Thursday, February 17, 2011

East Crow Saddlery - Patty's Web Site!

Just wanted to let everyone know that Patty Barnett of East Crow Saddlery, my friend and mentor, has her web site up and running:  East Crow Saddlery.  Take a look - it's a great resource!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Back to Basics - Saddle Types

I was ambling through the blog the other day, making a list of what I've covered and what still needs doing, and I realized that I haven't touched on any real basics (for my more beginner readers) in a long time.  Apologies for that; I sometimes get so entrenched in geeking about the minutiae of saddle fit and construction that I forget that not everyone is as experienced (or as into this!) as I.  So I'm going to give myself a firm shake and address one of the most basic issues with saddles:  what are the basic types of English saddles, and what are their form and function?

In the English saddle world, there are basically four types of saddles:  dressage, close contact (aka forward seat or jumping saddles), all-purpose and trail saddles.  Which saddle you choose will depend on the discipline you'll be riding.

Since some people want a "do it all" saddle, and some aren't sure what discipline they want to pursue, all-purpose saddles are fairly popular, especially with beginners.  Most a/p saddles should be ridden with a moderately bent leg (think of the front of your thigh lying parallel to the front of the flap), which will allow you to do a little jumping (small fences), a little dressage (lower level) and flat work; they're comfortable and secure enough for a trail ride.  They often feature a deepish seat, a moderately forward flap, and a round cantle.  Some, like this Black Country Summit, have a straighter (or VSD/dressage focus) flap:

And some, like this Black Country Wexford, offer a more forward (VSS/jump focus) flap:


In spite of being what some wits refer to as a "no purpose" saddle, a/p saddles are popular with folks doing hunter paces, low-level eventing and foxhunting (in the field or hilltopping rather than first or second flight or staff) who want the security of a deeper seat while still being able to negotiate lower fences. 

Some people look at trail or endurance saddles as an offshoot of all-purpose saddles, though by rights they're something of their own category.  They usually have a fairly straight flap and a moderate to deep seat and lots of dee rings for carrying your equipment.  The focus on these saddles is good balance and weight distribution, and superior comfort for long rides.  This is a Black Country Equiniox, which has a very dressage-y flap (but which, interestingly, doesn't show the dee rings!):

And this is a Frank Baines Enduro LDR, which has a slightly more forward flap and deeper seat (and does show the dees):

These saddles also often have a crupper bar attachment in case a crupper is needed to help stabilize the saddle.

Some trail saddles have extended panels, which means that the panels extend (obviously) quite far to the rear.  This does maximize the weight bearing area, but can be problematic on shorter-backed horses like Arabs (which, ironically, are the most popular breed for endurance and competitive trail).

Next, let's look at the close contact/jump/"hunt seat" saddle.  It has a flatter seat, a square cantle and usually a more forward flap; you will ride in it with quite a lot of bend in your leg (again, imagine the parallel between the flap and your thigh), since the focus of these saddles is jumping and riding in your two-point rather than sitting. 

Now, to confuse things further, there are "sub-categories" with jumping saddles.  Let me start explaining this by explaining some basic differences in the jumping disciplines.  

#1)  Jumpers.  Think of going as fast as you can in an arena over a course of big fences without knocking rails down.  Jumper riders ride with a very bent, "short" leg (the rule of thumb being "the higher the fence the shorter the stirrup").  There are few rules regarding attire and turn-out in the jumper ring - you can ride in a polo shirt, your saddle can be a monoflap with external blocks, your horse doesn't need to be braided and can wear ear nets and protective/supportive boots.  What counts is how quickly you can navigate the course of jumps without "faults" (knocking down rails).  Jumps are often big, colorful and fall down pretty easily.

#2)  Hunters/equitation.  This discipline is modeled on the ideal for the hunt field, and is very formal and traditional.  Riders must be in proper attire (jackets and stock ties or rat catchers), the saddle must be a traditional square cantled two flap saddle (no monoflaps or external blocks in the hunt ring), horses must have the manes and tails braided and cannot wear boots or leg wraps.  You're judged on your equitation and your horse's form and ability over fences (which rarely exceed 3'6" and are supposed to look "natural" - like what you'd encounter in the hunt field).

#3)  Eventers.  These people do jumpers - explained above - AND cross country ("x-c"); they also share the jumpers' acceptance of non-traditional looks in tack and apparel.  X-C involves galloping (cross-country, obviously) at a set pace of so many meters per minute (which usually translates to pretty damn fast) and jumping large, immovable fences made from fallen trees, telephone poles, picnic tables, parked cars, giant wooden ducks ... think of anything you'd find out in the woods or fields, or along a country road; if you dose it with steroids and set it in cement, you'll have a good x-c fence.  Ditches and banks and scary drop fences into ditches and water will be included as well. 

Now that I've covered that, here are examples of saddles for each.  This Black Country Quantum is a jump focus saddle:

The flap is set quite forward and the seat, while a bit deeper than you'll find on some jump saddles, is open enough so that it won't hinder the rider when they have to get out of it to clear a jump.

