Debunked: The Lie That’s Told About Adjustable Gullet Saddles

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One of the best innovations in the world of saddle making has been the interchangeable gullet plate in the synthetic saddle tree. I mean, there’s no getting away from it, it’s brilliant. With the removal of a few screws, every horse owner can adjust their own saddle in minutes. Easy.

saddleWhy so good? Well, they can be fitted to a lot of horses. They can accommodate the changing shape of a growing young horse, as well as seasonal weight gain and loss, or the development of back muscle through training.

So what’s my problem with them?

Unfortunately, such saddles are often accompanied by extra inventions,
this time originating in the marketing department.

Before I go on, I must declare an interest here. I fit saddles. What’s more, I fit saddles with interchangeable gullet plates. I’m not going to say which brand, because that’s not what this post is about. I say this simply to demonstrate that I’m not against adjustable saddles.

My problem is very much with the misleading statements that are made in order to sell them, and in particular the notion that these saddles can be adjusted to fit any horse. Not just a single weight-changing or shape-changing horse, or a few horses in the same yard, but any horse.

They can’t. It’s not true. They simply can’t.

 

Back to the horse’s back

XchangeLet there be no doubt that many horses experience a lot of pain from ill-fitting saddles that are too tight, or too wide, at the front of the tree. Most people are familiar with the sight of horses with white hair behind the shoulder blade, and areas of mild to profound muscle wastage.

The so-called wither profile is incredibly important for this reason. Gaining a correct fit across the gullet (and I mean gullet in the Australian sense – referring to the front of the saddle tree only, rather than the entire channel) is a highly important aspect of saddle fitting.

Yet it isn’t the only aspect. Astonishing as it may seem, horses are 3-dimensional organic structures. Yes! And they have many profiles in that area where the saddle sits.

 

S/W Ver: 96.66.76RThink about horses’ backs. The gullet plate matches the profile across the withers. But what about the profile along the withers, as well? Withers have different heights and lengths…

There are other profiles, too. There’s along the spine. There’s across the back at the rear of the saddle area, close to the last ribs. All of these profiles have both lengths and angles.

 

This is one of the reasons why many experts in the world of saddle making and fitting refer to the 9 points of saddle fitting. Several of these points involve the length and angle of the profiles I’ve just mentioned.

genesisGoing back a few years, the common view was that there are 5 points. Times have moved on, anatomy and biomechanics are better understood, and saddle design has evolved dramatically to reflect more recent ideas about how a saddle should interact with the horse’s body and movement, as well as the rider’s. And yet…

Fitting saddles isn’t like buying a pair of socks

Going by a single measurement might be OK for some things, but it isn’t for saddles. There’s more than one measurement involved, and I’m not just talking about the rider’s seat size. Think again about horses’ backs.

  • We have high withers, middling withers and rangy tabletops. High withers can extend way back into the area of the saddle.
  • Looking along the spine, we can see dippy backs, straight backs and bumpy backs.
  • Looking across the spine, we can spot angular A-frame backs and smooth, flat and pudgy backs.
  • It’s easy to spot uphill and downhill backs.
  • Not to mention short backs and long backs (or, to be more accurate with saddle fitting, rib cages).
  • And spines may have wide spinal processes or narrow ones.
  • And how about round rib cages that spring out nearer the spine, or narrow, flat-sided rib cages that drop sharply away, and everything in between?
  • This is before we even look at damaged backs, uneven shoulders, laterally curved spines, and all manner of physical issues affecting the horse, rider and the saddle in between.

Horses have a combination of these features. Many horses have one or two that can make saddle fitting a bit tricky.  Some have combinations that make saddle fitting an utter nightmare.

The saddle’s tree must reflect all those variations. It’s what makes saddle fitting such an interesting challenge, and occasionally a very hard one.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

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But what about adjusting the flocking?

Well, what about it? Adjusting flocking is the saddle fit version of fine-tuning. It is not changing the overall fit of the saddle.

Adjusting the flocking when the tree is the wrong shape is like (ahem) whistling in the wind.

It’s like adding an extra hole to your belt in an attempt to make a pair of jeans fit, despite the fact that the waist is a size too narrow and the legs 6  inches too short.

Adjusting the flocking only works when the tree is already a fundamentally good fit. The same goes for any flocking substitute, such as risers or wedges inserted into the panels. It is not enough to make a saddle fit the horse, when the tree is the wrong shape.

 

screwdriverThe message is being massaged

Adjustable gullet plates are now free of the original designer’s patent restrictions and a number of companies are now using them.

As already said, that’s great, providing the saddles are fitted well.

And who determines that? It can be hard to be sure when certain departments continue to make this ongoing, inaccurate claim about their brand of saddles being adjustable to all horses.

