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).

Your horse is talking: are you listening?

Your horse communicates with you all the time, and I don’t mean that he actually talks, like Mr. Ed the talking horse…

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Or Telepathically, as some think. I take issue with long distance animal communicators who “discern your horse’s thoughts from hundreds of miles away” – so long as you give them a credit card. Really good animal communicators may exist, but I suspect they need to be close to the animal. However, I digress.

Your horse wants to communicate to you. Yes, YOU, her person! Every day she is communicating to you.

How? Body language. Ears, of course, expression, tail swish, and so many more little hints IMG_1943that as we pay attention we begin to just know what our horse is thinking (at least some of the time). Some examples:

  1. I bought a Mio Fly Sheet. Nice and soft. My horse seems to like it fine. However, it rips easily, so I bought another fly sheet, more expensive, but sturdier. Horse wore it for a few days but started turning away when I brought it out. I had to ask her to hold still to put it on and the look of disgust was clear: Yuck, I HATE that blanket. Eyes squinty, head up, holding still, but not happy. Why are you making me wear it? I washed the Mio fly sheet and brought it back and her look of relief was so obvious. Now she happily stands still to be dressed, almost like she enjoys it. Communication: let me tell you which blanket I like (silly human).
  2. Saddles. My former horse was more and more difficult at the mounting block. Fidgeting, he didn’t want to line up with it, and would swing his butt away. Hmmm…saddle problem? I changed saddles and voila! Within a day or so, no problem at the mounting block. Do you think he was telling me something?
  3. My mare knows where I keep the sugar cubes. They are only rarely administered, but Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 7.49.54 PMwhen she sees me go to get one, oh, the look of intensity: yes, yes, please, please, please bring it to me NOW, you must bring it NOW. Her eyes bore into me as she mind melds with me: BRING ME THE SUGAR, HUMAN SLAVE. 
  4. This article has some interesting scientific studies on horse to human communication: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/37681/study-confirms-horses-talk-to-human-handlers.

When we are busy we miss the clues are horses are giving us about important things. What are some of the things your horse might be telling you?

I need more time to learn this. Slow down a little.

Something in my body hurts. I need some time to heal or I need my routine changed up a bit. Please be sensitive to my body and how it feels.

This is FUN! I like this. Let’s do some more!Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 6.40.33 AM

I don’t like this. It feels scary/hard/confusing. Help me with it.

Do you know what you’re doing? I need you to be in charge. If you’re not going to be in charge, I will have to take charge and that makes me nervous.

Let’s go on the trail today! Let’s jump today! Let’s gallop now!

Round bellied Ellie

Could we snuggle for awhile?

How about some sugar now? Or carrots? I’m so beautiful and you love to give me something, don’t you?

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This pony is very motivated by cookies. Heck, aren’t they all?

 

A field trip for Starlight

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“You can do this, Starlight. I know we’re at the big, scary Woodside HorsePark, but keep it together and don’t kill mom, O.k.?”

We’ve spent the last three weeks practicing calmly and easily loading and unloading from the horse trailer. Starlight had limited trailering experience when I bought her a month ago, and had never ridden in a straight load trailer (except when I bought her and brought her home). So she has needed some time to get used to the idea. We’ve established the inside of the trailer as home of the Magic Bucket of Joy (with delicious pellets) and Place Where You Get Lots of Pats and Carrots. It’s working.

Starlight eyes the trailer for a moment of two, weighs the pros and cons. “Gosh I really want that magic bucket…but I’ll have to get in the trailer…hmmm, I guess I should just do what mom wants and get in. She’ll be happy, and I’ll get the bucket. Sure, what the heck.” And in she goes. Yahoo.

 

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Focus, my child. Focus.

Big day today: our first field trip to another place. Having owned a horse who periodically would REFUSE to load back into the trailer (stranding me in places like the county park for hours upon end), I have a bit of trailer PTSD. But I am trusting Starlight to do the right thing. So far, so good. And I have to take the plunge at some point. Besides, Starlight and I are going to shows, trails, clinics, etc. We need to trailer places.

Starlight was very excited at the Horsepark – and who can blame her? It has wide open spaces, many arenas, lots to look at, and I wasn’t able to take another calm horse to babysit her.

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EEEK! Just so you know I don’t show you only beautiful shots. Hollow back, head in the air, not a pretty picture. Fortunately, this was a minority of the time and only at the beginning.

