Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Musings, #1

Why do horses always roll in the mud five minutes before I get to the barn?

Which is Best in Saddle Panels?

Which is Best in Saddle Panels? Wool, Foam or Air?

Courtesy of Gene Freeze, President, County Saddlery, Inc.

Wool Flocked Panels

  • Wool has always been the saddlers’ choice for flocking panels.

  • Wool flocked panels are not assembly-line made with the one size fits all attempt in mind.

  • Wool is extremely comfortable on the horse’s back and disperses the rider’s weight over a broader surface area, assuming the correct design and fit of the saddle.

  • Because wool flock consists of “long individual strands” it can easily conform to the polymorphous shapes of the horses’ backs. Foam, regardless of how soft it may feel, does not compare to wool’s ability to conform. Wool can be easily adjusted to compensate for asymmetry in the horse’s conformation.

  • Wool can be completely replaced in older saddles for relatively little cost.

  • It provides stable support for the rider’s weight.

  • There are no sharp edges.

Criticism of Wool

An often-heard criticism of wool by manufacturers who use foam panels is that wool knots up. I rarely to find knots in wool panels unless it is improperly flocked by a novice. If there are knots, they can easily be removed and replaced with fresh wool.

Typically wool only knots when it is being removed from the panels.

Note: Wool panels alone do not guarantee comfort for the horse and cannot compensate for a poorly designed or fitted saddle.

The bad news is that wool panels need to be topped off or adjusted periodically to compensate for compression or changes in the horse’s back due to a variety of reasons including diet, training, age, season etc.

The good news is that they easily can be!

Foam Pre-Formed Panels

Foam preformed panels are made in molds and designed for more of an assembly-line production process geared toward speed and cost reduction.

  • The problem is that horses’ backs are not preformed to match the panels.

  • Foam does not conform to the polymorphous shapes of horses’ backs.

  • It cannot be adjusted to compensate for asymmetry.

  • Foam panels very often bridge in the middle even when the saddle appears to be balanced.

  • Soft foam panels collapse and may create extreme pressure on the horse’s back and withers causing soreness.

  • Harder foam panels often have sharp edges which bear most of the weight instead of distributing the weight over a broad surface area.

  • Many foam panels are attached at the front with a covered nail which can dig into the back.

  • They must be completely replaced when they collapse.

Air Panels

When air panels first came out on the market, there was a lot of buzz and enthusiasm which lasted for a couple of years of trial. Many saddles were converted to air at a dear price and later reconverted back to wool.

Although a clever and interesting alternative, they have failed to replace wool as the premium material for a variety of reasons.

  • Air is unstable and tends to expand and contract as temperatures change.

  • There have been many problems with leaking valves leaving the rider with a “flat” before a big competition. Unlike wool you can’t just compensate with a little more padding to get you through.

  • As the rider’s weight goes forward the air tends to be forced in the opposite direction leaving the back unprotected.

  • If there is too little air pressure, the horse's back may be exposed to the tree, and if there is too much pressure, the saddle often rocks on the horse's back.

  • A Swiss study indicated that some riders reported a lack of communication and effectiveness via their riding aids when riding on air panels.

Which is Best? Plastic vs. Wooden Trees

Courtesy of Gene Freeze, President, County Saddlery, Inc.

Although both may suffice, the following information will help you make an educated decision. The question becomes which material is best suited for the job and why.

Natural or Synthetic?

Note on “Flexible Trees”: I have seen claims for trees which are so flexible that they can move with the horse’s movement. Although they may in fact move when the horse moves, they cannot possibly move in “concert” with the horse’s movement. To do so they would have to conform to a multitude of dynamic vectors and the exact speed and timing of muscle movements. Not even skin can do that, which is why skin slides. Saddle trees of any material, which are flimsy, are similar to insecure backpacks, they cause instability and discomfort.

An improperly designed tree, regardless of the material, will be uncomfortable and hinder performance.

Synthetic Plastic Trees

A property often associated with plastic is the “creep factor”. The creep factor describes the tendency of plastic to be unstable and lose its shape over time or as a result of environmental factors.

It is more problematic to test plastic trees before mass-producing them because of the cost to make prototypes to test. Too much vertical flexion or torsion can cause the tree to over-flex and injure the horse’s back. Too little does not allow for dampening of the forces applied to the horse’s back.

Although there is a significant initial cost to produce a plastic mold, molding plastic trees significantly speeds up production and decreases cost to manufacturers.

Because of the high cost of initially producing a plastic mold, there may be less incentive for the manufacturer to make changes necessary to correct faults in the mold or designs by producing another mold.

