Friday, October 16, 2015

saddle fitting: a tale of two watches?

Are you familiar with Segal's Law? It's an adage that states: "A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure."

Well... I kinda feel that way right now.

mare gets measured. and is surprisingly unhappy about it!
See, I worked with a professional saddle fitter last winter when I was first saddle shopping. My understanding of her general philosophy is that the thing horses hate most about ill-fitting saddles is a lot of movement. That horses are more comfortable with a close-fitting saddle that stays put and is held securely in place by a tight girth.

She deemed Isabel a narrow, and went on to say that the vast majority of horses wear saddles that are too wide for them (complete with lots of padding, of which she's not a fan). The fact that nice used narrow saddles are much harder to find vs the many many MANY wides you'll see at every single tack shop seemed to corroborate this idea, somehow.

making a tracing!
Fast forward a couple months (and 3 re-flocking appts) later to when I ultimately determined that my beloved new-to-me Bates isn't working. The mare is still sore, her back muscles remain totally atrophied (the shelf of her ribs is fully visible, even tho she dressages like this), and the saddle rocks over fences.

I like and respect this first fitter, but determined all the same that I needed to change tactics. A 4th re-flock in something like 8 months seems ridiculous. Like throwing good money after bad. So I called a different fitter (also highly recommended, just like the first).

more tracing!
She palpated the mare for soreness (and got no reaction, which... well... strikes me as unusual) and did tracings. The tracings confirmed much of what I already know - Isabel is unevenly developed, is distinctly narrower up front than in back, and has like, zero back muscle. The tracings also confirmed what many of you have suggested - mare face might be narrower up front, but the gullet plate we had in there (the yellow one) was still too narrow at the points.

Ok fine. So I was wrong. (Tho in instances where I lack personal expertise, I will always take the word of a trusted professional before going by something I read on the internet. It just turned out in this instance that the trusted professional was also wrong).

too narrow. probably a few people are looking at this picture, nodding their heads like, 'yup i thought so!'
But here's where I start to get a little fidgety. Because the medium plate (black) looked like a match on the tracings (sorry no pic), but the fitter actually wanted to go even a size up from that - to the blue medium wide, and fill in the extra space with lots of padding (plus she adjusted the flocking a bit too).

So that's where things are with my jump saddle right now (and how it was for our recent xc schooling). The extreme opposite from what the first professional recommended. Which is a little hard for me to swallow. Obviously the first fitter's approach didn't work for Isabel. But how is it possible that two professionals in the same niche can have such diametrically opposite conclusions about the same exact horse and saddle?

but this.... this doesn't look right to me either?!?
Well, I can tell you why - it's the freaking horse world and if you ask two horse people the same question you'll get three answers. Ugh.

So idk. I'm not an expert on saddle fit. The way the Bates is set up now (with the MW plate and all that padding) doesn't make me feel very warm and fuzzy... but the mare seems comfortable enough for now, and I doubt that a couple rides (like our upcoming show...) will be enough to make her any more sore than she'd normally be if there IS a problem.

lots and LOTS of padding
The fitter took a look at my dressage saddle too and tried both the MW blue plate and the M black plate, ultimately deciding that the black was a better fit in that instance (provided I use a half pad). I kinda wanted to try the black plate in my jump saddle too... but it didn't happen this time around.

We will see. She felt pretty confident that getting Isabel out of those narrow trees would be a step in the right direction, even if we ended up going a little too wide. I figure we'll see how she goes for the show and in upcoming schooling sessions. Plus we'll have her chiro appt in a few weeks so I can get input at that point as well.

Ultimately the Bates continues to just be not the right shape or size saddle for Isabel - it's got the wrong panels, it's too long, it's just.... a poor fit. I haven't yet pulled the trigger on asking this fitter to start shopping for me but it's possible that we'll go in that direction. Ugh lol.

