Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saddle Fitting Central

Time for a little bit more about the nuts-and-bolts aspect of saddle fitting and repair.  Longkaiduan asked me about my tools and work space, so I thought I'd give you a short photographic tour of my little workshop and show you more of my tools and how they're used.  (NOTE:  While I'm giving a very basic overview of the tools and their uses, I do NOT recommend getting ahold of them and using them without some training and supervision unless you start on junk saddles and tack and scrap leather.  You can do an amazing amount of damage with these tools, so if you ignore this caveat and start practicing on your good stuff, don't say you weren't warned.)

First, the space.  There's not much of it (it used to be the "close-out sale room" back when we had walk-in business for apparel, supplements, grooming tools, etc. and measures about 6'x10'), so getting photos was a bit of a challenge, but here they are.

My desk.  Mission Control for blogging, answering e-mails, photo manipulation, saddle research and keeping an eye on activity in the barn/parking area and paddocks.  (Not that I spend time staring out the window or anything.) 

As you can see, I use the wall as a bulletin board for to-do lists, memos, blog ideas, wool samples, correspondence, price lists ... basically as a back-up brain.

To the left:  my barn call receipt and saddle work order (completed) boxes, a list of tools and supplies for barn calls, appointment book, UPS delivery zone maps, templates and customer files, a couple statements of personal philosophy and my Big Box O' Hardware.

Interior of the Big Box O' Hardware:  

Dee rings, saddle nails, spare blades for groovers, awls, knives and other sharp things, screws, tacks, keepers; conway, girth, stirrup leather and halter buckles and falldown staples, oh my.

A statement of personal philosophy:

If you turn one hundred and eighty degrees, there's the bench and tools.  The bench was specially made for me by Dennis St. John of Wudsmitten Cabinetry; it's gorgeous - sort of a giant butcher-block affair - and it was honestly a crime to cover the top of it with foam and leather.  Tools above in racks made from wooden slats, an old rein, an old stirrup leather and some brass escutcheon pins.


Closer shot of the tools, and a couple saddle work orders.  Tools, from left:  tweezers, oblong punch, hole spacer, 3 screwdrivers, strap end punch, skiving knife, groover, hole spacer, edger, screwdriver, scratch awl and calipers, nail cutters, short awl, rotary hole punch, lasting pincers, slicker and edger. 

On the right end of the bench, more tools. From left: pry bar, skiving knife, craft knife, sewing awl, 3 backing awls, 3 diamond point awls, staple puller, long handled needle-nose pliers, two pairs needle nose saddler's pliers, leather scissors, assorted flocking irons. Bone folder and exacto knife on rack behind tools, hammers and squares and level above.


Above the bench, storage for cement, thinner, clamps, long needles, supply catalogs, spare thread and so on. Rack below holds spools of woven poly thread for hand sewing.

Above the bench, storage for cement, thinner, clamps, long needles, supply catalogs, spare thread and so on.  Rack below holds spools of woven poly thread for hand sewing.

Now, on to a little about some of the tools and their uses.  First, the oblong punch:

This is used when you're installing a buckle; this is size 1 and makes a pretty small hole, the sort for lighter-gauge buckles (think a fairly dainty halter crown buckle or even smaller).

The oval punch, used for adding holes to stirrup leathers and billets:

The English strap-end punch.  Handy for shortening billets, stirrup leathers and misc. strap ends (gee ... you think?).

 All the punchs are used by positioning them (carefully!) on the leather and using a hammer on the other end.

The skiving knife, used to thin down the end of a piece of leather (usually a strap - stirrup leather, halter crown piece or billet) before sewing to reduce bulk and avoid a squared edge.

Edgers are used to bevel the square edge of a piece of leather and give is a smoother, rounder finish.  This is a safety edger:

 When you're removing the gullet cover to check a trees or deconstructing a saddle, one of these staple / tack pullers comes in really handy:

You stick one of the pointy parts under the crown of a staple and wiggle it loose.  If you're working on an older saddle with tacks, jimmy the "V" under the head of the tack and wiggle it loose.

The next few tools are often used in concert when you're doing hand-sewing.  The groover is used to mark the line you want to stitch; it also serves the purpose of "counter sinking" the stitching and giving it a bit of protection from wear:

Next you use your hole spacer to mark your stitching holes along the groove. 

Spacers come in varying sizes; each will give you a different number of holes per inch.  Alternatively, you can use a stitch mark iron, but the wheeled spacer is nice if you're doing curved stitch lines.

