How Much Do You CAIR What’s Inside Your Saddle? (Includes Pictures of the Secret ‘Flock Sock’)

How curious are you as a horse owner? Do you want to know how things work, what they look on the inside, and if they’re as good as the makers say – right the way through?

The guts of any piece of equipment are usually less pretty than the exterior, but nevertheless, we’re often happy to take the manufacturer’s word on trust.

Yet when the marketing message is that a particular brand is actually healthier for the horse’s back on account of its inbuilt ‘systems’, it’s definitely time to take a closer look. Consider a message such as this:

“Naturally, horses will demonstrate a marked improvement in performance when changed to a saddle featuring CAIR®.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/saddle_brands/wintec-saddles.html (13/3/2017)

That’s pretty grand, isn’t it? How wonderful if it were only true. But working in Australia, birthplace of Weatherbeeta, Bates and Wintec, and a chain of saddlery stores that sells and fits these saddles, which is owned by that same company, I do find much evidence that persuades me otherwise.

At this point, I must make my usual disclaimer: I have no problem with any saddle that genuinely fits the horse. I do have a problem with misleading claims, intentional or otherwise, as expressed in my earlier article, Debunked: The Lie That’s Told About Adjustable Saddles.

 

CAIR for the Horse – or EASY-Marketing?

 

Easy flock? More details below…

Google CAIR and you’ll find it described as the “revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System for the ultimate performance panel”.

Navigating a range of websites, you might also discover that it is accompanied in saddles by the EASY-CHANGE® Gullet System and the EASY-CHANGE® Riser system.

Together, these three comprise the EASY-CHANGE® Fit Solution.

Confused yet? No matter, as you can read all about it on the EASY-CHANGE® website

Crazy as I find the labelling, and let’s be honest, the brand marketing department has gone a bit nuts, what really bothers me is that these much vaunted systems are not doing what it says on the packet. Nowhere near.

 

The Problem with Systems…

 

In my view, systems often evolve to the benefit of the people who operate them. That is fine: they make problems easier to understand and easier to navigate – and saddle fitting is certainly a problem when you can’t find the right fit for your horse.

So if a system results in a better saddle fit and, as the website suggests “your horse’s absolute comfort and your peace of mind”, all well and good.

But where systems go wrong is when the function of making life easier for people is given more importance than the problem they were originally intended to resolve.

Or, indeed, when they become an effective way of achieving increased sales through the handy marketing push they make possible.

And this bugs me because the horse’s much vaunted comfort is usually by this stage sliding further and further down the importance pile. Like a growing number of equine professionals, I’ve taken a look inside these saddles, and something simply isn’t adding up between the message and the reality.

At this point, I will say no more, but instead present some of the website content I’ve been reading this month. Alongside it, you’ll find some photos that I and others have taken.

Beyond the photo captions, I’ve made no comment until the last section on flocking. I found that had no choice, because the ‘secret flock sock’ is so secret, I can find no website content about it… Let’s just say that seems a little unusual.

 

 © 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!

 

“The CAIR® Cushion System”

 

CAIR panels removed from a Wintec, 5 years ago. Manufacturer’s own parcel tape.

“Fluidly working with your horse’s muscles, the revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System replaces traditional fillings in your saddle with air. The cushioning nature of air encourages your horse to soften, relax and engage. Seated closer to your horse, you become simply an extension of one another. Transcend into a new world of opportunities through the power of true connection. Empower your horse with the ultimate in comfort, and explore your true potential together with the CAIR® Cushion System. ”

http://caircushionsystem.com/noflash.htm  (13/3/2017)



“CAIR: The Power of True Connection”

 

CAIR panel on original board backing, sliced to show open cell foam inside. 

“Finally a panel system that understands the mechanics of the equine back and the impact saddles have on horse and rider performance. The revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System replaces the traditional fillings in your saddle panel with air. There are two independently sealed Air Cushions within each Saddle Panel. The concept of air, as the ultimate in cushioning for the horse is simple.”

http://caircushionsystem.com/whatIsCAIR/index.htm (13/3/2017)

 

 

Vinyl sleeve and parcel tape – the tape affected by Australian heat.

“Air being a fluid medium will constantly adapt to the horse’s working muscles. This means that your weight will be distributed evenly across the entire length of the cushion, virtually eliminating pressure points. This extraordinary comfort results in freer movement, better carriage and a happier horse. For such a simple concept the dramatic difference the CAIR® Cushion System makes to a horse’s comfort and performance is profound.”

http://caircushionsystem.com/whatIsCAIR/index.htm (13/3/2017)

 

 

Foam panel insert, now renamed the EASY-Change Riser System. 

