Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Becoming a Saddle Fitter

This is Edie Tschorn:
... and it's all her fault.
When I started working for Edie at the shop back in the late 90's, I worked part-time, selling saddles on-line and filling in for other shop employees on vacations and days off. I was a stay-at-home mom then, and the job was pretty much ideal: it was horse-related, I did most of my work from home, and if I was needed at the shop, it wasn't a problem, since my husband worked nights and could do "day care" with our sons.
Then came the day when Edie said, "Hey, Kitt - how'd you like to learn to do saddle fitting?"
Because it sounded interesting (and because I was totally ignorant of just what it would entail), I agreed.

Here in the US, learning the trade of fitting and repair can be tough. There aren't a lot of educational opportunities, and there were even fewer back when I started. Here were my options:

1) The Society of Master Saddlers' Qualification course. Located in the UK, you need 3 years' prior fitting experience (and you need to have taken their Intro course) to be accepted. The course teaches you what tree shape and panel configuration would work for a given horse, and how to assess a horse's fitting needs, but it doesn't cover flocking or repairs.

2) The Master Saddlers' Association. They will teach you to fit and to flock (no repairs), but (back then, anyway) you needed to be a County Saddlery rep to get in. I wasn't, and had no desire to be, so I didn't.

3) The Cumbria School of Saddle Fitting. David May will teach you everything, but again, it's located in the UK.

Luckily, Edie was determined to have me educated, and decided the best route was to hire a fitter to teach me. So my education began with Nancy Shedrick, a SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter. I learned about flocking and saddle design, and to do a Flair-to-wool conversion (which is kind of a cross between plumbing and surgery, since you need to open the panels and remove air bladders and hoses, replace it with flock, and sew it all back up).

I also attended one of Mike Scott's courses, which focused on saddle fitting with an eye to equine massage, which was something I'd dabbled in in the early 90's. (Mike has his own saddle fitting and equine massage therapy school now. Mike, if you'd gotten your act together sooner, my life would have been much easier!)

My next (and present) mentor is Patty Barnett of East Crow Saddlery. As I've mentioned before, she apprenticed for years with Gary "The Saddle Doctor" Severson, and took over his business when he retired. She's my go-to person when faced with a big, scary repair; she's talked me down off the ledge more than once and explained how to do some repair or retrofit that I wasn't sure I ought to be tackling.

I also attended the SMS "Introduction to the Principals of Saddle Fitting" course in Oct. of '07, and had a chance to meet Kay Hastilow, Ian and Andy Hastilow (no relation to Kay) and Annette Gavin, who were a few of the instructors.

There are also a couple of helpful books out there. One is Repair Your Own Saddlery and Harness, by Robert Steinke; another is To Handmake A Saddle, by John Harry and J.H.L. Shields. Lots of good info to be gleaned from both.

In addition to all of this "formal" education, there's been a lot of head-scratching, meditation, trial-and-error, pure inspiration and pure panic (like the time one of my very elderly and not very well-made flocking irons broke; I'd inserted about 16" of iron into a saddle panel and pulled out about 6"). I've deconstructed and reconstructed an unholy number of junker saddles that Edie acquired just for that purpose; I've spent hours practicing stitching and cutting and skiving and splicing. Edie (who has a real gift for mechanical reasoning) has helped me with a lot of the "nuts and bolts" aspects of repairs, like riveting and which drill bit to use. She also has a machine shop here on the farm, downstairs from the tack shop (you can see it in the photo, behind the tractor), which is full of useful and wonderful tools (Edie's as big a tool fan as I am).

My education continues, of course - one of the best things about this job is that there's always something new to learn: a saddle company comes up with a new innovation, or you run into a horse shaped like no other you've seen, or someone comes up with a new theory on saddle fitting. I'm also lucky in that I can contact any of the folks mentioned above to ask questions (which I do on a pretty regular basis) and share ideas.

All joking aside, I owe a lot to Edie - she's supported me and guided me, and always made sure I had what I needed to learn the job and do it right; she's been a great boss and an even greater friend. Thanks to you, Edie, this is the first time in my almost 50 years that I've been able to have a job with horses that didn't require a second job to finance it!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Congratulations to Nikki Newcombe, QSF

Just wanted to take a moment and give a shout out to Nikki Newcombe, sales manager at Black Country Saddlery in Walsall, UK. She has completed and passed the Society of Master Saddler's qualification course, and is now a Qualified Saddle Fitter. This is no small feat - the SMS has very high standards, and the training is very exacting; becoming qualified requires dedication and a long period of hands-on training, as well as passing a nerve-wracking practical exam.

From my point of view, it's also extremely helpful for the sales manager of our best-selling saddle line to be knowledgeable about the fitting issues we're seeing, and understand the modifications that can be made to a saddle to address these issues.

So, Nikki, congratulations - it's a pleasure to work with you!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tools of the Trade

I absolutely love tools. Hardware stores are right after tack shops and book stores on my "favorites" list. Hand tools, power tools, woodworking tools - you name it, I love 'em all. And one of the wonderful things about doing saddle fitting and repair is the tools I get to use. Admittedly, they're somewhat old-fashioned; some of them have been pretty much the same for the last two or three hundred years ... but they're cool anyway.

These are flocking irons. They're used to put flock in the panels, and to adjust and move the flock once it's in:

The top iron is a very straight, inflexible tool, whereas the two in the middle can be bent into whatever angle is needed to reach some of the more awkward spots in the panels. The bottom iron is helpful for adjusting the flock in the area of the flocking holes (harder to do with a long iron). They all have teeth on the ends to catch and hold the wool.

This is a hook for removing flock:

Like the middle two irons above, this can be bent to whatever curve is needed. Removing flock is probably my least-favorite job (unless I'm doing a strip-flock and removing all the wool). It can be tough to get just the right amount of flock out, particularly if the wool's compacted, and it's very easy to leave divots.

This is a masher:

It's used to compress the flock or help it "break in". You basically grab it by the handle and use the large, flat end to pound the bejesus out of the panels. (Ok, it's not quite that simple - but to the untrained eye, that's how it looks). Great stress relief!

These are awls:

The one on the top is a diamond-point awl; it's used for making holes or widening existing holes, or for scratching out stitch lines and the like. The bottom awl is a curved or backing awl; it can also be used to widen existing holes, and is very handy for picking up stitches and pulling thread from lines of stitching.

These are some of the wools I use for flocking.:

The top two are long-fibered rovings, which are very easy to lay in the panels and break in quickly. The bottom two are shorter-fibered batting (the one on the left is Black Country's Jacobs wool), which is tougher to lay in, but can be a bit more resilient.

Finally, this is the synthetic flock I use:

This is Passier's synthetic flock, which is (in my opinion) about the best synthetic flock available. It's long-fibered enough to be easy to work with and is very resilient; it doesn't tend to pill and bunch the way some synthetics do.

I do use other tools - groovers, bone folders, stitching spacers, skiving knives, punches, etc. - but those are more for leather repair. These are the "if I was stranded on a desert island and had to do saddle fitting" tools.