Saturday, May 31, 2014

Differences of Opinion (Fits With Shims)

"My saddle fits every horse I put it on!"

If there's a phrase that triggers my eye-roll reflex, it's this one.  Any guesses as to how many times I hear this?

Let's just say, "Lots."

And guess what?

It doesn't.

Ok, so maybe my definition of "fit" is a bit different than the average person's.  I want a saddle to fit correctly without having to use anything other than a thin cotton pad.  No shims, no sheepskins, no foam, no air, no foregirth - just a thin cotton quilt.  It can't slide forward or slip back, or wobble from side to side, and it  has to allow the horse and rider to do their jobs effortlessly.

The last time someone told me this, she put a thin cotton quilt on the horse, then added a thick sheepskin pad, then a foam pad, and finally a rear riser pad before placing said miracle saddle on top of it all.  She climbed aboard and perched up there, commenting, "I have to be really careful about maintaining my balance, but look how well it's fitting!"

Frankly, when you get that much padding between you and the horse, "saddle fit" becomes a moot point.   It's like a person who's a size 4 trying to make a pair of size 10 pants fit by wearing multiple pairs of long underwear, or someone with a size 8 foot trying to make a size 6 shoe fit by lopping off the toes.  While you may be able to make said clothing work, you really can't say it fits.  Throwing multiple pads under a saddle isn't making it fit, it's just putting more junk between your saddle and your horse.

Yes, there are saddles like the Balance and the Parelli that are supposed to be shimmed, and while I understand the theory, I'm still firmly of the opinion that a saddle that truly fits doesn't require the use of shim pads.  They talk about focusing on active fit rather than static fit, and I'm on board with that ... but I still think that can be achieved without shims or corrective pads.  They talk about the way a horse's back changes when they work, and how a saddle needs to allow for that.  Again, I'm all over that ... but it can be done without extra pads/shims.

Now, I understand that some people need to make a saddle work for more than one horse, and I understand that there are horses that, for various physical reasons, do require shims and/or pads as a band-aid.  I'm ok with that.  I use shim pads from time to time myself, when horses are in transition; it's a boat load cheaper than repeated flocking adjustments, it's far more convenient, and it can save the integrity of the flock.  It's also a good answer if you're trying to fit two similar horses with one saddle, and while it's a good fit for Horse A, it's just a tad too wide in the tree for Horse B.

Anyone who's read much of this blog will understand that if a saddle truly doesn't fit, there's no pad in the world that will make it fit.  That same anyone will also understand that it's my belief that there's no one saddle that can be adjusted to fit every horse perfectly throughout its lifetime.  (Even the WOW saddles, which are completely modular and can have the panels and even the tree changed out, fall into this category.  If you're switching out the tree and the panels, you're essentially building a completely new saddle, aren't you?)  And that Miracle Saddle that fits every horse perfectly only exists in Brigadoon, sitting in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, with all the honest politicians.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Word About Widths

"My saddle fitter said my horse needs a wide tree.  So I got her one, but it sits too low and hits her withers."  "My saddle fitter said my horse needs a medium tree.  So I got her one, but the saddle is sitting really pommel-high."  "My saddle fitter said that because my horse has really big withers, he'll need a narrow tree."

I hear this sort of thing way more frequently than I'd like.  Tree width is the very first thing most people think about when they talk about saddle fitting, yet many people don't understand that it's only one part of the fitting picture.  Yes, the correct tree width is important, but tree type, tree shape, panel configuration and billet configuration are equally important, and all but the last have an effect on width.  But people always start with, "My horse needs a medium/wide/narrow/extra-wide tree ..."

So let's break this down.  First, whether a tree is given a designation like medium or wide, or whether it's given a centimeter measurement, the measurement is taken pre-construction, on the bare tree.  If the tree is measured in centimeters, the measurement is taken between the ends of the tree point.  If it's a UK-made saddle, it's given its width designation based on the angle of the pommel arch, as follows:

  • Narrow:  75°-84.9°
  • Medium:  85° - 94.9°
  • Wide:  95° - 104.9°
  • Extra-wide:  105° and up
So, all medium tree saddles made in the UK are the same in the width department, right?


Why not?

Reason one:  Tree type.  If a saddle is a wide standard tree, it's not going to fit the same as a wide hoop tree, since the hoop tree has the extra breadth across the top of the pommel arch.

Reason two:  Head height.  A medium width high-head saddle may work beautifully for a higher-withered horse, but will probably perch on a horse with a lower wither.

Reason three:  Tree point length.  Long tree points fit less generously than short tree points.  In the graphic below, the ends of the "tree points" are the same width apart, but note how much more room there is with a shorter point.

Reason four:  Panel configuration.  A wither or full front gusset will reduce a saddle's width.  A K or trapezius-type panel, which can be a lifesaver on a horse with divots behind the withers or real "steeple" withers, can make a saddle perch on a propane-tank back.  Where the panels are sewn into the pommel arch makes a difference, too; that's why Passier's Freedom panels (which are sewn in lower in the pommel arch than their standard panels) are a good choice for a horse with a lower, muttony wither.  (I rode the Great Red Menace in a Passier GG for years; she wasn't quite a hoop tree candidate but was broader than a regular tree would easily accommodate, and this "compromise"- especially in conjunction with the shorter tree points on the Passier - worked well until she got older and widened into a real hoop tree horse.)  Horses with bigger withers often need the panels to be tied in higher in the pommel arch (but not so high that they press on the lateral aspect of the spine).

Reason five:  What's in the panels.  Foam panels are thinner than wool panels because they have better cushion; an inch of foam offers much more cushion than an inch of wool.  Foam panels offer a closer "feel" but don't usually offer much in the way of panel modifications (though some saddle companies, like Beval, are starting to pay more attention in this area).  I don't think they're usually a good choice for a horse with a big wither, since the panels are often too minimal to support the saddle in proper balance on a horse with that conformation. These panels can work well on the table-backs, though; Andy Foster's Lauriche saddles are all foam-paneled, and I've seen many of them work beautifully for the propane-tank builds.

Wool panels, on the other hand, are bulkier, and the amount of flocking in the panels can make a pretty substantial difference in the way a saddle fits.  A saddle that's been heavily flocked in the front will not fit as generously in width as a saddle that's been more lightly flocked ...but as we learned in the previous blog post, you can't go to the other extreme, either.  There must be enough wool in the panels to cushion the horse's back from the tree, but not so much that the panels are distorted into leather-covered sausages.

So the next time you're saddle shopping, remember that correct tree width is vital, but that these variables will make it almost impossible to say with any assurance, "My horse needs a ______ tree."