Saturday, May 31, 2014

Differences of Opinion (Fits With Shims)

"My saddle fits every horse I put it on!"

If there's a phrase that triggers my eye-roll reflex, it's this one.  Any guesses as to how many times I hear this?

Let's just say, "Lots."

And guess what?

It doesn't.

Ok, so maybe my definition of "fit" is a bit different than the average person's.  I want a saddle to fit correctly without having to use anything other than a thin cotton pad.  No shims, no sheepskins, no foam, no air, no foregirth - just a thin cotton quilt.  It can't slide forward or slip back, or wobble from side to side, and it  has to allow the horse and rider to do their jobs effortlessly.

The last time someone told me this, she put a thin cotton quilt on the horse, then added a thick sheepskin pad, then a foam pad, and finally a rear riser pad before placing said miracle saddle on top of it all.  She climbed aboard and perched up there, commenting, "I have to be really careful about maintaining my balance, but look how well it's fitting!"

Frankly, when you get that much padding between you and the horse, "saddle fit" becomes a moot point.   It's like a person who's a size 4 trying to make a pair of size 10 pants fit by wearing multiple pairs of long underwear, or someone with a size 8 foot trying to make a size 6 shoe fit by lopping off the toes.  While you may be able to make said clothing work, you really can't say it fits.  Throwing multiple pads under a saddle isn't making it fit, it's just putting more junk between your saddle and your horse.

Yes, there are saddles like the Balance and the Parelli that are supposed to be shimmed, and while I understand the theory, I'm still firmly of the opinion that a saddle that truly fits doesn't require the use of shim pads.  They talk about focusing on active fit rather than static fit, and I'm on board with that ... but I still think that can be achieved without shims or corrective pads.  They talk about the way a horse's back changes when they work, and how a saddle needs to allow for that.  Again, I'm all over that ... but it can be done without extra pads/shims.

Now, I understand that some people need to make a saddle work for more than one horse, and I understand that there are horses that, for various physical reasons, do require shims and/or pads as a band-aid.  I'm ok with that.  I use shim pads from time to time myself, when horses are in transition; it's a boat load cheaper than repeated flocking adjustments, it's far more convenient, and it can save the integrity of the flock.  It's also a good answer if you're trying to fit two similar horses with one saddle, and while it's a good fit for Horse A, it's just a tad too wide in the tree for Horse B.

Anyone who's read much of this blog will understand that if a saddle truly doesn't fit, there's no pad in the world that will make it fit.  That same anyone will also understand that it's my belief that there's no one saddle that can be adjusted to fit every horse perfectly throughout its lifetime.  (Even the WOW saddles, which are completely modular and can have the panels and even the tree changed out, fall into this category.  If you're switching out the tree and the panels, you're essentially building a completely new saddle, aren't you?)  And that Miracle Saddle that fits every horse perfectly only exists in Brigadoon, sitting in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, with all the honest politicians.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Word About Widths

"My saddle fitter said my horse needs a wide tree.  So I got her one, but it sits too low and hits her withers."  "My saddle fitter said my horse needs a medium tree.  So I got her one, but the saddle is sitting really pommel-high."  "My saddle fitter said that because my horse has really big withers, he'll need a narrow tree."

I hear this sort of thing way more frequently than I'd like.  Tree width is the very first thing most people think about when they talk about saddle fitting, yet many people don't understand that it's only one part of the fitting picture.  Yes, the correct tree width is important, but tree type, tree shape, panel configuration and billet configuration are equally important, and all but the last have an effect on width.  But people always start with, "My horse needs a medium/wide/narrow/extra-wide tree ..."

So let's break this down.  First, whether a tree is given a designation like medium or wide, or whether it's given a centimeter measurement, the measurement is taken pre-construction, on the bare tree.  If the tree is measured in centimeters, the measurement is taken between the ends of the tree point.  If it's a UK-made saddle, it's given its width designation based on the angle of the pommel arch, as follows:

  • Narrow:  75°-84.9°
  • Medium:  85° - 94.9°
  • Wide:  95° - 104.9°
  • Extra-wide:  105° and up
So, all medium tree saddles made in the UK are the same in the width department, right?


Why not?

Reason one:  Tree type.  If a saddle is a wide standard tree, it's not going to fit the same as a wide hoop tree, since the hoop tree has the extra breadth across the top of the pommel arch.