53 comments:

  1. I've decided that every saddle fitter is going to say something different. You just need to find one that Izzy agrees with. For what it's worth I was told that horses like Stinker are deceptively wide and Iz may fall in this category.

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    1. the bummer with izzy is that she says nothing to me about the saddle while we are riding (unless it happens to creep up onto her shoulders, which occasionally happened with the jump saddle while it had the narrow plate in. she TELLS ME when that happens haha). she just ends up sore afterwards and then i feel totally gutted and guilty. ugh.

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  2. This actually matches everything I have ever heard about Arabs and fitting them for saddles. In my sport most people compete Arabs and saddle fit is the absolute top priority if that horse is going to carry you over 50, 100 miles still sound. It's one of the biggest headaches for people new to endurance on an Arab.

    If you have a narrow tree on a horse that is narrow from lack of muscle, the problem you are going to have is that it will leave no room for further muscle development. A slightly wider tree than what the horse needs with extra fluff will compress with time, which often will potentially correspond with the horse's muscle development. If this fitter's initials are SC, I have used her and was insanely pleased with her. :) Lily has an enviable topline thanks to the adjustments made on our saddles. If the one you used is not SC, she still has a similar philosophy to SC. :)

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    1. no this isn't SC, this fitter is actually just starting to strike out on her own as a professional (which is another reason my own confirmation bias wanted to place more faith into the first and better established fitter). but yea she said pretty much the same thing about giving the mare room to build muscle

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  3. Just from my experience, a horse with an atrophied back needs the room to develop muscle. That's why the wider gullet. Also, the shape might have been better for the mare, the points on the medium might still have been too straight for her shoulders. The shape of that med/w does seem to follow her shape, though with a lot of space.

    I don't like too narrow saddles. But, you knew that, and I'm no pro. ;)

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    1. yerp.... we are definitely giving her LOTS of room with the current set up (figures that it would be right when we go into the off season and she can start losing a little bit of fitness lol). part of why i'm iffy about the saddle with this mw plate is that it looks so unstable on her. but when i'm actually on and riding i don't notice a difference so.... i'm going to withhold judgement and give it an honest shot, i guess

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    2. This was my thought as well. I am not a professional of any kind thought but it makes logical sense that you need to give them room to grow into, once the muscle starts developing/gettingin place then you can drop down if needed.

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    3. makes sense! and i'm willing to give it a shot so hopefully we'll start to see actual results, since literally nothing else has made a positive difference

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  4. I agree with your new fitter, the MW seems the better option. My arab wore an XXW tree and actually grew more with the space to develop the muscles. Our saddle fitter also used to tell us to not make the girth too tight because when they lift their back they actually expand. Roscoe hates anything too tight and wears the XL tree. I was using a sheepskin pad to fill in the space on his back because he has that youthful narrowness, but just recently had to go to a thin pad since he grew.

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    1. well my mare has none of that 'youthful narrowness' (she's 13, after all) but all the same, i'd be happy if she grew and expanded a little bit.

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    2. When my arab developed more back muscles, he was 20 so she still can. Hope things go better.

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    3. huh! well, then maybe there's hope yet. i'm also trying to add more protein to her diet too in the hopes that we can promote a little more muscle growth. we'll see!

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  5. I find this all very interesting. I want to learn more about saddle fit. Thankfully Tucker seems to like my saddle. Hopefully Isabel likes what this fitter has done.

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    1. i hope she likes it too! i find the subject interesting, but would rather not have to deal with it quite so much haha... it's driving me crazy!

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  6. Did the first fitter take any measurements/tracings? When I used her, she did not. Just looked at my ancient Crosby, which is a medium, and declared him a narrow. Now, I'll admit, I didn't try a ton of her saddles on since I originally wanted to make mine work with padding, but when I did try him in a narrow without a half pad, he HATED IT!! I have him in a medium-narrow right now with a half pad and my trainer thinks its just fine, so I'm going with it. So I kind of like that this fitter at least has something to show you.