But once I was on her, she was willing to focus on the work and within 10 minutes I was able to do somewhat decent work with her.

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Much better here…As she sheds her bleached winter coat, her coat is becoming an interesting “tiger’s eye” color. She’s Black on her registration papers, but I’m not sure what color she’ll be when she sheds out.

Star is a SUPERSTAR and I’m very pleased with how she did in her first outing!

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Practicing our dressage in the Big Covered Arena. Garbage cans in the background.

 

Will work for cookies

What will you do for a cookie, my pony?

Many cookies shall be yours, my good pony.

I am not one to give many treats by hand. Having owned a fair number of ponies along the way, I’m familiar with their swift and compelling obsession with the hand in the pocket: GIVE IT TO ME NOW, NOW, NOW!!! Or I take the hand, too.

And yet, I’ve noted that the use of an occasional treat really sweetens Finn’s demeanor and motivates him to work harder. It reinforces training.

Finn would probably make an excellent circus pony. Cute, highly trainable, very motivated by treats.

So I keep that in mind as we do our dressage training. The occasional carrot or cookie reinforcement is not a bad thing.

When Finn first came to me, he was perfect in almost every respect except that he expected a cookie to stand at the mounting block. This is common, many people train their horses this way. However, I believe a horse needs to just stand for mounting with no treat, because what if I don’t have one some day? I might be on the trail and have to get off and on for some reason, or be at a show and not have anything in my pocket. I don’t want to run around looking for a treat at that moment.

So we began mounting block training. The first four days, Finn threw a fit at the mounting block each day. WHAT? NO TREAT??? He fidgeted and wouldn’t stand still. I mounted rapidly (this is the dangerous moment), and then he would throw himself backwards and have a temper tantrum. “Where is my TREAT??? I want my mommy!!! You’re not a nice mommy, you’re not doing things the right way!” He even reared a little (naughty pony). The tantrum only lasted 20 seconds each day, but it was impressive and dramatic.

Then we would be on our way and everything was fine. I’ll say this for Finn: he can let it go and move on.

For four days, Finn threw bigger and bigger tantrums, trying to intimidate me into his way of thinking, but I am made of sterner stuff. I would win the battle of the mounting block! On the fifth day, he stood quietly (if a bit sullenly). He realized it was a new day, a new deal, and he wasn’t going to win this one. I praised him copiously but did NOT give him a treat.

Nowadays Finn often get treats from me for good work, and sometimes just for being cute, but never anywhere around the mounting block. If someone else rides him and gives him a mounting block treat, it resurrects that behavior (oh no!) although I’m able to pretty quickly re-establish the right behavior again. He knows what I expect at the block and he’s perfect now.

“I worked hard, mom. I need a cookie.”

Treats given judiciously and with the right timing are a useful training tool, and we enjoy giving them, so why not?

Extra effort, or some new training, should be rewarded with verbal praise, a soft pat, and sometimes a treat. Studies have shown that intermittent reinforcement is more effective than rewarding on a schedule, so it’s best not to give a treat EVERY time your horse does something well. Vary your rewards, but do reward your horse. She appreciates it! And sometimes it just feels good to give your horse a carrot, because it makes him SO happy. Of course, if your horse is insulin resistant, give low sugar treats or stick to pats and verbal praise.

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Experimenting, making mistakes, and learning

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.05.06 PMSome days it feels like I am banging my head against an immovable brick wall of lack of progress in my riding. But continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is foolish, fruitless, or just plain nuts. Something’s gotta give.

I ask, “How can I change the equation here? What’s not working? What needs to be different? What experiment or exercise can I try?”

Sometimes just hitting pause for a moment and letting my horse walk around on a loose rein while I ponder the mysteries of training gives me enough mental space to figure out the problem and solve it.  How about if I try it this way? (Nope). This way? (Ugg). How about this? Yes! Often I can solve things myself based on experience, past lessons and study (reading/watching videos), but when I need more help, I ask for it.

Giving myself (and my horse) the freedom to experiment and sometimes look awkward, silly, or unbalanced is essential to learning. If we do not try and sometimes fail, if we worry too much about always getting it right, we are still automatons who growth and joy are stifled.

