Monday, August 20, 2012

Where's the Horse?

I was reading through the Chronicle of the Horse's 75th Anniversary issue (yes, I'm a month behind on my magazine reading, as usual) and came across a saddle ad. This ad is for a saddle that we used to sell back in the long-ago; the quality of the leather is lovely, the saddles are very pretty, and they're quite haute couture as far as saddles go.  The ad  reads:  "Your horse can do amazing things when he is free to be himself."  It goes on to list all the amazing things your horse can do ... until you're in the saddle.  "You must be perfectly balanced so your horse is free to be his incredible, athletic horsey self."  Advertised saddle, of course, will accomplish that task.  "We start by finding the right seat for your center of balance.  Then, just like our bridles, we finish it off with full grain leather that feels like butter, and extraordinary attention to detail."

And not one sentence - hell, not one word - about the horse.  So I went to the web site, thinking I might find more info about fit for the horse there.  Hmm.  On the home page, it says, "Most saddle makers concern themselves with fitting the horse.  We believe that's not enough!"

That led me to believe I might find more about fitting the horse somewhere on the site,  Fitting the horse might not be "enough," but it's something ... right?  So I went to the "saddles" section.  And I found out that they offer different seat sizes/depths and flap lengths/sets ... and medium and wide trees.  So I clicked on their "Saddle Fitting" chart, thinking that might have some info on fitting the horse ... and again, found lots of info on flaps and seats, and medium or wide trees.  Finally, down at the bottom of that page, I found a link to "saddle purchase form".  That must have something about fitting the horse ... right?

Wrong.  It shows a silhouette of a person and where to take the measurements needed to fit the rider.  You enter your height and weight, and you choose the model of saddle you want to purchase ... but it doesn't say jack-all about fitting the horse.  Not even tree width.  There is a little space at the bottom of the form for "Additional Comments", so I guess you could put something there.

Now, as I said, these saddles are lovely pieces of work, and do fit some horses very well.  And yes, fit for the rider is of great importance ... but if tree width is all that's considered for the other half of the team, that's only part of the picture.  I'm straining my middle-aged memory regarding any horse-fitting options that may have been offered on these saddles back when we carried them, and I can't recall any.  They might have had some ... and they still might.  But if so, wouldn't you think they'd say something about it in their ads, or at least on their web site?  For all of their lovely leather and craftsmanship, these saddles are, to my mind, along the lines of the changeable-gullet and adjustable tree saddles:  they only address one of the horse's fitting needs, and that just isn't enough.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Great Expectations

Given the present state of the economy (can you tell that's been on my mind quite a bit?), a lot of folks are finding their "discretionary income" either severely minimized or almost non-existent.  So understandably, used saddles - always popular - have become even moreso in the last few years.

We check our used and consignment saddles very thoroughly when they come in (along the lines explained in this post) to make sure they're "serviceably sound for intended use" (as my vet used to say when doing a prepurchase on a horse); we note any cosmetic issues the saddles may have, and rate their condition anywhere from "fair" to "excellent/demo".  Lately, though, we've had a few people who didn't quite seem to know what to expect from a used saddle ... so I thought I'd clarify.

1)  IT WILL SHOW SIGNS OF USE.  Unless you're lucky enough to find a second-hand saddle that's only had a few rides (which does happen from time to time), you will see "used saddle" marks.  These can range from slight rub marks from the stirrup leathers and buckle marks on the billets (for the "excellent/demo" designation) to curled jockeys, faded dye, dings, nicks, wrinkles, tooth marks, scratches and scrapes (for the "fair" designation).

2)  IT MAY SHOW SIGNS OF FORMER OWNERSHIP.  These include things like a cantle plate (or holes in the cantle where one used to be) or a name or number engraved on the stirrup bar or stamped/burned into the sweat flap.  These things don't affect the fit, usefulness or condition of the saddle, but be aware that your saddle may be adorned with something like "Wind Hill Andalusians" or "Cindy Lou Smith 123-456-7890" somewhere.

3)  IT MAY SHOW SIGNS OF WORK OR REPAIR.  These signs are sometimes fairly subtle:  a well-used saddle may have spandy-new billets or shiny new falldown staples or saddle nails. Some saddles may have mismatched saddle nails, saddle plates or notations stamped into the sweat flap - both are common signs that the tree has been altered at some point (though just how it's been altered may be unearthed only by taking the saddle apart, since some saddlers will note their work on the tree).  It may have extra dee rings or a crupper bar, or the billet configuration may have been altered.

4)  THE FLOCKING WILL PROBABLY NEED TO BE ADJUSTED.  I don't touch the flocking on consignment saddles unless the consignor requests it, or unless it's so flat/hard/overflocked that it won't realistically fit anything (and then, I check with the consignor before I make adjustments).  I've had people say, "Well, the tree width and everything else looks good, but it's sitting so low ..." When I say that the issue can be corrected with flocking, I'm often told, "But this is a used saddle - that should already have been done!"  I explain to the customer that it probably has been done, but it will need to have the flocking adjusted to their horse ... just as a new saddle would.

