With the end of show season fast approaching, it’s a great idea to have your horse’s saddle checked for fit. Why, you ask? Well, showing can affect your horse’s weight and muscling dramatically from start to finish. Chances are, his workload has jumped up a bit from over the winter, which can cause changes in his muscling. Plus, travelling to and from shows can be stressful, which can alter his weight and can contribute to ulcers (which won’t necessarily affect his saddle fit but can make him more girthy).
Here’s a quick list of things to look for:
- Changes in Balance
- Feeling tipped forward or backward? This could indicate that the saddle is either too wide, too narrow, or in need of some flocking
- Saddle Slippage
- If the saddle slides forward or backward, the above causes can apply.
- If it slides to one side, your flocking could have packed down asymmetrically.
- Changes in Behavior
- Is your normally cool-headed mount starting to show signs of girthiness? Has your Steady Eddie started walking off when you’re going to get on? These behaviors, along with abnormal ear pinning/tail swishing, refusing to go forward, etc. are some of the more subtle signs of potential saddle problems. Obviously, bucking, rearing, and bolting tell us that something is afoot. While it may not be a saddle issue, it doesn’t hurt to check it out.
So, in the spirit of wanting to keep everyone happy and comfortable, we here at Balanced Equine Saddle Fitting want to extend a special offer: call or text the office with the promo code SHOW2015 and receive 10% off your next assessment! But hurry! Our offer expires 10/15/15. (425) 954-6559
We look forward to seeing you soon!
When it comes to horses, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet. There, I’ve said it. The fact that we’re dealing with a sentient being comprised of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves and NOT a robot means that we’re bound to be faced with issues that arise from time to time that are difficult to pinpoint. It seems as though the relatively recent epiphany that saddle fit is important has brought with it the feeling that any and all issues with the horse can and will be addressed with proper saddle fit. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Yes, the saddle must fit the horse as well as possible, but the perfect saddle fit may not guarantee that your horse will always behave perfectly, or will never be sore, or… What we must realize is that the saddle is just one piece of the puzzle.
When it comes to bad behavior, it has been my experience that oftentimes the horse is reacting to something that’s making him uncomfortable. As far as tack is concerned, this can be from the saddle itself being an ill fit to the saddle pad pulling down onto the spine to the brow band being too small, etc. It can also be related to when the horse last had his teeth floated, the kind of bit being used, as well as the style of riding. Let’s not even mention the horse’s nutrition, the amount of turnout he enjoys, any existing musculoskeletal conditions he has, how well his feet are trimmed/shod, etc. It is thus the duty of the horse owner to systematically go through each and every possible thing that may cause physical discomfort and rule it out. It takes time, and it’s not always an enjoyable experience, but so it goes. Again, we’re not dealing with machines here, and what may work brilliantly for one horse may well have a disastrous effect on another.
Unfortunately, the focus is sometimes so limited to tack that we exclude other possibilities, often until it is too late. When the massage therapist tells you that your horse’s back is sore, the saddle is generally put to blame, but back soreness is often a sign that something is amiss in the hindquarters. It is not uncommon, for example, for a horse with hock arthritis to develop a sore back and sometimes even rub marks in the winter, no matter how well the saddle fits. This is generally due to the stiffness of the horse when being pulled out of its stall and ridden without taking extra time to warm him up and cool him down. Doing things like applying Sore-No-More or Legacy Gel prior to riding, spending a lot of time “on the buckle” at the various paces before asking for collection, as well as stretching and backing exercises can help.
And when it comes to soreness, we need to understand that horses, like humans, will become sore with physical exertion. A horse’s workload, the size and experience of the rider, the kind of footing the horse is ridden on, are just a few of the things that can influence a horse’s level of tenderness. Changes to any of these things can create a great deal of soreness in the horse in general, and may have nothing to do with the saddle at all. The goal is to minimize this soreness by working the horse in a manner that is conducive to its current level of fitness and in tack that fits him properly.
As far as saddle movement goes, the same holds true. Yes, if the saddle is asymmetrical it may shift from side to side, if it is too wide it can slide back, or if it is too narrow it can slide forward. It can also slide about if your horse is asymmetrical or built downhill with well-sprung ribs and a forward girth line, etc. But more often than not, saddle movement is indicative of a hind end lameness – even one that is extremely subtle. When you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense: if the horse isn’t moving as fluidly as he could, his jarring movement is going to affect the saddle as well. This movement does not mean that the saddle doesn’t fit, but may require some creative thinking on the part of your saddle fitter.
At the end of the day, we’d be remiss to solely blame tack for issues with our horses without looking at any and all possible mitigating factors. To do so means you may well be investing a fair bit of money on various saddles, bridles, saddle pads, etc., only to have the same problems crop up. Having a highly trained saddle fitter out to assess the fit of your tack can help you rule out problems that may be arising from the tack itself, but even then there may be other variables at play that are contributing to issues you may be having with your horse. Each horse is an individual, and the process of uncovering what may be causing trouble for that horse may be lengthy, and may not have anything to do with your saddle at all. My advice is to go ahead and start with the saddle. Get it fitted properly. If you’re still having issues, you’ll likely want to come up with a plan B, or C, or D, or… Such are the joys and pains of horse ownership.
