Sunday, February 16, 2014

What do I need to know before I buy a saddle?

Your saddle is the most expensive, and the most important, piece of tack you will buy.  There are some important things to consider and being trendy, pretty or cheap are not the priorities in choosing a saddle.  I've bought four saddles this year, three for my daughter and one for me.  I learned something from each purchase.

If you have your own pony, the saddle should fit the pony.  Fitting the rider is important but fitting the pony is more important.  A poorly fitting saddle can give the pony a sore back, making him cranky and unwilling to work.  If the saddle doesn't fit the rider, she will fight the saddle and find it difficult to use her seat properly.  I experienced this for the first time this winter which prompted me to buy my own saddle, something I longed to own for nearly 30 years.  I tried about 10 saddles from Dover Saddlery and found that some were a terrible fit for me and others were great.  Buying saddles is process and can take time.  It can be frustrating but it is worth doing the work to find the right saddle for you and your horse.

Basic Jump Saddle

Dressage saddle without stirrups
There are 2 major categories of English saddles - jumping (all purpose and close contact fall into this category for our purposes) and dressage.  The current trend is to have brown tack for jumping and black tack for dressage.  Your bridle and stirrup leathers should match the color of your saddle.  Dressage saddles have longer flaps (the leather pieces on the side of the horse under the rider's leg), longer billets (the straps that attach to the girth) and a much deeper seat.  They often have significant knee blocks.  Jump saddles make it easier for the rider to get up and out of the seat with shorter, more forward flaps.

Each brand of saddle is a little different and they start with different shapes.  Some are very flat, some are very rounded or narrow.  There are the brands sold in retails stores and there are the higher end custom saddle brands.  Saddles can be purchased from retails
stores, saddle makers, saddle fitters and consignment shops.  Buying a saddle from a consignment shop is a great way to go if you can find the proper fit for your horse.  There's a place in New Hampshire called Pelham Saddlery.  They have an amazing selection of used saddles and will come to you with saddles for a reasonable fee which is waved if you buy a saddle from them.

The saddles sold in retail stores - Collegiate, Pessoa, Stubben, Bates - while pricey, are less expensive than custom brands such as County, Black Country and about 100 more.  A decent retail store saddle will cost between $1000 - $2000 and more.  Custom saddles are about $5000 new.  Used saddles are often not much less than new saddles, especially if they have been well maintained.  It just depends on the saddle.  A major difference, besides the custom fitting and leather quality, is the flocking or padding in the "panels" under the saddle where it rests against the horse's back.  Flocking is usually wool (it can be synthetic) and looks like it just came off the sheep's back.  It's reasonably adjustable.  Many of the retail store brands use foam, memory foam or air bags to fill the panels.  Some of the retail store brands can be converted from air bags to flocking to improve fit, comfort and adjustability.

Another thing to look for is an adjustable tree or gullet.  The tree itself isn't really adjustable.  The tree is the hard structure the saddle is built around.  The gullet plate is the metal piece at the front of the tree that can be changed.  Pessoa, Bates and others offer adjustable trees.  They have an opening that allows you to get into the construction of the saddle and use a screwdriver or allen wrench to take out one gullet plate and replace it with a wider, narrower, longer one.  This is especially useful if you will be changing horses from time to time.  Some of the custom brands have a metal piece at the crown of the tree and a good saddle fitter will be able to bend it to the shape of the horse within reason.  This is not something you can do for yourself, however,

The best thing to do when buying a saddle is to contact a saddle fitter.  I bought all my saddles before doing this.  It worked out fine but I may have made different choices if I had spoken to her first.  My daughter's first saddle was an easy purchase.  We bought a little saddle used from a friend when we leased her first pony.  The price was right but the saddle was really too small for my daughter.  When we bought her current pony, I had a woman from Dover Saddlery bring saddles to the barn to try on him.  We decided to buy both jump and dressage saddles, primarily because there happened to be an extremely well priced dressage saddle on closeout that fit both Elizabeth and her pony.  We also bought at Mattes Pad with shims to help correct the fit of the both saddles.  Her jump saddle happens to be a Pessoa but that was just the one that fit the pony the best though we do need to use the correction pad to get the fit he needs.