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    1. no, she didn't take any - just did the same as with you, looked at the mare and a couple saddles i brought along (i grabbed like 6-7 from MD Saddlery for the occasion) and told me to look for narrows. i think that's pretty much her thing, bc every single horse in our barn that she fits goes in a narrow.

      sounds like you've got a working situation right now, but if you're ever interested in exploring other fitters whatever i'd be happy to provide this individuals' contact info!

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  7. FWIW I agree more with the second fitter, if only for the issue of shoulder space. I think most horses are much more greatly inhibited by not having ample room in the shoulder than they are by the saddle being a hair too at the wither. My horse in particular shows a drastic difference in a saddle with enough shoulder room vs not. It's partly why I'm such a huge fan of saddles with flexible tree points and thinly padded shoulders. I have had a lot more problems with a slightly too narrow fit than a slightly too wide and padded-up fit. I always opt for wider over narrower. Padding does not bother me. I also really strongly disagree with the first fitters recommendation of a tight girth. Studies have proven that to be wrong!

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    1. that makes sense, and my mare is definitely very sensitive if the saddle starts creeping forward onto her shoulders - she HATES that. i've heard (over and over and over again) that slightly too wide was better than slightly too narrow so hopefully isabel will agree!

      also the second fitter said similar things about a tight girth - tho she wanted to make sure the girth wasn't too long. her point was also about destabilization - that a girth that's too long (and thus buckled very high up the horse's sides) was less stable than, say, a dressage saddle that buckles way down low. tho she also didn't seem particularly fond of monoflaps so... idk haha

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  8. It's very interesting to see all the tracings. That is crazy that two fitters have completely different ideas on what fits, as I would assume saddle fitting is very precise. The way the saddle fits looks strange to me too, but I am no expert in it.

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    1. i thought the tracings were pretty cool! the first fitter didn't do them so maybe if she had she would have recommended a different size... idk. but yea we shall see i guess. i think the bates' days are numbered so this probably won't be the last post on this topic. blargh kill me

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  9. This is the same philosophy that the Prestige fitters worked on for Dino's saddle.. more room in the shoulders and almost slightly TOO wide to allow him to develop more muscle and have shoulder freedom. His topline is freakin' awesome after riding in this saddle for almost a year now. Of course I'm sure all the hill work and better dressage has helped a ton, but the saddle fit allowed that muscle to develop. I hope she likes this new fit!!

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    1. glad to hear he's developed so much in the past year. that leaves me hope for isabel, since her top line leaves a LOT to be desired haha

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  10. Way to trust your gut! Yeah, I'd be wary of spending more and not seeing results. And I second what everyone else has said (while acknowledging that the mass still has the capacity to be wrong and we are all just randos from the interwebs): wider being better for muscle growth, etc. I hope you see some improvements!

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    1. thanks - i hope to see improvements too, and have no problem bowing to the wisdom of the masses... tho i definitely struggle in sifting through opinions that can apparently be so divergent. hopefully we're on the right track now tho!

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  11. I like the shape of the MW too. Sorry :-( But I do like your new saddle fitter better. If the first fitter has taken 4 appointments in 8 months to try and get your saddle fit, either there's a problem or Isabel's back is growing like crazy! And well, it wasn't her back growing. I've also heard that a super tight girth is no good for the horse. I know you didn't describe her phase as super tight, but it read that way to me! I've also heard what Austen said elsewhere- any atrophied muscle need room to grow (I expect any muscle needs room to grow). I'm also not a fan of too narrow saddles- back muscles contracting and moving, I would expect the horse to need more room in the saddle when it's moving than when it's standing. A friend had a saddle problem- her horse's back filled up so much after he started working that his "perfectly fitting" saddle pinched him.