Next, you can use the diamond point awl to pierce the leather for stitching:

Or, if your stitches are going to be larger, or if you're using a thicker thread, you can make bigger holes.  This is a home-made tool; I ground down the blade of a little screwdriver to make a chisel-point awl.  Works really well for billets, double-thickness halters, etc.:

The backing awl is great for enlarging existing holes, as when you're stitching up a pommel or cantle:

It has a curved blade and a rounded point, so you can wiggle it into an amazing number of places without catching the point and tearing leather.  It's also useful for picking up individual stitches if you need to cut thread or tighten up a line of stitching:

Finally, here's one tool I can't do without:

This is Mr. Squishy.  He sits on my computer tower.  He was a Holiday Fairy gift to one of my kids, but I appropriated him after I found him abandoned on the lawn.  Mr. Squishy is my Stress Management Advisor.

Mr. Squishy's eyeballs used to bug out in a most satisfying way when I did this, but time, age and a lot of Stress Management Advice have compromised his rubber skin and left him rather leaky, so now it's just his brains that pop out.  I'm very fond of him, in light of the help he's given me, and I feel a deep kinship with him, especially since he, like I, no longer bounces back quite the way he used to:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Malaprops, Misnomers and Misinformation

I spend a lot of time in front of the computer.  In addition to blogging, answering e-mails, playing with PhotoShop and monitoring our web presence, I spend a lot of time writing about and researching saddles and saddle fitting.  There's a ton of info about saddles and fitting on the Internet, and in a way, that's a great thing.  All you have to do is type a query into Google and chances are you'll get thousands of results.  I Googled "saddle fitting" and got 157,000 results.  Then I Googled "English saddle fitting" and got 43,800 results. But here's the rub:  the Internet is quite eglitarian and, unless someone's writing something that is defamatory or downright libelous, pretty much anyone can put pretty much anything out there for public consumption ... veracity be damned.

So how is one to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak?  It can be tough.  Lies, big lies, and damned big lies can go viral as quickly as the truth does (and sometimes, if it's a particularly juicy lie, a lot more quickly), so just because everyone's seen it or is sharing it doesn't mean much when it comes to the quality and accuracy of the information.  Therefore, because I'm a nitpicking control freak (just ask any of my friends and family and they'll be happy to confirm this fact), I'm taking it upon myself to offer up a random sampling of some of the most glaring examples of butchered terminology, grammar and spelling offenses and misinformation that I've found on the Internet.


First, I'll address the spelling and grammar thing.  I'm known (fondly, I choose to think) as the Language Nazi, and that's one fact that I will happily confirm.  A person's use of grammar, spelling and punctuation immediately colors my opinion of the information they're offering.  Yes, I know lots of knowledgeable, highly intelligent people who do not write or spell well, and I do understand that an occasional malaprop or typo will get by even the most anal editor (I edit like a maniac, but as you all know, stuff gets by me - and when it does, my friends and family are unmerciful).  But I really feel that if you're concerned with your professional image - or with your information being taken seriously - you have to exhibit at least basic literacy.  I've seen sites for perfessional independant fitter's who understands the importince of a good-fitting saddle and, knows that comfort  ,for both horse and rider, has got to be taken into consideraton.  They've done alot of saddle fitting and make house calls to your barn and cover the area from east backache to s muckboot, vermont. 

Frankly, if your site is peppered with those sorts of errors, I won't take what you're offering very seriously, nor will I read very far ... mostly because I'll have given myself a headache by grinding my teeth because I can't edit the errors.


  • One site recommended that the best way to test for back soreness caused by saddle fit is to locate the "under saddle" muscles (I'm assuming this means the longissimus - the long muscle that runs on either side of the spine) and "probe these muscles firmly with the ends of three fingers or your thumb held stiff from your fist ... one must probe as firm as necessary to get a reaction to see if the horse is sore."  Now, in my mind, you check carefully at first for swelling, bumps or thickening, and then probe a bit more firmly.  If a reasonably firm pressure with the heel or palm of your hand doesn't elicit a response (and I just went and pushed on our shop's scale - I'm talking about roughly 15 lbs. of pressure), your horse probably doesn't have any major issues - at least not at the time you're palpating.  If you gouge and rake with great enthusiasm until you get a response, you'll never know if it was because you horse was sore, of if you just gouged and raked too enthusiastically.  And if you gouge and rake really enthusiastically, I don't know many horses that won't react, and if you take a hoof to the kneecap during such shenanegans,  it's your own bloody fault. 
  • "To judge if tree width is correct, the tree point should be parallel to the horse's shoulder."  Let's take a look at that:

There's quite a marked difference between the angle of this horse's back and the angle of the shoulder in both photos.  In the top photo, matching the shoulder angle would mean the tree would be too wide for the horse; in the second, the tree would be too narrow. The tree point should be parallel to the surface upon which it rests ... and that would be the back.