It’s marketing at its worst. It’s not just misleading, it’s plain untrue. Worse, it’s willful mis-education that leads horse owners into the mistaken belief that because they have the right gullet plate, then their saddle fits and their horse can’t possibly be in any pain. 

It bugs me that people are being misled. It bugs me far more that horses end up being the silent incumbents of a problem with so much potential to lead to back pain. (And I have worked with the results first-hand.)

As I said earlier, when the saddle fits, FANTASTIC. In fact, FANTASTIC with bells on.

And when it doesn’t, it’s the horse who suffers, no matter how many professionals are saying that black is in fact white, and that with the right ‘system’, an adjustable saddle can be made to fit any horse.

It can’t.

 

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10 Ways to Seriously Mess Up When Buying a New Saddle

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Not long ago, I was having a quiet think about the reasons that people buy saddles that so obviously don’t fit their horses. This is a regular spell of head-scratching that occurs when I’ve worked on a few horses with back and postural issues stemming from saddle misfit.

Now, in my view, a saddle fit session is a pretty critical part of buying a saddle. It goes without saying, surely, that there’s a living, breathing horse out there in the paddock or stable and that the new saddle needs to fit onto his back – and that this suitability really does need to be established before the saddle is purchased.

Yet, many people still buy a saddle and only afterwards try to establish whether it will fit their horse or not. It’s all a bit of a gamble – not only with their money, but with their horses’ comfort and back health.

What on earth is going on here?

Good question. Either people are genuinely unaware of the reasons for fitting saddles, or they do know but are marching to a different, louder drumbeat when they go shopping.

To make more sense of this, I decided to apply the psychology of consumer buying behavior. At the simplest level, there are five stages involved in a purchase: need recognition (we feel the need for a new saddle), product research (we learn what’s out there), evaluation (we consider everything learned through our research), purchase decision (we carefully select the most suitable saddle), and post-purchase behavior (we react positively or negatively to our choice).

english-saddlesWell, how tidy is that? Too tidy, maybe. The problem is that we all behave erratically when shopping, being influenced by our  personal biases. These are preferences, beliefs and thought processes that hold up our personal view of the world – and our illusions. Biased behavior includes:

  • Cherry-picking information by being selective over what we see, hear and read,
  • Yielding to peer pressure,
  • Favoring someone’s viewpoint because we like them (whether we know them or not – take celebrity endorsement),
  • Supporting our self-image (actually how we think other people see us),and
  • Being totally inconsistent in our behavior, just because we do that.

We’re none of us exempt from this. Being emotionally charged, biases are very motivating. What happens is that they can leapfrog us from need recognition straight to purchase decision, making us ignore the research and evaluation findings or leave them out altogether. (And this forms the basis of every advert you’re ever likely to look at.)

10 emotional saddle-buying decisions

Here are 10 ways that you can succumb to biases that skew your saddle purchase decisions.

1. Your instructor or trainer uses that saddle

"I could be that good too...where's my credit card?"

“I could be that good too…where’s my credit card?”

Whoah… this could cause some shouting, but instructors, trainers and clinicians don’t always know all there is to know about saddle fit, even though they know HUGE amounts about riding and training.

No offence meant, honestly, but some riding instructors give their students terrible advice about saddles. They say one fits, when it doesn’t. Horse owners just follow this well-meant advice, because they really believe in and admire their instructor.

Some trainers and clinicians even use a favorite saddle on all their own and their clients’ horses. It suits the rider, so… Some of these cause damage and the clients often don’t realise until someone else points it out at a later date. (There’s a variation on this one, too: attend clinic or do course, then buy saddle. No further comment.)

2. Your knowledgeable friend owns that saddle

A lot of horse-related knowledge is passed between friends. When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it can be very bad.

No matter how much you like your friend, there’s a high chance that their physique and their horse’s is likely to be different to yours. And your friend will very likely ride differently too. These three points are frequently overlooked.

3. There’s a local saddle maker in town who makes that saddle

Saddler who learned from his father, who learned from... Photo (c)Nicola Valley Museum

Saddler who learned from his father, who learned from… Photo (c)Nicola Valley Museum

He lives close by and tells the local horse community all about what he does and what he makes. He’s knowledgeable, he loves his work and, dang it, he’s such a nice guy.

It’s possible, just possible, that he may know more about producing beautiful hand-crafted saddles than equine anatomy and biomechanics, having learned more from his father and other craftsmen than from modern schools of equine thought.

And, obvious as it sounds, there’s a difference between a saddle-maker and a saddle-fitter, although there are definitely plenty of saddle-makers who are also great saddle-fitters. But at small town level it can, and does, go either way. (You can probably tell I’m trying not to offend anyone here.)