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    1. oh no worries - i don't take it personally in the slightest to hear you say you like the shape of the MW, if anything it's reassuring. i guess the struggle is that in my ignorance, i took the first philosophy presented to me by a professional totally to heart, and now i have to step back away from that and relearn a new philosophy. frustrating, but that's my problem, not isabel's, right? and if this is what isabel needs it's what she'll get. fingers crossed we start to see the same growth your friend experienced!

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  12. Aww, I totally feel your pain! The first saddle fitter I used with Boca was a highly respected, recommended fitter. She *swore* Boca had no back pain whatsoever, was just stiff and underdeveloped. She hated any foam-flocked jump saddles - said they wreck horses' backs. Also was anti- any half pad, shim, etc.

    I had her out to adjust/re-fit my saddle 3 times in less than 9 months. I, too, was thinking 'this is crazy'.

    When I changed barns in the spring and ran into so many behavioral issues with Boca, I kept insisting it was not his back or his saddle, because the fitter told me so. Guess what? He was in a significant amount of back pain (probably not caused by the saddle, but it certainly was there) and, he ended up in a foam-flocked close contact saddle with a 1/2 pad, that he goes very happily in.

    Do I think the 1st saddle fitter was a fraud? No, I do not. But I think she was married to certain concepts that did not work with my horse. Every horse is an individual and what works for one will not work for all. Good for you for listening to Izzy. She is the only real expert on her saddle fit.

    Also, don't beat yourself up too much. You do right by her to the best of your ability. It is so hard that they can't talk!!!

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    1. to be very honest, your journey with Boca has never been very far from my mind during this whole process. at least in isabel's case it's always been pretty clear that she's back sore. it's just taken me a while to get to trying this particular solution (not that we haven't been trying myriad other approaches ugh...). but yea - i think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that the fitter was 'married to certain concepts that did not work for my horse'.

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  13. Well, that's frustrating. But I echo many of the people above and think possibly this new fitter will serve you and Iz better!

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    1. frustrating indeeeeeeed. ugh so frustrating. but yea hopefully we're finally moving in the right direction!

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  14. The saddle fitter only has what they were taught and what they have observed over the years. And horses like people have their own opinions about what they do and don't like. I have heard stories about horses that hate "correctly" fitting saddles but like something that theoretically should not fit. I think you and Izzy are on the right track and fingers crossed that you don't spiral down the rabbit hole of crazy like I have :)

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    1. that's very true - and actually this first fitter has significantly more experience than the second, but the second may prove to have a better approach for isabel in particular. funny how that works!

      and i can promise you that i will NOT fall down the rabbit hole. i am investing in this subject and determined to find a solution for the mare (and have been since last winter) but it has never, and will never, keep me from actually riding the damn horse. i know far too many people who are forever saddle shopping and never riding. that is not me. nope nope nope.

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  15. I haven't written yet about my CWD experience (I should but I feel like I want to reach a certain amount of time with it first) but I think you will find it interest. Stampede was going in a Butet with a 4" medium tree with extra paneling in front to accommodate his mega wither. His CWD is a 4.5" medium tree and has an insane amount of added foam paneling to accommodate his wither. My first few rides with the new panels the front of my saddle kept getting lower to the point where I could barely get 2 fingers in anymore and I was getting scared even though Stampede was still not showing discomfort. Fast forward a couple months and he has muscled so much I'm now concerned I will need to have some foam removed as I can fit 3 fingers. My rep is going to stop out next time she's in the area which shouldn't be long after QH Congress is over.
    Basically I think if you find the right mix you will see a change in her back muscles pretty quickly. I honestly didn't feel a huge difference in my horse movement-wise (okay besides him not trying to kill me by spooking at everything) but his back tells the whole story.
    Good luck with your saddle stuff. I feel like I'll spend the rest of Stampede's working life overanalyzing his saddle fit!

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    1. i'm super reassured to read that - esp to hear that he's been developing muscle along his back so quickly. one of the things that has me squinting sideways at the current MW setup is the amount of clearance down the gullet channel - but perhaps that will improve the same way yours did. fingers crossed!!!

