Friday, January 30, 2009

For the First Time Horse Owner

I've realized (thanks to one reader's comments) that I've been gearing this blog more toward the experienced horse owner than the first timer, so I'm going to switch gears a bit and cover the real basics. I'm going to re-publish one of my original blog posts, "The Heavy Seven", since it seems unavailable in the archives.

But before I do that, here's the very best advice I can offer the first time horse owner: buying a saddle is a lot like buying a horse - get help from a professional.

1) Find a saddle either with the help of an independent fitter (or through one who reps multiple saddles) or through a reputable shop with a good inventory and a good fitter. This will allow you access to saddles from a variety of saddle makers, which I believe is vital - there's no one company out there that makes a saddle that's perfect for every horse and rider combination, so limiting yourself to one company may not be the best idea. Working with a good fitter should also cut way down on the trial and error process, since the fitter can direct you to the tree shape, tree width, and panel configuration that would most likely work for your horse.

Now, I hear you all asking, "How do I find a reputable fitter?" Word of mouth is usually the best way - if someone's "street cred" is overwhelmingly good (or the reverse), there's usually a reason for it. And while there are companies, associations and schools that will certify people who pass their courses, I'm going to don my flame suit, brace myself, and make a bold statement: it's my belief that not all good fitters are certified, and not all certified fitters are good. Some certification programs, like the Society of Master Saddlers or Mike Scott's program, are very lengthy and detailed and require prior knowledge and experience, and some are not; many of the certification programs offered by saddle companies are geared toward teaching their reps to sell and fit their saddle rather than saddles at large. I'm not certified by any association, though I have learned from certified fitters, and regularly have certified fitters refer clients to me. My mentor (and hero) Patty Barnett - who does all the big scary repairs that I don't have the equipment or know-how to do - spent 5 years apprenticing with Gary "the Saddle Dr." Severson, and she's not certified, either. So my advice would be to put more store in reputation than in certification.

2) Make sure you can try the saddle before you commit to buying it. Some shops will offer you a one-week "ride it like you own it" trial.  Panther Run Saddlery (that would be me) is one, and Equestrian Imports is another.  We want you to put your fittings on the saddle and really ride in the saddle - take a lesson or two, go on a trail ride, whatever it is that you do. You simply can't tell if a saddle's going to fit just by plunking it on your horse while s/he stands in the cross ties. What looks fine there may be a whole 'nother story when you're up and your horse is going, so remember: try before you buy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Saddle Recommendation for Arabee and Nicole

Next in the series of saddle recommendations are Nicole and her horse Arabee (you can follow their adventures on Nicole's blog: Nicole is doing endurance and wants to find a saddle that will fit better than the one she has now:
As you can see, the saddle's sitting pommel-high; some of that is due to the fact that the saddle's too far forward (I'd like to see it about 3 fingers' width further back, but given Arabee's conformation, I'd bet most saddles tend to slide forward). Another reason it's pommel-high is that the tree is too narrow. In the next photo, I've outlined the angle of the tree in green, and the angle of Arabee's back in red. You can see they don't match up.

The saddle's not a bad fit otherwise, but the tree points can't be comfy for Arabee, and Nicole likely feels thrown into the back seat due to the pommel sitting so high.
So let's take a look at Arabee "nekkid":

She's a nicely compact little mare with a moderate wither and some curve to her back. She's a tad rump-high and has a well-sprung rib cage - both will contribute to a saddle wanting to move forward. She also has a broad back:
Ideally, I'd like to see Arabee in a saddle with an shallow gusseted, upswept - the upsweep will keep the panels from extending past T18, and the gusset will give a broader bearing surface to the bottom of the panel, and a shallow gusset will keep it from sitting too high in back. A full front gusset might help keep the saddle back, as well.
I would definitely not recommend an extended panel, such as you find on the Wintec endurance saddle - unless Nicole rides in a really tiny seat (like 15"), I'd be afraid an extended panel would A) extend past T18, and B) I'd be afraid it would poke and / or rub, since Arabee's a bit butt-high.
I'd like to see a hoop tree on this mare, too. In the photo below, both "gullets" are the correct width, but notice how differently they compare to her back. The standard tree gullet is in turquoise, and the hoop tree gullet in pink.

