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).

Horse Shopping: proceed at own risk

It’s amazing what you can do via the wonders of the internet! I’m two months into serious horse shopping, and I’ve looked at hundreds of horses. It’s a good thing there isn’t a BUY NOW button or I might have impulse bought one by now in a fit of late night shopping.

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Pictures, videos, emails back and forth! In person, well, since these horses are scattered all over the country, I’ve only actually ridden a few. Sad to report, they often don’t look nearly as nice in person as they did in the pictures.

I’ve become a sophisticated analyzer of video.

AHA! Did you notice they never showed the left lead canter? There’s a reason for that. Did you notice all the cuts in that video? There’s a reason for that: they are taking out all the mistakes and problems. Did you notice they tilted the camera to make the horse look uphill? You think I can’t tell what you’re doing? Do you think I’m stupid? Apparently. Well, I’m not (quite that stupid). Believe me, sellers: uncut video is MUCH more impressive, even if it has a few little mistakes.

I have a Pre Purchase Exam coming up on a wonderful prospect, and yesterday my trainer reminded me, “you ARE going to run blood on her, right?” Well, yes, but I’m not really concerned about this horse having been drugged.

“Oh,” she says, “I always have the vet pull blood on the horse right after I test ride it in case they drugged it. You should have done that.”

Wow, I never thought of that. Too late for that. All these horses I’ve bought over the years, and the only drugging I thought about was someone giving them painkillers to get them through the vet check looking more sound than they actually are. I never thought of drugging to make them more rideable.

But of course people do that! Just, hopefully, not to me. In the past, my vet would always pull blood for the “Tox screen” and hold it for a year “just in case you need it.” The implication was that if the horse went nuts and was not the horse I thought I bought, we could test the blood and see if it had been drugged. Fine. But I never thought of testing it the day I rode it. Mind blown.

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I guess I’m a lamb among wolves. And yet of course not all sellers are like that. Some of them really are like me! Straightforward, wanting the right match for their horse, telling you everything about the horse, having, well, a “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” approach to buying and selling horses. Yes, I would like to buy a horse from me. My horses are always up to date on everything and I’ll tell you everything that has happened to them and any little quirks they have. I want you to be safe and happy and I really, really want my horse to be safe and happy with his or her next owner.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 12.17.55 PMHere’s hoping this lovely prospect mare is just what I think she is, and that my next article can be about my new horse…

horse shopping 104: ready for your test ride?

Some people love test riding horses, while others are terrified at getting on a strange horse. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle.

Could this be the one?

Could this be the one?

We feel a little excited that “this could be the one,” and yet of course we feel some nervousness about riding a horse who could be difficult, disappointing, or even dangerous. And then there’s the seller standing there watching us, which adds to the anxiety, not to mention all the hopes and dreams that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to find the Perfect Horse today….

Before I go to test ride a horse, I’ve done my research and prepared myself. I know the market, I have a clear picture of what I’m looking for, I’ve talked to the seller, looked at video of this horse, feel it is realistically priced, and – as far as I can tell – think it will be suitable for me. Now it’s time to go see it. How can I maximize my chances of an effective evaluation of this horse?

1) TAKE SOMEONE WITH YOU. I find another set of eyes and ears

A friend or trainer can help you evaluate the horse

A friend or trainer can help you evaluate the horse

invaluable. I take my trainer or a trusted, experienced horse friend who knows me, my riding abilities, my riding discipline, and understands horses and conformation/soundness issues. I’m pretty good at picking horses for myself, but I’m a generalist or “Big Picture” person, so someone who is detailed and careful is really useful to me. I’m so busy talking to the seller and getting a feel for the horse’s history and temperament that I will miss subtle conformational issues that my friend may catch. Plus it’s great to have someone debrief with you after the visit. They will have seen and heard things that you didn’t, and you can bounce impressions off of them and get their feedback.