When it was my turn to buy a saddle, I chose a Bates saddle after trying several other brands.  The price was reasonable considering I don't own my own horse and I had read online that Bates saddles are easily converted from air pads to flocking.  It's a really nice saddle and I love riding in it.

What do saddle sizes mean?  There are two main sizes - the tree size/gullet size and the seat size.  The tree which is the major structure of the saddle, can be made of wood, plastic, and other hard substances,  fits the horse and can be narrow, wide, flat, round, curved.  Every brand tends toward its own shape.  The gullet plate is the piece that can be changed in adjustable saddles, usually starting with a medium which can be changed to be narrower or wider.  As long as you buy a saddle that doesn't have an extreme tree shape, changing the gullet plate and amount of flocking can go a long way to getting a saddle to fit most horses.  The seat size ranges from 15 for a tiny children's saddle to an 18 and up for large men.  I'm 5'7" and ride in a 17" seat.  My daughter is almost 5' tall and she rides in a 16.5" seat which has a little room for her to grow.  The seat is measured by stretching a tape measure from the button to the center back of the seat (A to B in the diagram above).  If you are looking at dressage saddles, the flap length may become a factor.  The flap measurement is F in the diagram above.

About a month ago we met with a saddle fitter.  This is different than the woman from Dover who came out to try saddles on our pony for us.  The saddle fitter has taken an intensive course in England and she apprenticed to an American saddle fitting legend.  Over time she has developed her own approach and I found it fascinating to watch her work.  Her name is Diane Williams and if you are in the New England area she is wonderful.  But wherever you are, there should be good saddle fitters available to you.  This is a list of saddle fitters I found on the website of yet another custom saddle maker and Diane is on the list.

The saddle fitter will first palpate the horse's back and check for sensitivity and any issues the horse might be having.  The she will put the saddle on your horse without anything under it.  She can see if it's sitting to high or low.  She will add or remove flocking, adjust the tree.  I had her convert my Bates saddle from air to flocking and she got a great fit for the horse I ride.  As it turned out, the inexpensive Circuit dressage saddle I bought my daughter was flocked with synthetic fiber fill.  Diane pulled some out and replaced it with wool.  Again, she was able to achieve an excellent fit.  My daughter no longer needs to use the Mattes Pad with this saddle and has gone from hating riding in it to finding it extremely comfortable.  Elizabeth's Pessoa jump saddle, while very comfortable, has a foam construction.  There was nothing Diane could do for it so Elizabeth still needs to use the Mattes Pad to get a good fit on her pony which is fine, just a little annoying.  We still like Elizabeth's jump saddle and considering she will outgrow this pony and the saddle in two years, we would not have considered anything custom made.  I would, however, lean towards Bates saddles in the future.  I really do love mine, the prices are good, the leather is high quality, the tree is adjustable and they can be converted to wool flocking giving you the best of everything.

Once you buy a saddle, remember you will need to buy stirrups, stirrup pads and stirrup leathers.  Leathers come in a variety of lengths so if you are buying for a child, be sure to get short leathers.  You can always punch more holes but it's nice if they fit right off the bat.  Stirrups also come in sizes - widths.  Just pay attention to what you are buying and ask for help.  You will need a quilted saddle pad to go between the horse and the saddle to keep the saddle clean and to keep it from slipping around.  And of course you will need a girth.  We like fuzzy girths and prefer the Toklat girth for our jumping saddles.  They are washable and comfortable for the horse.  If you buy a dressage saddle, the girth will be 20 inches shorter than a jump girth, most likely black to match the saddle and the pad may need to be a bit bigger to accommodate the longer flaps.  This is a good article on choosing the proper girth.