Can the buyer tell the difference? Frequently not, as so many people buy an expensive, custom-made saddle that doesn’t fit, but which can’t then be returned. (If this isn’t the case with your locally made saddle, then brilliant – I’m genuinely pleased for you.)

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4. That saddle is named after a famous rider

A famous rider's name doesn't doesn't make this saddle fit

A famous rider’s name is on the saddle, but it still doesn’t fit

There are many saddles out there named after a top-of-their-game rider – it’s celebrity endorsement with bells on.

It’s a funny thing how what works for them makes that style of saddle suitable for hundreds of thousands of other riders and their horses, of all shapes and sizes. And the buyer’s riding will improve to an unfathomable degree… won’t it?

Aspirational shopping aside, some of these saddles are amazingly good, but (no naming names now) not all of them are. This is particularly true if they’re occupying what we can call the ‘value end’ of the market.

5. Your friend with the same breed of horse as you has that saddle

This saddle fits all arabians - and is a bargain too

This saddle fits all arabians – and look, it’s a bargain too!

Some people constantly draw parallels between their own horse and that of a friend or acquaintance who has a horse of the same breed. The prospective saddle buyer sees which saddle their friend has and decides it must be good for their horse too. This is so much the stronger if the owner is much admired or is winning in competition with that saddle.

Yes, breeds obviously have prevalent conformational traits. But it’s not a given, as horses – and their riders – can be very individual.

Images of dream-like perfection

Images of dream-like perfection…

6. You’ve seen a stunning photo of that saddle in a magazine

And it really was beautiful. The horse was beautiful, the saddle was beautiful, and the rider was stunningly beautiful. An image of dreamlike perfection… in an advert. It always works, doesn’t it? We’ll all look just like the stunner in the photo once you buy the saddle. No, I don’t think so either.

7. A forum regular recommends that saddle

We all know them and recognize them: the person who is very vocal on forums, being big in their own lunchtime with strongly held opinions. A queen bee, they hold forth at the center of a community of regulars who mutually reinforce one anothers views.

To the less informed reader, this verbiage may sound like unassailable fact. So when the queen bee says a certain saddle is the best and how it’s right for certain horses, her view may be perceived as being expert opinion. (Hey, she may indeed be right, but not above and beyond someone who is standing look and assessing fit on actual, living horse – with a rider on board.)

8. When you were a kid, everyone craved that saddle

Big brand saddle - but the design has had its day

Big brand saddle – but the design has had its day

Times change, the knowledge-base grows and designs evolve. The industry moves on (although some companies don’t) and what was great back then may not be so now. Brand names rely on consumer loyalty, but over long periods of time your loyalty may be misplaced. Formerly great brands may now be merely good, which is OK if the price reflects that change, but…

Have you noticed that people will buy used, 25-year-old spine-pinchers just because they were made by that company?

9. Your horse went better when you tried out that saddle

What? Surely this one’s a no-brainer? You’ve borrowed a saddle and your horse went better in it than in your old saddle, which was causing problems – that means the borrowed saddle is a good fit, doesn’t it?

Nope. It’s a sure-fire indicator that your horse is showing relief at not experiencing the same old pokes and pressure points when ridden, because at last somebody has taken the offending piece of leatherwork off his or her back. What we aren’t seeing at this stage are the new problems that may emerge from this replacement saddle that may not fit, but in a different way.

It’s like repetitive strain injury – it can take time for signs of problems to become visible (although in endurance riding, problems can show up within a single day’s ride.)

10. You’ve never seen a better price attached to that saddle

In an online world, we’ve never been more able to shop around for that super-bargain. And when we find it, it’s all so much easier to ignore any possible shortcomings. This is even more so when time pressure is involved, for instance in an online auction.

 

Try to bring in reason over emotion

Oh I know, it’s hard to do. We’re never going to escape the emotional side of shopping, particularly with new – or new to us – saddles. The bigger the purchase, the more rewarding it’s likely to be.

Yet that’s all about us. Our horses are happily unaware of the thrill of shopping. To the horse, a saddle that fits will minimize the negative effects of bearing (our) weight on its back – while one that doesn’t fit won’t. We owe it to our horses to make informed and well-considered decisions.

I realize that it can be hard to know if you’ve got a good saddle fitter, but involving a trained professional in the research and evaluation stage of your buying decision will certainly decrease the chances of making a catastrophic error that will cause pain and damage to your horse.

Alternatively, in this online world where you can find those superb saddle bargains, hop onto YouTube and take look at some of the excellent videos posted by professional saddlers. It couldn’t be much easier.

 


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