Let’s face it: horses change. Whether it’s a youngster just being started under saddle, a horse that has had some serious time off, or one whose weight seems to fluctuate given the time of year, a major change in a horse’s condition can have a serious effect on the fit of your saddle. Historically, this often meant having to replace the saddle with something of a better fit (or run the risk of harm to both horse and rider should the decision be made to continue riding in an ill-fitting saddle).
Considering how many horse owners have a veritable tack shop all their own, it’s no wonder that more and more saddle manufacturers have developed saddles whose trees can be adjusted. But it’s important to know just how adjustable a saddle is, as well as how much it costs to adjust.
There are several different types of adjustable trees on the market now. The following is just a short list of some of the saddles that offer them.
Changeable Gullet Saddles
The changeable gullet system revolutionized the way we look at saddles and saddle fit in many ways. The idea that the consumer need replace the saddle every time they turn around was put to the wayside. While there have admittedly been some bumps in the road, the ability to swap out gullet plates was a great idea that has evolved into a legitimate means by which to alter the saddle to suit the horse.
Saddles like Wintec / Bates, the newer Pessoas, Anky Dressage Saddles, Shires and Ovation saddles (to name a few) have the ability to be quickly and easily changed, with five different widths to choose from. The biggest limitation with these saddles, however, has been that only the tree points adjust to the desired width; the rails of the tree remain static (although the newer Wintec/Bates saddles also adjust in the rail area to some extent.
Saddles built on the SimaTree (including the Thorowogood, Kent & Masters, Fairfax, and Hastilow saddles) also adjust in the rails and have seven or eight different widths (depending on the type of tree, e.g. jump vs. dressage).
As a saddle fitter, I love the adjustability of these kinds of saddles, although I wish they all had natural wool flocking (like the saddles built on the SimaTree) so I can fine tune the fit to the horse. Cost-wise, the rider need only pay for the gullet plates should they need a change in tree size, making this a very affordable option.
Wellep Key Saddles
Saddles that have a Wellep mechanism to adjust the width of the saddle require only a simple hex key to adjust the width of the tree. Wind the key one way and the tree widens, the other way and it narrows, allowing the rider to adjust their saddle easily. While a great idea, it’s not without its limitations. Firstly, in the vast majority of these saddles, the tree points are once again the only component that is altered, although there are one or two on the market (to my knowledge) that also widen or narrow at the rails as well. Secondly, they can be prone to malfunction should dirt and horse hair find its way into the mechanism. Given the fact that horses are pretty dirty creatures, this does seem to be a relatively common occurrence. The trouble is once the mechanism becomes infested with dirt and hair, it can lock, rendering it unadjustable, or, in some cases, can fail to retain its shape, and can become wider and wider over time.
Saddles that have this sort of tree include Laser, Marcel Toulouse Genesis, Ainsley, among others.
Resin Treed Saddles
There are a few saddles on the market that offer a resin tree that can be adjusted on a UV machine. What is important to note is that there is some cost involved with having the tree adjusted (averaging around $300), and, since it has to be done on a machine, the rider does not get the instant gratification that is found with either the Wellep system or the gullet changing system. Also, these saddles do not have a steel gullet plate, so the possibility of the tree stretching wider and wider over time is very real, and more likely to happen the more the saddle is adjusted. Granted, not every saddle runs into this problem, but there’s not much one can do about it (short of replacing the tree). Finally, the tree points are the only part of the tree that can be widened or narrowed, so if the rails of the tree are not appropriately aligned with the horse’s barrel, there will be excess pressure on either part of the spine.
Saddles with this sort of tree include Prestige, Kieffer, Sommer, etc.
Wood and/or Plastic “Spring” Trees – Are They Really Adjustable?
There are some people who (in my sincerest opinion) recklessly believe that they can adjust a wood tree. One of the most popular ways to do this is with a device called the “Saddle Devil” (to my way of thinking aptly named), which forces the tree points wider or narrower depending on how the saddle is placed in the machine. Not only is it typically rather expensive to have a tree like this widened, the things that can go wrong with this method of adjustment are numerous.
Every time the tree points are forced apart the integrity of the steel is compromised, so it is not unheard of for a tree that has been adjusted more than once to have the head plates in the pommel snap. What I find all too commonly is the rivets holding the two head plates together often break, which can either lead to (or be indicative of) breakage of the top plate.
Often times the person carrying out the tree adjustment is a company rep who, arguably, hasn’t been properly trained on such an adjustment. I have seen a few instances where the tree has been adjusted asymmetrically (e.g. one side wider than the other) because the person performing the adjustment did it incorrectly. I would only recommend having this done by a Qualified Master Saddler, and even then, many will tell you it’s not worth doing.
The adjustment of the tree points on a wood tree will not adjust the rails, so once again if the structure of the tree isn’t right for the horse’s back widening or narrowing the tree points will do nothing to help the horse’s comfort.
Sadly, people are often duped into buying a wood or plastic treed saddle under the guise of it being adjustable (some companies are more wanton about it than others), so they dish out several thousand dollars for a saddle that, at the end of the day, runs the risk of being ruined if put in the hands of an unqualified person.