Natural Wooden Trees

Wooden trees are hand made from laminates such as beechwood, similar to the way wooden ships were traditionally shaped and manufactured.

Vertical flexion or torsional rotation can be easily tested in wooden trees and corrected for by adding or reducing laminates in various areas. Although it is much more expensive and time-consuming to hand make wooden trees, design benefits make it worthwhile.

Wooden trees made from laminates are generally considered to be more comfortable for both the rider’s and the horse’s backs.

The term “Spring Tree” refers to the spring steel reinforcement of the tree allowing for dampening the pressure applied to the horse’s back while controlling the degree of vertical flexion. It does not mean, as I once read, that the tree springs up and down.

Trees made from solid wood are referred to as rigid trees and are virtually never used in modern saddlery manufacturing. As the name implies they tended to be as rigid as many plastic or composite trees.

Friday, October 30, 2009

10 Points of Saddle Fitting


Fitting saddles is like fitting a child's shoe, it needs to be done correctly to allow for movement without pinching or pain. If you are noticing discomfort or changes in your horse's attitude or behavior under saddle then it may be time for a professional assessment of how your saddle is fitting.

All the following steps need to be done with your horse standing squarely on level ground with his head and neck straight ahead, so an assistant may be necessary. Perform all the steps on both sides of your horse (most horses are asymmetrical) and with the saddle in direct contact with your horse's back, no pad.

1. Position of the Saddle
Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers. Next, press down on the pommel and slide the saddle rearward until it stops at the resting-place, which is dictated by each horse's conformation. Repeat this procedure several times until you feel the saddle stop in the same spot repeatedly, well behind the shoulder blade. Resist the temptation to place the saddle too far forward on the withers. This is a very common fitting mistake and can interfere with your horse's soundness and movement.

2. Point Angle
To find the points, lift the flap of the saddle and look for a little leather pocket into which the wooden processes of the pommel are fitted. This is the point pocket and there is one on both sides of the pommel of the saddle just under the stirrup bars. These points should lie parallel to the withers. If the angles are too narrow, the points will dig into the musculature, also causing the middle of the saddle to be in uneven contact with the horse's back. If they are too wide the saddle will sit down in front putting pressure on top of the withers. To assess the point angles, stand looking from the front with the flap lifted; the points should be parallel with the musculature within 10 degrees of the heaviest side. Some points are concealed making it difficult to determine their angles. If this is the case, you will have to rely more on the panel pressure procedure to determine if the point angles are correct.
3. Panel Pressure
(Note: The panels are the wool stuffed underside of the saddle, which rest on the horse's back.)

Place one hand in the center of the saddle and press down to secure the saddle in place as you test for panel pressure. Run your other hand between the front of the panels and your horse's musculature and feel for any uneven pressure under the points. The front panel should not pinch the withers in any area. While maintaining pressure on the top of the saddle, run your hand, palm up, under the entire panel along the back feeling for even pressure. You may also raise the sweat flap to ensure that the panels fit snugly and evenly on both sides of the withers and along the back to check for bridging. Bridging is a space near the center of the where the panels do not make good contact with the horse's back. Wool stuffed panels are almost universally considered superior to foam for the following reasons: assuming correctly designed panels, wool conforms to the many shapes of the horses back and can be adjusted if necessary to correct for a multitude of fitting problems. You cannot, however, correct for a poorly designed or incorrectly fitted tree.

4. Pommel to Cantle Relationship
Visualize a straight line parallel to the ground from the pommel to the cantle. In saddles with deep or moderately deep seats, the cantle should be between 2 to 3 inches higher than the pommel. In shallower seats, such as close contact jumping saddles, the cantle may only be approximately 1 to 2 inches higher than the pommel. In almost any saddle, if the cantle is level with or below the pommel, the saddle is not properly fitted.

5. Level Seat
Visualize the same straight line parallel to the ground and look this time at the deepest part of the seat. This area should be level in order to put the rider squarely on their seat bones and in balance.

6. Wither Clearance
There should be adequate clearance between the pommel and the top of the horse's withers, approximately two to three fingers. More than three fingers’ clearance may mean the pommel is too high, i.e. the tree is too narrow. A saddle with less than 2-3 fingers may mean that the saddle is too wide. With wool stuffed panels, make allowance for the saddle to settle a half inch or so. There is an exception to this indicator: horses with flat, round withers may have more clearance than usual under the pommel. In these situations you may need to rely more on the balance of the seat and pommel to cantle relationship. On horses with high, narrow withers maintaining proper clearance is something that has to be monitored and maintained.