5)  REPAIRS WILL NEED TO BE MADE AT SOME POINT.  "Used" saddle.  Think about that.  It's like "used" car ... sooner or later, some part is going to go and will need to be repaired or replaced.  With saddles, thankfully, there aren't as many parts to go blooey, and repair/replacement probably won't be quite as expensive ... but yes, you'll need to have the billets replaced at some point, and - as stated above - the flocking will need to be maintained.  Other minor issues may need attention:  a stirrup leather keeper may need to be repaired or replaced, a dee ring may need to be replaced or a line of stitching may need to be re-sewn.  If that's the case, you can price these repairs with your saddler / saddle fitter, and use that info if you'd like to negotiate on the price.

6)  IT WILL BE BROKEN IN.  IN SOME CASES, VERY BROKEN IN.  One of my best and favorite clients, who's Huntsman for a local hunt, brought in her rode-hard-but-never-put-away-wet saddle for consignment.  It showed that it had been used a lot:  the leather was soft and supple, there were dark marks on the flaps from the leathers, the jockeys had molded to the shape of the stirrup leather buckle, and there were dark marks from the breast plate straps by the front dees.  But was it clean?  Immaculate.  Was the flock in good condition?  Definitely.  Were there any dings?  A very few, but nothing glaring.  Was the saddle "serviceably sound for intended use?  Unquestionably.  The customer who bought it was thrilled to find this saddle, and realized that, in spite of the cosmetics, she'd gotten a saddle that will last for years and years to come.


If you're ok with a saddle that has Issues 1-6, you'll find that there are major upsides to used saddles as well.  First is price.  While high quality used saddles hole their value very well (remember, new saddle prices almost never go down), you'll usually save hundreds of dollars if you're willing to go with a used saddle. And many sellers/consignors are quite motivated to move their saddle and are willing to consider reasonable offers. (And note that I said "reasonable".  Making an offer that amounts to 40% or 50% of the asking price may shut the seller down entirely.  While getting a deal is always fun, stop and think of what you would reasonably take for the saddle if the tables were turned before you low-ball someone and perhaps lose your shot at a saddle you really want.)

Second good thing is availability.  There are tons of used saddles out there.  If you Google your specific requirements, you'll get a LOT of results - "used Black Country saddles" yielded 523,000 results; "used Albion jump saddles" offered 334,000 results, and "used Lovatt and Ricketts dressage saddles" coughed up 309,000 results.  Of course, you need to exercise due diligence if you're buying from someone other than a reputable tack shop, and hopefully you can either try the saddle before you buy it or at least return it if it proves unsuitable for some reason, but I've found that most people are quite reasonable to work with.  And if they're not, well ... take a look at those numbers again; chances are someone else has the same saddle that Mr./Ms. My-Way-or-the-Highway has ...  Even if you have a horse with some exacting fitting requirements, chances are pretty good you can find the right saddle if you put enough effort into the search.  Of course, if you need a saddle right this moment - and a very specific saddle at that - this option might not work for you; you might not find "the" saddle in a week or maybe even a month.  Or two months.  But if you can invest the time, trust me:  it's out there.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Interpreting the Template Revisited

Long-distance fitting requires a fitter to rely heavily on the use of the template.  How each fitter interprets the template, however, can vary.  Case in point:  we received this tracing a while back:

The fitter who sent it noted that the horse needed a narrow or medium-narrow tree.  To my eye - and according to the templates we use - the horse was on the wider side of medium.  I sat for a few moments and compared the different templates to the tracing, trying to see how the fitter had come up with medium-narrow to narrow when I was seeing a generous medium.  And after a little thought, I figured it out.

Here's the angle I measured to determine tree width:

Here's the angle the other fitter was using:

Here's the difference:

The original fitter was measuring the width too high - too close to the spine - and basing the tree width on the atrophied muscle.  Obviously, a saddle that fit based on that criteria would have been too narrow, and would have made the atrophy worse.  The assessment I made was based on the muscle that ought to be there (and that would be there with the help of a properly-fitting saddle), with an eye toward getting the frame of the saddle correct and "filling in the dips" with a modified panel - in this case, a wither gusset and a K panel to increase the bearing surface down the mare's quite prominent wither.  We ordered a saddle with a "medium +" width - wider than a medium but not quite a medium-wide - because the owner wanted to use a sheepskin half pad for a little extra cushion, and to make up some of the width.  The saddle fit the mare really well, and it came back to me about 8 weeks later for its first flocking adjustment.  At that point, the owner no longer needed to use the sheepskin half pad to make the saddle fit well.  And - happy ending - about 6 months after that, the mare had developed so much muscle that we had to send the saddle out to have the tree widened.  The mare's going great guns, and the owner is thrilled.