And now that you own a saddle, you need to take care of it!  Saddles that are kept clean and conditioned will last a lifetime.  In our house we clean saddles with glycerin soap, oil the billets, flaps and leathers and condition the seat with Lexol conditioner and oil.  There are a ton of great products on the market.  Some people prefer to clean with specially designed leather cleaners such as Effax Combi. Check out your local tack store and talk to a pony clubber to find out more about serious tack cleaning.

Congratulations on your huge purchase!  Happy riding!


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I hate to sound silly, but what does my pony eat?

It may sound silly to some people but honestly, if we hadn't left our first barn and joined pony club, I don't think I would have any idea how to answer this question.  The day we changed barns, the owner of our old barn gave me a great list of everything the new barn would need to know and that was when I realized how little I knew about our pony.  I had no clue what any of it meant.  I'm pleased to say I now know exactly what our pony eats and I am the one who decides what to feed him (with lots of help from people who know what they're doing).  It isn't that difficult once you get your head around the basics.

The most important component to a horse's diet is forage or roughage - grass or hay.  Some horses in some climates live outside in grassy pastures all the time and graze.  That is often their only form of sustenance.  Lucky horses!  

Because we have developed an artificial lifestyle for our horse athletes, we usually need to supplement their forage with concentrates - usually grain.

Succulents are the fun, "healthy" treats we like to give horses such as apples, carrots and fresh grass.  They are a treat and should be given to reward good behavior and not given in excess.

And lastly, just like humans, our modern, artificially kept horses often take supplements - think of them as vitamins.  Technically, supplements fall under concentrates but I order them separately and for beginners like us, they are easier to comprehend on their own.

So those are the basics.  Now for the nitty gritty.

Horses have enormously long intestines and food takes about 3 days to make it's way through their bodies.  It is important that they eat very little, very frequently.  Horses need more food than ponies.  Concentrates can be high in sugar and make ponies very excited - just like a child gets hyped up on cupcakes and ice cream at a birthday party.  

According to my pony club daughter, roughage feed includes hay (varieties include timothy, clover, bermuda, alfalfa), grass, hay pellets, range cubes and sugar beet pulp.  Hay pellets, range cubes and sugar beet pulp must be soaked before feeding.  They expand in water so if you feed them dry, they will expand in the horse's stomach and can cause their stomach to explode.  Which leads me to inform you of the fact that horses cannot vomit.  Therefore, what goes in stays in unless removed surgically. 

Horses eat hay all day and all night.  They need this to keep their digestion moving.  How much they eat depends on size.  Hay is given at our barn first thing in the morning (6am?), they are then turned out with hay after their grain (if they get grain), given hay again around noon, 2:00, 5:00 and 9:00pm.

Horses have very sensitive systems.  When there is a change in hay, they can react badly.  Therefore, when any change is made, it should be made slowly.  When we go away for a couple of days we travel with our own hay.  If we are away for a week we may bring 2 bales and mix it with the new hay for a few days before changing over completely.  Then we have to do the same thing in reverse upon our return home.

Concentrates are the means we use to control our horses weight and nutrition.  Depending on your hay, your horse may not be getting all the nutrients he needs.  There are a million different products out there to combat this problem.  Many brands have comparable grain products and most barn managers know a reasonable amount about the grains they feed.  Grain is usually fed twice a day, morning and late afternoon at our barn.  Our pony didn't get any grain or supplements prior to living with us but we now feed him a tiny amount of MVP in the morning.  MVP is a pellet form vitamin.  It gives him some nutrition and something fun to eat in the morning.  It also gives us something to mix with his supplements which come in powder form.  We give him supplements for his digestion because he's kind of gassy.  There are so many products and it is all incredibly confusing.  Find someone who really knows what they are doing to help you figure out what your pony needs.  He likely doesn't need anything!

