Take care of your equipment

Horse equipment is EXPENSIVE.

Most likely, if you own or care for a horse, I don’t need to tell YOU that. As my husband has long said, “it’s not the buying (of the horse), it’s the keeping.”

How then should we care for this expensive equipment so it lasts as long as possible and functions as it should?

First, Store it Properly.

Saddles generally run in the thousands of dollars, and while they can last for decades if properly maintained, they need to be stored carefully. Whether that saddle fits you or the horse for decades is unlikely, but hey, there’s always resale value.

Best way to store a saddle? Like this:

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This saddle is on a “Saddle Mattress” (yes, nicely personalized) so that the rack underneath will not damage the wool flocking of the saddle (http://www.saddlemattress.com). The padded saddle mattress can be made in almost any color with custom piping and name or initials, and it slips over the saddle rack to protect your saddle. You can also easily take it with you if you move to another tack room.

If I store a saddle on a tubular metal saddle rack with no padding, the metal will compress the flocking that I have paid a saddle fitter to adjust to my horse and the saddle will become lumpy and uncomfortable for my horse; the rack may also stretch the leather, compromising the saddle.

Wooden racks that are curved and shaped to fit saddles with no hard edges can be fine if you can find them. They are usually quite expensive but they are an elegant solution; however, you cannot easily take them with you so I prefer the portable saddle mattress.

Bridles should be hung on rounded bridle hooks, NEVER ON NAILS, which will weaken the leather. Here’s a lovely example:

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Note that these bridles are hung on proper hooks, but many of the saddles in this backroom are right on the metal racks. Alas. Some saddles have covers but others have the sweaty pad placed over them to dry. Even upside down, that pad will get some dampness on the saddle, not good (see below).

Second, Cover Your Saddle. If your saddle did not come with a dust cover, buy one. All tack rooms are dusty (barns are dusty!). A dust cover helps reduce the dust on your saddle. NEVER store your sweaty, damp girth directly on top of the saddle. Preferably wipe it clean after use (o.k., I admit I don’t always do this), and then place it on top of the dust cover so the dampness does not contact the seat of the saddle. A dust cover also protects your saddle from UV rays if the tack room has a window. UV (sunlight) will fade and dry out tack badly. We’ve all seen those formerly black saddles, now blotchy brown…

Damp and sweat are the enemies of leather: remember that. Metal saddle racks are bad, too.

Third, Clean and Condition Your Tack regularly. I did not grow up in Pony Club and I’m not British so I do not do this daily. God bless you if you do. But when it gets dry and crusty it is uncomfortable for the horse and bad for the tack. Don’t go there.

Find a schedule you can live with and make it work. I get it done by simplifying it this way:

  1. Don’t try to do all the tack on the same day. Too tiring. Don’t take bridles apart except maybe once or twice a year. Otherwise the task becomes overwhelming (especially when you have a double bridle!).
  2. Use warm water only to clean the tack and remove dust and sweat. Most experts believe that soap just adds gunk and is another thing to get off.
  3. Allow tack to dry slightly, then condition well with a good conditioner like Passier Lederbalsam or Effax Lederbalsam. Apply generously with a small tack sponge. Let soak in while you are finishing the rest of the tack.
  4. Take a cleanish dry towel (small one) and wipe the excess off, polishing the tack.
  5. Wash the bit off every single day. I just run it under the faucet quickly. If you don’t have running water, dunk it in the horse’s water bucket or wipe it with a cloth. Leaving it with spit or chewed carrot on it will make it crusty and uncomfortable for  20160708_Edie and Starlight__DSC7539.jpghim to put in his mouth. Keep it clean.
  6. Voila! Clean, soft, beautiful tack. Not my bridle at right, but a nice one.

Saddle fitting lessons

After many, many saddles and endless experiences over many years with countless saddle fitters, I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, through experience and often expensive mistakes.DSC03470

Lesson Number One: Your saddle is only as good as your fitter. Find a good fitter.

A beautiful saddle that doesn’t fit is like a designer shoes (bought on sale!) that just don’t fit. They stay in the closet because you’re not gonna wear them. Although in this case you might put that saddle on your poor horse, who pays the price with a sore back. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Do everything you can do get it right. Get professional help. No, not therapy – a saddle fitter!

