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.|
|Wintec Pro Contourbloc on Lily.|
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.|
|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.|
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.)
|This is how the no-bow is folded under the saddle.|
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.|
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. :)