"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Saddle Fitter

On Friday, I had Susie Coffey, a local and highly recommended saddle fitter, come out to check out my saddles.

Reason? I'd been noticing a little muscle wasting behind Lily's shoulder blades. The muscles in front of and behind a horse's shoulder blades are called the trapezius. The portion in front of the scapula is the cervical trapezius, the portion behind the scapula (and under the saddle) is the thoracic trapezius. Loss of tone of the thoracic trapezius muscle is considered to be an issue specific to saddle fit problems.

The points of the saddle tree fall right over the thoracic trapezius.

Same muscle group in people.

So it doesn't look like a big deal in this photo. It was subtle. But the fact that you can see a shadow at all behind her scapula indicated a new change in her back. She used to be solid muscle back there; no shadow to speak of. And she's not skinny-she's gained a healthy amount of weight since arriving at the new barn. We just need to get to work on that topline again...
(Please excuse how grimy she looks - she was filthy, even after grooming her! Her mane hangs mostly to the right and I had flipped it over to the left to get a good shot of her shoulders.)

Here you can see the hollows better. Compare to the photo below:

Lily in Florida, September 2012. See? No shadow behind her shoulder blades.
I do miss that roached mane...

I also wanted to see if the fit flaws of the Wintec Pro Contourbloc could be fixed. I used to ride Lily in a borrowed older model Wintec Pro that fit her like a glove. When I won the Contourbloc on eBay at the beginning of this year, I figured the fit would be the same as the regular Wintec Pro, as it's basically the same saddle. The only difference was the giant knee block, and the fact that the stirrup bar was placed further back to accommodate that block: a plus in my book, as it perfectly aligns your leg with your hip. I hadn't realized they'd updated the entire tree and thus the fit of the saddle. I've played around with different gullets and was not happy with the fit of any of them on her. However, Lily kept telling me she really liked this saddle. Recently I'd been riding her on the trails with it and while it's not as comfortable for me, she seemed VERY comfortable in it: stretching down and moving out with a swinging back. No significant soreness afterwards either. But it bridged. Not horribly, but enough to worry me.

Wintec Pro Contourbloc on Lily.
I scheduled the appointment a week in advance. Susie had said that the appointment would take about an hour for both saddles and didn't seem daunted when I described the Alta Escuela.

I'm still getting used to the incredible punctuality of equine professionals in this area. Vets and farriers were chronically late in both Puerto Rico and South Florida. My vet was notoriously an hour late for all appointments and wouldn't bother to call to let us know; I had to schedule the whole day for the farrier and hang around the barn waiting! Thankfully I lived 5 minutes from the barn at the time.

My vet here has been either half an hour early or on-the-dot punctual. The one single time she was late this past year, her tech called me 30 minutes before our appointment time to let me know they were running about 30 minutes late...and they still arrived only about 15 minutes after our appointment time. My trimmer used to also be punctual or 30 minutes early. With Susie, I had planned to be at the barn around 10:30 am, half an hour before our appointment time, so I could pull Lily from the field, groom her, and get the saddles out for her.

I should have known.

She called me at 10:00 am to let me know she was running 30 minutes early. I told her I'd be there about 5 minutes after her, so she added an extra stop en route and was able to make it so she arrived 5 minutes after me. At least I had Lily out for her by then!

It was cold (low 40's without the windchill), overcast, and very windy at the barn. I looked at the trees tossing in the wind and thought, "This is going to be fun..." Susie likes to watch you ride in the saddle she's adjusting so she can see it in action on the horse. Which I think is absolutely fantastic, but I didn't think her assessment would be an accurate one if a certain mare decided to start doing airs above ground...

Susie LOVED the Alta Escuela. She mentioned many, many times throughout the two hours that she was at the barn how much she loved the super wide panels on it (for maximum distribution of the rider's weight over the large muscles of the horse's back) accompanied by the wide channel. The saddle doesn't touch Lily's spine at all. Susie played with the flexion of the saddle and commented that it reminded her of treeless saddles (my saddle has a flexible tree). Ok, I knew it already, but it was really nice to hear from a professional that I have one helluva SUPER AWESOME saddle.

The underside of the Alta Escuela.
This is how wide the panels are. Panels this wide are rather rare in English-type saddles other than Ortho Flexes. (It's not the same type of panel of course, but the way they distribute the rider's weight over the horse's back is very similar.)