Reason two:  Head height.  A medium width high-head saddle may work beautifully for a higher-withered horse, but will probably perch on a horse with a lower wither.

Reason three:  Tree point length.  Long tree points fit less generously than short tree points.  In the graphic below, the ends of the "tree points" are the same width apart, but note how much more room there is with a shorter point.

Reason four:  Panel configuration.  A wither or full front gusset will reduce a saddle's width.  A K or trapezius-type panel, which can be a lifesaver on a horse with divots behind the withers or real "steeple" withers, can make a saddle perch on a propane-tank back.  Where the panels are sewn into the pommel arch makes a difference, too; that's why Passier's Freedom panels (which are sewn in lower in the pommel arch than their standard panels) are a good choice for a horse with a lower, muttony wither.  (I rode the Great Red Menace in a Passier GG for years; she wasn't quite a hoop tree candidate but was broader than a regular tree would easily accommodate, and this "compromise"- especially in conjunction with the shorter tree points on the Passier - worked well until she got older and widened into a real hoop tree horse.)  Horses with bigger withers often need the panels to be tied in higher in the pommel arch (but not so high that they press on the lateral aspect of the spine).

Reason five:  What's in the panels.  Foam panels are thinner than wool panels because they have better cushion; an inch of foam offers much more cushion than an inch of wool.  Foam panels offer a closer "feel" but don't usually offer much in the way of panel modifications (though some saddle companies, like Beval, are starting to pay more attention in this area).  I don't think they're usually a good choice for a horse with a big wither, since the panels are often too minimal to support the saddle in proper balance on a horse with that conformation. These panels can work well on the table-backs, though; Andy Foster's Lauriche saddles are all foam-paneled, and I've seen many of them work beautifully for the propane-tank builds.

Wool panels, on the other hand, are bulkier, and the amount of flocking in the panels can make a pretty substantial difference in the way a saddle fits.  A saddle that's been heavily flocked in the front will not fit as generously in width as a saddle that's been more lightly flocked ...but as we learned in the previous blog post, you can't go to the other extreme, either.  There must be enough wool in the panels to cushion the horse's back from the tree, but not so much that the panels are distorted into leather-covered sausages.

So the next time you're saddle shopping, remember that correct tree width is vital, but that these variables will make it almost impossible to say with any assurance, "My horse needs a ______ tree."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Put the Irons Down (Location, Location, Location)


Recently, I received a saddle from a lovely woman I had worked with in my previous saddle fitting life.  I'd sold her her saddle (long-distance), and adjusted it regularly for her (again, long-distance) whenever it needed attention, and things had always gone well.  The last time the saddle had needed attention, however, she didn't know I'd started my own business, and wound up working long-distance with another fitter.  She sent fitting evaluation photos, and the other fitter said the saddle was sitting pommel-high, but the issue could be resolved by removing flocking from the front.  So Customer sends her saddle in and has the work done.  When she gets the saddle back and tries it the first time, her mare is reluctant to move forward.  Eventually, the mare just flat refuses to move forward when saddled.  So Customer finds me via Google, emails, and asks if I'd take a look.

I also ask for fitting evaluation photos.  When they arrive, I see that yes, the saddle's sitting pommel-high ... but it's also positioned too far forward.  This conversation ensues:

ME:  Are these the same photo you sent to the other fitter?


M:  Did the other fitter say anything about where the saddle was sitting?

C:  No, she just said the saddle was sitting pommel-high, and that taking some flocking out of the front would fix it.

M:  Well, it is sitting pommel-high, but I think it's sitting that way because it's about two fingers' width too far forward.

C:  Oh ... Why didn't the other fitter mention that?

M:  Not sure.  Perhaps she didn't notice.  But go ahead and send your saddle and a template.  I'm sure I can straighten things out.

