Saturday, April 12, 2014

Put the Irons Down (Location, Location, Location)


Recently, I received a saddle from a lovely woman I had worked with in my previous saddle fitting life.  I'd sold her her saddle (long-distance), and adjusted it regularly for her (again, long-distance) whenever it needed attention, and things had always gone well.  The last time the saddle had needed attention, however, she didn't know I'd started my own business, and wound up working long-distance with another fitter.  She sent fitting evaluation photos, and the other fitter said the saddle was sitting pommel-high, but the issue could be resolved by removing flocking from the front.  So Customer sends her saddle in and has the work done.  When she gets the saddle back and tries it the first time, her mare is reluctant to move forward.  Eventually, the mare just flat refuses to move forward when saddled.  So Customer finds me via Google, emails, and asks if I'd take a look.

I also ask for fitting evaluation photos.  When they arrive, I see that yes, the saddle's sitting pommel-high ... but it's also positioned too far forward.  This conversation ensues:

ME:  Are these the same photo you sent to the other fitter?


M:  Did the other fitter say anything about where the saddle was sitting?

C:  No, she just said the saddle was sitting pommel-high, and that taking some flocking out of the front would fix it.

M:  Well, it is sitting pommel-high, but I think it's sitting that way because it's about two fingers' width too far forward.

C:  Oh ... Why didn't the other fitter mention that?

M:  Not sure.  Perhaps she didn't notice.  But go ahead and send your saddle and a template.  I'm sure I can straighten things out.

Now, let me pause to say that taking flocking out of a saddle is a miserable bitch of a job, not one I enjoy in the least and one I will run uphill to avoid unless there's no other recourse.  To say that it's hard to do well is a huge understatement.  Fortunately, it's rare that I have to do it unless the saddle is grossly overflocked, and in that case, a total strip-flock is usually needed (and in that case, I don't mind removing flocking at all).  Sometimes taking a whisker of wool out can improve things, but if a saddle's sitting pommel-high (at least, if it's doing so when the saddle's in the right spot), I've found that it's rarely the correct fix.  And taking flocking out when the wool has compacted tightly isn't what I'd call a good idea, as it's going to be hard to remove wool without getting into the bedding layer (the one closest to your horse, which shouldn't be disturbed when adjusting the flock).  Finally, doing so on a serge-paneled saddle, which will allow every lump, bump, divot and deviation to be felt minutely ... well, that's really, REALLY not a good idea.

So the saddle arrives, I prop it in my lap and do the ritual-habitual touchy-feelie of the panels. There are huge divots in the panels that start at the tree points and go back past the stirrup bars; the other fitter must have removed WADS of flock.  So much has been removed that I can literally (and I do mean "literally") feel the tree through the panels.  What little flocking is left in the area is balled up and lumpy - no WONDER the poor mare didn't want to move!  If I can feel the tree, what must it have been like for her with her rider up?

I cannot believe that anyone who calls themselves a fitter would think this was a good job or the right solution.  I am flabbergasted.  I am gobsmacked.  I am mad.  I compare the tree width to the template that Customer sent, and they match up perfectly.  So the whole "pommel high" thing wasn't about saddle fit - it was about saddle position. One of the most basic things a fitter should check. 

I put the saddle on my bench and head for the computer, being very raptor-y and snarling and swearing a blue streak about people who have no business working on saddles and how I hope they one day have to carry a backpack full of rocks and razor blades on a 30 mile forced march, uphill both ways, on the hottest day of the year, barefoot, in snow up to their hips; how they give saddle fitters in general and long-distance fitters in particular an undeserved collective black eye, and how they can't go out of business quickly enough to suit me.  Then, thinking perhaps I should decompress and regain my ability to be diplomatic (to "channel Edie", as Nancy Okun and I call it) before contacting the customer, I do an about-face and spend some time kicking and punching my stand-up bag.  Venting such wrath on Mister Squishy would have undoubtedly led to his demise, given his elderly and fragile state.

Feeling much more in control (and considerably winded; my stamina still isn't back to pre-flu levels), I let Customer know about the state of the saddle, and tell her that a strip-flock may be in the cards.  Customer feels really bad; she was trying to do the right thing by her horse and is now worried she's hurt her horse and that her saddle may be beyond fixing.  I assure her that her saddle can be fixed, please don't worry; if I can avoid doing a strip-flock, I will, and I'll let her know about it asap.

I spend a while longer poking at the panels and cursing.  Part of me thinks a strip-flock is the way to go; the saddle's about 6 years old and it would just flat be easier to start over than to try to fill in those holes.  But Customer had to pay a fairly steep price to have this done to her saddle, so I'd like to at least be able to spare her as much financial outlay as possible. But man, that's an unholy, wicked mess ... Yet the rest of the flocking is still in good shape, so it would be a shame to have to pull it all out ...

In the end, I decide to see if I can fix it.  If I fail, I can always fall back on the strip flock.  So I start fiddling and adding wool and using a long needle to go into the panels through the serge and break up lumps.  After about 15 minutes, I'm pleased (and frankly, pretty surprised) to find that one panel is back in good shape, so I start on the other.  More fiddling, more poking with the needle, a little massaging and fluffing, and the second panel is feeling way better.  In all, I spent better than half an hour on the saddle (a regular flocking adjustment rarely takes more than 10 minutes).  I do a few final adjustments and decided to let the wool "rest" overnight, and check it again in the morning to be sure I'm still happy with the job.  I am, so the saddle gets boxed up and shipped back to Customer, along with a reminder about proper saddle position.

Today, I received this email from Customer:

"just had to tell you that I went for lesson this past Thursday. it was first time i had used my saddle since getting it back......lots of rain.  We used a new bit and my trainer was so amazed at how happy and light Montana was.  For me it is like riding a new horse!  You must realize, the last time I put this saddle on Montana, she refused to move ( smart horse). she was a very happy camper!!!  I am so grateful for your level of expertise,Kitt you helped me get my horse back!! 

And that, my friends, is why I love this job. To be able to turn something like that around for a horse and rider ... well, I can't think of much that's more satisfying.  


So how do you know where your saddle should sit?  The tree point should be about 3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapulae.  With most dressage saddles, this means that the front of the flap will be about one finger's width behind the rear edge of the scapulae.  With jump or ap saddles, it can be a little harder to tell.  One way to judge is to put the saddle way far forward on the withers and slide it slowly back; it will "stop" at the proper spot.  Another way is to find the tree point and mark the spot on the outer flap directly over it with a dab of leather conditioner, and mark the area on your horse's mane that's directly above the three-fingers-behind-the-back-of-the-scapulae spot with a piece of tape or a chalk mark.  Position the saddle so the two are aligned.  If your saddle won't stay there, or if placing it there makes the rear of the saddle extend past T18, you need to look further into saddle fit.