That's how wide the channel is.
The Alta Escuela on Lily. It's like it wraps itself over her back. Susie raved about this.
She really liked the fit of the saddle on Lily, except that it dipped a little too low in the front, mainly because of the loss of muscle behind her withers. She asked pointed questions about Lily's workload and type of exercise, the length of her layup, her turnout schedule. My homework is to do more lateral work with her to really develop her back muscles again.

Lily's back at the height of our lateral work, summer 2012. She had MUSCLE on that back - nice ridges of muscle along both sides of her spine. She had gone from a regular tree size to a wide! It took SO MUCH work, though - we were doing dressage schools at least 3 times a week; we had just started adding canter shoulder-in and various simple changes with the goal of moving on into flying lead changes.

Susie removed the saddle and sat down to open it up (this was surprisingly easy to do) and move the flocking around. She added flocking to the front points of the saddle and moved flocking away from the channel, towards the lower portions of the panels.

She placed it on Lily's back again, evaluated the fit, then propped the front of the saddle up with a folded 14" no bow wrap. (For this purpose, she recommends these no-bows.)

Like so.
This is how the no-bow is folded under the saddle.
She then did a quick evaluation of the Wintec, which ended up being a very simple fix: she felt the gullet needed to be the black (medium) gullet at the moment; I had the blue (medium-wide) in. She noticed the bridging I had mentioned, but she said it could be corrected by moving flocking around (what I had hoped!).

We put the Alta Escuela back on Lily, no saddle pad on underneath. She slid the no-bow under the front of the saddle and told me to start warming up in the arena in both directions while she finished adjusting the Wintec.

Well. Remember the wind? It was still whipping the trees around, making it feel closer to 30 degrees than the 40-something it actually was. Lily waited patiently for me to get on, but I could see her eyes rolling in her head.

She walked off tentatively. She was SOOOOO tense. I hadn't felt her like that in a long time. Her attention was all over the place. We did small circles at the walk. We made it around once in each direction before she started spooking. She spooked at the gate, at the trees, at the coop in the corner, at the bushes in the yard by the fence, at the minnies on the other side of the arena. Not big spooks, really; they were more like startles. But still. I had her move on into lateral work and she started focusing more on me. She still spooked at the gate every time we rode past it.

We trotted on and off around the arena, doing zig-zag leg yields and shoulder-ins. Lily felt absolutely fantastic with the saddle adjustments: she was moving out more and offering to stretch down and lift her back. (It was hard to really give with my hands when she was so wired, though-her ears were flicking all over the place!) She had finally started to relax somewhat by the time Susie showed up: she'd taken so long because she had a hard time taking the Wintec apart to move the flocking around.

Susie stood on her toolbox in the arena and had me walk on a 20 meter circle in front of her, then trot a circle in each direction and trot down centerline away from her. This way she could see how the saddle was moving with Lily, if it was trying to tip in one direction or another when we turned, how my weight affected the saddle's fit. She pointed out how the saddle does spread out over Lily's back both when she's moving and I'm sitting in it due to the flexible tree. She had me get off and we removed the saddle to see the dust pattern underneath. Lily had been fairly clean, but with the saddle directly on her back, all the dust came to the surface of the hairs, imitating what her sweat pattern would look like (I wish I'd taken photos but I was too engrossed absorbing everything I was learning to even think about it at the time!) It was beautifully even so Susie was very pleased with the fit. She said she could put more flocking under the saddle points at the front but decided to just have me keep using the no-bow to lift the saddle up, as she would eventually not need it once she started gaining muscle behind her shoulder blades.

We girthed up the Wintec on Lily's bare back again and right off the bat I could see the difference in fit after Susie's adjustments. The saddle now looked like it had been custom-made for Lily. No gimmicks needed to get to be in the correct spot on her back. It was absolutely amazing. I swung up and we repeated the exercise we'd done before, trotting in a 20 meter circle in front of Susie then trotting away from her down centerline.

