Saddle fitting basics

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a horse show with a couple of friends. A woman I’d never met before approached me to ask if I worked at The Horse of Course. I told her I did, and she smiled and said, “Great! My horse needs a new saddle- can you come look at him and tell me what you recommend?” I was caught totally off-guard; I’m not a saddle fitter and I’ve never claimed to be one! It seems that the store’s saddler’s reputation for excellence extends to all employees. Unfortunately, he’s very rarely back in Oklahoma- he stays with the East Coast mobile unit most of the time.

Since the store’s saddler was in town this week, I asked him if he’d come out to my barn and show me some very basic concepts of saddle fitting as well as how to do wither tracings. I will have a separate post on wither tracings, but today I thought I’d share with you what I learned from the saddler yesterday!

Candy was the guinea pig for the fitting, since she’s the horse I’m currently doing most of my riding on. We started by assessing Candy’s conformation.

Somehow still the only conformation photo I have of this horse.

As you can see, Candy has a big shoulder. By gently pressing along her shoulder blade I could feel where the scapula ended, which was a few inches below her withers. The fitter pointed out that Candy has long withers; you see can in the photo above that they start around where you can see her mane laying on the left side of her neck near the withers and end where the withers dip down to her back. That isn’t good or bad, just something to consider when assessing saddle fit. Candy also has a pretty straight, flat back that doesn’t curve upward much.

We took a withers tracing and a back tracing by using a flexible curve ruler, and the fitter discussed how taking and recording accurate measurements is a huge help in selecting a saddle or assessing how a saddle will fit a horse. Not only does it show you how wide your horse is, it will also reveal how symmetrical your horse is. If your horse is more developed on one side, flocking can typically be added to the less developed side to help your saddle fit better. The fitter stressed that accurate recording is essential when someone’s shipping a wither and/or back tracing and a saddle to fit based on the tracing. When he’s unable to see and touch the horse in person, all he has to go on is what they send him!

My dressage saddle on Candy post-fitting.

I brought out my dressage saddle first. It’s a well-used King’s Sandringham that I’ve had for a few years. I like it pretty well, but I wanted to know how well it fit Candy. To assess its fit, the saddler had me put it on Candy without a saddle pad beneath it. He checked the clearance between the saddle’s pommel and the withers; he was looking for approximately three fingers’ width, and my saddle passed that test. He also checked how level the saddle sat on her back and if it seemed to be sitting tilted forward or backward. He proclaimed the saddle’s balance to be good. Had the saddle seemed like it was too low in the back, more flocking could have been added to the panels to raise it up a little. This is also a problem that could be fixed with a half-pad.

He had me add a girth to the saddle and tighten as I normally would for riding. Once it was girthed, the saddler ran his hand between the saddle’s underside and Candy’s shoulder. He was checking to see if it was tight or pinching. When I ran my hand between saddle and horse, I could feel that there was a tight spot right around where Candy’s scapula ended; below that, there was lots of space between her body and the saddle. The saddler told me that this was something that was pretty easily addressed by adding more flocking to the lower part of the saddle’s panels; adding more flocking to this area would relieve the pressure on the upper part of the panel that was pinching Candy.

That’s exactly what he did, too! He got out some flocking and a tool that looked like a very long curved screwdriver, showed me a little slit near the point of the saddle and proceeded to stuff more flocking than I ever would have guessed would fit into my saddle. It took him maybe 15 minutes. I resaddled Candy and felt the area that had been pinching- now there was even, gentle pressure the length of the front panel! Magic.

My jumping saddle on Gina with saddle bag for hunting attached.

I had the fitter look at my jumping saddle next. It’s an Ainsley Pro National Cross Country saddle; it’s my favorite saddle and features a very forward flap that’s I’ve always felt like put my leg in a good position. I have been very paranoid about how it fits Candy because it seems like the flap is so forward that it would interfere with the movement of her shoulder. I’ve also been concerned that it’s too long for her short back.

It turns out that my fears were unfounded. The saddle fits Candy just fine, though I need to move it forward (toward her withers) more. The point of the saddle is far enough back that it does not interfere with her shoulder, and the leather in front of the point will simply move when she’s galloping or jumping. The back of the saddle is a little low on Candy, so the fitter recommended a fleecy half pad. He liked my T3 Matrix half pad with the Pro-Impact inserts.