“The award winning CAIR® Panel Insert System was launched to retailers and saddle fitters around the world. Together with the tree adjustability of the EASY-CHANGE® Gullet System, this delivered a whole new level of adjustability in saddles. The insert system enabled retailers and saddle fitters to make adjustments within the panel effectively, efficiently and to the highest professional standards.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change-story.html (13/3/2017)

 

 

 

More recent CAIR panel – outer sleeve and foam insert. (Note: panels are opened, so no air is present in these images.)

“The challenge lies in developing an air system that limits any opportunity for human interference on the performance of the panels.

“The cutting edge Research and Development Team at Bates Australia have spent many years refining and perfecting techniques for incorporating an air cushion into a saddle panel, before reaching a breakthrough in manufacturing method.

The CAIR® Air Cushions are shaped and refined at the point of manufacture to provide an even thickness throughout the panel….”

http://caircushionsystem.com/
whatIsCAIR/evolution.htm (13/3/2017)

 

 

Another close up of that foam.

“What is Inside an Air Panel?”

Air is captured at atmospheric pressure in an open-celled foam and sealed in the Air Panel. Once the air panel is welded the open-celled foam becomes irrelevant, as it is the air trapped in the panel, which is doing the work.

Furthermore, the balance of saddles with the CAIR® Cushion System is easily altered without compromise to the performance of the air panels.”

http://www.caircushionsystem.com/faqs/index.htm (13/3/2017)

 

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“How adaptable are the saddles for achieving an optimal fit?”

The riser/shim, board, and CAIR panel combination.

“Extremely, Saddles that feature both the CAIR® Cushion System and EASY-CHANGE Gullet System are unsurpassed in the flexibility they offer for achieving an optimal fit.

Once you have selected the correct gullet size for your horse, the CAIR® Panel Insert System enables you to alter the balance of your saddle without compromising the performance of the Air Panels.”

 

“Official Fit Disclaimer”

The riser/shims, used to add depth to flat panels (between 2 and 12 have been found in saddles).

N.B whilst the innovative EASY-CHANGE® Fit Solution offers unsurpassed flexibility in achieving an optimal fit, no one saddle can claim to fit every horse. It is always recommended ongoing professional advice is sought on the fit and in meeting the unique needs of each horse/rider combination. Global patents and design registrations apply.

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change_fit_solution/index.html (20 Sept 2015)

 

 

Newer CAIR panel.

“The Current Day…”

“Bates Australia has now developed a means of offering these saddle fitting systems in both saddles featuring high performance CAIR® panels, as well as traditional flocked panels.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change-story.html (13/3/2017)

 

But Hang On… “Traditional flocked panels”… What are they talking about?

 

The current ‘flocking’.

OK, this is where I break my silence. This is where I introduce the flock panel insert.

The thing is that for the past 2-3 years, other company saddlers have been finding these rather strange, stuffed fabric panels inside Wintec and Bates saddles brought in by customers requesting reflocking.

These fabric sleeves, which are the same shape as the vinyl CAIR sleeve, are packed hard and tight, meaning that the usual benefit offered by flocking – ie, ability to mould to the horse’s shape – is lost altogether. You won’t hear about that though, because this is a manufacturer’s secret (shhhh).

 

Where Can We Find the Flocking Info?

 

The flock sock is well-packed with balls of  synthetic flocking. 

Oddly, and strangely given all the Easy web pages, this ‘flock sock’ doesn’t have its own page and isn’t photographed on any of the Wintec, Bates and EASY-whatever websites.

Why? I’d speculate that the sock removes considerable time and dollars off the manufacturing cost of flocked saddles, without adding much that’s positive at the horse end of the equation.

 

[ed note. I’ve removed the detail about pricing here, because I made a mistake with it. That obviously isn’t good enough. I’m sorry about that.]

So, why is nobody hearing about this little innovation? The company don’t want to add flocking to saddles as it’s less profitable, but is offering ‘flocking’ (or their own version of it) simply to satisfy customer demand. Unfortunately, with this inner working of the saddles kept out of sight, the customer simply doesn’t know what they’re paying for.

And how good is that for the horse’s interests, we must ask?

 

VIDEO – CLICK TO OPEN URL IN NEW TAB

 


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Meet Spinalis, the Forgotten Muscle in Saddle Fitting

Spinalis Header

It’s barely mentioned in saddle fit or anatomy books, yet  M. spinalis cevicis can hugely impact on the spinal health and movement of the horse, particularly with poor tack fit.