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  16. I always cringe a little reading your saddle fitting posts because I instantly want to second guess everything about my own horse's saddles. I'm not envious of your position at all. Trying to figure out a tricky saddle fit sounds terrifying.

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    1. ugh i think we are all doomed to the fate of being overly anxious (to a certain degree) about saddle fit bc really, the whole thing is so very not scientific and kind of a crap shoot anyway, i think. hopefully i'll end up at the place where so many others already are: something that seems to work out well enough such that horse and rider are both happy. by no means am i pursuing perfection (tho that would be nice too haha)

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  17. Gah, sorry to hear about the run-around with the saddle. It's frustrating that there isn't a collective agreement on things. But, with the horse world you are never going to get people to agree on anything.

    I don't think the saddle looks that bad now - it was certainly too narrow for her before. I don't think that the "after" picture you posted is that bad!

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    1. haha collective agreement within the horse world really would be something, wouldn't it? but then again it would probably be much too boring without all the drama ;)

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  18. I found reading this post and all the comments VERY informative. Because Murray is not too sensitive about saddle fit (thank GOODNESS because he's a sissy about everything else!) I've always counted myself quite lucky. But now I'm wondering if a lack of back muscle development, despite a LOT of good work over the last few years, could be due to a slightly ill-fitting saddle. Very interesting. Much to think about.

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    1. ugh sometimes i *hate* having much to think about lol. fingers crossed that saddle fit isn't what's impeding Murray's back development bc this is seriously such a pain in my ass. but i'm also really seriously hoping that this change (in addition to some diet adjustments) will start making a difference for isabel

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  19. This is fascinating- I don't get to talk saddles with the store's fitter very often because he's always on the road with the dressage trailer. I've always thought wider is preferable to narrower, since you can add padding. Looking forward to hearing how this develops!

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    1. i love the topic of saddle fit, but hate that it's constantly revolving around our own lack there of. ugh. haha. but yea the 'wider is better than narrower' idea does seem to be the common wisdom. hopefully it works out!

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  20. I do not envy you. I've been taking a long hard look at my jumping saddle and am slowly coming to the (gasp, sob, why God why?!) conclusion that I'm going to need a new saddle. Dassah goes in the xw plate in our Thorowgood T8 but I think the actual plate shape is wrong for her. I've got a w plate that I occasionally pull out to re-test on her but I think I might be looking at more than just a different plate.

    *throws self on floor and commences epic tantrum.

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    1. awwww boo :( actually tho - if you end up wanting to sell your T8 let me know. i might potentially be interested. this fitter just started working with that particular saddle and tried one on isabel and it looked pretty good. obviously i'm not wishing this fate on anybody else... but perhaps there's an opportunity for mutual benefit? lolz

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  21. I love this saddle and if I end up with a different brand, I will HAPPILY discuss selling it to you! That would be awesome.

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    1. Let me know if you need a test-saddle, I've been riding in my dressage saddle since it fits better and wouldn't mind at all letting you borrow it for awhile.

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    2. well then by all means keep me posted ;)

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    3. hm, no test needed at present (my fitter has a couple that i can ride in) unless you're already pretty committed to the idea of selling. feel free to email me any specs or considerations at fraidycat.eventing at gmail.com!

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    4. ok - not committed yet but will keep you posted!

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  22. Emma, I don't know if you read Mel's blog, but she just posted this last night and I thought of you: http://bootsandsaddles4mel.com/blog/2015/saddles-riders-and-science/
    Mel is a recent vet school grad who has done endurance for a long time and has completed Tevis a couple of times on her Arab mare Farley. She is an awesome scientific source for all horse info and I thought you would enjoy her most recent post, if only as food for thought. :)

    Continuing to send you healing thoughts for your leg! You have such an admirable, positive attitude!

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    1. thanks for the link! my never-ending saddle saga has more or less ground to a halt while i'm out of commission, but that won't last forever!

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