Friday, July 31, 2009

Saddle Repair is Like a Box of Chocolates ...

... You never know what you're going to get.

I truly enjoy coming to work in the morning, because I never know exactly what will be waiting for me on my bench or in my office; I choose to look at it as a different version of a holiday stocking. Today, along with the Passier with the broken spring bar and the polo saddle I'm re-billeting, there were some saddle nails and nylon webbing from Frank Baines, a Black Country Equinox in need of a bump-up (flocking adjustment) and a racing saddle in need of some repairs. Well, honestly, it had already had some repairs done ...

The owner wasn't really happy about the aesthetics of the repairs, and was hoping I could improve things, maybe make the patches bigger, and just sort of ... you know ... repair the repairs?
After my adventure in re-sewing seat seams - which was ultimately successful, but very time consuming and difficult - I'm a tad more reserved about leaping into a complicated repair on a rather tired saddle. But there's this part of me that just can't walk away from a challenge ...
So I e-mailed these photos to my hero, Patty Barnett, and chatted with her about my ideas for patching and repairing. She made a couple recommendations, okayed my ideas, gave me her patented Saddle Repair Blessing, and left me to it.
First, I had to remove the existing patches. Whoever put them on had certainly not intended that they'd be coming off; they were stitched on tightly and with great enthusiasm for knots. Unfortunately, the needle used was very large gauge, so the stitching holes are quite large and will need to be covered up. My plan is to completely re-cover the bottom half (or so) of the flaps, and patch the tears on the panels. I'll need to trace the flaps and cut the patches, then glue and stitch them back in place.
More when I get the patches cut!

Monday, July 27, 2009

If You Blog It, It Will Come ...

Well, this will teach me to start blogging about the importance of safety and keeping your tack in good repair. Ma always used to say, "Don't call trouble - it will find you on its own."

This saddle landed on my bench today. It had come in to be sold on consignment, but Edie noticed some rather distinct wrinkles on the seat:

While wrinkles like this can be caused by a rider who uses a lot of seat, by the tree being strained a little too loosely, or just by a weak spot in the leather, they can also show up when the tree is compromised. When Edie flexed it, the wrinkles REALLY stood out:

This saddle is a Passier - and their wood ("Baum") trees are noted for being outstandingly durable. They use bamboo to reinforce the tree, which makes them nicely flexible and amazingly resilient - I've seen these trees survive some pretty serious trauma, including being landed and rolled on. But in addition to the wrinkles, the saddle made a rather ominous creak when it was flexed ... which led us to think the tree might be compromised.

In order to check the tree, you have to drop the panels and peel back the gullet cover. First step is to pop the stitching at the pommel:

Next, you take your backing awl and pull the stitching out (or you can cut the stitches if you're familiar with the stitch pattern):

(And I do use two hands to do all this work ... but I need one hand to take the photos!)
Here's the saddle with the pommel dropped:

Next, you cut the stitching on the cantle:

And again, use your backing awl to pull the stitches (same caveat applies here re: cutting the stitches):

With the cantle dropped:

This saddle has point billets that run through the thigh block, so you need to pull the tree points out of the pockets and slide the billets out of the blocks:

Now you have the gullet cover exposed:

And you can start pulling staples:

A note here to anyone who wants to learn saddlery work: ALWAYS ACCOUNT FOR YOUR SHARPS!! Losing a staple or a tack somewhere in the saddle is a big no-no, since it will invariably migrate to the horse's back at some point and cause a huge to-do ... not to mention the potential for a serious injury and a law suit.
Here's the rear of the cover opened. The cantle was fine, as were the rear of the spring bars. You can see the serial number, date of manufacture, and some other info (I don't speak German, but maybe it's the name of the person who made or inspected the saddle?). The Passier logo is also there, though hard to see in the photo.

The head plate is intact (not surprising - Herm Sprenger makes those head plates, and I've yet to see one break). You can also see what Passier calls the "stretch joint" (looks like stitches in leather, which is just exactly what it is), which allows the saddle to be widened or narrowed to a greater degree than most trees.

But when I checked under the girth webbing, I found the culprit:

The spring bar had cracked by the rivet hole. We're checking with the owner to see what she'd like to do. This sort of thing is pretty easily replaced by someone who's good at tree work, so the saddle (which is 13 years old according to the stamp) can be repaired and have a lot more years of use.