It was a really educational morning for me. Some other odds and ends from yesterday:

  • A saddle’s rear panels are supposed to be kind of firm. If they’re too soft, they’ll simply flatten to nothing when the rider’s weight is in the saddle.
  • In this saddler’s opinion, memory foam half pads are useless. He said, “Take one of those memory foam pads, put your hand underneath it, and sit on it. You’ll still feel your hand.” You’re not going to hurt the horse using one, but if you need a half pad for fitting reasons, he recommends a sheepskin or fleece pad because they don’t squish so much.
  • Gullet width is important. If the gullet is too narrow, the horse’s spine could get pinched. If it’s too wide, the muscles that support the saddle won’t be able to do so (because the saddle won’t really be sitting on them).

Have you ever had a saddle fitted? What did you learn?

 

Stray observations from US Dressage Finals

I had a fun week in Lexington at US Dressage Finals! I said hello to JenJ, Jen of Cob Jockey, and Karen, as well as a plethora of customers I’ve seen throughout the year at shows. Some stray observations from the event:

  • Dressage people really like wine. Like, it’s 11 AM and people are wandering around with wine. And let me tell you, nothing helps people feel great about their custom shadbelly order than a complimentary glass of wine.
  • Freestyle routines set to music that sounds like a MIDI file from 1997 are the worst. I heard a lot of terrible freestyle music this week: choppy music transitions, awful gritty sound, selections that didn’t suit the horse. If you’re putting together a freestyle, please please get good quality music and a professional opinion.
  • Rodney’s on Broadway might be the best restaurant in Georgetown. If you’re in the Lexington area, check out this place for a superb steak, fun cocktails, and excellent service.
  • Jim Koford is doing the most fun freestyles in dressage right now. I might be a little biased because he’s one of work’s sponsored riders, but seriously, the Wild West-themed freestyle he won the Open Grand Prix with is really neat, and let’s not forget his Aladdin-themed freestyle at Dressage Under The Stars earlier this year.

 

A day in the life

A couple of years ago, I posted about what my day to day routine looked like. Lots has changed since then, and I thought it might be fun to see what my day to day looks like now!

7:00 AM: Fibit’s silent vibration alarm goes off. I’ve been awake for half an hour anyway because the blinds in my east-facing bedroom don’t do much to block out the glare of the sun.

Home on the range.

7:30 AM: Get out of bed after spending half an hour checking work emails and social media. Feed dogs and kick them outside before pulling on a pair of breeches and sunshirt. Drink a cup of coffee and eat breakfast while skimming blogs and answering work-related Facebook inquiries. Curse people who think communicating with a business via Facebook is the best way to communicate with a business.

8:30 AM: Walk over the barn and feed horses and kittens. Feel mildly relieved that Candy is still alive after obsessively licking the mud where the bleach-water mixture used the clean the water tank was dumped last night. Curse children who rode Moe or Gina last; those little wretches didn’t sweep the barn aisle, rinse off the bit, or leave the saddle pad out to dry. Sweep the barn aisle while the horses finish eating.

8:50 AM: Turn horses out in front pasture. Watch horses trot around. Admire Gina’s beautiful, floaty gait. Wonder if Candy will ever be able to move in a coordinated fashion.

9:00 AM: Have another cup of coffee upon returning to house. Let dogs inside when they show back up, but only after toweling off Lurky, who’s apparently spent the morning in the pond. Get to work proofreading the PR firm’s latest press release.

9:22 AM: Scan copy of red-pen edited press release and email to PR firm while ranting to the dogs about not getting paid enough/paying PR firm too much.

9:25 AM: Drink another cup of coffee. Tell self to stop drinking so much coffee. Start on sponsorship paperwork and program ad for major dressage show. Call boss for clarification on something; end up having conversation on new line of apparel from Netherlands boss found at Spoga. Get off phone with boss without ever getting the information needed in the first place. Text boss.

11:00 AM: Can’t finish up on sponsorship paperwork without confirmation from boss, who hasn’t texted back. Decide to go ride while waiting.

11:15 AM: Contemplate equicide because Candy and Gina can’t stop screaming for each other while Candy is in barn. Wonder why another horse was ever purchased because Moe is obviously the best-behaved, nicest, most talented horse in the entire world. Well. Maybe not, but he’s better than these dumb mares, at least.

“WHERE IS GINA”

12:45 PM: Turn Candy back out after somewhat productive ride. Decline lunch offer from neighbor because there are too many tweens at the barn today. Lunch with five 12-year-olds sounds worse than proofreading the newly rewritten press release.

1:00 PM: Facebook Inquiry Woman has messaged back with more inquires. Call store to get vendor’s phone number to ask if the more durable side leather is available in navy for this woman’s dream boot, a lace-up (as in, all the way up) boot with an inside zipper and navy patent top. Vendor does not answer phone. Sigh. Read press release instead.

1:45 PM: Call vendor again. Vendor advises they’ll have to contact the German manufacturer directly to find out if the leather is available in the requested color. Sigh. Advise Facebook Inquiry Woman of this development.

