Monday, April 6, 2009

Timing is Everything

Saddles are sort of like the pants you wore in high school: what fit you fine back then is probably a whole different story today. (And if you're over age 35, have had at least one child, and can still wear your high-school pants, I do NOT want to hear about it.)

One of the unavoidable facts of life with horses is this: the saddle that fits your horse today probably won't fit your horse forever. Sad, but true. The saddle that fits your four year old isn't likely to fit when your horse is 8 or 10, and the saddle that fits your 8 or 10 year old horse very well may not fit when your horse is 22.

It seems that lately I've been running into a lot of people whose horses are in some sort of transition. Either they've recently bought the horse, or they're changing disciplines, or their horse is coming back from a long and debilitating lay-off -but whatever the case, they're going to be facing some pretty dramatic changes in their horse's backs.

And of course, they're all looking for saddles.

So what do I do? Do I fit the back I see right then? If I do, what happens when the musculature changes - what if the saddle no longer fits? On the other hand, if I don't fit the back I'm seeing right then, how will the rider be able to work the horse and effect the musculature?

Fortunately, this isn't really tough to solve. I just don't sell you a saddle - at least for a little while.

Before I sell a saddle for a horse "in transition", I recommend a course of good ground work. In my "other" life, I was a dressage trainer and instructor, so I know that correct ground work (longeing, long-lining and in-hand work) can be used to create incredible development in a horse's training - and in his/her back. Six to eight weeks of correct, consistent ground work should be sufficient to develop a "base line" back. I do recommend taking a template of your horse's back every couple weeks to see how the back is developing - it will be helpful in choosing a saddle, since you'll have a kind of graph of the muscle growth and can make educated guesses regarding future development. We might have to use a shim or other correction pad for a while, and we might have to do some flocking adjustments, but with luck, the saddle we choose for the "base line" back will fit much longer than if we'd fit the "right then" back.

Here's a good illustration of how radically a back can change. Both tracings are of the same Tb gelding. The first one was taken in Oct. of '08, when he was just coming back to work after a month's lay-off:

The second tracing was taken in March of '09. According to his owner, the horse wasn't in intense work, just a lot of "long and low":

Here are the two, with the most recent tracing in blue, and the first tracing in red:

You can see very clearly how much change was accomplished in 4 month of gentle work - so you can imagine how much change you'll see in 6 or 8 weeks of intense work. You can also see why it's not usually a good idea to buy a saddle for a horse who's in transition - unless you have a very healthy discretionary income.


Melissa said...

Really interesting tracings! I have such a horse, and I've sent you a tracing from a time where she's not in much work - I'll have to send you a more representative tracing when we've had more good weather to train in.

Anonymous said...

This article may have been addressed to me and my horse. We're in transition.

After finally resolving the unsoundness issue, I've got a horse with a hugely changed back. No way his currect saddle is going to fit. So purposeful ground work, and light riding with the bareback pad is our current effort to rebuilt his muscle.

Delicate and sensetive Arab he is, I've averaged a saddle every two years since I puchased him as a 5 yo. He's currently going on 12.

Some observers tell me "he's always had saddle fit problems." Well, its not a problem, it is more a fact of life. He's changed, he moves differently, he's built muscle. I have a file of withers tracing on this horse and the changes are amazing.

Contributing to the saddle merry-go-round is my riding style has evolved. My first dressage saddle had some pretty substantial thigh blocks and deep seat - after a time, I found that very restrictive. Then I move from a 17" to an 18" seat, again I was a happier rider.

Not only does the horse change, but there is a realy possibility that the skills therefor needs, of the rider also change.

The analogy of wearing the same size clothes pretty much desribes me and my horse.

It sure would be nice and much easier if one saddle worked for a horse and rider for years and year. That certainly has not been my experience. Life would be so much simpler, and less expensive, if it were true.
Val L.

Trailpal said...

Great article for me at this time! Thanks for providing examples and specifics. I guess I knew at some level that their backs change but I never knew how to work with it.


Nicole said...

I'd love to get a sample of some of the ground exercises you recommend.

autumnblaze said...

I too one of those people!

So... I've meant to send pictures to help you clarify your advice and suggestions on fitting my boy. Of course, my camera died. Perfect. However, I did buy a used saddle - fits quite well. Now I need a camera too. Drat.

Anyways the new saddle is 180 degrees fit wise from the saddle I was riding him in. He's obviously pleased with it and I'm so much more secure. It was a super deal and I had a good idea it would fit and it's great...

BUT... he's out of shape. Pudgy. It might not fit him in 2 months. How depressing this will be to me but I do realize it's a possibility. I also think it's a good enough fit though that we may only need some reflocking and I have found a saddle fitter within driving distance.

If not as I said it was a great deal on a quality used saddle. We'll figure it out. I think a lot of the battle is knowing HOW important saddle fit is and checking it often. That's why I really like this blog - more people need to be reading this! I know I will be and I'll also get you those pictures anyways... that is... when I get my paws on a camera. :)

Steph said...

I think in the UK we see so many riders who SAY their horse will gain muscle or lose weight, but nothing is done in either direction! I have to fit to the horse in front of me but our trees leave enough flex in the muscle to allow regeneration of muscle - weight loss is another matter!