Officially, the Society of Master Saddlers says that a Spring Tree saddle should only be adjusted within ½ tree size, and only once, so steer clear of the saddle rep telling you that it can be done within several centimeters and as often as you want. They’re just trying to sell you a saddle.
So the moral of the story is that there are a lot of benefits to having a saddle that can be adapted to suit a changing horse, but not all adjustable trees are created equal. When purchasing a saddle with an adjustable tree, you owe it to yourself and your horse to find out just how much adjustability you have and how much it will cost.
Copyright 2013, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
Unlike the UK, where you have a governing entity that educates and regulates saddle fitters and makers to an industry standard, anything goes in America, and it is my sincerest opinion that our horses (and riders) suffer as a result. The fact is, when it comes to having your horse fitted for a saddle, it is important that you choose your saddle fitting professional with care. After all, it’s your horse’s health and soundness and your comfort and safety on the line.
I felt compelled to write this blog posting after spending so much time hearing stories about riders pushed into brand X because it HAD to be a custom fit, or because it’s the most popular saddle in the barn, or it’s the only saddle made for women, or blah blah blah. And yet I can’t begin to count the number of fittings where a “professionally” fitted saddle had been sold (often at great expense to the rider) that was never right for the horse to begin with! Sound familiar? And as those of you who are familiar with my earlier blog posts know, if it isn’t right for the horse it isn’t going to be right for the rider. End of story. It is one of those things that genuinely gets my blood boiling. So please forgive me if I seem to be stepping onto a soap box. I’ve just held this in far too long.
The Society of Master Saddlers, based in the UK, is truly the only organization in the world that has a tried-and-true system for educating and governing saddle fitters to an industry standard. That standard comes not from just one company, but all of the saddle making and fitting professionals in the UK. We’re talking centuries of combined experience coming together. To be a Qualified Saddle Fitter in the SMS means that you have been tested rigorously and are bound by a code of ethics that put horse and rider first, not some brand that you represent.
In fact, to be a Qualified Saddle Fitter with the SMS means that you can’t just represent some brand. Rather, you are required to retail at least 3-5 different brands of saddles. So what’s the difference between a retailer and a representative? For one, a retailer purchases the saddles they sell at wholesale and sells them at retail. They are a customer of the saddle company, not an employee. A representative likely works for the saddle company, and while he/she may claim to be an “independent” saddle fitter, at the end of the day their job is to sell their saddles. And while their saddles may be amazing (there are some great saddles out there on the market), it begs the question where does the loyalty lie: with the customer or the employer?
Truly independent saddle fitters have several brands that they offer at retail. Rather than working for one company, they provide options for different horses and riders at price points for anyone, but most importantly, they do not push you into buying a saddle. Instead, they provide an educated evaluation of the existing saddle and work to either provide a better fit with said saddle or help you find something suitable, within your price range, without making you feel as though you’ve stepped onto a used car lot. And I have heard of a fitter or two that have literally said “What do I have to do to get you into this saddle?” It makes my skin crawl.
This brings up another point: you should be paying for an educated evaluation, but it’s vital to ask: educated by whom? There are a lot of “certified” saddle fitters out there, many of them claiming to be independent. But this certification often comes from the company (and they aren’t necessarily going to tell you that), and sometimes you have to look very closely to recognize that it isn’t an independently run organization after all. From what I’ve seen, the education provided in this “certification” is largely based on the particular saddle company’s various models, and yes, these reps are very good at reciting all of the options available.
But the part about fitting the horse is often limited to a crash course (often just a couple of days with the manufacturer) that does not necessarily encompass the level of complexity involved in achieving proper saddle fit. Sure, they may have a basic idea about where the saddle goes on the horse, or how the panels should line up, etc., but where the fundamental lapse in education often manifests is in the wrong tree selection for a specific body type, or a panel design that does not provide the correct support, to name just a couple of basic mistakes I commonly see.
So how do you know who to trust to help fit your saddle? Here are some questions to ask to help make sure that your saddle fitter is up to snuff:
- Does he/she represent one particular saddle brand? If so, they may be expected to push for a sale rather than genuinely work with your existing saddle. And I strongly feel that when there is a commission on the line, you may not be getting a completely honest opinion. This does not mean that there aren’t ethical sales reps out there, but I think it’s important that you’re well-informed about who you’re working with.
- Is he/she certified, and if so, by whom? What are the requirements for this certification? Who provided the instruction? What was that person’s credentials? We expect our veterinarians and massage practitioners, etc. to be well-educated, why treat saddle fitting any differently?
- How does this fitter perform a fitting? How much time is being spent with you? Does he/she look at it on the cross ties and say it’s good? Do they bother to see your horse move without the saddle, with the saddle, and ridden? How comprehensive and detailed are the records they are keeping of your horse? I’ve heard of fitters only providing 30 minute windows within which the fitting is performed. How does that person get to know the needs of you and your horse within such a short period of time?
- What sort of flocking adjustments does this fitter perform, and who provided that training? Is the work guaranteed? Does he/she only perform onsite work? If so, I urge you to read my earlier posting on the subject: https://andersonequine.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/focus-on-saddle-fit-the-art-and-science-of-reflocking/; you may wish to find someone else to perform the work needed.