Monday, July 20, 2009

For the Good of the Horse

Given the way the economy is going, I'm lucky to have a job that I love - heck, I'm lucky to have a job, period. And part of my job is selling saddles, and the shop I work for sells a lot of 'em - over 800 every year. And I do understand that it's in the shop's best interest (and by extension, in my best interest) to sell saddles. But sometimes the "retail" me takes a back seat to the horsewoman that I've been for 48 years ...

We had a very interesting client today: a 4 yr. old Morgan gelding named Lucky. His owner had contacted me about a month ago to initiate the saddle fitting process. Lucky is a bit of a special case, however: he has severe scoliosis (a side-to-side curve in the spine) from an injury that occurred when he was a foal. I consulted with Lucky's vet, and we both agreed that two things were critical: to keep the pressure off his spine, and to accommodate Lucky's asymmetries and balance the saddle as well as possible. I also was very happy to have Edie here for this one - her husband, Reggie Tschorn, DVM, is an equine vet who is an absolute whiz with lameness and soundness issues, and she's spent many, many hours learning from him. She's my "go-to" when there's some kind of soundness or gait issue that I just can't pinpoint, and I was really eager to get her input with Lucky.

Anyway, here's our boy, with green tape marking the spots where we took his template:

And here are two photos that really show the scoliosis:

Whether he's looking left or right, there's a definite spinal curve to the left. As a result, most saddles fall off to the left side. This is problematic, obviously: while the scoliosis will always be there, correct and symmetrical muscle development will help keep Lucky stronger, sounder and happier, but if the saddle's always sliding off to one side, that's going to be tough to develop. And while his owner will be using him primarily for a carriage horse, she would like to be able to do a little dressage and trail work.

Armed with the info from Lucky's vet, Edie and I had brainstormed on his needs, and had formed some basic ideas: hoop tree, wool flocking, and serge panels - the Equinox, Eloquence X or Vinici X came to mind. When Lucky arrived, we watched him go around on the longe line, and noticed that there was a definite problem with the right hind leg, and the stifle looked like the culprit - he was short-strided on that leg, and when he went to the right, his right hind swung up under his belly rather than tracking straight ahead. Given that his injury came from getting hung up by the right hind leg on a fence he'd tried to jump, a compromised stifle didn't seem at all out of the question. His conformation and tracings backed up our initial saddle choices, so we went upstairs to put his owner in some saddles.

Unfortunately, none of our initial picks suited Lucky's owner, so we tried a Summit - it's built on a hoop tree, and I thought if that saddle worked, we could always order it with serge panels. When we tried the Summit on Lucky, it fit as well as I'd hoped. His owner decided to try that, and a Bates Caprilli with CAIR panels (which wasn't as good a fit, but was certainly in the "acceptable" realm and was more comfortable for his owner).

As we were watching Lucky trot around the indoor under saddle, Edie said, "Do you hear that?"

Every few strides, there was a sort of "pong" noise - think of plucking the string on a bass fiddle that's had a pillow stuffed inside it. (In all honesty, I'd thought something had dropped on the roof of the indoor when I first heard it - it was quite jarring). But as Lucky trotted, the "pong" became more and more regular, and seemed to happen when the right hind was swinging up.

"I've never heard that before," his owner said, "but I've never ridden him in an indoor before. It could be that we were just never in the right conditions for me to hear it."

The more he trotted, the more he "ponged." Switching directions and changing saddles did nothing to correct the "pong", and while Lucky was trotting around gamely, he was still short on the right hind, and something obviously wasn't right.

Edie and I discussed what we were seeing. We both felt that there was some soundness issue besides the scoliosis that needed to be addressed ... but was the issue caused by the scoliosis, was the scoliosis aggravated by the issue, was it the stifle, or was it something else entirely? Given that there were so many unknowns, we began questioning the validity of trying to find a saddle for Lucky - at least at this point in time.

Edie (who is utterly brilliant when it comes to broaching potentially painful issues) brought up the subject of doing further diagnostics on Lucky to see precisely what soundness issue(s) besides the scoliosis needed to be dealt with before going further with the saddle quest. She and I both felt that the right stifle needed a thorough examination, and Edie also suggested some spinal radiographs. As she put it, "We'd love to sell you a saddle, but we'd hate to have it turn out to be the worst thing we could have done to your horse. Let's find out for sure that he's sound enough to carry weight on his back before we go further."

