Friday, March 2, 2012

Tell Me More, Tell Me More

As so often happens, the germ of this post came from one of the bigger bulletin boards.  Someone had started a conversation about "My saddle fitting dream" (which was one of the last nudges that decided my announcing the saddle fitting course I'm planning).  One of the participants asked, "Can someone tell me more about being a saddle fitter?"

Sounded like a pretty innocuous question, so I started to answer it ... and immediately realized that there was a bit more to it than I'd first thought.  So I gave a brief outline and said that the question really warranted a blog post.

So ... tell you more about being a saddle fitter?  Here goes.

First and foremost, unless you're among the very few, you won't be making huge amounts of money - I don't know any independently wealthy saddle fitters. Sure, you can make a living if you have a good eye, good people skills (more on that in a sec) and are willing to work your ass off, but if you really want to be among the 1%, saddle fitting probably isn't your best career choice.  In order to make a decent living, you'll probably either need to live in an area with a high concentration of horses, or be willing to travel a LOT.

Now, about those people skills?  Essential.  You'll need:
  • Tact.  You cannot tell a customer that she'll never fit into a 16.5" seat unless she loses 30 lbs. or say that their precious, athletic and talented equine brings to mind one of the AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back ... no matter how true either statement may be.
  • Diplomacy.  No matter how graphic the customer's account of the way her present saddle causes her underwear to fuse to her delicate parts, and the pain caused thereby, you cannot scream, run away, squinch up your eyes or stuff your fingers in your ears and go, "LA LA LA, not listening!"
  • Patience.  Some people will need to try the same saddle 3 or 4 times, or ask you to explain one point repeatedly.  Different people process information at different rates, and some need repeated exposure to grasp a concept.  You will need to accept and accommodate this.
  • Flexibility.  If you have a group of 8 or 10 people lined up for appointments, you need to schedule pretty carefully, and stick to the schedule as closely as possible.  However, what happens if your 10:00 appointment turns up 5 minutes before your 10:45 because their horse wouldn't load into the trailer, or if your 11:00 appointment turns up again at 5:00 with just one more question when you're ready to head home?  Be as accommodating as possible.  Tell Ms. 10:00 that you're happy to schedule for another day, or - if she can hang around - you'd be willing to work her in if the schedule permits.  Tell Mr. 11:00 that you have a few moments to help them out.  Doesn't mean you have to be a doormat, but it does mean that you give the customers as much of your time as is reasonably possible. 
  • Communication skills.  I know there are reps and fitters out there who won't agree with this, but I think one of my responsibilities is to explain to the customer as clearly as possible what I'm doing and how I hope to accomplish it.  As I've said repeatedly in this blog, saddle fitting isn't rocket science, it isn't smoke and mirrors and it isn't magic.  Educate the customer as much as possible.
You'll also need a good understanding of equine physiology, psychology and behavior.  You need to know the pieces and parts of the horse, good conformation vs. bad and what each means in terms of saddle fitting.  You need to be able to evaluate gaits and note any deviations.  You need to understand that a sensitive horse who's had an ill-fitting saddle may initially react badly to ANY saddle - and you need to know when the pinned ears and lifted hind leg are just window dressing, and when they may escalate into a dangerous situation.

You also need to choose just what services you'll offer.  Are you going to do straight fitting - evaluate the horse, take the tracings and make some recommendations - or are you going to carry saddles?  Will you do flocking?  How about repairs?  Do you want to set up a shop and a facility where people can come to you, or will you set up a mobile unit and come to them?  You need to have a clear idea of what you want to do - or at least how you want to start; you can always change the plan down the road, but you do need one to begin with.

You need to get an education.  I've covered the various options here (and more info is available at the various sources' web sites).  You have to decide how much time and money you can commit, and decide which course you're most qualified for and which will give you the most appropriate education for the path you've chosen.  None are easy and few are inexpensive, so you'll need a lot of drive and determination just to gain education.  You'll also need access to continuing education - new ideas and trends and saddle designs pop up regularly, and you need to stay current in your knowledge.

So those are the basic things you'll need.  What will you get in return?  Well, for me, saddle fitting is a challenge, and I never stop learning.  Just when I think I have a good handle on things, I'll encounter a horse or rider who takes me into completely new territory.  And while it's all great to spout on about this sort of thing, keep in mind that you'll also likely get stood up for appointments, nipped, kicked and stepped on (hopefully by the 4-legged clients, but having the 2-legs do it is a possibility, too); you'll spend a lot of time roasting or freezing in barn aisles and arenas and driving to and from appointments, you'll have trainers, instructors, parents, etc. morph into Self-Appointed Experts.  You'll encounter people who completely reject your advice, then come back to you a year later asking for help after they've worn holes in their horses' backs with ill-fitting saddles.  You'll have customers who call you on weekends, holidays and at 10:30 at night, and you'll have customers you'll work with for months on end without being able to find a saddle that suits them and their horse.  You'll have customers who'll badmouth you to anyone who'll listen, saying that you couldn't solve their saddle fitting problem when you knew damn well the issues stemmed from shoeing or ulcers or training or soundness or rider problems instead.

But - to come full circle - the good really does outweigh the bad.  I have a wonderful network of fitters both here and abroad whom I can turn to for advice or ideas or to just share a story.  And most of my customers are conscientious horse owners who are dedicated to doing the best they can for their horses and themselves, and I really like them.  So while I'll never be "living large" or retiring early, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm improving the life of quite a few horses and riders.  I'm good with that.


Louise Palmer said...

Kitt, you made me laugh out loud, so true, so very true. Love it!

Wingsinmoonlight said...

Love your blog, just finished reading the whole thing from the first post on. :) I have had no luck finding someone semi-local who can work on a used saddle I bought-I assume it needs flocking, since it is vintage, and it needs a few smallish repairs. Do you know of anyone in Ohio (near Dayton) who is qualified and returns e-mails? :)

Cut-N-Jump said...

A bit too much truth to be found in this post. For anyone who has dealt with the public- truth is Always stranger than fiction. You just can't make some of it up.