American benefits from British expertise
Last year I had a student from the USA accompanying me on my saddle fitting missions. Professor Susan Schurer is director of international study programs and associate professor of German in the department of modern languages at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.
You might ask what on earth a learned professor was doing far from home studying a subject apparently so far removed from her everyday life. The answer is enlightening and throws into sharp focus the advantages the British rider has over his or her American counterpart when it comes to purchasing a saddle.
'Sue', as she is known, has a quarter horse with whom she enjoys competing in dressage competitions; by her own admission his conformation and paces do not make him the ideal candidate for this discipline but he is generous and does his utmost. An increasing involvement in the discipline led Sue to realise that the saddle could be a very important factor in the comfort, well being and success of the horse. Her observations continued and she noted more and more horses with saddles that blatently did not fit, that were, in fact, dangerously ill-fitting. Recognition of this alarming state of affairs was like a challenge to Sue and she resolved to do something about it. Hence an American professor came over here to benefit from the expertise this country has to offer on this important subject.
Why, you wonder, are the States apparently so far behind? The answer is simple, in the UK and especially in England, it is unlikely that riders have to travel much more than twenty five miles to their nearest saddlery. Many of these establishments will be members of the Society of Master Saddlers with the additional benefit of having at least one society qualified and registered saddle fitter on their premises. In the States, an enormous country where distances are measured in hundreds rather than tens of miles, the nearest saddler may well be a vast distance away. This makes it logistically difficult to provide saddle fitting services and consequently it is common place for saddles to be purchased my mail order. (Readers will understand the serious implications!) Add to this that many, many riders buy a saddle for life, that is, one saddle is passed from horse to horse, usually quite irrespective of substantially differing types and conformation.
Appreciating the problems faced by American riders does make the case for hanging out some laurels to the Society of Master Saddlers. It is now some years since the Society instituted its saddle fitting course and assessment. Now nearly a hundred and fifty saddle fitters are qualified. They must re-register annually and are required to undertake a refresher course every two years. This was, and is believed to remain, the only qualification for saddle fitting overseen by a professional body worldwide. It is no sinecure and many candidates fail the demanding assessment.
Fortunately, in this country there are very few riders ignorant of the importance of providing their horses with correctly fitting saddles. Equally, most British horse owners understand the need for regular saddle fitting checks, and the reasons for this necessity. Riders in the States are gradually beginning to recognise the welfare factors attached to a selection of a saddle but it is going to take a long time before horse owners can enjoy the advantages taken for granted (even, occasionally, abused) by their British counterparts.
Professor Schurer returned to the States knowing a great deal more about saddle fitting than when she arrived in this country but also very aware of the complexities of the subject and of the huge time it takes to assimilate in-depth knowledge and experience. The knowledge she acquired in the UK is already benefiting horses and riders in the States. Another example of the success of the 'special relationship' of which both countries are so proud.