Lucky's owner agreed that further diagnostics would be a very good idea. She's had Lucky from the time he was foaled, and obviously loves him very much (and it shows - he's a real sweetheart and a joy to be around). If he's sound enough to carry weight, then we have a good handle on what his (and his owner's) fitting needs are. If not, Lucky will still be a great carriage horse and wonderful companion, and won't have been subjected to the pain of carrying a rider when he shouldn't have.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Life You Save Could Be Your Own (The Sublime to the Ridiculous)

I usually wake up in the morning with a thing or three rolling around in my head. This morning, it was two things: first was the song "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon (my eldest son sleeps with his radio on, so I often have a song stuck in my head - at least this time it was one I like!). The second was the last sentence of my most recent post: "Conscientious care will not only protect your investment and extend its life, it will keep your tack in good repair - which could literally save your life."

I'm pretty blasé about many things - I'll eat food that's been left out of the fridge for hours, or stop if I see someone with apparent car problems - but I've always been a real zealot about safety around horses. In spite of this, I've been bitten, thrown, fallen on, launched, kicked, pounded, mashed, battered, folded, spindled and damn near mutilated - but never because of a "tack malfunction." Before every ride, I check my saddle, girth, pads and bridle - it's so ingraned that it's no longer a conscious thing. If there's a "maybe" on anything, it's repaired or replaced before I mount. It's probably why I'm still walking around (albeit with some "gait abnormalities") with what passes - at least in middle age - for a sound mind.

All kidding aside, taking good care and paying attention to the condition of your tack is incredibly important. Here are 3 stories, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to illustrate.


Just recently, I found a saddle on my bench on which a rear billet had given out while the saddle was in use. Fortunately, the horse was just strolling sedately along the trail, and the rider was able to stop and dismount before the girth came completely undone, and no one was injured. The billets were all in sorry shape - cracked, stretched and dry as a cork leg - and the billet that gave out had actually ripped in two at one of the holes (I should have taken a photo of that one - it was impressive). When the repair was done and the owner was picking up the saddle, I asked, "Those billets were in really terrible shape. Didn't you notice?"

"Oh," the owner replied, "they've been like that for a long time. This was the first problem I've had with them."

So, along with those 4 new billets, the owner got - free of charge - a fairly strict lecture on the importance of checking your equipment and replacing or repairing any questionable parts. What if the billet had let go on a steep hill, or at a gallop, or on a squirrelly green horse? One doesn't often get that lucky twice ...


Not all safety issues are quite so obvious. I recently had another saddle come in for a safety inspection because the owner noticed that the saddle was suddenly "falling down on everyone's withers" and making her horses uncomfortable. When I asked her when she'd first noticed it, she answered, "Just this morning. I tried it on three different horses, and as soon as I mounted, it dropped right down on the withers every time. So I wanted to have you check it."

Initial flexions didn't reveal any red flags, but when we put the saddle on the buck and the owner mounted, it did drop down considerably. When I dropped the panels and peeled back the gullet cover, this is what I found (this is sort of a "Where's Waldo?" exercise):

Can't see it? It took me a couple minutes and repeated flexing before I did. Here's another shot:

It's tough to flex the plate and take photos at the same time, so I had to employ some local muscle:Pretty darn subtle, isn't it? Just a hairline crack, but the rider caught it immediately because she was paying attention. We're not sure what happened - the saddle could have been dropped or knocked off the rack, or - given that the saddle is about 20 years old and has been in constant use - the plate just succumbed to metal fatigue.


I'm presently working on re-billeting a saddle for a local polo player. These are the billets I took off the saddle:

When I saw the condition of the billets, I was surprised. Sure, they've seen some wear, but they're not really in bad shape - and I said so to the polo player.

"I just don't feel safe with them - don't like the quality at all," he told me. "And I'd really prefer not to have them let go at a full gallop, you know?"

