Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Self-Appointed Experts

Entertain this scenario, if you will ...

I've become bored with dressage, and decide I want to take up eventing.  In order to do that, my mare Lyric will need to learn to jump. (Keep in mind that this is totally hypothetical, for three reasons:  1)  My mare jumps like a goat.  2)  I haven't cleared a fence on a horse in the better part of two decades.  3)  In that time, I've managed to forget quite a lot of what little I knew about jumping.)  So - keeping reason #3 in mind - I take her to a trainer so she can learn to negotiate fences.  Said trainer mounts, starts trotting her over some ground poles, then progresses to cavalettis.  All's going well, and the trainer is about to start with some cross rails.  Suddenly, what little knowledge of work over fences I have retained percolates to the surface, and I morph into what I call a Self-Appointed Expert.  I butt in with, "Don't you think those cross rails are too high/low/wide/narrow?  Shouldn't you put a ground pole down?  I don't like the distance between the cross rails - it's too long/short.  And the poles are a funny color.  Why don't you put some wings on that cross rail?  Lyric won't go straight into it without wings on it.  And why are you using those white plastic blocks instead of real jump standards?  And here, let me lengthen your stirrups - they're far too short for riding cross rails.  And watch your hands - I don't want you hitting my mare in the mouth.  Why are you trotting/cantering instead of cantering/trotting?  And I think you should have a line of 6 cross rails rather than 3 - or better yet, four cross rails and two verticals.  And wait - I don't like the footing here.  Can't we drag the arena/move to a different arena?  And why are other people working in the arena?  Lyric can't concentrate with other horses in here."

Now, in my mind, such behavior would justify the trainer dismounting, handing my mare off to her assistant, and pounding me to death with a jump cup.  In real life, though, the trainer might answer all my concerns calmly ... and then discover that her schedule was far too jammed to accommodate working with my horse.  She'd be very sorry, she'd recommend that I try Trainer X just down the road ... and as soon as my tail lights were out of sight, she'd punch a hole in the tack room wall and call Trainer X to warn her about me.

My scenario is quite over the top, I know; a lampoon of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.  I do have customers who involve their trainer, their farrier, their vet, their equine massage therapist / chiropractor / acupuncturist / communicator in the saddle fitting process - and to be perfectly honest, I know people in most of those fields whose input and opinion I accept without question.  There are times when input from a professional who knows the horse and/or rider can be incredibly helpful.  If I note that the horse seems a little off, the vet or chiro can tell me that the horse has arthritic changes in the left fore fetlock or issues with the sacroilliac, and I can stop worrying that the saddle is causing the issue.  Trainers can tell me if the horse's reluctance to move out energetically (or prediliction to move out too energetically) is due to past training or pilot error, or if it might be the saddle; they can tell me if the rider is leaning behind the vertical out of habit or because the twist is wrong, and they can tell me if the head toss going into the canter is habit or something completely new.

Self-Appointed Experts (hereinafter known as S-AEs), on the other hand ... Their area of expertise suddenly widens to encompass saddle fitting (and perhaps even saddle design and manufacture as well), and they make a saddle fitter's life absolute hell.  I may have found a saddle that perfectly suits both the horse and rider, but if it doesn't make the S-AE happy (and S-AEs are, by definition, almost impossible to please), it will not be accepted.  And unfortunately, many customers who have Self-Appointed experts in tow are firmly under the Self-Appointed Expert's influence, so my opinion on the whole process is just so much barking at the moon.

With S-AEs , there's no sense in arguing.  Gods know I've tried, but fortunately, I was wise enough to not spend too long beating my head against that particular brick wall.  I wound up looking like a contentious no-nothing who was just jealous of the wealth of knowledge available to the S-AE.  In those cases, the customer leaves with whichever saddle the S-AE chooses and I wish them a safe trip home.  End of story. 
Or, more usually, not. 

Almost invariably, the customer will come to his/her senses at some point ... and often, they come back.  If we're lucky, it didn't take long, so the horse will only have been made mildly uncomfortable.  But if we're not, there can be serious training or behavior issues (such as bucking, bolting from the mounting block, biting or kicking when approached with the saddle, or refusing jumps) or serious physical issues such as muscle atrophy or alignment problems.  Serious problems always make fitting tougher.  For one thing, you need to wait until the horse is no longer in pain - you can't do a saddle fitting on an unsound or injured horse.  And when the horse is finally healthy enough to do the fitting, you run into tons of questions.  Is the horse trying to nip while being girthed because he's uncomfortable, or is it habit and remembered pain?  Is the horse not picking up the left lead canter because of saddle fitting issues, or because muscle atrophy makes the left lead incredibly difficult?  Is the horse's gait short and choppy because of the way this saddle fits, or is it because of the way the last saddle fit?