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Of course we all need trainers and eyes on the ground as well as our own commonsense and experimentation. None of us is sufficient unto herself. Even professionals need lessons occasionally, and those of us who are amateurs generally need them more often. A lot more often. Whether we profit from what we learn when facing trials and tribulations in our riding – and they will come, I promise you – depends on our mindset. I ran across a fascinating article on learning mindsets which very much applies to riders:

 In her influential research, (Carol) Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.  http://www.wired.com/2011/10/why-do-some-people-learn-faster-2/

I’ve been in both camps: despising myself as the worst rider of all time, hopeless, just give it up and find some other way to spend my money (and imagine how much money I’d have if I gave it up!), or thinking, o.k., I’ll work harder and smarter and we’ll get there!

Many riders divide themselves into the talented or the not-talented category, which is a FALSE DICHOTOMY. They think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Not so: riding is not inborn, it is taught.

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Edward Gal and Totilas. Not many riders have his physique (look at those long, draped legs). And not many horses are Totilas, either. Well, we can’t all be at the top of the bell shaped curve.

 

Now it is true that some people have more advantages for riding than others: long legs, shorter torso, slim elegant body, blah, blah, blah. And of course learning to ride as a child is an advantage. But everyone improves by applying themselves body, mind and soul to this impossibly engrossing task – rather, passion! – of moving in harmony with your horse. And no one gets there without hard work. Even the greats of the horse world worked very hard to get there and to keep themselves there.

As long as we are happy together...that's really the point, isn't it?

As long as we are happy together…that’s really the point, isn’t it? Oh well, yes, I’d like to make progress, too…and we are! Because Finn and I work hard at it.

In the end, what we all want is harmony with our horses, whether you trail ride, jump, ride dressage, or western.  Here’s a beautiful example from one of the great masters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1YO3j-Zh3g

Bless this barn and the Horses within…

A surprising email entered my inbox:

 ISO of minister, shaman, priest(ess) or ex-priest for blessing of a stable

Blessing a stable and its horses? Why not?

Blessing a stable and its horses? Why not?

Intriguingly unusual! And guess what, HorseSage (me) just so happens to be an ordained christian minister. Retired, but I can still bless a stable. Never done it before, but it sounds like the perfect coming together of all my life experience and interests: Horses, spirituality, people, and a party afterwards. What could be better?

Although we follow many spiritual paths, many horse people find horses to be spiritual animals who help us connect more deeply to God.

I contacted the woman hosting the event and we immediately hit it off. Most horse fanatics speak a common language and we found we were on the same page. Pretty soon we were chatting about our adult children, our dreams of driving mini ponies some day, and how many horses we’d cried over. A new friend! You get it!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the event as she wasn’t sure how many people were coming (20? 30? 50? 75?), or exactly where we would put things. This would have to be one of the (many) times I just had to prepare, pray, and trust God for the details.

Our basic plan was: Put the horses in the arena, doing a “parade of horses”, while I blessed the Horses and the new Arena and Barn. Then the Feast of Tacos, yahoo!

The appointed evening came, and all exceeded my expectations. The weather was perfect, the property was beautiful: horse heaven with immaculate barns (no flies!), large paddocks to play in, a beautiful new arena, friendly guests, and even an adorable pony foal to pet. What more could you want?Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 11.34.28 AM

What made this event different and special, though, was perspective:

They wanted to honor God in this experience, and to ask for his protection and blessing in the future.

It is powerful to invite God to be present, and we felt it. Below is the text of the prayers I offered.

Horse Blessing:

Lord, you created each of these horses and they give you great pleasure and joy. You know them by name and you know the number of hairs in their manes and tails. Thank you for them. Thank you for their unique personalities. We ask you to watch over them as tenderly as a mother watches over her children. 

Protect them from harm, from disease and injury, from fear. 

Deepen the relationship they are building with their human. 

May there be deep trust, friendship, and love between them. May they keep their human safe, Lord, and may their human keep them safe. 

In your name we pray, Amen.

Barn Blessing:

Father, thank you for these wonderful new facilities. We pray the arena will be safe for all horses and riders, and that it will be a positive place for learning, fun, and fitness. 

May the new barn provide shelter from the storm of rain which we hope is coming this winter (!). May it never leak and may the horses feel safe, secure, and content within its walls.

May this entire property be a place of peace, calm, and grace, where your presence is felt through these blessings, and where horse and human live together in harmony. 

Bless the larger horse community of Woodside and Portola Valley, and all those who work and live with horses. Thank you for these magnificent creatures!

Amen!

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If I only had a brain (I could remember what I learned)

With a sense of the clock ticking for both me and Finn (“Far Above Par”) – Finn being in his prime work years, and me being, uh, not so prime but still able to work sort of hard – we’ve been signing up for clinics and applying ourselves hard to the study of dressage.