Is this guy being paranoid? Not really. The billets were a wee bit stretched, but given the stress the billets on a polo saddle undergo - not only from a pony that can turn on a dime and go from a standstill to a full gallop in three jumps, but from a 170 lb. rider reaching and leaning to get a stick on the ball - his concern is perfectly understandable. So I'm putting on new billets with a thread that's a bit heavier gauge than what I usually use ... just for good measure.

So please, folks: pay attention, make note, be aware. A crack, a loose thread, a funny noise, a saddle that sits differently might not seem like a cause for concern ... but think about what might happen if it was a cause for concern. Think about who you might wind up leaving behind.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Leather Care 101 (Irony in the Skin Game)

Lately, lots of people have been asking me about leather care - what products for cleaning, what for conditioning; how to use them and how often to use them. There are tons of leather care products out there, and wading through them can be confusing. I found it quite ironic that I've recently been encountering a lot of very misused and neglected tack ... so I thought I'd cover the basics of leather and tack care here on the blog. Taking good care of your leather isn't arduous or time consuming, and it will extend its useful life by many years.

The first thing to remember is that leather is skin, and needs to be treated accordingly. Here's my first rule: if I don't want it on my hands, I won't use it on a saddle. This includes things like Murphy's Oil Soap, bleach, ammonia, WD-40, olive oil, motor oil, Neatsfoot oil, petroleum jelly and Horseman's One-Step (has petroleum derivatives in it). No harsh products, no heavy oils, and nothing that isn't formulated for use on leather.

Second rule: Keep it clean! This doesn't mean you need to do a complete tear-down of your tack after every ride, but you should wipe it off after every use. A sponge or cloth dampened with water is all you need. Regular wiping-down gets the sweat off immediately and keeps dirt from building up.

If you aren't fanatical about wiping down, you're going to need to use something to remove the accumulated sweat and dirt. Again, plain water works well, but if you need a little help, Effax Leather Combi is my favorite - it cleans without stripping the moisture from the leather. Leather Therapy cleaner is another good product. Glycerine soap is acceptable, but should be wiped off completely. Don't use abrasives on leather, and if you're using metal polish on your bit or irons, remove them from your bridle and saddle first. And if you live in an area with lots of rain and high humidity, consider using a cleaner with either phenol (Leather Therapy) or tea tree oil to prevent the growth of mold/mildew (but remember that tea tree oil can be drying, so if you're using a product that contains tea tree, pay attention to the next part!).
Third rule: Condition properly! This means applying a light coat to ALL the leather you can reach, not just the seat and the outside of the flaps. Do the panels, the sweat flaps, the buckle guard, the underside of the flaps and jockey. About the only thing you can give a miss would be the billets - some people recommend that you never condition them (or your stirrup leathers), but I give mine a light coat a few times a year just to prevent cracking. Don't over-condition, and remember that oil really isn't necessary on today's English saddles, thanks to changes in the tanning processes. Over-conditioning will weaken the fibers in the leather, making it floppy and raising safety concerns.

Fourth rule: Be conscientious about your saddle. Don't leave it within reach of teeth, paws, claws or hooves. Store it in a cover on a rack in a cool, dry (preferably climate-controlled) area. If it gets wet, allow it to dry slowly and completely before you clean or condition it. If it's wool flocked, have the flocking and fit adjusted as necessary (usually every 6-12 months). If it's foam flocked, have the fit checked, too.

Now, here's an idea of what you can expect if you do - and don't - take care of your saddle.

First, a couple examples of well-cared-for used saddles. They show marks from the leathers and have definitely seen plenty of use, but they've been taken care of, and it shows.

Now for a mixed bag. The saddles on the right and left have received good care, but check out the one in the center - the finish has been completely rubbed off the flap, probably due to a combination of rough and or bad quality leathers, and a lack of care.

Now for the flip side of the coin. In this photo, the finish on the leather is gone, baby, gone:

In this photo, the finish is compromised, and the stitching is coming loose:

Scary-looking scratches. Someone didn't follow the fourth rule:

This is why you never, ever ride in jeans (breeches have no inside leg seam for a reason):

Here's a good reason to pay attention to your billets - and to use a girth with a roller buckle! Though it's a little hard to see, there's a really deep split just above the 4th hole from the top on the left-hand billet.

Taking good care of your tack will really pay off in the long run. Conscientious care will not only protect your investment and extend its life, it will keep your tack in good repair - which could literally save your life.