Ken's diary

Because i'm worth it!

Now I have seen it all! "Because I'm worth it" has taken on an entirely different meaning! Let me explain. I have just returned from completing a saddle fitting arranged by a very attractive young woman. It transpired that she is involved in theatre design and she obviously employs her creative talents in diverse ways. Her pretty little grey mare's eyes were made up with mascara and a violet colour eye shadow that toned with a mauve browband. The owner/rider was made up similarly even down to her lavender-colour jodhpurs (Were they especially dyed I asked myself?) I should absolutely loathe to see the idea catch on as a craze however, I have to admit that, in this particular case, both horse and owner carried it off very well!
'It would be quite nice if it was a different colour'

My very next call that day involved possibly the dirtiest horse for which I have ever been asked to fit a saddle! The vast majority of clients present their horses well turned out, a relief because saddle fitters really don't want new saddles to become unnecessarily marked. There is another very important reason to ensure the horse is well-groomed before a new saddle is fitted. As part of the fitting process the rider will 'try out' all the saddles that have been short listed by the saddle fitter. When each saddle is removed it will leave an outline on the well-groomed horse’s back. Every picture tells a story and the saddle fitter is hoping to see a clear, unbroken line that is not blurred or fuzzy. This assists in checking that the bearing surfaces are correct and that the saddle is not moving excessively (all saddles will move minimally no matter how well they fit).

Usually I arrive to find the horse for which the saddle is required both stabled and well groomed. Not in this case! The horse was turned out in an extremely muddy paddock that was obviously suffering from overuse and the effect of an extremely wet summer. He was plastered, obviously one of those rare animals that presumably enjoy a mud bath on the basis of 'there's nothing quite like it for cooling the blood'. The mud was that nasty sticky yellowish-grey type making it impossible to identify the colour of his coat and his mane and tail were equally caked. The owner was nowhere in sight! I enquired about her whereabouts and was told, very casually, that she was always a very bad time keeper and no, she couldn't be contacted because she didn't have a mobile telephone! Fortunately I had arranged to fit saddles for two horses stabled only a mile or two away and I left saying that I would be returning about three hours later by which time I expected the horse to have been brought in, bathed and dried off!  
The dirtiest horse I've ever seen . . .

When I got back to the yard I found the horse unrecognisable in his clean and dry state. The owner was very apologetic while admitting that she had a serious problem relating to time keeping (her employer must be very long-suffering!). The horse was actually a nice riding club type, well muscled and in good condition. He was very pleasant to handle and easy to fit, a consolation after the earlier delay. I did consider charging the owner for my wasted time but finally relented! Fortunately this sort of situation is a rarity!

At the beginning of the eventing season I was called in by a nationally known rider to check all his horses' saddles. Two weeks ago, midway through the season, I returned to make further fitting checks and was not surprised to find that several of the horses had considerably changed shape during the intervening period. This particular rider recognises the importance of paying attention to every single detail that can affect the well-being, and by implication, success of his horses. The sponsorship he receives is well-deserved because he combines considerable talent with the understanding that getting the best out of each of his horses depends on more than his riding ability and experience.

Horses with asymmetrically developed shoulders are very common. Sometimes owners are aware of the problem, more often it goes unrecognised until pointed out to them. A horse with asymmetric shoulders cannot be working straight and through. Although the asymmetry may relate to an underlying veterinary problem or an earlier injury, (quite likely to be located in the hindquarters but producing a knock-on effect), it is more likely to be caused by thoughtless or poor schooling. Too long spent riding or lunging on the ‘good rein’ the horse not being ridden into a level contact the rider sitting crookedly and so on.

Asymmetric shoulders have a particularly adverse effect on the saddle and the way in which it locates when the horse is being ridden. The larger shoulder will effectively push the saddle diagonally. The problem will then be exacerbated by the rider being uncomfortable and unable to locate centrally. One of the most important parts of the saddle fitting procedure relates to an examination of the horse's musculature. Recognition of a ‘problem’ enables the saddle fitter to take it into account and arrange for the saddle to be suitably adjusted. Quite often the asymmetry, once pointed out to the rider, can be reversed by incorporation of remedial exercises into the schooling programme. Occasionally veterinary investigation is indicated.

