Friday, October 24, 2014

The Saddle Fitter Commeth

My brain is officially leaking out of my ears with new information.  People that grew up riding in the 70's and 80's and before are inherently suspicious of the saddle fitting profession. We start ranting like Grandpa Simpson. "In my day if your saddle didn't fit, you put a shit load of pads underneath it and rode! And we liked it!"

I think, especially after today, that much of this suspicion is justified. Most saddle fitters are associated with one brand of saddles or another and will hawk that saddle at you and your horse regardless of whether or not it's the best fit for your horse. Of course there are honest, talented saddle fitters out there who will sell you the most super awesome saddle, and who are also dealers. But how the hell is your average amateur horse person to know the difference?

Over the last year, I found two saddles that I love. The first came after much sitting on one of the million different saddles in stock at Pelham Saddlrey in New Hampshire. I sat in a Black Country Eloquence dressage saddle. My butt said "Thank you very much! This is the most amazing comfy saddle in the whole world" My wallet said "You do NOT have $2500 to spend on a saddle right now." And if I had taken it to try, my horse would have said "This is the wrong freaking tree size, what the hell were you thinking? I am NOT a wide!" So, I did what any good horse person would do and I complained vaguely on the COTH forums that I was having trouble finding a used Black Country dressage saddle in an 18" seat in a medium tree. Within a day a lovely woman who lives like 10 miles from here messaged me. It was an Eden, not an Eloquence. But she wanted less than half what Pelham was asking. I met her at a dressage barn a half hour away and left a check that she would cash if I decided to keep the saddle. The outdoor ring was covered with a layer of ice, but the turnout field had a crisp layer of snow. We pranced around in the new saddle. I felt secure. My leg swung underneath me correctly. My infinitely savvy barn manager came by for a second opinion. She thought it looked great. I called the lovely lady on the North Shore and told her to cash the check.

After I got the Eden, the Bates jumping saddle became unbearably uncomfortable so I began a quest to find a Black Country jumping saddle too. One was procured used from a dealer in PA.

My equine chiropractor (yes, Cassel has an equine chiropractor) had blessed them as "close enough," but have a saddle fitter look at them.

After four month of schedule wrangling the saddle fitter came today. This is what she pulled out that dressage saddle to make it *really* fit Cassel.
Two (of many things) I learned today. See the gray stuff? That's the original Black Country flocking. The white stuff was from a subsequent adjustment it had gotten along the way. The white stuff compacts into hard balls. When it pushes onto a horse's back it causes all kinds of pressure points. I thought out of my two saddles, the dressage saddle fit better. But it was dressage saddle that she ended up almost completely pulling apart and putting a different kind of wool into. It was just stuffed too tight with those hard white lumps. The lumps separate and create spaces which cause more pressure points.

One of my favorite things about the session today was the thermography. The image on the left is my dressage saddle before any work was done to it. We sit it on the horse's back and it generates heat wherever it makes contact with their back. Then take it off the horses back and take a picture of the saddle with a IR camera. You can see in the image on the left, the heat marks are totally uneven. There's a yellow stripe (an unflocked bubble) on the left side of the saddle. It's making less contact on the right side causing pressure points.

The right side is how it looks after reflocking. I had ridden in it for about 20 minutes and she took this image immediately afterward. The brighter white on the right hand side is due to the fact that I sit a little heavier on my right side when I ride, probably because I am right handed. Something for me to work on before the next visit. But the overall contact points are now smooth and lump free.

The fitter used to be a vet tech and was also certified in equine massage so she was able to really assess how our horses were doing and how the saddles were affecting them. Considering his saddles were so lumpy and over flocked, Cassel was doing OK.

One of our horses had his ribs being popped out of alignment from his saddle, and she was able to fix that with some felt shims that she fit underneath the panels. (It was a foam saddle, hence no reflocking). Two of our horses had saddles that could not be resolved because the fit was so bad. One had been sold to the owner by a certified saddle fitter/dealer. Which is why, in the end saddle fitters will forever be the mechanics of the equine world. Indispensable, expensive, impossible to find a genuine, honest one who will not sell you things you don't need and fix things that are not broken, or tell you things are OK when they are not, and when you find a good one, they are worth their weight in gold.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fall Riding Epiphanies

The weather has been cooperating for a change. Not too hot, not too cold and last weeks rain cleared up leaving the ring and trails dry but dust free.