Karma will at some point catch up to the S-AE.  Best we can hope is that it's in the form of another S-AE who runs roughshod over their particular area of knowledge.  Not that the first will necessarily learn anything from the experience, or gain sudden insight into their behavior ... but it's satisfying to think they might get a taste of their own medicine.

Monday, June 7, 2010

From the Tree Up - Further Panel Modifications

Sometimes, a small change in the front of the panel can make a huge difference in saddle fit.  Two handy modifications are the full front gusset and the wither gusset.

The wither gusset a great help when dealing with horses that have that dip below the wither, like so:

It's often used in conjunction with a dropped / trapezius or K panel, since those dips are often seen on the withery, rangy horses.  It can fill in the gaps quite nicely.  (Pardon the PhotoShopped saddle.  Believe it or not, in the hundreds of photos that inhabit my computer, I can't seem to find one of a horse wearing a saddle with wither gussets.  Of course, I'll find one about 20 minutes after I publish this ...)

You can see how the gusset settles into that dip, and helps keep the saddle up off the wither.

The full front gusset runs further down the front of the panel and sweat flap: 
Apologies for the sideways shot - I tried several times to correct it.  It looks fine in PhotoShop, but appears here sideways.  No clue why.
The full front gusset can be helpful in keeping the saddle up off the wither on a lean, rangy horse when the wither gusset isn't quite the ticket.  It can also help keep the saddle back on a horse who's rump-high, or who has a big barrel and a short, forward girth spot.   A fitter can add flock and "square up" the gusset, which acts as a stop to help keep the saddle back.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Input Appreciated

Lately, I've been receiving a LOT of requests for more information on saddle fitting.  People are interested in having me present fitting clinics and seminars, some are asking for a book, and some want dvds or on-line courses, webinars and podcasts.  I'm absolutely thrilled that so many folks want to learn and are interested in what I have to say; getting to geek for hours on saddle fitting is about as good as it gets for me.  So here's my question for you all:  what works for you?  Do you prefer "live" presentations, would you prefer a book and dvd series, or would something like webinars or podcasts work better for you?  Do you want to learn about fitting for your own information, or would you eventually like to do this professionally?  What do you hope to learn?

Obviously, whatever direction this goes, it'll take a while to develop ... but getting input from the interested parties will give me a good set of guideline to use, and will go a long way toward making sure it's something that people would want to buy.  So please, let me hear it!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

From the Tree Up - Panel Modifications

Finally, we return to the "From the Tree Up" series.  This time, we're going to look at two of the basic panel modifications:  the dropped or trapezius panel, and the K panel (you can find photos of both of these panels in this blog entry).  Both are used for horses with similar conformations (again, covered in that blog post), but I wanted to show things in a little more detail.

Here's our horse, Dee.  Dee was a Grand Prix jumper who'd been shown by a fairly big-name rider; he's 16 and retired from the show circuit, re-homed with a teenage girl who wants to start showing in the jumper division.

Dee is a BIG boy - 17+ hands - and more substantial than you might think from the photo.  Unfortunately, his back shows the signs of being ridden in an ill-fitting saddle:

This photo shows some serious issues.  The longissimus dorsii - the long muscle that runs on either side of the spine and is the primary supporting muscle for the saddle - is so atrophied that it's almost totally absent.  This photo shows it even more clearly:

This shot from the rear also shows some white hairs on the wither, and some fairly dramatic asymmetry throughout the back (and he was not perfectly square behind when the photo was taken, so the asymmetry in his hindquarters looks more severe than it really was). 

This sort of damage doesn't occur overnight.  Dee had been ridden in an ill-fitting saddle for a long time.  I knew that his back would muscle up considerably, but I also knew that his young owner would be more focused on her jumping than her flat work, so I wasn't thinking the changes would be so radical they'd rate a different saddle than the one I had in mind.

Here's a shot of Dee showing the way a standard panel would fit:

The red arrows show the area where the saddle would make no contact and be unsupported.  The standard panel wouldn't be deep enough to make contact with everything it should to support the saddle and rider.

This next shot shows how a trapezius panel would fit:

The orange area shows where the trapezius panel would make contact.  It's a definite improvement over the standard panel, but the red arrows again show where the saddle would be unsupported.

This next shot shows how a K panel would fit:

Of the three panel configurations, the K is definitely the best.  It would "fill in the gaps" left by the muscle atrophy and would offer the greatest are of support. 

Unfortunately, the rider didn't have the budget for a bench-made saddle, so we had to strike the best compromise we could between the horse's needs and the rider's economic reality.  Fortunately, we had a used close contact saddle with a trapezius panel, and we were able to use a shim pad to correct the spots that weren't quite perfect.  I'm happy to say that Dee's owner put in some good, consistent work, and his back is looking much healthier now.  He still has a good wither with dips below them, but the longissimus has re-developed nicely and he no longer needs the shim pad.  The trapezius panel works beautifully for him now.  I don't have any current photos of his back, but if I can get some, I'll post them.