On the topic of supplements, for people like us who have one pony and embrace convenience,
SmartPaks are a great thing.  You can choose whatever supplements you feel your horse needs, determine the quantity (they are very helpful with this, professional vitamin salespeople) and whether you want them in the am or pm feed.  The company then packages the supplements and ships them, usually free of charge, to your barn so whoever is doing the feeding at your barn just opens a pack each morning or evening and adds it in.  If you instead choose to buy supplements in bulk you can make up your own packs using ziploc baggies.  This is what we did with our first two ponies.  It takes quite a bit of time and was tedious.  SmarPaks are just easier for us.  That said, not every supplement is available.  Again, this is whatever works for you and your horse!

Another extremely important component of your equine diet is salt and water.  Your horse should always have a salt lick in his stall.  Take note of whether or not your horse is consuming the salt.  And horses always need an ample supply of fresh water.  This is something your barn should be providing throughout the day, especially in winter when the water buckets freeze over and need to be broken open with a hammer every few hours.

I'm sure you've heard the terms colic and founder but may not really know what they mean.  Colic refers to a twisting of the intestines.  With so much intestine floating around in their big horse bodies, horses are prone to this issue.  How you feed them can contribute to or reduce the risk of colic.  Horses should not eat concentrates just prior to or just after hard work.  A little hay is OK but if you plan to ride around grain feeding time, ask the barn to hold the grain until after you ride.  You should not ride for at least 30 minutes after grain is fed and should not give it to your horse after work until they are fully cooled down and have first consumed a little hay to get their digestive system going again.  If the weather is good and you have time to graze your horse after riding, make sure that he is fully cooled down first.  And be careful about how much grass you let him eat.  Especially in the spring time the sugar content of the grass can be very high and too much sugar can cause him to founder.

What is founder?  It is a condition of the hoof in which the coffin bone pulls away from the hoof.  I don't fully understand it but this is a pretty good article if you would like to learn more.  The thing you need to know is that too much sugar can seriously damage a horse's delicate system.  It seems strange that sugar can cause huge issues in the hooves but that is exactly what happens.  Horses' hooves are complicated and connected to their nervous systems.  Unfortunately, once a horse has these hoof issues caused by founder, or laminitis, a different but equally horrifying hoof issue, there is little that can be done for them.

We have cared for three ponies.  All three had significantly different diets and all three stayed nutritionally healthy.  All three taught me something about feed.  Our second pony had to have her hay soaked to remove dust - she had allergies.  She also had monthly allergy shots.  And she loved to eat.  She is a prime example of ponies who just love to eat eat eat and it is up to us to help control that tendency.  Our first pony on the other hand tended to be rather slim, unusual for a pony.  Our current pony is super easy.  I think he's pretty psyched to have morning grain.  We don't give him afternoon grain and unlike the horses who know it's feeding time and start making noise around 3:00pm, he is happy to eat a little hay and do some work in exchange for a yummy treat.  We've given different supplements to each pony as well.  I'm not sure if any of them do anything but it makes me feel like a good caregiver.  There are supplements out there for marsh behavior, for old age, to make their coat shiny and for anything else you can think of.  They can be very expensive and some probably are worth giving.

As with everything, make sure you have someone who can help you with knowing what to feed your pony and when.  That's the most important thing.  If you can, spend a day helping out with feeding at your barn and learn from the people who work there.  With 40 some horses at our barn it's fascinating to see all the different feed.  Some people bring in their own hay because they like feeding alfalfa or timothy.  Some horses have serious issues and need really special feed regiments.  Some guys like ours just eat what they're given and seem to thrive on anything.  Once again, horses are a lot like people.

If you care to read further on the topic, the pony club manuals have great information.  The D Level Manual is a little shorter and more simplistic and starts on page 199.  The C Level Manual is longer and goes into great detail starting on page 167.  I highly recommend reading these books if you can find the time.

Happy eating!