2) GET THE SELLER TALKING. I take along a notepad and as the seller is tacking up the horse, I ask a lot of questions, but I try to make them as open ended as possible. I make notes so that I won’t forget what they said. You may be looking at lots of horses and after awhile, they all start to run together. Even if you already asked some of these questions on your initial phone call or email contact, ask them again:

  • What is the health history of this horse? Any lameness, illness, colic?
  • Any maintenance such as Legend or Adequan? Any special supplements or feeding needs?
  • What are this horse’s quirks or issues?
  • Tell me about his temperament? Personality? What is he like to work with? To train?
  • What do you like best about this horse? What do you like least?
  • What’s the worst thing this horse has ever done?

All horses have issues. Try to ascertain what this horse’s issues are, and if they are issues you can live with.

Does the horse load easily?  Major trailer issues will probably be a deal breaker if you want to show or trail ride off-site.

Does the horse load easily?
Major trailer issues will probably be a deal breaker if you want to show or trail ride off-site.

Some horses are difficult to load into trailers or they kick in the trailer. Others tend to be nippy, or difficult to bridle, or spooky at trash cans, or afraid of tractors, or dogs or ghosts (yep, things that aren’t there). You can suggest some of these things and see if the seller admits to any of them. Normalize it (“all horses have some little thing, I just like to know what it is”).

Be relaxed and chatty and see if you can get the seller to be talkative and to hang themselves.

It’s amazing what people will let slip. There have been times when people have said things during the tacking up process that have made me think, “o.k., I’m done right now.” Be honest if an issue comes up that is a deal breaker for you. If the seller admits that the horse bolts whenever it hears a motorcycle and that’s your deal breaker, thank them for their time, and leave. DO NOT TRY THE HORSE. Why risk yourself? Or waste time? About 20% of the time, I do not get on the horse at all, either because a deal breaker issue has come up, or I have observed a lameness or conformational issue that I wasn’t able to see on the sales video, or after watching the seller ride the horse, I just am not interested in the horse.

Sellers appreciate honesty and don’t want their time wasted or their horse tried by non-serious buyers. I never criticize the horse or tell them it is lame or crazy (even if it is!). I just say it’s not right for me, thank you so much for your time, and good bye.

3) EVALUATE CONFORMATION AND BLEMISHES DURING TACK UP. While the seller is grooming and tacking up, walk

around the horse and note the conformation. Your friend can help with this as well. Here’s your chance to look for flaws – club foot, base narrow, bad feet, straight pasterns, bowed tendon, etc. You can also look for strengths – a nicely set neck, a strong back, a good shoulder angle. Here’s a useful article on horse conformation and how to evaluate it: http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=B1400 Ask the seller if you have any questions about any lumps, scars, cloudy eye, etc. One horse I went to see had an eye which was cloudy and a different color from the other. Although the seller told me it was “no big deal, the vet has seen it and it’s not a problem,” it was actually chronic uveitis, a condition that is difficult to manage and can lead to eventual blindness. Another friend inquired about a horse, asking a long list of questions. Satisfied, she drove four hours to go see it, only to discover upon arrival that it was blind in one eye. “Well,” the seller said, “you didn’t ask about vision. The horse is sound and it can see with the other eye.” You and I would think this is something every seller should immediately disclose, so let it be a lesson to us all: buyer beware. Ask lots of questions before, during, and after, and use your own eyes and common sense (plus a vet check before you actually buy!).

Eliana's lovely, inviting eye

Eliana’s lovely, inviting eye

4) LOOK THE HORSE IN THE EYE. Horse shopping involves head and heart. Your looking for a connection with this future horse. There should be some attraction between you. It doesn’t have to be immediate LOVE, but you should find the horse attractive in both looks and personality. The eye should be kind and interested (in you). An eye that is dull, anxious, or threatening and suspicious are red flags to me. I like horses with friendly, interested, confident personalities!

Next up: Test ride that horse!