1:50 PM: Eat lunch, while admiring view from living room into front pasture. Watch Moe and Candy wade belly-deep into the pond and paw to splash themselves. Have minor panic attack when Moe gets out of pond and lays down. Convince self that Moe is napping in the sun, not dying.

It is a nice view!

3:00 PM: Hear back from boss. Finish up show paperwork and ad. Start working on email campaign for new show shirts.

5:00 PM: Decide that’s enough work for one day. Tackle a couple of household chores before starting on dinner.

6:30 PM: Feed horses. Why is Moe’s eye watery? Search for signs of injury, find none. Dig out eye ointment from tack trunk and wonder if it’s still good after a couple of years. Figure that Moe is already old and expired eye ointment probably won’t kill him. Suffer Moe’s baleful (if watery) glare after applying ointment.

6:45 PM: Go jogging at local park; try to feel good about decision to jog and forget about painful side stitch. Try not to get irrationally angry that Johnny is so much faster at jogging. Tell self it’s definitely because he’s so tall.

7:30 PM: Arrive home, eat dinner while watching one of the three PBS stations that’s available via the digital antenna. Realize that you don’t even miss Netflix anymore, but you do miss having normal internet speeds. Remind self that having horses at home is way better than having fast internet.

The sunsets are nice.

9:00 PM: Sit in hot tub and read book in an effort to make muscles stop feeling hideous from jogging. Remind self that jogging is good for your health and a thing that some people enjoy.

10:15 PM: Wake up after dozing off in hot tub. Wonder if you ought to worry about drowning. Go inside, ask Johnny to start checking on you while in the hot tub so you don’t drown.

10:30 PM: Go to bed hoping it’s cloudy in the morning so the sun won’t laser in the bedroom windows and wake you up.

This looks a little different when I go to the office instead of working from home- more driving and less riding! What about you- what does your day look like? Has it changed over the years?

DR 120: dressing for dressage

When I began working at The Horse of Course, I didn’t imagine I would become a de facto technical delegate and spend time advising competitors on what they can and cannot wear in USEF sanctioned competitions. However, I find myself re-reading DR 120 at least twice a week, and frequently reassuring customers that it’s fine to wear a gray coat or reminding them to remove their stock tie when coats are waived. I thought it might be fun to put together a post about some of the topics about which I’m often asked.

Shirts

All totally legal. [From L to R: Iago Italia, Iago Italia, Asmar Equestrian, La Valencio, La Valencio]
Shirts are, by far, the thing I’m asked about the most. A large segment of the population seems to be operating under the assumption that a competition shirt must be white. Not so! There are no restrictions on shirt color, so go nuts. White-on-white is rarely anyone’s best look. If a teal shirt with bling accents makes you cringe, try a tasteful navy. You’ll like it.

Also 100% fine. Stock tie not required. [From B Vertigo]
Another major concern for competitors are shirts that feature a ruffle on the front. Customers will ask in a confused panic about if they’re still required to wear a stock tie if their shirt has frills and ruching. The answer is no- DR 120 states that coats should be worn with “tie, choker, stock tie or integrated stand-up collar”. Most show shirts these days have integrated stand-up collars, so stock ties are almost totally ornamental anyway. Your ruffles won’t get you disqualified if coats are waived, either.

Coats

One of my favorite custom short coats! [From Grand Prix]
Coat rules have relaxed considerably in the last few years, so it’s no wonder people have questions about them. Many, many competitors are under the assumption that only black or navy coats are allowed in dressage. That’s not true! Dressage riders can wear a rainbow of colors; DR 120 states “riders may wear jackets in other colors within the international HSV color scale, as described in FEI Dressage Regulations, Art. 427.1“. That article explains that any dark colored coat is permitted as long as its V value is 32%.  That gives riders a HUGE range of options- you can play with the HSV scale on colorizer.org; simply set the V value to 32 and go wild! The Horse of Course has done short coats and shadbellies in French blue, burgundy, royal blue, brown, and hunter green.

Seriously, go bonkers on your coat. [From Iago Italia]
Contrasting piping and accents are also permitted on coats, and there’s no stipulation on how many buttons are required (or what color they should be). As a matter of style, the trend is currently toward shorter, more European-looking short coats; that’s not a rule either, but no one looks good in a frock coat they sit on every time they post.

Boots

At Introductory, Training, and First Level, riders are allowed to wear paddock boots and half chaps in black or brown. The rules don’t make an explicit statement about colors or decorative elements on tall boots other than to say that in tests above Fourth Level, riders must wear black riding boots. DR 120 also doesn’t address field boots, dress boots, or what stiffness a boot ought to be.

