Learning at Lamplight

This past weekend, Sarah and I went to watch the Young Horse Dressage Championships at the beautiful Lamplight Equestrian Center. If you haven’t heard about it, there is information about the show here http://www.usefnetwork.com/news/10404/2013/8/21/talented_combinations_line_up_for_2.aspx

It was a lot of fun to go an enjoy the perfect weather watching some of the best and most promising horses in the country. To say they are amazing is an understatement, the quality of horse being produced now is just unreal, and so many of them carry themselves with such a confidence and grace that it is hard to believe just how young they are!

As enjoyable as it was watching test after test, Sarah and I ended up getting a far different education than we had anticipated. Around lunch time, we took a little break to wander through the various vendor tents that were set up around the warm up ring. We saw all the usual temptations, breeches in fun colors and patterns, coordinating saddle pads and polo wraps, and all sorts of shiny jewelery and sparkling brow bands. The last vendor we happened to wander into was Trilogy Saddles. As we admired the gleaming leather that promised to be soft and luxurious for both horse and rider, the ladies representing Trilogy started a conversation with us.

Usually, that’s when I make a hasty exit. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, and since I currently am not in the market for one of their beautiful saddles, nor do I currently have the means to buy one, even the best sales pitch is going to fail.  But with these two ladies, it wasn’t a sales pitch so much as a very educational conversation, so Sarah and I stayed for quite a while, and ended up sitting in some saddles (that will now go on my Christmas list every year for the next hundred years… so I guess the not-a-sales-pitch sorta worked!).  It was immediately clear that these ladies were not just salesmen but that they were quite passionate about their products, and also quite knowledgeable.  What they also seemed to have a great understanding of was rider balance and position, and how the saddle influences that (for better or worse!). They were just who I needed to talk to!

It’s interesting, because on most lesser-mover type horses, I can ride comfortably and with a decent level of effectiveness in pretty much any saddle (and I do switch between dressage, close contact, western, and bareback on a pretty frequent basis). But with Remy’s huge gaits and sensitive responsiveness to the rider’s balance and seat, I have learned how much difference it makes having the saddle not only fitting the horse comfortably, but also how essential it is to have the saddle sitting balanced for the rider.  And I think this is OFTEN overlooked even by saddle fitters, who may be able to see if the seat or flap are the right size to fit the rider’s seat and leg, but probably not much beyond that.  But as Remy has been my master teacher in biomechanics and has developed my seat and feel beyond what I ever thought was possible, he also has developed my understanding of how the saddle can enhance or destroy that silent conversation between horse and rider.

So here were these two ladies, talking to us about saddles, and as we asked them questions pertinent to our thoroughbreds, a few things started to become clear. First of all, what I thought I was figuring out through trial and error was mostly correct. The saddle has to clear the withers (which many tb’s have in abundance), and often times this does lift the front of the saddle higher than the back of the saddle, throwing the rider off balance. But they took it a step further, not only giving me permission to do what I had been attempting to do (lift the back of the saddle), but instructing me to add even more padding that I had ever thought would be comfortable to ride on.

I showed them a picture of Remy in his Albion saddle, and they agreed that it was still too wide on him. It does clear his withers, but not by enough, and there is too much space between the sides of his withers and the bottom of the saddle. And yes, it is already sitting too high in front, which was why I didn’t want to add further padding under the front. They told me to go ahead and pad up the front until it was lifted enough to offer sufficient wither clearance, which would also lift the front panels to give him more room around his shoulders (this was a big ah-ha! for me, I knew the saddle was getting really tight around his shoulders but was having trouble fixing that!). Then once the front was padded, they said to start adding layers under the back until it was lifted enough that the saddle sat balanced (and it may be INCHES of list required… yikes!). Then once I have the balance figured out, I just had to tinker with the padding layers until it all meshed smoothly front-to-back under the saddle.

They also confirmed a few things I had experienced, including an off balance saddle causing rider position faults that were unfixable until the saddle was fixed. There were times I could FEEL my shoulders hunching forward, but I could NOT sit up straight to save my life! I knew my position was off, and it would drive me crazy!!! And I knew from riding other horses that I don’t always sit that way. But I also felt like it was a bit of a cop-out to blame the saddle. Turns out it’s not, and I’m not the only one that happens to 🙂

It was so educational and enlightening, and I left feeling so much better about some of the saddle fit and position/balance challenges I had experienced and begun to understand. It was very affirming to know I was correct in much of my thinking, and I went home with some new information and ideas to try to improve my horses’ comfort and my own riding.  So next time you’re at a horse show and you see Trilogy Saddles there, even if you aren’t in the market, it might be worth stopping by!  (And if anyone ever has the desire to get me a Trilogy saddle, I would be most grateful!)

So back at the barn, I tinkered with adding more padding front and back under my Albion on Remy, and had a decent ride. The saddle definitely felt entirely different and I could use my body much more effectively, but I’m not sure if he was just having a lazy day or if it wasn’t real comfortable for him, but Remy felt sorta “eh”, willing enough to do everything and no major resistance, but a touch behind the leg and not offering me anymore than I required of him… which for him is a little unusual.  I also added another thin layer of a cut up Thinline pad (homemade shims!) under the front of Austin’s saddle, and that ride went great! I was able to sit in a better balance, and he definitely responded well to that, feeling more forward and also more responsive to my seat than usual. So that gave me hope that I was on the right track. The following day, I put Liam’s Wintec Isabell on Remy, with the narrow gullet installed, which fits his withers pretty well but leaves the saddle really high in front. Then I started adding layers under the back until I was satisfied with how the saddle sat.  When I tried that, I knew I had found a combination of saddle and pads that worked. Right away my position felt great, Remy felt great, he responded to little twitches of my seat bones, and I felt all sorts of new aids available to me in my core muscles that I haven’t had access to recently!

Now I just have to decide if I should keep trying to figure out how to pad my lovely Albion so it will work as well as the Isabell did, or if I should just stick with what’s working. I should probably just keep going with what worked, but I just love that Albion so much! Or I could try it on Liam…  So I guess my saddle fit saga will continue 🙂

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