Here's the catch: Nicole (like mostly everyone else out there today) is on a budget and needs to keep the price as far under $1000.00 as possible, and most saddles in this price range don't offer a ton of fitting options. So we're going to do the best we can to maximize comfort for everyone and still stay within budget. Nicole could try to find a used leather saddle - I'd recommend looking into a Duett Fidelio or perhaps a Duett Companion Trial, though I'd worry that the tree on the Companion Trail might be too flat for Arabee's back. A used Frank Baines Enduro or Enduro LDR would be worth considering as well. or perhaps an older County Competitor (I'm mentioning dressage saddles here because many of my endurance and competitive trail customers ride in dressage saddles - they either order them with dee rings, or have me retrofit them). Arabian Saddle Company also makes a trail saddle, and that would be another avenue to try.
However, given Nicole's budget, her chosen discipline, and Arabee's conformation, I'd recommend trying a Thorowgood Cob or Broadback, either the a/p or dressage models. Even brand new, they're in her price range, they offer a changeable gullet, and in my experience, they're a good, reliable saddle. They also have a more hoop-shaped gullet plate, which will work better for Arabee. (The reason I'm not recommending a Wintec Wide is because their gullet plates are just flattened-out versions of their standard gullet plates - the turquoise-colored gullet in the photo above is a PhotoShopped version of a plate from the Wintec Wide). And being synthetic, Nicole can kiss leather maintenance goodbye - the Thorowgoods I mentioned are synthetic, and wash up with soap and water. No more worries about being caught in the rain!
Next up: Finding a saddle for the first-time horse owner.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So Many Topics

I want to thank everyone who's commented and sent photos - sometimes finding a good topic to write about isn't quite as easy as I had (somewhat naively) thought it would be, and I really appreciate the input. This blog is meant to be an educational tool, so knowing what people want to learn about is a great help.

I will get to everyone's questions, topics and photos as soon as I can, though it may take a little time. In the meantime, please keep the input and photos coming!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Saddle Recommendation for Tipperary and Renn Goldberg

Here's our first "Saddle Recommendation" installment, and thanks to Renn Goldberg for patiently complying with my photo requests.
This is Renn's boy, Tipperary. He's a 15.2 1/2 h. Irish Sport Horse, whom Renn describes as having a "big ribcage and a gigantic shoulder":
My initial impression here is a nicely balanced horse, just a tad rump-high, fairly short back. Girth spot is decently long, and I can see what Renn means about a big shoulder and a well-sprung rib cage. Tip has a moderate wither and while he's not completely flat front-to-back, he's not going to need a lot of curve or "scoop" in the tree. The saddle should have a fairly shallow rear gusset and possibly (depending on seat size) an upswept panel.
Now let's look at the rest of Tip's back. Just FYI, that white spot on Tip's wither is NOT Renn's doing - it was there when she bought him:

Tip is a little bigger on the left than the right (left shoulder more developed, left haunch higher), which isn't unusual. All horses (like all people) have a preferred side, and that side will be more muscular (and often less flexible - they'll bend to the left with no problem, but going to the right is tougher because they have to stretch that muscled side). From a saddle fitting standpoint, it's not a big deal unless this is a chronic issue that won't be changing, and then we'd most likely deal with it through flocking adjustments. However, I'm guessing that this is a stage he's at in his development, and it will change.

Though it's hard to tell for sure without a tracing (or without getting my hands on his back), I think Tip can be fit with a fairly generous standard tree - I don't think a hoop tree will be necessary; he doesn't appear to be that broad through the withers. Again, a panel with a fairly shallow gusset would offer a nice broad weight-bearing surface for his nice, broad back without making it sit too high in the cantle.