  • "If the tree width is correct, you'll have no fitting issues with the saddle."  Again, let's take a look. 
    Although you'll have to take my word for it because I don't have a photo to prove it, the tree width for this horse is correct.  So whyever is it sitting so pommel high?  Basically, because the horse's back looks like this:
    This shark-fin wither requires a deeper rear gusset to make the saddle sit balanced.  And since adding just a rear gusset would probably have brough the gullet into contact with the wither, a K panels and wither gussets were added for support.
  • "If the tree feels tight, try adding another pad to cushion it."  If you don't have sufficient width, adding bulk isn't going to improve the issue.  If your jacket is too snug, do you wear a bulky sweater under it?  If your shoes are too tight, do you add an extra pair of socks for cushion?  Of course not.  The same applies here. If the tree's a tad wide, a thicker/additional pad can be a helpful band-aid, but if the tree's too narrow, "there ain't no pad gonna fix that." 
  • "If the saddle's fitting correctly, you should be able to slip your hands under the panels beneath tree points when it's girthed and the rider's in it." Uh, no.  See "Scenario One" here.  No further comment.
  • "If your horse acts up every time he's saddled, or when he's being ridden, your saddle's not fitting properly."  While saddle fit may well be the cause of your horse's misbehavior and should definitely be checked, it's not the only thing that can cause bad behavior.  There are a LOT of other issues that can mimic or be mistaken for saddle fit issues.  Physical problems like lameness in the hock or stifle, problems with the SI joint, arthritis, Lyme disease, neurological issues, reproductive issues in mares, ulcers, dental problems and shoeing issues can be mistaken for saddle fit problems.  Your horse's training and your riding can come into play as well.  If the saddle's slipping to one side,  you may think it's a fitting issue when in reality it's an issue of an asymmetrical horse or a rider who sits hard to one side.  If the horse objects to being saddled, it could be that the horse has been ridden in an ill-fitting saddle in the past, and expects it will hurt every time he's saddled.  If the horse grinds her teeth when she's being girthed, are you doing up the girth gradually, or are you hauling away at the billets as though you're trying to raise a sail?  Time for a little detective work. 
  • "If your horse won't come through the back and work properly, try the Pessoa training system/draw reins/chambon/Vienna side reins/neck stretcher."  This is taking it to the other extreme and looking at everything except saddle fit - again, time for some detective work.  And gadgets are ... well, in the right hands, gadgets can be useful; in the wrong hands, not so much - the scalpel in the hands of a surgeon vs. the scalpel in the hands of a madman. 

My mom used to say, "Just when you think you have horses figured out, one will come along who'll prove you wrong."  I think it's pretty safe to apply that to saddle fitting as well.  While there are some basic guidelines that are pretty immutable - the pommel arch must clear the wither, for example - few things are written in stone ... contrary to some of the information out there.
  •  "If the saddle is sitting in the correct balance, the pommel will be 2" lower than the cantle."  While it's a pretty true rule of thumb that the cantle will be higher than the pommel, let's take a look at these photos:

These saddles are all sitting in pretty good balance (the top one may be just a smidge pommel-low), but there's quite a lot of variation in the pommel-to-cantle height.
  • "If the tree width is correct for you horse, you will have 3 to 4 fingers of clearance under the pommel."  Again, depends on the horse and depends on the saddle.  I prefer the term "adequate clearance" - which means that the saddle sits in correct balance and at no time comes in contact with the horse's wither/spine.  Sometimes "adequate" is 2 or 3 fingers, and sometimes - especially with hoop trees - it's less:

You also need to make sure that the clearance extends all the way through the channel of the saddle.  It's possible to have a saddle tree with too slow a rise - that is, too flat from seat to pommel - bang a horse's wither around the stirrup bars or a bit in front of them ... which you may not notice if you're just focusing on the area right under the pommel arch.


If you're going to screw up, do it with as much panache as you can muster.

As I mentioned earlier, things can slip by even the most vigilant editor, especially if you choose to believe spell check.  My most memorable one here on the blog was when I was talking about hunter/jumpers and referred to them as "hunter/humpers".  However, since no one is immune to mistakes, I have to share what is probably my most epic fail:

I once wrote a highly indignant letter to my high school alumni association for publishing my e-mail address in their newsletter without first clearing it with me.  I basically ripped them a new one for making me the recipient of a flood of communication from a bunch of people that, for the most part, I didn't much like and quite happily left behind when I graduated.  " ... and furthermore, you showed a blatant disregard for my privacy ..." (I tend to get polysyllabic when I'm pissed off) "... by publishing my e-mail address in the newsletter without first obtaining my persimmon."

(Ironically, at my high school graduation, I received an award for distinction in English.)