Meet M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis, a far more important muscle than is generally realized. As a deep muscle, it’s influential in mobilizing and stabilizing that hidden area of the spine at the base of the neck, the cervico-thoracic junction, deep between the scapulae.

 

Where to Find this Muscle

As part of the deeper musculature, M. spinalis is as hidden in books as it is in life. Usually, it’s a single entry in the index.

Spinalis StandardAt best, it has no more than a bit part in anatomical illustrations,  usually as a small triangular area at the base of the withers. This is also where we can palpate it.

The reality is quite a bit more interesting. It’s actually a muscle of three parts – dorsalis, thoracis and cervicis. These names denote its many insertions,
for it links the spinous processes of the lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae.

  • Bradley_2.1Further back along the spine, it lies medially to the M. longissimus dorsi, and in fact integrates with this larger, better known muscle, attaching to the processes of the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae.
  • When it reaches the withers, it becomes more independent, attaching to the processes of the first half dozen thoracic vertebrae (T1-T6). Here, the cervical and thoracic portions overlap and integrate to share a common attachment. (The part we palpate, at the base of the withers, is the thoracic section.)
  • Heading into the neck, as M. spinalis cervicis, it attches to the last 4 or 5 cervical vertebrae (C3/C4-C7). Only the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament runs deeper than this muscle.

Dissection 2Its integration with other muscles is complex, and its close relationship with M. longissimus dorsi partially explains why it doesn’t get much consideration as a muscle in its own right.

It is the more independent section, M. spinalis cervicis, between withers and neck, that we are interested in, although its influence is present along the entire spine.

© 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!

What Does Spinalis Do? 

In his 1980s’ Guide to Lameness videos, Dr. James Rooney, first director of the Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky, referred to M. spinalis as part of the suspension bridge of muscles supporting the spine (M. longissimus dorsi achoring from the lumbosacral vertebrae, M. spinalis thoracis et dorsalis from the upper thoracics). He also refers to this extensively in The Lame Horse (1988).

In fact, the suspension bridge analogy only really makes sense if M. spinalis dorsi is considered.

M. spinalis cervicis is usually credited with a role in turning the head to left to right, and raising the head.

Bradley Spinalis-1Older texts, such as Bradley’s 1922 veterinary dissection guide, Topographical Anatomy of the Horse, mention its role in stabilizing the spine.

This creates a point of interest. Given that the nuchal ligament (lamellar portion) doesn’t attach to C6 and frequently only weakly with C5 (see the findings of anatomist Sharon May-Davis, in this earlier article ), M. spinalis cervicis suddenly appears pretty important in stabilizing and lifting the base of the neck, particularly as it does so at the point of greatest lateral bending.

ETA: Having now talked to Sharon, it appears that in her dissections, she has made a finding about an association between the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament and M. spinalis. I’ll be writing an update article on this in February. [added 3 Jan 2017]

 

Spinalis and Poor Saddle Fit

Anyone who has been involved in close examination of the horse’s back will recognize M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces close to the skin, on either side of the withers.

When a horse has been ridden in an overly tight saddle, this small area of muscle can become pretty hypertrophic – raised and hardened. Typically, the neighbouring muscles are atrophied. When M. spinalis is palpated, the horse often gives an intense pain response, flinching down and raising the head.

GerdHeuschmanWhat often happens is this. An overtight saddle fits over the base of the withers like a clothes peg, pinching M. trapezius thoracis and  M. longissimus dorsi. However, it frequently misses M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces, wholly or partially within the gullet space. Often, the muscle is partially affected.

It’s as if the neighbouring muscles are under lockdown. Free movement of the shoulder is restricted and the horse’s ability to bear weight efficiently while moving is impeded. In response to the surrounding restriction and its own limitation, this muscle starts to overwork.

Result? The horse, which was probably already moving with an incorrect posture, hollows its back even further, shortening the neck and raising its head.  As this becomes even more of a biomechanical necessity, all the muscles work even harder to maintain this ability to move, despite the compromised biomechanics.

Working harder and compensating for its neighbours, M. spinalis becomes hypertrophic. It is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s now overdoing it and failing to release. We now have a rather nasty vicious circle.

 

Spinalis photo

 

 

Here, M. spinalis thoracis stands out due to atrophy of the surrounding musculature. In this TB, a clearly audible adjustment occurred in the C4-C5 area after M. spinalis was addressed. 

 

 

Vicious CircleThe Inverted Posture and Asymmetry

Of course, saddle fit is not the only cause of an inverted posture. However, any horse that holds its head and neck high for natural or unnatural reasons is more vulnerable to saddle fit issues, thus starting a cascade effect of problems.

