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Karen: My Saddle Fitter

This blog will tell you all about my saddle fitter, Karen. From the first time I met her, she greeted me politely and offered to exchange breath with me. Horses show affection by gently blowing into each other's nostrils, so when Karen offered this gesture, it helped me trust her.

Years ago, when my owner and I first came together, Butch, my farrier, was at the barn trimming my feet. As a matter of course, he touches my back before he trims my hooves and afterward. Touching my back and rump gives him information about where I might be sore due to a hoof being out of balance.

On this particular day, I was highly reactive when he touched me. I practically "sat down." This is an expression used to describe when a horse dramatically shrinks away from contact.

He told my owner that my back was very "hot." In this case, "hot" meant excessively sore. He strongly recommended that I be given some time off from riding. He also suggested that my owner gets in touch with a saddle fitter. He suspected my saddle was the cause of my back pain.

Suppose undesirable behaviors crop up in a horse when under saddle, proper tack fit should be considered in determining the underlying problem. It's natural for people to interpret a horse's behavior as naughty when they buck or rear when being ridden. However, the reality may be that the horse is expressing pain.

A friend of my owner recommended Karen, a professional saddle fitter. Karen uses a special Thermal Imagery camera to help her assess saddle fit. The camera detects heat and records its intensity in various colors, and she knows how to read and interpret these colorful images.

The colors show her where the saddle presses too hard or, conversely, where it has too little contact. The images also reveal imbalances in the rider.

My owner rode me in my saddle for thirty minutes before Karen's arrival to get these pictures. She arrived before we finished our session and stood silently observing us.

Karen immediately slid the saddle off me and propped it up against the stall wall when we were through. She aimed the camera at the underside and took a picture. She noticed the problem immediately.

The image revealed that the saddle was pinching me on one side near my withers. It also showed that the saddle put more pressure on one side of my back than the other.

The images led her to test the saddle tree. The tree is the most critical part of the saddle. It's what ensures a proper fit for the horse, balance of the rider, and overall saddle strength.

It turned out that the tree in my saddle was defective. It was not symmetrical, which caused one side to press harder on my back than the other. Throughout multiple rides, the extra pressure caused my back problems.

My owner was learning that solving problems with horses is a guessing game and a process of elimination. Next, Karen evaluated my back by touching me up and down my spine in various places. As she touched me, I shifted my weight, trying to avoid her fingers.

After the evaluation, Karen gave saddle recommendations to my owner based on my build. My owner found several saddles with the specifications that the fitter outlined. Karen returned to the barn to determine which one best fit both my owner and me.

They chose a black County Despri All-Purpose saddle which is an English-style saddle. An all-purpose saddle is a hybrid of two entirely different English saddles; the jumping or close contact saddle and the dressage saddle. The All-Purpose saddle may be favored by riders who jump their horses and ride on the flat.

There are two primary styles of saddles, English and Western. English saddles are smaller and lighter. These saddles provide the rider with closer contact to the horse to steer it more effectively, useful in jumping, eventing, and dressage. Western saddles are primarily used on ranches to work cattle, trail rides, and rodeos.

Once Karen picked the saddle that naturally fit us the best, she made alterations to the saddle's flocking. Flocking is material used to stuff the panels of a traditionally made English saddle to fine-tune the saddle's fit and protect the horse's back from the saddle tree. Flocking is usually wool fiber or foam.

She opened up the saddle, pulled out some of the old flocking, and added new wool material. She softened the saddle area that fit over my withers to give me more room. The saddle needed not to cause any pressure points. Mom rode me again, and afterward, Karen took another picture to ensure a proper fit. Perfect, the images revealed even pressure and nothing pinching.

I was much happier in my new saddle. No more pain! Karen visits me two or three times a year to evaluate my saddle, as my body changes from consistent work and learning how to carry myself properly.

Thermal Imagery is a helpful tool but not critical to providing a proper saddle fit. Professional fitters will have specialized training. The training requires education in the anatomy and biomechanics of the horse, conformation (i.e., the shape and structure of the horse), rider influences, and of course, everything about a saddle and a good fit. There are several certifications associated with this profession.

Mom calls these special people our "dream team." My dream team consists of Butch, my farrier; Franco, my chiropractor; and Karen.

They have dedicated their lives to helping horses be more comfortable in their bodies and therefore happier in their work with their human companions. I am lucky to have such an incredible dream team!

*The picture is the thermal image of my ill-fitting saddle.

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