Recently we fitted a saddle for what was possibly the most crooked horse I've yet encountered. The horse was possessed of one shoulder seriously larger than the other and further muscular asymmetry aligned to the extreme crookedness. Surprisingly, the owner was absolutely convinced that her horse was completely straight an attribute possessed by absolutely no horse! It took quite a lot of indicating and measuring before she was convinced and understood the problem and the chicken and egg effect it can produce.

Quite a lot of my work involves remedial fittings. Contrary to popular belief, the fitting problems don't necessarily relate to poor advice from the original saddle fitter and so it was something of a surprise to undertake three remedials in a row with problems attributable to the saddle fitter. The first concerned a saddle fitted by the horse owner’s farrier who said he knew a lot about saddle fitting. The saddle, which the farrier was selling on behalf of his wife, was far, far too narrow. The second incident related to a saddle fitted by the horse owner’s instructor who had totally failed to take into account that the horse had one shoulder substantially larger than the other (see above!). The third remedial related to a saddle and tack sold with the first pony for an eight-year-old child.  Fortunately the child's mother took the advice from a pony club instructor who recommended having all the tack checked. Just as well absolutely none fitted!  (This story has a happy ending because I rang the pony's original owners who were very embarrassed obviously because they had knowingly disposed of odd items of tack and agreed to refund an appropriate sum.)

Pick up any magazine from the section of the equestrian-related press and somewhere in the contents you can fairly well rely on finding a reference to the straightness of the horse. We all know the maxim ‘ride the horse forward, ride it straight’ and everyone recognises the fact that it is impossible for a horse to be totally straight and, by definition, to be muscled up totally symmetrically. What it is less understood is the degree to which the crooked rider will adversely influence the horse’s way of going and the knock-on effect the crooked rider has on the saddle and the way in which it fits.

The saddle fitter can be faced with a dilemma. He arrives to check the fitting of an existing saddle. The basic fitting is acceptable, that is, it is the correct size and width for the horse concerned. The horse has one shoulder noticeably larger than the other. The saddle fitter asks to see the horse ridden. The rider is seriously crooked. The horse’s larger near-side shoulder is pushing the saddle off to the right. The rider is locating towards the offside with far more weight distribution to the right. Is the lack of symmetry in the horse due to a former injury? Has it resulted from poor schooling methods? Is it directly related to the fact that the rider is sitting so crookedly? Or was the rider centrally located before being pushed off to the right because the saddle is being pushed over by the horse’s larger shoulder?

The sort of problem I am describing will obviously be more distinguishable in trot than either walk or canter. The horse trots on diagonals making the thrust of the larger shoulder far greater. Now the saddle fitter must attempt to decide wherein lies the basic cause! He or she with a very small number of exceptions is not a vet although the Society of Master Saddlers’ saddle fitting qualification (always assuming the saddle fitter concerned is qualified!) demands considerable understanding of the horse's anatomy and musculature. Many qualified saddle fitters ride to surprisingly high standards, I personally evented up to international level and have had considerable experience with horses in general. I have actually helped to train and school horses both here and in the States and my eye is consequently fairly educated and developed to assess the sort of problem I am describing.

It is often necessary for the saddle fitter to arrange for the flocking in the saddle to be adjusted to offset the unwanted movement in the saddle. Unless one can be certain the shoulder asymmetry relates to an injury, the results of which cannot be reversed, this sort of remedial attention to the saddle can only be a temporary measure. It will reduce the diagonal movement of the saddle and make it easier for the rider to locate squarely. Then it is to be hoped that the rider and their trainer/instructor will work towards achieving a straighter horse and rider. It is impossible to have one without the other although the experienced rider is far more able to cope with a difficult situation - and do something constructive about it than the relative novice.

Adapted from articles recently published in The Essex Rider magazine
(Alec Wynn editor tel: 01268 871603) 2002.

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