The black boots shown here are all dressage legal, but the colored ones are only suitable for schooling. [From Konig]
Many competitors opt for some sort of fun decorative element on their boots, like a row of crystals or crocodile leather on the tops.

Accessories

Fun navy polka dots look cute with a navy coat. [From Style Stock]
I don’t field too many questions about accessories, but every so often someone asks if a certain stock tie is permitted. Work carries an enormous variety of stock ties in many patterns and colors- all are allowed in the sandbox! There are no rules stipulating neckwear guidelines other than those that tell competitors when and when not to wear it.

Royal blue with elaborate neck design? Totally fine. [From Sybarite Equestrian]

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive guide and it isn’t a copy of the rulebook. I hope this post will encourage you to be creative and fun with your dressage attire- the modern sport really allows for some expression of personal style!

What’s your dressage attire look like? Are you very conservative, or do you like to incorporate colors and bling?

World Cup hangover

Hey y’all! I’m back from Omaha, and I’m exhausted. World Cup was a long, busy week, and I’m glad to be back in Oklahoma and back in my office!

My coworker and I made the 7 hour drive north on Sunday; instead of bringing the store’s gigantic mobile unit, we opted to pack everything in boxes and load it into M.’s two-horse gooseneck trailer. Organizers had scheduled us to move into our vendor space on Monday, and we arrived at the CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha bright and early Monday morning. Unloading and setting up for this show was the biggest pain in the ass I’ve ever experienced. Since our booth was near the front of the venue, we had to park in the driveway in front of the building and carry everything inside. We weren’t permitted to take carts or moving dollies into the building- that alone was a nightmare, what with all the boxes and pieces of gridwall we’d brought. Six hours later, we’d constructed a pretty sweet miniature store, complete with two dressing rooms!

World Cup booth
Viola! It’s a store!

On Tuesday, we met up with our IAGO rep, who was busily setting up her side of the booth. IAGO is an Italian clothing brand that’s new to the store; the mobile unit in Wellington has been carrying it for a couple of months, but those of us working in the Oklahoma store have never had our grubby little hands on the stuff. It’s nice- the fabrics are high quality, lovely to touch, and the coats fit beautifully on everyone from rail-thin teenagers to busty middle aged women.

I had some free time on Monday and Tuesday to walk around the CenturyLink Center and watch preparations for the show. I watched the crew finish setting up the public warm-up arena, watched other vendors move in and construct very impressive set-ups, saw a few horses going on walks, and got to walk down the entry way into the show ring!

Dressage ring before competition
Before the dressage ring was set up (or the decorative plants were moved in)

The show began on Wednesday; there didn’t appear to be tons of spectators, but a few people dropped by the booth, and groups of school kids on a field trip circulated continuously throughout the day. I had a chance to watch a bit of dressage warm up and walk around and talk to other vendors. I had a great time chatting with Natalie DiBerardinis of Hilltop Farm, who was manning the US Sport Horse Breeders Association booth, about both that organization and breeding in general.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday have blended into one very long blur; the organizers decreed that vendors stay open from 10 AM to 11 PM, and those 13-hour shifts were exhausting. I’m a pretty extroverted person, but even I got tired of talking to people around the 10 hour mark! I was very glad to meet both Piccolopony of Stubborn Together and Kathryn of Incidents of Guidance– each of them stopped by the booth to say hi (and put up with me saying, “Try this on! Try this on!”). I’ve met something like 10 horse bloggers now, and it’s always so much fun! (My next stop is Rolex- I won’t be there with work, so I’m much more free!)

Longines horse
The Longines horse!

I did have the opportunity to watch the Grand Prix Freestyle, which was a totally awesome experience. Seeing some of the world’s top riders perform was inspiring. I thought Laura Graves had a beautiful test, I loved Argentine rider Maria Florencia Manfredi’s pink-piped shadbelly (and glittery helmet), and I admired Carl Hester’s effortless connection with Nip Tuck.

Maria Florencia Manfredi

Our IAGO rep had VIP tickets for all of the jumping, and she gave me one for the International Omaha Jumping Grand Prix on Saturday night. I had a stellar seat- one row up from the rail, right in front of a jump! I watched the first round of the competition, then sprinted back to the booth so my coworker could go watch the jump off while I ran the booth.


 

On Sunday evening, we tore down the booth in what seemed like record time, packed up the trailer, and went to bed early! I was glad to be home on Monday, and I think I’ve finally caught up on sleep. There are times my job is exhausting, stressful, and kind of a pain. The pay isn’t the best, and I don’t have a company-matched 401K or company-provided health insurance. But when it sends me to places like Wellington or World Cup, I can forgive the shortcomings!