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.

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