Are there further effects of this hypertrophy? Consider the connections.

  • When saddles are too tight, they’re often tighter on one side than the other. This can be due to existing asymmetry in the horse, such as uneven shoulders, uneven hindquarters, scoliosis, etc.
  • On the side with greater restriction, the muscle becomes more more hypertrophic.
  • With its attachment to the spinous processes of the lower cervical vertebrae, there is an unequal muscular tension affecting the spine.
  • Without inherent stability, the neck and head are constantly being pulled more to one side than the other, with the lower curve of the spine also affected.
  • Base of neck asymmetry affects the rest of the spine in both directions and compromises the horses ability to work with straightness or elevation.
  • There is also asymmetric loading into the forefeet.
  • We haven’t even started looking at neurological effects…

This isn’t speculation. I have seen this pattern in horses I’ve worked on, many times over.

 

 

 

 

 

So, How Do We Help?

In working with saddle fit problems, the saddle refit may be enough to help the horse, if the riding is appropriate to restoring correct carriage and movement. Obviously, the horse’s musculoskeletal system is complex and no muscle can be considered in isolation. As other muscles are addressed through therapeutic training approaches, with correct lateral and vertical flexion achieved, M. spinalis will be lengthened along with the surrounding musculature.

I hold with a restorative approach:

  1. Refit the saddle, preferably with the help of a trained professional,
  2. Remedial bodywork, to support recovery from the physical damage,
  3. Rest the horse, to enable healing of damaged tissue and lowering of inflammation, and
  4. Rehabilitate the horse, through the appropriate correct training that elevates the upper thoracics while improving lateral mobility.

This is particularly important where saddle fit has been a major contributor to the problem. I have frequently found that in these cases,correction will take longer to achieve, as the debilitating effects of poor saddle fit (especially long-standing issues) can long outlast the change to a new, better-fitting saddle. In bodywork terms, the hypertrophic M. spinalis cervicis is often the last affected muscle to let go.

It’s as if M. spinalis cervicis is the emergency worker who will not leave until everyone else is safe.

 

Bodywork Notes

I am fortunate, in that my modalities enable the gentle release of joints through a non-invasive, neuromuscular approach.  The responses I’ve had from horses when M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis has been addressed in isolation have been hugely informative.


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Appendix: Spinalis in the Textbooks

I’m going to add Spinalis references to this post on a regular basis, as I come across them. It’s interesting to see how much, or how little, the muscle is referenced in various textbooks.

 

Equine Back Pathology

This image, from Equine Back Pathology, ed. F Henson 2009, shows acute atrophy of M. longissimus dorsi due to neurological damage. It’s still possible to see the raised attachment/origin of M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis – the highlighting is mine. Spinalis does not appear in the book’s index. (added 23 Dec 2016)

 

nuchal and spinousI have also altered this image, in order to show M. spinalis cervicis more clearly. This is Fig 2.16 from Colour Atlas of Veterinary Anatomy Vol 2, The Horse, R Ashdown and S Done. Spinalis cervicis is within the bounded area and it’s possible to see how it overlies the lamellar part of the nuchal ligament, lamellar portion. (added 23 Dec 2016)

 

S&GThe muscle is tinted green in this image from Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of Domestic Animals, Volume 1, fifth edition 1975.  Here, it is labelled Spinalis et semi-spinalis cervicis. This anatomical figure is credited to an earlier text, Ellenberger and Baum, 1908. (added 23 Dec 2016)

 

 

 

James Roony dedicates two pages to the ‘suspension bridge’ theory of the vertebral column in The Lame Horse (1988). His interest is in M. spinalis dorsii section of the muscle and its effect behind the withers, in conjunction with M. longissimus dorsii. (added 4 Jan 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

Schleese diagramMaster Saddler Jochen Schleese refers to M. spinalis dorsi and its function in stabilizing the withers in Suffering in Silence, his passionate book about saddle fitting from 2014. “This muscle area is especially prone to significant development – especially with jumpers – because it is continually contracted to accommodate the shock of landing”. The surface area of the muscle is indicated in the anatomical figure, reproduced here. (added 23 Dec 2016)

 

 

 

 

In his seminal text addressing issues of modern dressage training, Tug of War, 2007, Gerd Heuschmann includes M. spinalis cervicis in the triangle formed by the rear of the rear of the cervical spine, the withers, and the shoulder blades, “… an extensive connection between the head-neck axis and the truck… it explains how the position and length of the horse’s neck directly affects the biomechanics of the back.” (added 31 Dec 2016)

 

 

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

adjustable-header-2

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!

images6

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

saddle-shop-header

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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