Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fitting from Afar

As we advance in life we learn the limits of our abilities.
Henry Ford 

Today's post is brought to you by yet another bulletin board comment ...

This time, I ran into Someone, who was sharing her sad tale of a less-than-optimal experience with long-distance saddle fitting.  Since the fitter closest to her was about 4 hours away, Someone opted to try working with a fitter long-distance.  It turned out that Someone's horse had some challenges that required a few fitting modifications.  So, Someone ordered a bench-made saddle ... but the fitter with whom she was working failed to recommend a fitting option that the horse really needed.  As a result, the fit wasn't quite right, the saddle required shimming to be usable, and since it was a "special" order, the fitter wouldn't take it back.  A bad situation, and frankly, one that would probably leave a pretty stinkin' bad taste in my mouth, too.

(NOTE TO FITTERS:  Yes, we ALL make mistakes and miss stuff.  I've screwed up [and I'm sure I will do so again in the future], and all of the fitters I know have screwed up, and any fitter who says they haven't screwed up is either: a) lying, b) delusional, c) very, very new to this business or d) all of the above.  But damn, people, if it's your mistake, put on the Big Person Pants and take your medicine.  Make things right.  I'd be losing sleep if Someone was one of my customers.)

Inasmuch as I cringe to the very bottom of my saddle-fitting soul whenever I hear about nightmares like this (and I hear them far more often than I'd like), I applaud Someone for having the guts to speak out (and congratulate her for doing so with far more civility and tact than I'd have been able to muster, though that's damning her with faint praise); I think it's vital that these experiences are put up for public viewing.  It can stand as a cautionary tale to other folks, and hopefully keep them from going through the same thing.

But there's another side to this.  As I said earlier, this sort of thing makes me cringe - for several reasons.

1) I don't like hearing that people have bad saddle experiences, period.  It just doesn't have to be that way.

2)  Long distance fitting can be done successfully, and it can be a positive experience.

3)  This is precisely the sort of issue than makes it tough for folks to believe in fitters who can do long-distance fitting successfully.  Fitters like Ann Forrest ... fitters like Nancy Okun ... and yes, dammit, fitters like me.

It takes years to become really good at saddle fitting, and even longer to become good at doing it long-distance ... and not everyone can become good at it.  I know a lot of excellent hands-on fitters, but only a few who have the ability to do long-distance work.  In addition to all the things you need to know for hands-on work, there's a litany of additional skills you need in order to excel at long-distance fitting.  You must be able to read a template and look at photos and listen to a customer's needs and likes and put it together successfully.  You have to be able to evaluate a horse's conformation and level of training and make some guesstimates about the way s/he will move and carry him/herself.  You have to be able to eyeball a rider and decide what fitting options they may require.  You have to ask the right questions and request the right information from the customer.  You also have to have an eye for it, a knack, a certain spatial sense - and that's not something everyone has.  

You customers have a truck load of responsibilities as well, and a long-distance fitter needs to let you know what they are and if you're getting them right.  First and foremost, you have to provide us with an accurate, current  template of your horse's back and a clear, up-to-date conformation shot.  If the info you send isn't accurate or is outdated, we can't make accurate recommendations.  And if a long-distance fitter suspects your info may not be quite spot-on, you'll be asked to do it again.  You have to be honest about your likes and dislikes, your level of expertise and your horse's level of training, any physical issues either you or your horse may have, and what your plans are for the future.  You have to spill your height, weight and inseam measurement. And since we can't get our hands on your horse and saddle, you'll have to provide us with what may seem like an unending stream of photos, detailed information and feedback and answer about a hundred and seventy bazillion questions.

To say that it's involved, time consuming and exacting would be an understatement.  Often, the first saddle I send won't be "the one" - I'd say that I nail it on the first saddle maybe 30% of the time, and that's only if I'm lucky enough to have exactly the right saddle in my shop.  Often, you ride in one or two saddles I have on hand, determine the tweaks and changes it may need, and I get it for you in a different width or seat size or with a different panel configuration.

So ... is it tough to find a fitter who's good at long-distance work?  Yes - there aren't many of us.  Is it less time consuming to have a hands-on fitting done than to work long-distance?  Almost certainly. Is it less expensive?  Sometimes; shipping saddles can add up quickly, but if your template and other info are accurate, it shouldn't take many trials to find what you need. Is it less work on your part?  Oh, yes.  Is it ultimately more successful?  No ... if you're working with someone who's good at it.

And by the way, in an effort to help folks with the template-taking part of this endeavor, I'll have an instructional video on "How to Take a Back Template" up on the Panther Run Saddlery website as soon as my husband finishes editing it.  He's saying it should be done within the next 2 weeks.  Fingers crossed ...


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