That is, I have been applying myself hard: reading articles, watching videos, attending the World Cup, taking lessons. Finn goes along for the ride and will work for treats, bless his pony heart.

I worked hard, I've had my bath. Now feed me. I can't believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about getting her chores done and getting to the important part of the day: LUNCH! How a pony suffers for his art.

I worked hard, I’ve had my bath. Now feed me. I can’t believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about finishing her chores and getting to the important part of the day: MY LUNCH!              How a pony suffers for his art.

Finn continues to be an excellent schoolmaster, performing beautifully when asked approximately correctly (ha!), very safe and sane. A little occasional sluggishness is excusable as the price I pay for such safety and general good nature about putting up with my learning curve.

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora – this looks like medium trot on a circle, I think. We did a lot of shoulder-in to medium trot that day.

Having moved barns to get to better, more consistent footing for training, I now have access to some new clinicians, too. What I’m finding comforting is that everyone pretty much says the same thing, with variations. These are the current challenges, as we continue our dressage journey and debut at 4th level this year:

  • Consistent uphill balance
  • Better engagement from behind
  • Consistency! Every transition clear, planned for, balanced
  • Maintaining balance all the time – through the extensions, transitions, corners, etc.

If I could do everything in that list,  4th level test 3 would become simple and I could just move on to Prix St Georges, right? RIGHT?

But we’re not there yet, no, not by a long shot…So, how to get from here (inconsistent) to there (balanced and consistent)?

Here’s what all the clinicians (and my trainer) are saying:

1) Don’t nag! Give an aid, get a response, get your leg off of him.  He must become very light to the leg and responsive to the seat as you go up the levels. You can carry a horse through lower level tests. Not so as you get higher. Things come too fast and the demands are too great. The horse has to carry itself and be responsive to your seat and your light aids. Train it to be so. Finn is happy to be trained to be either dull or responsive: my choice. And while I’d MUCH rather ride a responsive horse, it’s amazing how quickly I slip back into nagging and I dull him. This is my constant battle but I’m improving. I worked on activating the horse in January with another clinician and am STILL working on it. If you also struggle with this problem, you might find this article useful: (https://wordpress.com/post/75277491/496/)

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Look at me nagging! See that leg curled up with the spur pressing in? Disengages my seat, tightens my leg, and dulls his side. Not to mention my reins are too long and my hands too low, my eyes looking downward rather than ahead. I think I am posting here and that’s why I don’t seem to quite be sitting in the saddle.

The details matter. Where my leg hangs (closer to the girth vs too far back), how I use it and take it off. What kind of spurs I use. At my latest clinic, Miguel Tavora told me to get swan necked spurs instead of the Prince of Wales ones I currently use, because Finn is small and my leg is long. This will help me keep my leg long and off him rather than being tempted to have it curled up and pressed into him (as above).

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP.

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP

2) Keep your leg long and draped! Don’t grip. Open your hips. Sit soft and deep in the saddle. Do you know how difficult this is? Yes, I’ll bet you do. Especially on a pony. It actually IS harder on a pony. O.k., enough whining. I love my pony. I can and WILL do this. Let me recommend you start with a saddle that fits you (and your horse) well. This is impossible to do in an ill-fitting saddle. My saddle fits and I have no excuse.

3) Give forward with your hands – without losing the contact! This takes feel and timing. Keeping the horse on the bit, moving forward, and yet having a forward/giving feeling is a great feeing but I have to think about it. Otherwise I can tend to have a backwards hand which put the brakes on for the horse. Charlotte Dujardin is my role model here:Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.03.14 AM

Look at Charlotte – leg long and draped, hands forward and yet maintaining the contact. A teensy bit behind the vertical with her torso if we’re going to be nit-picky, but if anyone ever got such a nice picture of me, I’d blow it up into poster size and put it on my wall to say, “Look, I did it right for one brief shining moment!” She’s a lovely and effective rider.

When I practice with Finn these days, I have mantras running through my head: reins shorter and higher! Leg long! Don’t nag! Give him space, don’t hold with your hand (but don’t let him off the contact).

“Remember to reward often,” Finn says. We horses appreciate it.

All this and keep the horse and yourself in balance. Oh yeah, and memorize a couple of tests, too.

Dressage is for crazy people, don’t you agree? 

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