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Kristen of Saddle Solutions measures Starlight’s withers

But HOW do I find a good saddle fitter? Get recommendations from savvy (experienced) friends or trainers you trust. Beware that many people are very blind in this area  or have limited expertise. Ask around widely. If you keep hearing a certain name repeated as a good Fitter, then that’s probably your person. Check out their training and give them a try.

Lesson Number Two: An Independent saddle fitter is usually better for your purposes than one whose main agenda is selling a certain brand of saddles. Unless you are certain that you only ever want that one brand of saddle.

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Kristen from Saddle Solutions educates me about saddle fit.

Experience, Expertise, and Integrity are the most important qualities you want in a saddle fitter. Professionalism and reliability are nice to have, too! If the only one that fits those criteria who will come  to your area is the rep for a certain brand, you may have to use them. They will most likely be willing to work on other brands (ask); just be aware that their agenda is often to sell you one of their saddles, but it may not be the best fitting saddle for you or your horse because their product line is limited. This is why an independent fitter, whose only agenda is to fit you and your horse, is a better bet. He or she can recommend saddles/brands and/or objectively assess and fit what you already have.

Today Starlight and I enjoyed a fitting with Kristen Vliestra of Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com). Kristen is an independent saddle fitter with many years in the business and her deep knowledge and expertise were very helpful in finding a good fit for me and Star.DSC03482

Below, Kristen demonstrates with chalk the proper weight bearing surface on Star’s back. She helped me to understand WHY this is all so important. If we don’t get this right, we will cause our horses pain and possible long-term damage to the musculature and spine. It also causes discomfort (back or fork pain) for the rider as the saddle is off-balance and we’re put out of position.DSC03490

In the video below, Kristen explains this clearly…

And here you see us trying a saddle that turned out to be a good fit for both of us. It has not yet been flocked to Star, so the balance is not quite right yet: It is a little low behind.  Later, Kristen took care of that. If you felt under the panels, you would feel nice smooth contact (no bridging!), no pressure points, which makes Star happy. As for me: I sat down in it and said, “ah, nice comfy saddle,” which is exactly what it ought to be.

Life is too short for your saddle to hurt you…or your horse! Invest in building a relationship with a good fitter!*

*If you’re within driving distance of San Jose, I recommend Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com).

Saddle Fitting Fun and Games

Star and I are in the midst of saddle shopping. Our friend, Carolyn, has been helping us by doing wither tracings so that we can order saddles sent to us for trial and have a chance that they might actually fit.

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Starlight’s back labeled for a “wither tracing.”

What’s been amazing has been how fast Star is changing! We did a tracing on 3/20/16, and another one on 4/14/16, and she was substantially different in the withers. The first two weeks I rode her in a saddle that turned out to be a bit too narrow; when I realized it wasn’t working  I borrowed an Ansur treeless saddle while I started shopping for something that fits us both. Ah, happier horse!

I will soon transition back to a treed saddle because she’s VERY wide and I need a tree to get me up above her back a little so that my hips and back don’t get sore. The Ansur has been very useful for this interim time, but on such a wide horse it’s not great for me long term.  I’m looking at lots of options and I THINK I’ve just about got it solved. SOON, I hope!

Below we see the results of a more comfortable back and regular dressage work: muscles that are visibly and measurably changing.

Some pictures to illustrate:

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Starlight on 3/20/16 , after 3 weeks with Edie. Still has some bleached winter coat.

In the next picture, not only has Starlight’s coat changed, but look how her weight and muscles are changing! A mere four weeks more of regular dressage work, including once a week trot poles (which she loves) is making a difference. While it takes many months – years even – to build the strength for true collection,  Starlight is learning to carry herself.

The shine is from daily grooming, Platinum Performance, and Chia Seed. Yes, she is doted upon and considers it the way things ought to be.

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Starlight on 4/14/16. What a difference a month makes!

It takes a village to raise a horse. My friend Carolyn helps me with wither tracings, calls dressage tests at shows, and is a sounding board and source of ideas and insight. She loves sensitive mares like Starlight and they were immediate friends.

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Girlfriends.

