Focus on Saddle Fit: The Art and Science of Reflocking

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.

The wool in this saddle is starting to bulge from the giant hole cut into the panel by an unscrupulous saddle fitter. The result was a panel that was collapsed and extremely lumpy in the middle.

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.

The fibers in this panel were pulled out as-is and wrapped in plastic to use in demonstration. Note that there are three types of wool used: the original synthetic wool, to the left, white wool, center, and a grey wool mixed in to the right. It is obvious that two separate saddle fitters had at this saddle. The result was a lumpy, hardened mess.

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.

The gullet plate on this saddle was missing a rivet head (left), and another rivet had worked its way out (right), resulting in a compromised, and dangerous, tree. This serious defect could not be discovered if flocked onsite.

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

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