Susie then had us move to the far end of the arena, where she stood in the center on her tool box and had us walk, trot and canter in both directions around her. I will admit I was a little nervous about cantering given the wind + cold + Lily's tension, but she stayed remarkably attentive to my directives and immediately popped into the canter from the trot. To the right she did her usual leaning-into-the-circle, but responded right away when I used my inside leg and outside rein to keep her from popping her outside shoulder out. Susie remarked how very tense she was at the canter, but that has always been the story with her at this gait-it's never been her strong suit, and on the trails we've pretty much only been cantering straight lines. I will say this: on the trail, her canter is a completely different beast. Relaxed, swinging, happy. In the arena, her canter has a tendency to be stiff and hollow-backed, especially to the right. She'll get rushy around the corners and circles in an attempt to pop that outside shoulder out and not use herself correctly. We had fixed this with SO MUCH work back in FL but I'd never gotten her back to that point again after the move north, between layups at the old barn due to abscesses, stone bruises, and then the tendon injury.

We do need to work more on this but the problem is that the footing in our current arena is so very deep that I hesitate to do too much intense work in that kind of footing on a horse that is only 4 months out of rehab for a soft tissue injury. Plan: walk and trot in the arena, lateral work at the walk and trot, and re-introduce the canter shoulder-in. We could even do that on the trail. It was the big tool in getting her balanced at the canter and it has the desired effect without having to canter endlessly in circles trying to get her straight.

Back to the saddle fitter: we were cantering fairly calmly to the right when Susie made a comment about how good Lily was being despite the weather. She had barely finished that sentence when Lily gave a huge scoot to the inside of the circle in response to some unseen ghost and both Susie and I laughed. She said, "I guess I spoke too soon!"

We then reversed directions and Lily's canter to the left was lovely. Much more relaxed and balanced, less hollow-backed. Susie noted that the Wintec wanted to shift slightly to the right on Lily's back on bending lines regardless of direction.

We stopped, removed the saddle and evaluated the dust pattern. No bridging!! Susie moved more of the flocking away from the channel, especially on the right side. She made a comment on how wide the channel is on this specific Wintec model too, which is another thing that I had liked about this saddle. I have a soft spot for flocked Wintecs, sorry! Haha...

That's with the medium gullet installed.

Fairly wide panels for a dressage saddle. At one point in time, I was considering a fancier consignment saddle (this was back in FL.) our local tack shop had a great selection of used saddles: Schleese, Albion, etc. I was surprised to realize that a lot of these fancier saddles still had fairly narrow panels and/or channels. I'm happier with the underside of my Wintec than I was with what I saw on a lot of those saddles. Now go compare this to the panels on the Alta Escuela. They'll still seem narrow by comparison!

This channel is a winner. As wide as on the Alta Escuela - the saddle does not touch Lily's spine at all.

We were all set with both saddles. Susie had originally said an hour and quoted me a price. I assumed the price would go up when she had to add flocking to both saddles and the appointment time extended to two hours.

The price I'd been quoted didn't change, despite the extra time. Seriously: another big hurrah for the equine professionals in this area.

And I was relieved that in the end Lily really was kick-ass with that weather. Susie mentioned it three times while we were wrapping up at the end! My mare just won herself another fan. Haha...

For the trail ride with Kathy afterwards, I chose the Alta Escuela with the no-bow and was happy that it didn't shift around despite all of our ups and downs on the trails. If this ends up being a fix needed for several months though, I think I might like to get a Skito shoulder shim pad because I'll be able to trust it not shifting all over her back as we tackle gnarlier trails at the trot and canter. We'll see how the no-bow trick continues to do with faster work.

No-bow folded under front of saddle, over the saddle pad. It stayed in place when attached like this.
On the trail afterwards, I had a completely different horse. Lily had been riding somewhat stiff in the Alta Escuela recently which is why, if you pay attention to the photos, I had switched to the Wintec the last couple of weeks. I'm in the Wintec in the banner photo.

Normally after about 15-30 minutes of walking on the trail, Lily's back warms up and turns into this flexible, bendy, springy, swinging thing. It feels like riding on a suspension cable. I hadn't felt that in a while; only at the end of certain rides. Well, this time she felt like that within 5 minutes of getting on - by the time we were on the meadow trail at the park, her back was oscillating. Oscillating is my term for that feeling. It remained throughout the 1.5 hour ride. Lily's attitude? Happy, relaxed, ears up and forward, neck stretched out and down in response to her swinging back, and asking to stretch down into the contact frequently. I rode her on a loopy rein most of the ride, so it was pretty fantastic when she asked for that contact.