- What is the after care? Does this fitter stand behind the product? Does he/she offer follow-up checks included in the purchase of a saddle, or do they take the money and run?
- Finally, do you walk away from the fitting feeling as though you’ve been sold something you don’t need? Believe it or not, not every rider requires a custom fit, and with all of the saddles out there, there’s likely something out there “off the rack” that can fit some of these “custom” horses (that, in reality, aren’t all that difficult to begin with). And it needn’t be a $6000 saddle to be a well-made, well-fitting saddle.
One of the things that fundamentally draws me to the Society of Master Saddlers is that they seem to differentiate between saddle fitting and saddle selling. The SMS is continually researching how to make saddles that best fit the horse, and when they discover something that they can quantifiably prove (with the Pliance testing, for example), they will restructure their approach, not only in the way saddles are made but also in what the Qualified Saddle Fitter must now take into consideration. It’s an ever-evolving approach that, in the grand scheme of things, benefits the horse, and from there, the rider. Manufacturers (especially those not in the SMS) may not be privy to this kind of information, meaning that the saddle fitters they are training are not necessarily given the right tools necessary to ensure optimal comfort and safety of both horse and rider.
It is my sincerest wish that non-SMS saddle fitters work to better educate themselves on proper saddle fit. The SMS conducts twice-yearly Introductory courses in the US that allow you to eventually take the Qualified Course and the exams necessary to be counted among the Qualified Saddle Fitters of the world. I would love to see more QSF’s not only in my immediate area, but all across the US and in North America in general, because our horses and riders deserve to be fitted properly by well-trained, competent, and ethical saddle fitters.
Copyright 2012, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
Focus On Saddle Fit: The Tree.
When it comes to fitting your saddle, it’s important that you don’t overlook the most essential component of your horse’s comfort: the tree. Many of us look at only one area of the saddle tree to determine the fit: the width, or angle of the tree “points”. What’s equally crucial to the determination of fit are the angle of the tree’s rails, the length of the tree, and the depth or curvature of the tree itself.
Think of it: the tree is the skeleton of the saddle. As such, it’s vital that its shape match the shape of your horse’s skeleton. But in order to be able to identify how the saddle’s tree is fitting your horse, you must first be able to identify basic parts of the tree.
Aspects of the Tree That Must Be Considered When Fitting Your Saddle:
- Gullet & Head Plate
- Tree Points
- Overall Length
- General Shape
The Gullet and Head Plates
The gullet and head plates add strength and stability to the pommel. On a traditional wooden tree, there are two such plates, one on top and the other on the bottom of the gullet head. They are rigid and bolted together by steel rivets. Some of the adjustable trees have only one gullet plate that is removed to allow for width adjustment. Still others have no plate at all (whose benefits and detriments will be discussed in a future article).
The gullet plates govern the general shape of the tree’s head, and should be taken into account when fitting the saddle to your horse. A Wide or U head is best suited to a broader horse with more “well-sprung” ribs, while a Vee head is the optimal choice for a more angular kind of horse with a more severe wither.
The tree points are what determine the width of the tree at the horse’s shoulder, and vary by manufacturer. The points are the part of the gullet plates that extend into the flap of the saddle. While the British standard oversees these widths, to some extent it is impossible to generalize them. The statement “My horse is a ‘medium’” means something different to every brand.
When it comes to saddle fitting, the tree points should be parallel to the part of the horse’s trapezius muscle that is located behind the shoulder blade. Note that when in motion, this area can fill out, depending on the horse, which is why relying solely on a static fit (just looking at in on the crossties) is inappropriate. A horse that is a very uphill mover, for example, may go up half a tree size while in motion.
When checking the tree points, you’ll want to place the saddle on your horse’s back, making sure that the front edge of the tree point (typically visible when you lift up the flap) is around 2” – 3” behind the edge of the shoulder blade. The points should lie flat against the muscle. If the top of the tree points make the most contact, then the tree may be too wide. If the bottom part of the tree points makes the most contact, the tree is too narrow. I say may be too wide because there are instances when the flocking has settled too much in front so that the saddle sits low, making the angle of the tree slightly off. Lifting the front of the saddle up slightly to see if adding a bit more wool will make it parallel to the trapezius muscle is a quick trick to help assuage those concerns.
Getting the correct width is critical to your horse’s comfort. The idea that if it’s a little wide it’s ok is erroneous and can cause just as many problems as having tree points that are too narrow – you still have the undesirable effect of having a pressure point; it’s just located in a slightly different area. That said, it can be possible to make minor corrections using a properly shimmed saddle pad that can add lift to the front while dispersing pressure points. My favorite pad for this? ProLite (see my website for more information). ProLite pads are the only corrective pads recommended by the Society of Master Saddlers because, unlike the dozens and dozens of pads out there, they have been tested with Pliance technology. They have been shown to help alleviate pressure points.
The rails (or waist) of the tree are the part of the tree that connects the pommel to the cantle. They are, in my humble opinion, one of the number one oversights that cause an ill-fitting saddle, and unless your saddle fitter is SMS trained, chances are they fail to consider their importance during your fitting. The rails absolutely MUST align with the slope of the horse’s back, or else you run the risk of causing excess pressure along the horse’s spine, and an increased risk of pain, edema along the spine, nerve damage (exhibited by the tell-tale white hairs), and muscle atrophy along the back.