An equitation or hunter focus saddle has a straighter flap, since people who ride this focus are negotiating smaller fences at lower speeds and don't need to ride with as short a leg.  They want a saddle that will allow them to maintain proper form over fences and fit into the parameters of correct traditional-looking equipment.  This County Stabilizer is a great example of this type of saddle:

A cross-country saddle has an extremely forward flap to allow a short "galloping length" leg, a shallow seat and a swept-back cantle so the rider can get back when coming down off a drop fence.  This Black Country Tex Eventer has all those features:

The final type of English saddle is the dressage saddle.  These have a long, very straight flap and can range from a pretty flat seat, such as this Black Country Eden has:

Another open seat on this Passier GG (my saddle):

To a deeper seat on this County Fusion:

To a very deep seat, as on this Frank Baines Omni high-head:

Since a dressage rider gives the bulk of the aids via the seat and legs, the dressage saddle is designed to bring the rider as close as possible to the horse, help them maintain balance and position, and not "get in the way". 

Saddle design has changed considerably for both horse and rider.  Just for fun, here are a couple older saddles.  You'll note that they're much more basic and "plain Jane"; the seats are shallower and there's a lot less padding all around!  (I had to find these on the 'Net, since we don't have any of these venerable types here in the shop).  First is an old Pariani close contact:

And this is an older Stubben Tristan, probably German-made:

These old saddles didn't offer much in the way of luxury and cushiness; the leather was usually quite slick and the knee rolls/thigh blocks were usually tiny or totally non-existent.   You weren't helped to stay aboard with big blocks or deep seats or soft, grippy leather ...

(As we fade to black, the old dinosaur saddle fitter is waxing nostalgic, remembering with fondness and a tear in her eye the longe-line lessons with which she tortured her students, and their feeble cries of protest when she made them drop their irons ...)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bad Intel, Part II

Last summer, I did a post on "bad intel", explaining the importance of the customer's information and input when it comes to saddle fitting - especially when we're doing it long-distance through photos and tracings.  Recently, I've been receiving a rash of photos that don't offer a whole bunch of information, so I thought I'd do an entry on why the conformation photo is so important, and what qualifies as a conformation shot.

The conformation shot sort of fills in the blanks in the saddle fitting equation.  The tracings give us a lot of necessary info, but they can be open to a bit of interpretation.  The topline tracing, for example - we often can't tell how we should position it to show "level".  If  we receive a tracing like this, we can assume that the topline tracing is level (and hope that we're assuming correctly):

This shows me a horse with a bit of a dip in the back, a good wither, and probably an uphill build.  But sometimes, due to space constraints, you have to put the topline tracing on diagonally ... let's say we get a tracing like this:

Obviously, the topline tracing isn't level in this shot (unless maybe it's a tracing of a giraffe).  Since there's nothing showing what's level, it might be this:

Again, a good wither with a bit of a dip.  But again, "level" could be this:

This is a horse with a dippy back that looks croup-high ... but without the conformation shot, we can't really tell.

Conformation shots also tell us about the horse's overall build and balance, which plays a considerable part in saddle fitting.  In addition to giving us real info on the topline, it will tell us if the saddle may tend to walk forward due to a short back and a big engine behind, or if it may want to slip back because of a big wither and an uphill build.  It will also give us an idea of the horse's overall condition, and whether we may be facing a lot of back changes due to weight loss or muscle gain or just plain growing up.

Here are some good conformation shots.  Each horse is very different, with unique fitting challenges, but these sorts of photos are the perfect complement to the templates.  They show overall build and balance, and give us clues about how the horse might move and what fitting issues we might run into that the template either doesn't address or only hints at.

Now, here are some photos that do NOT qualify.

In this first shot, I can't tell anything about the fitting needs of either horse ... and I can't tell which horse I'm supposed to be evaluating (the notation with the photo was, "The light chestnut with the blaze next to the fence."

The following two photos show the back pretty clearly, but leave me guessing about the overall balance and build.  Since I can't evaluate the whole horse, I can't assess how the conformation might effect saddle fit.

The next two photos are pleasant, but when the head's down that far, the topline is distorted; the back will often appear flatter and more developed than it really is.  All I can really tell from these photos is that, according to the barrel, the horse seems to be spending a LOT of time in this position ...

A striking and dramatic photo, but again, the unnatural head position distorts the back.  While the belly gives me the idea that this horse is either overweight and unfit or possibly a broodmare/in foal, and probably does have some dip to the back due weak/stretched abdominals, the back may come up quite a bit when the head's in a normal, relaxed position.

As you can see from the examples of "good" conformation shots, you don't have to be a professional photographer to take a clear, informative photo.  I don't even mind if the horse is unclipped or hasn't been groomed; I don't mind if your lawn's not mowed or the barn aisle hasn't been swept or if the cat (or dog, or child) is loitering in the background.  Just make sure that your horse is on level ground against a fairly plain (or at least contrasting) background, with all four feet bearing weight and head in a relaxed position.  That will give me the info that the template doesn't provide, and give me a clearer idea of the saddles that would be worth sending, so you don't blow a good portion of your saddle shopping budget on shipping.