 

Saddle shopping trials

Does anyone out there ENJOY saddle shopping? I’m not talking about idly clicking through the gorgeous gleaming images of new saddles, imagining yourself riding oh-so-much-better because now you have the perfect saddle. Of course if I have the saddle of XYZ Olympian I will ride like him or her! I will look like this and my horse will also be transformed:

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Or sometimes my Diva side comes out and I am attracted to the blingy fancy saddles. Oh, I’m not going to buy one, but gosh, they are pretty, aren’t they?

 

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Yeah, I kinda want one, I admit it. But I know my trainer would kill me. Not to mention my husband.

Meanwhile, what to do? Well, the only saddle I own, a wonderful and comfortable Lemke dressage saddle, does not fit my new horse, Starlight. Tragedy! That saddle is so comfortable. So I am riding in a borrowed Ansur dressage saddle, which is a flexible tree so it fits (almost) anything. It’s a  Godsend and my mare really likes it, but she’s wide, so my hips don’t like it on such a wide horse.

I need a saddle wide enough for her, but with a narrow twist for me, and that will require a tree. It’s possible, but it is not easy.

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The Wow Competitor Dressage Saddle

Enter the WOW saddle, a modular saddle which I am explorin. I have just tried their basic model (the Classique), which my horse LOVED but I wanted a different seat. Loved the narrow twist but the seat didn’t quite work for my seat bones (not soft enough). So now I will try a custom assembled WOW with different seat, flaps, knee rolls, etc. Since these are modular saddles, a custom one can be assembled in just a couple of days and shipped to me to try.

If you are interested in information about the WOW, which is really a different concept for a saddle, here is the website:  http://www.wowsaddles.com. I’ll have another review of it after I ride in it more, but my first ride did impress me and my horse and I had an initial “WOW” experience. Unfortunately, they are expensive new and though they’ve been in Britain for years, they are fairly new here so they’re difficult to find used. That’s the bad news.IMG_0124.JPG

Here is Starlight, modeling the WOW Classique. Note the lovely sock protective covers for the stirrup leathers (keeps the leathers from damaging the demo saddle). Star’s coat is improving but is still changing from sun-bleached to black/brown as she sheds her winter coat. One month into our work together, you can see the muscling in her neck and topline beginning to develop, but it takes years to build the muscle needed for dressage so this will be a slow and careful process. This is a wonderful mare and I love working with her.

Our next demo saddle will be the WOW Competitor. Let’s hope it’s “the one” and I can stop spending hours on the computer looking at saddles and researching saddles and wondering if this saddle or that saddle MIGHT work…

 

 

Horses don’t lie

If your horse starts swinging its butt away at the mounting block and fidgeting when you try to mount, could it be telling you something?

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If only we would pay attention…

Or maybe the horse is rushing under saddle, bracing, has an under neck muscle, has difficulty coming onto contact especially through transitions or in lateral movements. Do you think saddle fit MIGHT be the problem?

I’ve only had Starlight a couple of weeks, but I was having all of the above issues and trying to figure out how to solve them. If I’d known her better, I would have diagnosed saddle fit faster, but 10 days into it, I realized it might be the saddle. I borrowed a flex-tree saddle (The Ansur Saddle) from a friend, and what an immediate difference! Happy horse!  Bending, flexing, no problem!

Unfortunately, this can’t be the long term solution for us because Starlight is such a wide backed mare that the Ansur becomes too wide on her for my hips to be comfortable. However, it’s a workable interim solution.

Moral of the story: if the horse is acting weird or giving you a problem, look first for pain. 

Horses are honest and they don’t lie or plot ways to make our lives difficult. They live in the moment and just tell us what they are feeling. We owe it to them to pay attention and do our best to make their working lives comfortable and rewarding.

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Starlight: much happier in the Ansur saddle. Too bad about the ugly water truck in the background. Strange color as she sheds out her bleached winter coat.

All I want for Christmas (besides love, joy, and peace, of course)

Sing with me!

On the First day of Christmas, my true love gave to me One Blingy Bridle... (http://www.dressageextensions.com/ProductDetail.asp?KEY=21885)

Look at it glow!

Look at it glow!