Now for Tip's sides:

This looks pretty straightforward - no major dips or divots (small one below the wither on the left side), so probably wouldn't need wither gussets or a trapezius panel (can't tell for sure without a tracing). So, based on the photos and Renn's description, my recommendation would be a Black Country Quantum. Since Renn's femur is about 14" and the Quantum has a flap that will accommodate a long thigh, a 16.5" seat might work, or perhaps a short flap option would be worth investigating.

Some other possibilities for Renn and Tip would be a Frank Baines Reflex cc, a County Stabilizer, or one of Albion's close contacts.

Renn, thank you so much for being the first. And if you'd care to send a tracing, I'll make further recommendations.

Friday, January 9, 2009

New Feature - Thanks to CotH BBers!

I picked up a wonderful idea from the BBers at the Chronicle of the Horse forums, and - with your help, dear readers - will feature it regularly. If you'd like to e-mail me some photos of your horse, I'll make recommendations on which saddles and / or fitting options I'd chose as being the best candidates for your horse. And if you'd care to send a tracing (you'll have to snail-mail that, since any other method distorts the tracing and renders it useless), I'll even make recommendations on tree width.
Anyway, here are the photos I need:
First, a good conformation shot:

Next, these views of your horse's back:

I think this will be a fun, informative feature - I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's A Flocking Thing (Wooly Thoughts) ...

I get calls like this: "Hi, this Joe Doe. I got a saddle from you a year ago, and it was great for a while, but it's not fitting now."

ME: "Is this a wool or foam-flocked saddle?"

JD: "Wool."

ME: "Have you had a fitter take a look at it and make adjustments?"

JD: "Um, no. Was I supposed to?"

My bad here. I dropped the ball and didn't pass necessary info on to my clients. I just assume that people know that wool-flocked saddles have to have the fit checked after about 10 hrs. of riding, and adjusted as necessary. Well, we all know what "assume" makes ... and in this case, it can also make a horse back-sore.

So I'm telling you all (and am reminding myself to tell my clients) that a wool-flocked saddle needs that kind of maintenance. It's sort of like changing the oil in your car - it needs to be done periodically to keep things running smoothly. After the initial adjustment, it should be checked again in a few months - it sometimes takes a couple of fitting adjustments to initially fine tune the fit. After that, the fit should be checked (and adjusted if necessary) every 6-12 months, depending on how often the horse is ridden and on the horse's level of training and development.

And at some point down the road, you'll need to have a total reflock - a "strip flock" - done. Wool compacts and loses its resilience, and - if subjected to enough constant pressure - will actually felt up. Here's what new wool looks like - I get this lovely stuff from Alan Powell at Saddler's Bench (they make our Killington close contact saddle):

It's soft and fluffy and free of knots and lumps, highly resilient and very cushy.

And here's what old wool looks like:

Admittedly, this is an extreme case. This wool came out of an ancient (think 30 yr. old) Stubben that had never had any work done on it. The wool used here is remnant wool from the garment and upholstery industries - hence the multiple colors. But even the lovely wool that I use will become matted and lumpy over time, and will need replacing.

How often? Again, it depends on how often (and in what conditions) you ride, and how often and how radically the flocking has been adjusted. Some saddles can go five to ten years before needing a strip flock, and some need it after only a few years. I think my record holder for needing a strip flock the soonest is Jenny Kimberly, a local endurance / competitive trail rider. Jenny literally rides thousands of miles a year in all kinds of weather, and her mare Lyric changes condition from the beginning to the end of the season, and her saddle needs flocking adjustments as a result. Her saddle needed a strip flock after only 3 years.

By the way, even if your saddle is foam flocked, the fit should be checked at least once a year - or more often if you notice changes in balance or in your horse's way of going. With foam, the tree width can be altered, but other fitting adjustment have to be made with shims and corrective pads. But whichever you have in your saddle, find a knowledgeable fitter to take a look periodically - your horse will thank you.