Yup, I'm VERY happy I had my saddles adjusted!!

The term "oscillating back" comes from French classical dressage. In trying to find some sort of diagram of this effect for you guys, I stumbled upon this great article from Sustainable Dressage. If you're a dressage rider, use dressage in flatwork or for cross-training, go read it. It's a fairly subjective explanation of rolkur, where it comes from (it was discovered by accident-I had no idea!), its effects on the horse's physiology, why it has become so popular, and explains other methods of correctly developing the same muscles in your horse. It's a great article that explains everything matter-of-factly in shades of gray without running into the heated discussions that the subject of rolkur generally causes:


I thought it was great and wanted to share it with you guys since I know some of my readers have similar views to my own regarding dressage and conditioning. :)


  1. That's great! I've had not so great experiences with the saddle fitter, so this gives me hope to try it again in the future.

    1. Do try again with a different person! My fitter in FL was pretty good (ironically she was also named Suzie!) The owner of the tack shop I worked at in Tampa was also a saddle fitter, and a good one. She did some amazing work getting people with really hard-to-fit horses outfitted with saddles that worked both for them, their horses and the kind of riding they wanted to do.

      There are some good fitters out there. :) I hope you can find one that works for you and Simon!

  2. I had a great experience with my saddle fitter and we went with a saddle that has a flexible tree and a flexible sling for the seat/cantle/pommel. And very wide panels. We love it. There is absolutely no contact with Ashke's spine, it allows his shoulders to move freely, it has a wonderfully deep seat, and he has had zero tenderness in his back.

    So glad to see both of your saddles work!

    1. Me too! I found your post on your saddle fitter after reading this comment - what a cool saddle! I'd never heard of the Prestige Trekker Land before, but it's good to know they exist!

  3. I am so so envious about your proximity to so many awesome equine professionals in realms other than vet and feet needs! SO SO SO awesome. I'm (yet again) living vicariously though you and am so happy for you!

    1. Thank you! :D I guess there are perks to Maryland being the state with the largest equine population. ;) They just need more tack shops around here. Haha... I got spoiled in FL having 2 tack stores within a 10 minute radius.

  4. Wow that is a good price! I'm glad you found such a great saddle fitter and that she got both saddles right the first time out. :D

  5. Susie was the one that discovered my tree had been broken. I think she does a really good job.

    1. I agree! I was very happy with how thorough and knowledgeable she was. It's hard to find a saddle fitter that isn't biased towards specific brands/types of saddles.

  6. When the chiro was out one time with Archie, we actually did something comparable as your no-bow set up. Except on the back of the saddle to help alleviate pressure there. I was fortunate that my saddle pad allows for shim inserts, so I just got a couple off SmartPak to squeeze in there. This is a reminder to me to re-evaluate fit since work has changed!

    And I breezed through the article on Rolkur. Okay - I looked at pictures and read captions and chapter headings. It made me go through photos of my riding to ensure that I don't smoosh his face ever.

    1. Your Contender II is an amazing saddle pad! Someday I hope to own one! I had enjoyed reading your reviews on it on your blog back when you first got it.

      It's terrible that so many professional riders out there are into hyperflexion as a training method. I thought it was interesting that it's the direct cause of those super elevated extensions that are so popular in the dressage show ring today - it literally causes the muscles at the front of their shoulders to shorten, so when asked for extensions, the front legs swing WAY up and out due to too-short shoulder muscles. Ouch.

      So many people don't realize that everything they do with their horse, be it good or bad, is manifested in the horse's body. You've done a fabulous job with the Archman! :)

  7. Thanks for the details about the saddle fitter! It sounds like she did a great job! I'm interested to see how you develop Lily's back muscles again. I noticed that Nimo's back has lost muscle tone over the past few months, and I attribute that to my focus on trail riding over ring work. While I really haven't missed the ring that much, I think I'm really going to need to add more workout time for dressage to build his back up again.

    1. Loss of topline seems to come with the territory with all of this trail riding. It was a trend at Fort Valley - I noticed that all of the long distance horses had skinnier toplines. The ones that didn't used dressage for cross-training. I'll definitely keep posting about her progress here. I wish I could fit in more riding days for dressage - it's hard with this early darkness, or otherwise I'd be riding in the arena on Mondays after work.