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On the Second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Two Fancy Boots…(https://www.smartpakequine.com/search/search?searchTerm=de%20niro%20boots)

No break in! Lots of calf widths/heights, too.

No break in! Lots of calf widths/heights, too.

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On the Third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Three Favorite Saddles

http://en.voltaire-design.com/palm_beach_saddle.html

Lemke dressage saddle

Lemke dressage saddle

Voltaire jump saddle

Voltaire jump saddl

http://www.lemkesaddle.com/sample-page/

and http://athleticequine.com/freeform-treeless-saddles/

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On the Fourth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Four Black Patent Leather Horse Bootshttp://www.peopleonhorses.com/Boots.htm

People on Horses boots

People on Horses boots

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On the Fifth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Five Perfect Ponies!

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Finn - Perfect Pony

Finn – Perfect Pony

Ellie - Perfect Pony

Ellie – Perfect Pony

On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Six Saddle Pads

http://www.seamsright.com (super pads available in almost any color/trim combo, wash beautifully and hold up well), Mattes eurofit pads would look so nice on my ponies (but are expensive), BucasMax pads are always a favorite http://www.ridingright.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?

Bucas pads come in four colors

Bucas pads come in four colors

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On the Seventh Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Seven Back on Track products…

A blanket to soothe my horse's sore muscles and promote recovery.

A blanket to soothe my horse’s sore muscles and promote recovery.

Gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days!

Gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days!

http://www.backontrackproducts.com

a back brace for when my back hurts

a back brace for when my back hurts

 

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On the Eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Eight Kastel shirts (in eight different colors!)…

Find at your local tack store or http://www.dressageextensions.com/KyWordSearch.asp

Kastel shirt - SPF 30 and so comfy and cool.

Kastel shirt – SPF 30 and so comfy and cool.

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On the Ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Nine Mikmar Comfort girths (for those five perfect ponies)…http://www.dressageextensions.com/ProductDetail.asp?KEY=27841

Mikmar Comfort Girth - stretchy, grippy, revolutionary comfort for your horse. Comes in jump sizes, too!

Mikmar Comfort Girth – stretchy, grippy, revolutionary comfort for your horse. Comes in jump sizes, too!

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On the Tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Ten cans of Effax Lederbalsam (to keep all that tack conditioned).

Effax - available just about everywhere and the best product I've found.

Effax – available just about everywhere and the best product I’ve found.

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On the Eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Eleven bottles of Equifuse Gleam (for all those pony tails)….

Smells great and works wonderfully. Even Finn's scrawny tail looks good with this stuff, and Ellie's thick Haflinger tail combs out easily.

Smells great and works wonderfully. Even Finn’s scrawny tail looks good with this stuff, and Ellie’s thick Haflinger tail combs out easily.

http://equifuse.com/all-products/grooming-products/gleam-moisturizer-shine-serum

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On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve Massage Gift Certificates…because after riding those Five Perfect Ponies, I think I will need it!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Blessed are the meek...

Blessed are the meek…

May your season be filled with peace, joy, and love, and Ponies of all sizes and shapes!

No back, no rider: take care of your back

I began to trot but had gone only once  around the arena when a sharp sudden pain in my back said: STOP RIGHT NOW OR ELSE! I halted my mare and collapsed onto her neck, panting in pain and wondering what to do. Sweet Eliana turned to look at me, soft eyes wondering, “wow, what is the matter with you? I need to take care of you.”

Ellie took care of me

Ellie took care of me

We very slowly and gently made our way back to the barn, where I gently slid to the ground, trying not to moan. I leaned onto her, steadying myself, and tried to figure out how I was going to get the tack off her. I could hardly move, and I whimpered quietly as I dragged the tack off and put it away. No way could I pick up her feet to clean them. Sorry, pony. It was all I could do to crawl to the car, lower myself into the seat, and drive home.

