; I'm happy to offer whatever help I can.


Val said...

The shim story reminds me of double pads. I had to beg and plead, explain and reexplain to convince management that two saddle pads did not improve the comfort of the horse in a saddle that was too narrow. I guess the belief was that the saddle was lifted up out of horse's back and this was better, and maybe in a sense it would be, until you mount up the rider. I was so frustrated, because they could not understand why this concept was so flawed. Plus the horse's sluggish pace and expression were a dead give away.

The Schleese article is worrisome. Isn't he a reputable saddle maker? I understand the fact that the saddle must fit the moving horse with a rider, but a rocking saddle does not sound secure or comfortable for the horse, even if it is only slightly. Hopefully I am not the one who doesn't get it this time.

saddlefitter said...

The Schleese fitting philosophy is somewhat different from the UK philosophy, at least as I understand it. Not my cup of tea, but it seems to work for some horses and riders!

Now That's A Trot! said...

The instructions on the Kieffer site are a joke, right? To see if we're paying attention? Right? Right?

(Also, did they steal a random yearling sale photo?)

In my line of work I run across a lot of first-time owners, and I always try to tell them to find a professional saddle fitter, because I don't feel qualified to do it for them. Seeing some of these things you linked makes me worry, though!

hurakan said...

Slightly gobsmacked at both Schleese and Kieffer....:eyerollingemoticon:

Nikki @ Bliss said...

Kitt as always great article. The Schleese article is shocking, any saddle that "rocks" is going to cause a central pressure point. I think the term "lift" would be more appropriate, in motion the angles/depths of the panels or gussets at the back should allow for a very small amount of lift to allow the horse to engage and lift in motion whilst the remainder of the saddle would stay balanced. Intersting the it is only Schleese clients that have agreed with the theory?!
Widths - here is the UK we work on angles to create some similarity between the brands ie a Medium/Wide is 90 degrees.
Regards to shims, love the new analogy must use that one, I always refered to shoes being tight - would you add extra thick socks - dont think so!!!

saddlefitter said...

hurakan, I don't know if Keiffer had anything to do with those instructions - I have a feeling it may be the retailer him/herself who put those instructions out there. And Nikki, I do think "lift" would have been a better term, and I think that's what was meant - again, perhaps a result of English not being the first language. NTAT, good on you - I wish more equine pros would be as willing to recommend a fitter.

Barefoot Basics said...

With the Kieffer instructions, are they showing where they think the saddle should sit (if that is what you are being asked to measure I assume it is), that is very scary. How would that horse even move with a saddle in that position?

saddlefitter said...

Again, I'll clarify that I don't believe the instructions come from Kieffer Saddlery, but from this particular retailer. I've seen nothing on Kieffer's "official" site that makes me think this holds with their fitting philosophy.

Joanne said...

I was very interested to see the link to the Schleese article. I've been having a lot of issues with my saddle and it bridges so horribly - there's no way it will ever work. Yet the fitter continues to insist that this is the way she was taught to fit saddles and will continue to do so. I'm glad you posted his philosophy! It made a lot of things click for me.