Monday, April 18, 2011

Fitter Vs. Rep

Got an e-mail from a customer last week who was worried about the tree in her husband's Frank Baines saddle.  Seems the saddle had recently started slipping off to the side, and when she called a fitter to check things out, the fitter claimed that the tree was probably damaged because it was flexing in some way that, in his opinion, it shouldn't; therefore, customer needed a new saddle.  The customer decided to seek a second opinion, and had another fitter take a look before she decided to box it up and send it to me for dissection.

Tiny bit of back story here:  The first fitter is a rep for the XYZ saddle company.  Second fitter is a western fitter with limited knowledge of English saddle fitting.

Second fitter flexes the tree, looks at the customer, and says, "Is this built on a spring tree?"  Customer calls me and asks the same question.  Yes, I tell her, the Baines saddles are built on spring trees.  Customer puts second fitter on the phone with me, and I repeat the info.  Second fitter says she suspected as much, but not being completely familiar with English saddles, wanted to be sure.  I asked her if the saddle flexed symmetrically, and if there were any noises of an evil nature; she responded with "yes" and "no" respectively.  Customer, who now suspects the extent of the XYZ rep's knowledge (and rightly suspects rep is aiming for a sale), decides to box the saddle up and send it to me for flocking, and also decides to send me her saddle for an adjustment as well.

Moral of this story?  Well, there are several:

  • First:  go with an independent fitter if possible - in general, they're more objective.  
  • Second:  brand-certified reps may well try to sell you a saddle - chances are, that's their biggest source of revenue, and in the crappy economic climate we're presently enjoying, it's understandable.  
  • Third:  just because someone is an XYZ certified fitter doesn't necessarily mean they have a comprehensive education (see previous post, "Brand Certified Fitters" section).
  • Fourth - and this is to the XYZ rep:  You had a chance to make money on two flocking adjustments, and possibly add to your client list.  Instead, you just lost a customer and gained a large black mark on your reputation.  One unhappy customer will give you a lot more press than 5 happy customers, and you can pretty much bet this woman will be sharing her experience with all of her friends.  If you're lucky, she won't be spreading it via online forums, bbs, chat rooms, etc.  And remember, the western fitter knows what happened, too.  If you honestly felt there was an issue with the saddle tree, please take this as an indication that you need to further your education. And if you were just pushing for a sale, remember this:  flocking adjustments are an ongoing source of income.  You can work on a wide range of saddles ... or you can just work on the XYZ saddles that you've sold.  You do the math.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Mud Season Grumps

That was one bloody long winter.

I don't usually mind winter, even though it entails my mare looking like a yak, little riding and lots of lugging water, frozen manure, bad roads, oil bills and listening to my husband complain about it from November to May.  But this winter was a winter like nothing in the past 30 years ... or it seemed that way to me.  I remember winters like this when I was a kid, with 8' snowbanks and two-day blizzards dumping 36" of snow.  About the only thing we missed was the week-long stretch of sub-zero weather.  Anyway, all this has left me more than ready for spring, and we're only just well into mud season (which can last a couple weeks, or until the end of May).  Mix into this the fact that everyone I know has gotten away for at least a long weekend and I haven't gone anywhere since last September (AND I had to miss Johnny Clegg's tour - the first since '05), toss in the usual hormonal mood swings that accompany being "of a certain age", and top it with the fact that I haven't been to the dojo in two weeks, and you have yourself a crabby, grouchy old broad who needs to lose the CrankyPants before someone gets bitten.

To that end, I've decided to vent about Stuff  I Don't Like.  It might not help, but it sure as hell won't hurt.


I don't dislike saddle pads in general; even shim pads are ok - it's the "special" pads that bug me.
  • "This pad will make any saddle fit your horse" pads.  Not.  While shim pads and the like can be helpful "band aids" to temporarily correct minor fitting issues, and I'll be one of the first to advocate for their correct use, there's no saddle pad in the world that will make your saddle fit if it really and truly doesn't, and no pad in the world that will make every saddle fit your horse.  Brilliant marketing ploy, but not so great in the real world.
  • Gel pads.  They're hot, they're heavy, they don't breathe, they feel icky and they don't do diddly to alleviate pressure.  Think about it: when you poke one, the gel moves away from the pressure rather than doing anything to pad it.  They can also put pressure right on the spinous process (even if they have the space to accommodate the spine, they can get dragged down by their own weight and cause issues there), and I've seen them scald horses' backs when used in hot weather.  Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em. 
  • Lollipop pads.  They can put pressure directly on the spinous process, and when used to lift the cantle of a saddle with a too-narrow tree, make the tree points dig into the horse's back.  Ouch.
  • Impression pads.  They can be a useful tool in showing where the saddle's creating a lot of pressure, but they don't tell you why it's there.  Additionally, the ones I've seen are pretty bulky and can create saddle fitting issues that a regular thin quilt won't and that really aren't there to begin with.  Again, think:  your saddle seems to fit fine, but you want to check it.  You stick a 1" thick pad (keep in mind that one tree width = about 3/4") full of mushy dental cement or putty or whatever that squishy stuff is under it, and you don't think it'll show pressure somewhere?  Put on some thick, fuzzy wool socks and then stuff your feet into your dress-up shoes and prance about for a bit.  Then come talk to me about pressure.