The rails often dictate the “twist” of the saddle’s seat, loosely defined as the width experienced by the rider. While the twist is important to the comfort of the rider, if it causes the rails to be too steeply angled for the horse’s back, it can cause the aforementioned problems. Sadly, many manufacturers fail to take this into account when it comes to the design of the saddle, and some of the most popular brands (among jump saddles especially) have a narrow “twist” that fails to meet the comfort requirements of many of the popular modern breeds of horses. It is therefore essential that you as the rider have an adequate understanding of what will fit your horse best and what brands are able to best accommodate you and your horse.
It is possible for saddle makers to create the feel of a narrow “twist” on a tree built for a broader-backed horse, but this is typically a customized feature that even the most “custom” of saddlers fail to make available. Solid plastic trees that are poured into a mold can often have flat rails but a narrower twist, as the saddle maker uses the foam in the seat to dictate the width for the rider.
While I hate to stereotype, I often find that the popular French and Italian saddle brands are the worst offenders. I speculate that it might have something to do with the fact that there is no industry standard like there is with the Society of Master Saddlers, and the research that is done by the Society and made available to saddle makers helps create more “horse friendly” trees. But I digress.
Unfortunately, when it comes to rider’s preference for a narrow twist, in some cases, a compromise must be made, and at the risk of erring on the side of being extreme, I argue that it should be in favor of the horse’s comfort. After all, the horses are the ones carrying us about and doing their best to live up to our expectations as riders. We as riders have some capacity to adapt to our tack, whereas the horse is forced to endure the pinching along the spine.
In order to check whether the rails of the saddle are in alignment with the shape of your horse’s back, you’ll need to place the saddle on your horse’s back (in the proper position!) and girth it up (without a pad). Lift the skirt of the saddle (the piece of leather covering the stirrup bars). The angle of the tree just visible under the leather should be parallel to the shape of your horse’s back, just as the tree points should be parallel to the trapezius muscle.
Depending on the type of tree, there may be steel “springs” running along the length of the tree. These are most commonly found in more modern wood trees. While the name evokes images of a tightly coiled piece of metal just ready to bounce away, steel springs are used to provide stability and some flexibility to the tree while eliminating much of the weight found from older, “rigid” trees.
Length of Tree
Since the tree is a rigid structure, it is vitally important that the length of the tree is appropriate for the length of your horse’s barrel. While ideally, the saddle as a whole should not extend past the 18th Thoracic Vertebrae, it is sometimes inevitable that it does. As long as the tree is not too long for the horse’s back, a little extra length in the panel is acceptable.
You can determine the length of the tree by looking at where the cantle starts. The place where the seat curves up into the cantle is where the edge of the tree rests. It should be as far away from the last rib as possible.
Depth or Curvature of the Tree
The term “weight bearing surface area” when it comes to saddles may evoke images of the panels of the saddle being broad enough to have as many pounds per square inch touching the horse’s back as possible, as this has everything to do with the horse’s comfort. But what you may not realize, is that the tree’s shape, depth, and length have just as much to do with the weight bearing surface area.
The tree’s shape needs to be amenable to the shape of your horse’s back. A flat-backed horse should not be ridden in a saddle with an excessively steep or deep tree, as all of the weight bearing surface area is concentrated over the wither. Riding such a horse in a sharply curved tree will result in rocking and bouncing, and is not terribly comfortable for the horse. In times past, before the use of composite or plastic trees, the deeper seated saddles had to have trees with a significant arc to them, and between rocking and having too little surface area, horses ridden in these saddles often had back issues. Fortunately, modern saddle design and technology is allowing for deeper seated saddles without sacrificing the horse’s comfort.
Finding the Right Tree for Your Horse
Unfortunately, many saddle manufacturers are secretive when it comes to what’s in their saddles. Innovative tree designs are closely guarded, which of course does nothing to help the consumer find the right structure to fit his or her horse. Asking questions about tree composition and design are a good way to help make an informed decision.
Questions to Ask:
* What kind of tree? Wood? Composite? Plastic? Is it adjustable? If so, how?
* What tree widths are available? Do the trees come in half sizes?
* What are the rails like, and can you have flat rails for a well-sprung horse while keeping a narrow twist?
* What kind of warrantee does this tree have?
More and more saddle companies are now offering saddles that have some degree of adjustability to their saddles’ trees. It just makes sense: you never know how your horse may change, or if you may end up with a completely different horse requiring a completely different saddle some years down the road. But just because they claim to be adjustable doesn’t mean that they’re adjustable enough. This goes back to the angle of the rails. If you’re just widening the tree points of a saddle to accommodate your flat-backed horse with well-sprung ribs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the critical area behind the stirrup bars will be at an angle appropriate to his back shape. Remember: the angle of the tree points is one small component of saddle fit. The rest of the tree has to fit too.