Now, let me pause to say that taking flocking out of a saddle is a miserable bitch of a job, not one I enjoy in the least and one I will run uphill to avoid unless there's no other recourse.  To say that it's hard to do well is a huge understatement.  Fortunately, it's rare that I have to do it unless the saddle is grossly overflocked, and in that case, a total strip-flock is usually needed (and in that case, I don't mind removing flocking at all).  Sometimes taking a whisker of wool out can improve things, but if a saddle's sitting pommel-high (at least, if it's doing so when the saddle's in the right spot), I've found that it's rarely the correct fix.  And taking flocking out when the wool has compacted tightly isn't what I'd call a good idea, as it's going to be hard to remove wool without getting into the bedding layer (the one closest to your horse, which shouldn't be disturbed when adjusting the flock).  Finally, doing so on a serge-paneled saddle, which will allow every lump, bump, divot and deviation to be felt minutely ... well, that's really, REALLY not a good idea.

So the saddle arrives, I prop it in my lap and do the ritual-habitual touchy-feelie of the panels. There are huge divots in the panels that start at the tree points and go back past the stirrup bars; the other fitter must have removed WADS of flock.  So much has been removed that I can literally (and I do mean "literally") feel the tree through the panels.  What little flocking is left in the area is balled up and lumpy - no WONDER the poor mare didn't want to move!  If I can feel the tree, what must it have been like for her with her rider up?

I cannot believe that anyone who calls themselves a fitter would think this was a good job or the right solution.  I am flabbergasted.  I am gobsmacked.  I am mad.  I compare the tree width to the template that Customer sent, and they match up perfectly.  So the whole "pommel high" thing wasn't about saddle fit - it was about saddle position. One of the most basic things a fitter should check. 

I put the saddle on my bench and head for the computer, being very raptor-y and snarling and swearing a blue streak about people who have no business working on saddles and how I hope they one day have to carry a backpack full of rocks and razor blades on a 30 mile forced march, uphill both ways, on the hottest day of the year, barefoot, in snow up to their hips; how they give saddle fitters in general and long-distance fitters in particular an undeserved collective black eye, and how they can't go out of business quickly enough to suit me.  Then, thinking perhaps I should decompress and regain my ability to be diplomatic (to "channel Edie", as Nancy Okun and I call it) before contacting the customer, I do an about-face and spend some time kicking and punching my stand-up bag.  Venting such wrath on Mister Squishy would have undoubtedly led to his demise, given his elderly and fragile state.

Feeling much more in control (and considerably winded; my stamina still isn't back to pre-flu levels), I let Customer know about the state of the saddle, and tell her that a strip-flock may be in the cards.  Customer feels really bad; she was trying to do the right thing by her horse and is now worried she's hurt her horse and that her saddle may be beyond fixing.  I assure her that her saddle can be fixed, please don't worry; if I can avoid doing a strip-flock, I will, and I'll let her know about it asap.

I spend a while longer poking at the panels and cursing.  Part of me thinks a strip-flock is the way to go; the saddle's about 6 years old and it would just flat be easier to start over than to try to fill in those holes.  But Customer had to pay a fairly steep price to have this done to her saddle, so I'd like to at least be able to spare her as much financial outlay as possible. But man, that's an unholy, wicked mess ... Yet the rest of the flocking is still in good shape, so it would be a shame to have to pull it all out ...

In the end, I decide to see if I can fix it.  If I fail, I can always fall back on the strip flock.  So I start fiddling and adding wool and using a long needle to go into the panels through the serge and break up lumps.  After about 15 minutes, I'm pleased (and frankly, pretty surprised) to find that one panel is back in good shape, so I start on the other.  More fiddling, more poking with the needle, a little massaging and fluffing, and the second panel is feeling way better.  In all, I spent better than half an hour on the saddle (a regular flocking adjustment rarely takes more than 10 minutes).  I do a few final adjustments and decided to let the wool "rest" overnight, and check it again in the morning to be sure I'm still happy with the job.  I am, so the saddle gets boxed up and shipped back to Customer, along with a reminder about proper saddle position.

Today, I received this email from Customer:

"just had to tell you that I went for lesson this past Thursday. it was first time i had used my saddle since getting it back......lots of rain.  We used a new bit and my trainer was so amazed at how happy and light Montana was.  For me it is like riding a new horse!  You must realize, the last time I put this saddle on Montana, she refused to move ( smart horse). she was a very happy camper!!!  I am so grateful for your level of expertise,Kitt you helped me get my horse back!! 

And that, my friends, is why I love this job. To be able to turn something like that around for a horse and rider ... well, I can't think of much that's more satisfying.  