What happened? My back had been bothering me a bit for some weeks, feeling a little stiff and sore here and there. Big deal, it has done that for years. That day I fidgeted a bit as I rode, trying to find ways to be comfortable. It sure was not feeling right. Was it the 50 lb bag of pellets I had lifted a few days before? The sudden sideways spooks my young and reactive other horse had been doing for the last three months? Too much sitting and not enough core strength? Whatever it was, it was not feeling good. I had already ridden the spooky horse that morning before I got on my mare, and I knew my back was hurting, but I had another horse to exercise. Never give up, never surrender, right? So I popped two Ibuprofen, got in the car, and drove to the barn. What an idiot.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from this painful episode of back pain it is this: LISTEN to your body. If you don’t listen when it whispers, it will start to whine, and after that…it will scream. And then you will pay: with interest.

I kept riding rather than resting my back, IGNORING the pain, until my back said, “that’s it, I’m done with you!” The muscles spasmed and locked the whole thing up in order to prevent more damage. If you haven’t had this happen, believe me when I say that this really, really hurts. Often our bodies are smarter than our brains. Because it now hurt badly enough that I could not even drive a car, much less ride,  I finally took care of i!  I went to a doctor, who prescribed at least two weeks of NO riding, lots of ice/heat/ibuprofen and rest plus daily walking. After that, core strengthening, exercise, and stretching.

A strong core stabilizes the spine and protects it. Riding, especially concussive activities like jumping, major transitions, or the sitting trot, can stress or injure the back.

Horse care involves many  back intensive things  – heaving (twisting) saddles about, bags of feed, bending over to pick up feet, dealing with 1000 lb animals who may move suddenly in surprising directions – and often do, as we know. Since this back injury, I’ve made some changes in the way I do things and, thankfully, have not been “grounded” since.

I should be bending my knees, not locking them as in this picture here….

I should be bending my knees, not locking them as in this picture here….

I don’t want you to ever experience what I did, so here are some Back Protecting Habits for every rider:

1) Consider yourself an athlete and condition for riding! If you can’t ride daily, be sure to get aerobic exercise and to build core strength. In addition to riding, cross train: walk, run, swim, garden, play tennis. I use a Body Blade to build my core and upper body strength. http://www.bodyblade.com/en/ It’s weird looking, but it works.

2) Stretch! I always though stretching was such a boring waste of time, but I have become a convert. This book, http://www.amazon.com/The-Riders-Pain-Free-Back-Overcome/dp/1570763712, not only explains causes and prevention of Rider's pain free backrider back pain, but gives stretching exercises, too. Since I began daily stretching, I am a much more supple rider and I have much less back pain. Voila.

3) Check that the saddle fits YOU as well as your horse. A saddle that hurts you or is just too wide for you (or too small) will throw you off balance and cause you to brace to avoid pain. So will a saddle that is down in front, which forces you to arch your back to keep your balance. Equipment really does make a big difference to you and the horse, because riding is largely about balance. A saddle that forces you to fight for your balance is not helping you and may contribute to back strain. Get that saddle properly fitted. Insist on it!

4) Post the trot rather than sit, and if you have a choice, choose smooth gaited horses. Sure, those big flashy gaits look impressive if you’re going to show, but they are hard to sit and hard on the back. Consider the wear and tear on your body as you are looking for a horse. If you already own a bouncy horse, well…do what you can to protect your back but if you really have back problems, you may eventually need to find a smoother gaited horse.

5) Use anti-inflammatory aids such as ice and heat judiciously. Do not take lots of Ibuprofen unless prescribed by your physician as it can be damaging if taken long term. Instead, use ice when you’ve irritated your back, alternating with heat. I find the Back on Track back brace (Left) helps amazingly. It back on track braceis comfortable and unobtrusive to wear and seems to really speed recovery. I always reach for it when my back feels achey. You can even ride in it because it is flexible. http://www.backontrackproducts.com/People-Products/Back-Braces-Neck-Covers/Back-Brace-p303.html

6) Most importantly, LISTEN to your body and accommodate it. Now when my body says, “you’ve been overdoing it, cut back a little,” I do. Instead of jumping, I take a trail ride (less impact and jarring). I don’t pick up 50 lb bags of feed any more. I do sit the trot, but not endlessly (better for my horse, anyway). Use common sense and protect your back.

There’s an old saying:  “no foot, no horse.”

You could add to that, “no back, no rider.”

Protect your back and you’ll be riding for many more years! to come!

Finn and Edie - yep, sitting the trot.

Finn and Edie – yep, sitting the trot.