Until science can come up with a way to truly quantify why a saddle fits (or doesn't) the individual horse and rider, until it can measure how each physical characteristic, preference and pecadillo comes into play and why some horses and riders seem to defy the known laws of gravity and physics, saddle fitting is always going to be more theoretical than empirical, more of an art than a science.  The saddle fitter can offer educated opinions and input, but in the end, that's ALL we can offer, and sometimes we have to face the fact that not every customer (whether two or four legged) will agree with our recommendations.  We aren't going to nail it every time.  We will run into horses and riders that we can't fit (or at least fit to our satisfaction), for whatever reason.  And if that happens, trying to cram our ideas down the customer's throat will NOT end well.  Just take your ego and get the hell out of the way.  Sometimes it's far better to send the customer on to another fitter with "I'm sorry I couldn't help you, and I hope you have better luck with Bunny Snugglebutt and HappyArse Saddlery."  Less headache for everyone.


Sometimes fitters make mistakes.  We'll take the tracing wrong, forget to mention a fitting option to a customer, screw up on the order form and write down the wrong color or size ... and that's when we have to put on the big girl/boy pants and say, "Yeah, I screwed up."  It might cost you some money to correct the mistake, but in the long run, it'll cost less than the damage it'll do to your reputation (and perhaps the horse's back) if you don't pony up.


In theory, a great idea - as least to get an idea of static fit - but I've never seen this method work better than a standard template, and sometimes it doesn't work as well.  The casts and impressions we've received have arrived broken, warped, pulverized, squashed and, in one memorable instance, melted into a blob.  We even received one that we had to assemble - slide flange A into slot B until marks C and D are aligned.  It definitely kept us occupied for a while, but didn't look much like a horse's back when we were through.


Again, I'll preface this statement:  certification is all well and good IF there's a good education behind it.  What irks me is when a saddle co. will "certify" you as a fitter in a couple days or - in some cases - a couple hours.  I'm certified by one saddle company, and it's by virtue of spending an afternoon listening to a sales pitch, attempting to fit their saddles to a couple different horses and answering one question correctly.  The fact that the saddles didn't fit (and couldn't be made to fit) the horses we were working with seemed to be of little interest to the rep; my objections were met with "Oh, just add another shim and get the rider on, and it'll be fine."  To my mind, that doesn't make you a fitter - it just makes you a rep ... for whatever that's worth.


"My trainer wanted me in a _______ (fill in the blank) saddle so I bought one, but it made me and my horse miserable." If I had a nickle for every time I've heard that, I might not be rich, but I'd have a lot of nickles.  When I was teaching and training professionally, I never much cared what my students used as long as it fit them and their horse.  But some trainers ... I don't know whether they get a kickback from each saddle sold or what the motivation is, but there seems to be a good number of trainers out there who demand that their students ride in a particular saddle, whether it's a good fit or not.  Now, to me, that's sort of a contradiction in terms:  if you're a trainer, you want your students (and their horses) to perform to the best of their ability, since if they look good, other people will go, "Hey, that rider and horse look great.  I want to ride with their trainer."  If, on the other hand, your students look as though they have a hedgehog in their breeches and their horses are going around with their heads up the rider's nose, smart people might go, "Oooh ... that rider looks like they have a hedgehog in their breeches, and their horse's head is up their nose.  No, thanks."  Wouldn't you think it better to let the horse and rider be comfy rather than branded?  Chacun à son goût.


If a horse has a big wither, it seems that popular wisdom demands that the horse be fit with a narrow tree, even if the horse in question isn't all that narrow.  "Nothing else will clear the wither" is usually the reasoning.  Well, true - a narrow tree will usually make a saddle clear most withers; it also pinches the living hell out of the wither in question, makes the saddle sit pommel-high, and throws the rider so far into the back seat that they look as though they're water skiing.  So, in an effort to level things out, someone shoves a lollipop pad (see above) under the saddle, which may bring the cantle up, but ... again, see above. 

In the decade plus that I've been fitting saddles, I've run into precisely two horses who needed narrow trees. They also needed panel modifications - K or trapezius panels, wither or full front gussets, and deeper rear gussets.  And amazingly, after a couple months, that tree needed to be widened because for the first time, the the horse could use him/herself properly and the muscles had room to grow.   Both of those horses went on to need new saddles, because the narrow tree they'd started with couldn't be widened enough to accommodate the horses they grew to be.


As Edie always says, "Saddle fitting is NOT rocket science," but some people - fitters, saddle companies and customers - want take it to the other extreme.  They turn it into some sort of arcane knowledge that's a cross between alchemy and brain surgery, and to gain understanding of it, you must join the Anointed Society of Saddlefitters (ASS) by giving a pound of flesh, a quart of blood and learning the secret handshake.  Only then will you get the decoder ring.

Yes, you do need a basic working knowledge to become a fitter, and the longer you do it, the better you'll likely become.  Gaining an education can be a challenge (though it's more accessible here in the States than it used to be), and some people have a better eye and feel for it than others, but it's not tough to learn the basics.  If the saddle is comfortable for horse and rider, it doesn't NEED the Infinitely Adjustable Tree or the Ergonomic Shoulder Relief Panels or the 15-Position Billet System or the Gender-Specific Seat or the Matching Cup Holder.  Listen to the horse and rider.  See entry on "Ego" above.