Copyright 2012, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
For those of you who have read some of my posts, I began studying the art and science of saddle fitting after my beloved mare, Contessa, ended up with a very expensive vet bill due to an ill-fitting saddle fit by a “saddle fitter.” I made the same mistakes that I’m finding are all too common, and they were so preventable, had I known more about how to properly fit a saddle. I’ve spent the last few years devoted exclusively to the study of saddle fit, pouring through each and every book, and working hands-on with some of the top saddle fitters and Master Saddlers in the world.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Society of Master Saddlers’ Qualified Saddle Fitter Course, a week-long intensive training and examination program that offers candidates the opportunity to achieve the ranks of the Society of Master Saddlers’ Qualified Saddle Fitters. The SMS is truly, the only organization in the world that has an extensive education and certification program, and Qualified Saddle Fitters are required to have an exceptional knowledge of saddle fit and its impact on both horse and rider.
The exams were exhausting, and very stressful. Exams were both written and practical, and were divided into several sections. One wrong answer, one missed step, resulted in a failed section. One failed section and the entire Qualified Saddle Fitter status unattainable until reassessment is available (typically one year). The stakes were high, and the pressure was great. I did not want to return home empty handed.
I fretted and stewed over both the written and practical exams, and I confess I cried a bit, out of fear and loneliness (being in a foreign country without my husband, horse, and hounds). The supportive nature of the other candidates certainly did wonders to get my nerves solid enough to walk into the practical exams, which started around 8:30 am and lasted until 7:00 pm.
As the day passed, I began to feel more confident, and was thankful that my exam schedule left the actual fitting section until the end of the day, so I had plenty of time to go through the proper procedure and consider solutions to horses of “unfortunate'” conformation. It was no easy task, and everyone, some of the most knowledgeable saddle fitting professionals I’ve met to date, was nervous. The standards of the Society of Master Saddlers are, after all, quite high.
Exams finished, the examiners set off to deliberate over the candidates’ performance and decide who met the standards and who would not. And we had no choice but to wait until we received word about our success or failure. We were initially told we were going to have to wait until we received the official letterhead, but after much collective whining, we were mercifully told we’d receive word by email. We speculated about how we did, and those of us who were staying one last night at the dorms wandered into the pub to do some unwinding.
This morning was spent in an anxious state, having to drive to the hotel just outside of London in order to have solid internet access and the ability to check email. I cried once more when I opened my email and saw the news: I had met the standards set by the Society of Master Saddlers, and have joined the ranks of the Qualified Saddle Fitters as an Associate Overseas Member. I am proud of this accomplishment, and deeply honored to have achieved it. And I hope that this achievement will inspire other professional saddle fitters to work toward it themselves, because the level of education, the standards set, and the professionalism required to be a Qualified Saddle Fitter are unparalleled.
Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
For those of you who know me, I’m a huge fan of S.A.F.E. (Save a Forgotten Equine). This fabulous organization takes horses that have been abused, neglected, and otherwise mistreated, and works diligently to rehabilitate and rehome the horses that they can. The work that the dedicated ladies of S.A.F.E. do resonates deeply within me, so I have dedicated much of my time and energy helping raise awareness of this organization as well as donate my services to help those horses that are under saddle to be as comfortable as possible, so that they may find the right home faster.
Donating my services is fine and all (and it’s something I’m planning on doing on a continual basis), but I’ve the overpowering desire to do better than that. I want to donate several Thorowgood saddles to S.A.F.E. so that they can have saddles custom fit to those horses being worked. Given the wonderfully adaptable nature of the Thorowgood saddles, once a horse is rehomed, I can easily adapt the saddle to fit the next horse coming in. The only problem, of course, is money. If I had unlimited resources, I’d order all of the saddles I’d like to. Unfortunately, as of right now, it’s not fiscally feasible. Tonight, however, I’m ordering one Thorowgood saddle to donate immediately.
So here’s what I’m thinking: if I can get my valued customers, friends, and loved ones to contribute a few dollars here and there, I can use that money to buy a few saddles to donate. I need to work out the details with S.A.F.E. as to how contributions work in terms of tax write-offs, but I want to put it out there that we are needing around $2000 to purchase the saddles. If you are interested in helping, please let me know. As I’ve said before, I can’t help but wonder how many of the horses that end up needing rescue as a result of “dangerous” behavior weren’t just responding to pain from an ill-fitting saddle. Providing such rescues with quality saddles that can be custom fit to their horses in training may go a long way toward correcting the behavior, and finding these horses the loving homes they deserve.
For the Love of the Horse.
Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
Any Master Saddlers worth their salt will tell you that you should never reflock a saddle on site. This means that major adjustments or full reflocks should be performed on a bench, according to the templates and photos taken of the horse. There are several very important reasons for this, which will be discussed here.
Having been properly trained in the art and science of bench flocking, I have to say that it aggravates me to no end to have to fix the damage caused to saddles due to the unskilled work of “saddle fitters,” especially when I consider the fact that the owner of the saddle paid a premium price for what is tantamount to butchery.