7. Channel Clearance/Gullet Width
There should also be adequate clearance over the spine and connective tissue throughout the channel of the saddle. A channel that is too narrow will impede the horse’s movement dramatically and may even cause the spine to be observably sore. Feel the width of the spine and connective tissue with your fingers and estimate its width. The channel of the saddle should completely clear this width, resting on the long back muscle of the back called the longissimus dorsi.

8. Saddle Stability
The saddle should remain stable and not shift excessively from side to side or from front to back. Keep in mind that such shifting may be a function of your horse's symmetry and not the saddle. A certified saddle fitter should be able to make suggestions to minimize or eliminate the problem.

9. Seat Length
The saddle should never go behind the 18th thoracic vertebra, which is the vertebra corresponding with the last rib. Behind this vertebra are the lumbar vertebrae, which is the weakest, non-weight bearing area of the back.

Repeat Steps 6 & 7 with the rider in the saddle, checking for adequate clearance over the withers and spine.

10. Horse Response
Throughout the whole saddle fitting process, monitor your horse's response. Watch his ears and body language. Does he try to step away from the saddle or flinch when it is placed on his back? Or is the opposite true; is he more accepting of the saddle? How does he move when he is ridden? Does he seem freer or more restricted? The horse is the most honest indicator we have when fitting a saddle so pay attention to it and note any changes.

About Alice

For those of you who know me, this may be old news but for those of you who don’t, I’ll make it short and sweet. I began riding in New York around the age of nine, when I discovered the local Shetland pony farm. I was perfectly happy to go around and around and around, often falling asleep on these little fuzzy creatures while dreaming of galloping my trusty steed over the meadows and through the trees with their manes and tails whipped by the wind and the joy of pure freedom running through my blood. Soon after, I started hunt seat lessons at Secor Farms Riding Club in White Plains, New York, where I never missed a weekly or bi-weekly lesson with Frank and Wayne Carroll, learning how to “keep my heels down, my thumbs up and look where I was going.”

Fast forward – In 1999, after years in the computer, oil and gas, and the restaurant industries (among others), I became a saddle fitter. The reason? Every time I put my saddle on my horse in those days I would apologize to him because I knew that it didn’t fit and I didn’t know how to make it fit. I just prepared myself for discomfort; for him and for me. Yes, I did learn how to ride the bucks and push him through the short striding but I also knew that as most horse owners eventually figure out, that there was a serious knowledge gap in my horsemanship. Eventually, light dawned and I knew I had found my calling.

Thanks to the Master Saddlers Association and County Saddlery, since 1999 I have been proud to be a member of an elite group of horsemen who strive to start with the horse. If the horse isn’t comfortable under saddle, then I can help with the saddle and make him more comfortable, thus making the rider more comfortable so they can both have more fun. After working with thousands of horses, I’ve discovered that fixing both the obvious and the not-so-obvious things can make huge differences: from the design of the saddle tree and panels to the length of the browband to the tightness of the noseband.

I will be posting more on my “News from Alice and Justin” blog in the near future. There will be lots of current news from my clients, saddle fitting tips plus other interesting tips that I've come across on my saddle fitting adventures. Keep in touch with me and we’ll share our journeys together -- I love learning from my two-legged and four-legged friends!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Introduction to Justin...

About Justin

Justin, Stats: 1990 TB Gelding, Dark Bay or Brown, show name: “Just Ask Me”, registered name: “Fox Man Red” (See for his details) 16-3 hands, 1450 lbs (true!) and the biggest set of equine lips known to man.

Periodically, I’m going to share some stories about my horse, commonly known as “The Boy,” “J-Man,” “GoofBall,” “Ol’ Fox Man”, “My Bud” and other not-so-flattering names.

He’s my guy. He’s my bud. He pushes my buttons and makes me laugh. I go home from the barn relaxed and happy, frustrated and puzzled, and often, just plain delighted.

I purchased him from Bob Lucas, a wonderful friend and Kansas breeder who had him at Arapahoe Race Track in Aurora, Colorado in 1993. He was U-G-L-Y but wondrous. He had bad feet, a huge head, good legs and the most interesting personality I’ve ever seen in a horse. Always thinking. We were mildly successful in the hunter ring, not so successful in the dressage ring and then, thanks to Laura Backus, finally discovered our true calling: eventing. He loves galloping and cross country jumping but some soundness issues forced us away from the fences so now we simply do our best in the arena and try to have some fun. He developed Cushings (PPID) in 2007 so there will be lots of updates on that situation as well on these pages.

I’ll be posting some funny (and not so funny) stories about “The Boy” on this blog. Check back for his latest adventures!