I had a lesson on Tuesday with Leslie Kornfeld who is a soft-spoken ball of dressage awesome-sauce. Her husband teaches the Alexander Technique so she knows a lot about body alignment. Her signature move (or one of them) is to have the rider canter on the ground sans horse so you can feel your "outside leg" pushing off and your inside hip tilted forward. This is a feeling you must try to recreate in the saddle. Inside hip forward and mobile. The transition strikes off on the outside hind. It's a feeling you get when you canter around yourself.

OF COURSE my farrier came running out with his cell phone and threatened to put me on Youtube. Good times.

The lesson was amazing. I have had some trouble connecting to my regular H/J instructor Melissa Gove (who is an H/J perky ball of awesome in her own way -- will devote other posts to her at another time). So I hadn't had any "eyes on the ground" for a couple weeks. Sometimes when you're an amature and your horse starts to become round, ie flexed in his poll and lifting his back up but you're not sure if he's really round or just messing with you and being heavy on his forehand and totally faking it. So, yeah, I was worried we were faking it. I didn't *think* so, but I wanted some feedback.

Also, the canter is "NQR" (Not Quite Right) and I wanted some help with that. He can do a beautiful "up" transition from either the walk or the trot, but coming down from the canter was feeling rough. There are always a bunch of steps of very fast trot that feels like a bicycle with no brakes going down a rocky hill.

Leslie changed up a couple things. She had me sit WAAAY back in the saddle. My upper body had been too far forward. She told me to pick up my inside hand about eight inches off his neck at the canter. Once I did that, my upper body settled back into place. This freed up his shoulders and let him balance back on his hind end. She had me pick both hands way off his neck at the trot. She said "Think snooty dressage riders!"

Then she got on him and I got to watch him go. I wish I had taken pictures, but I was really concentrating on what she was saying. She was teaching the whole time she was riding. The camera would have just been a distraction. She moved him from counter bend and true bend. Then she worked on an exercise we had been doing. Trot on a 20 meter circle. Halt across the center or quarter line. Turn on the forehand from inside to outside so you change direction. Walk forward a few steps and canter. This gets the hind end underneath the horse.

The canter was still NQR when I rode it, but it felt more balanced. Poor pony was sweaty and exhausted by the end, but he was good natured and sweet. She suggested I take him on a trail ride the following day, which we did. It was great. We got lost! We jumped big logs in the woods!

So today I decided to repeat Leslie's exercises. I changed it up a bit, by doing a little ground work first. Cassel knows how to do a very nice and easy turn on the forehand on the ground. (the ones we had done on Tuesday were pretty bad). On the ground, I pretty much just have to point to his hip with the dressage whip and he'll step right under himself and cross his inside hind under his belly and swing around. So we practiced that in both directions for a few minutes before I got on.

Today, the canter still feels weird, but a little less so. But suddenly the downward transition into the trot is soft! No more bicycle with no brakes on the rocky hill trot steps coming out of canter! Just soft, round balanced trot. So something has changed.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Go that way very fast. If something gets in your way, JUMP!

My horse is supposed to be an eventer. He's a cute little dressage pony and a handy little jumper. He loves a good trail ride and is very sensible about all these things. The only problem is, I'm a Big Fat Chicken. When I think of eventing, I think of this:

Or worse, this:

In other words, not exactly an option for a bop around gal like myself. So when my Barn Friends (TM) invited me to go to a "pre-elementary" Derby Cross I decided to give it a shot. I thought, I could handle logs on the ground. When we got there, we realized that the pre-elementary division was too simple (telephone poles on the ground in a fenced field) for even a wuss like myself and went into the elementary division.

It took place on the real cross country course and still consisted mostly of logs on the ground, tiny banks (logs that stepped up and down into the hillside like big friendly horsey stairs) and one little "coop" fence.

It ended with a nice long gallop, or in my case big stretchy canter around a field.

It was SO fun. After warm up, Cassel was uncharacteristically spazzy and dancing around. "Where we going???" We bust out of the outbox at a spanking trot and pretty much trotted around the whole thing until it was time to gallop around the field.

We had a stop at the coop. He backed up a few feet. I just whacked him on the butt and he popped right over it and the rest of the course was gravy.

Here we are cantering over a LOG. I am dressed as a SMURF.

Here we are on course. See that stone wall behind us? We turned around and galloped (well fast cantered) beside it. He looks really excited, but if you look close, there is a loop in my reins. Even when he's excited, he never feels like he's going to take off.

This is the jump that my husband said: Don't you usually jump bigger than that? Yeah, but it was CROSS COUNTRY!

I'd better get my lower leg forward, or Denny Emerson will come down from Vermont and mock me.