When a saddle is “reflocked onsite,” the fitter generally has to cut holes in the panel (under the flap) to create an access point. This laceration, regardless of size, compromises the integrity of the panel, and frequently leads to gaping and lumpiness. Given the sensitive nature of a horse’s skin (how many times have you seen him shake his skin when a fly lands on a fly sheet?), these lumps can create a great deal of discomfort. Think of it in terms of having small pebbles in your shoes.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the symmetry of the wool is adversely affected by onsite flocking. Without the panels laying flat, it is difficult to determine whether or not the panels of the saddle are as perfectly symmetrical as possible. With the panels dropped out, it is possible to use a tool such as a digital caliper to gauge the depth of various sections of each panel down to the hundredth of a milimeter. This tool has proven its worth time and again on my bench. While I still go for feel, the calipers assure me that the panels contain the same amount of flock consistently, and there is no question when I lace the panels back in, that they will lie on the horse beautifully.
Finally, the fibers within the panel should be consistent to maintain optimal smoothness and elasticity. Fitters that flock onsite may not know what lies within a particular panel, and in many cases it’s impossible to tell until you’ve deflocked it. When they stuff their flocking on top of an older material that is inconsistent with the newer, there is no avoiding lumps and bumps that can cause your horse less than optimal comfort.
And when it comes to safety, having your saddle reflocked on a bench allows the saddle fitter to inspect the tree for integrity. Given the fact that I’ve seen a fair share of saddles whose trees have broken rivets or twisted rails, I’ve come to the conclusion that having your tree inspected regularly is equally important.
On a side note, the quality of flocking material should also be carefully considered. The wool to be used in a saddle should have a low “felting” property, so that the wool maintains its elasticity longer, resulting in less overall maintenance. This kind of wool should be of a medium length fiber and should appear rather coarse. Longer fibers, resulting in wools that are very soft, are certain to pack down quickly and form harder lumps than their coarser counterparts. These wools require more frequent adjustments and reflocks, costing more time and money.
Saddle fitters using synthetic wool are saving money on a cheap material while charging a premium for their service. The majority of synthetic wools become hard and lumpy in no time, and when combined with natural fibers (as seen when the fitter reflocks on site), the potential discomfort experienced by the horse is heightened.
Ultimately, the only down side to having your saddle flocked and adjusted on a bench is that you’ll have to part with your saddle for several days. I argue, however, that the benefits of having your saddle properly reflocked and your tree inspected far outweighs the inconvenience of being without a saddle for a short period of time. After all, your horse will be happier by quality work, so a few days off or spent long lining, riding bareback, or borrowing a barn mate’s saddle is well worth it in the end.
Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
As if saddles and saddle fitting aren’t complicated enough, adding the element of panel construction can leave one feeling overwhelmed. However, doing your homework on what’s IN your saddle is well worth the trouble. After all, your horse’s comfort and performance are on the line.
Materials Used in Panel Construction
Various saddle manufacturers use different materials to stuff their saddles. These materials can be either firm or soft, and each has positive and negative qualities. Here is a brief overview:
Wool panels are a true saddle fitter’s #1 choice. Wool is a natural fiber that breathes well and maintains elasticity. While it does require some maintenance, the fact remains that you can in fact alter it to suit a horse’s change in body. A high quality wool will retain its shape better than that of a lesser quality, and will subsequently require fewer reflocking jobs.
As I began to research the various types of wool, I was amazed to learn that there are, literally HUNDREDS, and each one has very different attributes. An ideal wool has a coarser fiber. While the idea of a coarse fiber may cause one to imagine that it makes for a harder packed wool, the opposite is true. Coarser wools retain their elasticity better than finer wools, and subsequently feel softer longer.
My favorite wool to work with is from the Jacobs sheep. A wool of medium coarseness, Jacobs wool requires very little maintenance and yet makes for a very soft panel.
As I mentioned above, the only drawback to wool is that it does require some maintenance, and unfortunately so many people fail to have their saddles regularly checked so that the flocking becomes hard and lumpy.
Synthetic wools are less ideal than natural wools, but are definitely ranked higher than foam. Synthetic wools can vary from the texture of teddy bear stuffing to carpet fiber. Higher quality textiles used to manufacture synthetic flocking will obviously retain elasticity and avoid packing down and becoming lumpy as readily as the less expensive textiles.
While most inexpensive saddles use some form of synthetic fiber stuffing, you may be surprised at how many higher end, and even custom, saddles utilize synthetic flock. It is, for manufacturers, a great way to keep costs down while making the most profit.
Like natural wool, synthetic wool does allow you to modify the fit of the saddle to customize it to a particular horse. And while it does breathe better than foam, it is not as desirable as a natural fiber.
Foam panels are the least desirable to saddle fitters when it comes to saddle construction. There are several reasons for this. The biggest issue with foam is that it doesn’t breathe. This can cause the spinous process to overheat. I have seen a horse or two that have had edema (swelling) all along the spine after being ridden in foam saddles. The spinal fluid overheated and caused bumps along the spine that thankfully went away, but you can imagine how uncomfortable these horses got!
I usually equate the lack of breathability to running around with a neoprene backpack strapped to your back. On a hot day especially, it would be VERY uncomfortable. The horse is similarly affected.
Another disadvantage to foam is that it cannot be altered. If your horse changes or if you change horses, you almost always have to invest in a new saddle. Higher end saddles will allow you to purchase new panels, but there is a definite cost associated with this (in some cases nearly $1000).
Finally, foam does break down over time. Sweat from the horse will penetrate the leather of the panels and will cause the foam to harden and crack. Inexpensive saddles will often have harder foams than higher end saddles, and are definitely less comfortable.