So how do you know where your saddle should sit?  The tree point should be about 3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapulae.  With most dressage saddles, this means that the front of the flap will be about one finger's width behind the rear edge of the scapulae.  With jump or ap saddles, it can be a little harder to tell.  One way to judge is to put the saddle way far forward on the withers and slide it slowly back; it will "stop" at the proper spot.  Another way is to find the tree point and mark the spot on the outer flap directly over it with a dab of leather conditioner, and mark the area on your horse's mane that's directly above the three-fingers-behind-the-back-of-the-scapulae spot with a piece of tape or a chalk mark.  Position the saddle so the two are aligned.  If your saddle won't stay there, or if placing it there makes the rear of the saddle extend past T18, you need to look further into saddle fit.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rolex and Other Updates


Guess who's been asked to go to Rolex?

Yup.  Me.  WOOT!

Nikki Newcombe asked me if I'd be interested in coming down to help out at the Bliss of London / Loxley Saddles booth, and since I've never been to Rolex, I jumped at the chance.  I'll be arriving on Friday, and will be there all weekend, and I'm way, WAY excited about it!  If you're going to be there, please stop by and say hello.


In late January, I came down with what I thought was the garden-variety flu.  However, after a week and a half of running a fever, having chills and feeling as though I'd been beaten with a club, I developed the worst respiratory sickness I've ever had, and - the rotting cherry on top the whole miserable sundae - I lost my voice for over a month.  Long story short, I was so sick I couldn't even sit in front of the computer for more than 3 weeks, so I'm playing catch-up like a mad bastard and some of my plans have fallen flat.  Unfortunately, one of those plans was the saddle fitting clinic I'd hoped to do April 11-13 this year.  I'm rescheduling it for later in the year - probably late summer or early fall, depending on availability of the venue - and will update you all as plans develop.  If anyone has a preferred range of dates, please let me know, and I'll see what I can do to accommodate.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fitting Assessment Photos and Conformation Shots (Throw Me a Bone)

When I'm doing long-distance fitting, I require quite a bit of information from you, my customers.  Since I can't get my hands on the horse and saddle, you have to provide a lot of input and answer dozens of questions.  You also have to provide clear, informative photos so I can see the horse I'm trying to fit, the way the saddle fits the horse and the way the saddle fits the rider.

However, it's come to my attention that there without being able to see exactly the photos I require, a lot is left open to interpretation, and I sometimes get some fairly useless (though sometimes quite interesting) photos.  So in an effort to provide clear, concise guidelines, here are the photos I require ... and a sampling of the photos I don't.

First, a conformation shot of your horse.  All I need to see is the whole horse, weight on all 4 legs, on level ground, head in a normal, relaxed position (no Drama Llama photos, please!) against a fairly plain, contrasting background (no fleabitten greys against dirty snowbanks, and no dark bays against the opening of the run-in shed).

Here are some examples of useful conformation shots:

If I'm assessing saddle fit, I also need a conformation shot of your horse, but with the saddle on:

And a photo of the tree point in relation to your horse's back:

I'll also need to see the same photos, but with the rider up:

Pretty easy.  Remember that it's best to take photos outside when possible, and if the day is overcast, even better - you won't have to worry about shadows obscuring some vital bit of information.  Choose a time when your horse won't be fretting about being fed or being turned out, and when you aren't stressing about getting to work on time or getting home to help the kids with homework. If they aren't exact matches, don't worry - I can probably get the info I need from them as long as you come pretty close.

Now, here are some photos that are of absolutely no help whatsoever.  Please don't send photos like these.  Please, just ... don't.

It's a horse's back.  That's about all I can tell.

"Against a contrasting background" also means no dark bays, blacks or liver chestnuts in dark indoor arenas.

Is this horse standing downhill, is the camera tilted, or is s/he very croup-high?

The Red Menace in her "Drama Llama" guise, standing hip-shot, making her back look even more dropped than it really is.

The pommel clears the withers, but since I can't see the tree point in relation to the horse's back, I can't tell whether the tree width is correct or not.

It's a saddle.  On a horse.  With a white pad under it.  That's all I got.

Remember, all you have to do is come close.  If you send me the info I need, the saddle fitting process will be a lot less time consuming, expensive and frustrating.  And as an added bonus, your photo will never be featured in a rogue's gallery like this!