Unfortunately, foam panels are extremely popular in jump saddles, which perpetuates the thought that one can achieve a “one size fits all” with saddles. Just as humans come in all shapes and sizes, so do horses. Asking every horse in the barn to work in the same saddle is tantamount to asking everyone in the family to wear the same pair of pants!
There aren’t many choices when it comes to air panels. The main ones are CAIR, found in Wintecs and Bates saddles, and FLAIR panels, available as an option in dozens of saddles on the market. The two are very different by nature, and neither breathe well, presenting the same risks as having foam.
CAIR panels cannot be altered. They are sealed air bags enclosed in the panel. Unlike flocked saddles, should your horse change or you change horses, you cannot do anything to alter the panels, and neither Wintec or Bates saddles offer a change in panels. You have to buy a new saddle. A further caveat with these saddles: While they do offer changeable gullet bars, there is a distinct limitation in the way they can fit. The width of the tree is one small variable in the fit of a saddle; if the panels aren’t right for the shape of the horse’s back, you have on your hands an ill-fitting saddle, and run the inherent risks associated with it. Because you cannot alter the shape of the panels, CAIR is down there with foam on the least desirable panel list.
FLAIR panels are extremely adjustable. Two sealed pockets with valves are enclosed within each panel, allowing you to add or remove air to customize the fit. While these panels also don’t breathe like flocked panels, they may be ideal for horses with a particularly difficult back conformation. Horses with significant muscle atrophy or asymmetry often benefit from a saddle with FLAIR panels. It should be noted that FLAIR can be temperamental. Changes in weather/temperature can alter the air levels within the panels themselves, and considering the fact that it’s best to have a professional saddle fitter who’s been properly trained on fitting FLAIR panels asses and alter them, they may be higher maintenance than flocked panels.
Some saddle manufacturers have taken to having layers of foam along the bottom of the panel (the part touching the horse) with flocking on top to allow for some adjustment. While there is more flexibility with regard to fit, you still run into the problem of no breathability.
Identifying the Contents of Panels
Determining what is in your saddle can be tricky, but it’s important to know what you’re riding on. Wool flocked saddles will often have what is known as rear gussets (the seam along the back of the panel), although an Antares saddle would be an example of a foam saddle that can have gussets to fit a broader backed horse.
Foam-filled saddles typically are firmer and feel more solid when squeezed. Foam will have a definite shape to it, while wool panels have a softer shape.
One good way to check for wool is to lift the flap and check for “port holes” (slits cut into the panel). You can sometimes see the wool peeking out, or you can feel them by sliding your fingers up under the panels.
In some cases, you can have foam or air panels removed from saddles, but to have it done properly is often expensive, and often times the saddle isn’t worth the trouble. Often times the foam is glued to the leather of the panels, so it is impossible to remove it without completely replacing the panels themselves.
The Comfort Connection
Whatever the panels are constructed of, they must, first and foremost, be comfortable. The ideal panel is soft and supple, and elastic enough to absorb shock while being breathable. Since our horses are athletes (yes, even the weekend warriors), their comfort is essential to enhance performance and prevent breakdown. If you were asked to run a mile in uncomfortable shoes, you’d find that your entire body hurts – it’s not just about blisters on your heels.
Panels that are hard and lumpy don’t just cause back pain, they can actually bruise the muscles, and in severe cases, a horse requires months off before being able to be worked again.
Breaking it Down
Ultimately, while foam panels require no maintenance, the fact they are unalterable and lack any breathability makes it the least desirable composition for your saddle. Natural wool is the number one choice, with synthetic wool a close second. However, in some cases I encourage people to have synthetic flocking replaced with a natural wool fiber, to provide their horses with the utmost in comfort and customization.
Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC
As a professional saddle fitter, I’m always driving around with a car full of saddles, and knowing that the way they’re handled is of the utmost importance, I knew right away that I needed a “formal” way to transport them. You see, in an ideal world, your saddle is either on your horse’s back or on a proper saddle rack. Storing it face down or on a surface that is less supportive (some of the narrow racks, or a fence rail for example) can damage the leather AND the tree. Wood trees can become twisted if placed on their face or stored on a narrow rack. A narrow, less supportive rack can damage the rails of the tree as well.
When I began the search for a saddle rack to put in my car, I was amazed to find that there is literally, only one: Saddle Stands for Vehicles. I grew excited when I saw the design – it was perfect for what I intended to do! I contacted Leslie and she eagerly helped me design two custom racks for my car.
The saddle racks are made of an extremely durable PVC, and are designed to hold saddles with the optimal surface area in mind. I ordered one that was 4′ 11″ long and another that was 3′ long, so that I can carry 10-12 saddles in my car at a time when saddles are stacked atop each other. I cover them with saddle pads to avoid any scratching and provide even more support. The racks themselves are very sturdy, but they do need to be anchored down so that they don’t move or tip when you’re driving around like a madwoman (who, me?).
Prices are reasonable, although shipping is understandably steep given the odd size and shape of the packaging, but it’s well worth it. If you travel with your saddle frequently, a visit to http://www.saddlestandsforvehicles.com is a must. These stands are perfect for trainers, leasers, and, of course, saddle fitters. 🙂
Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC