Monday, May 13, 2013

Saddle Whoas

Any kid who has gone through a basic science class knows how experiments are run. There has to be a set of controls so that a theory can be tested and in the end all things can be measured, evaluated, and a conclusion or hypothesis can be resolved. That is  until that resolution is proven to be a false answer by a further experiment. It is a logical way to deduce and figure stuff out. That was my plan of attack today, but variables played a rather large factor, regrettably, and so my experiment for today was inconclusive.
No beakers, no burners, and no white coats in a lab, what I needed to begin to figure out began in the barn with the backs of three very different horses. As of late I have begun to notice a pattern of behavior that was running in similar fashion with each of my horses, to varying degrees, but with enough of it that is was time to find out what the issue was. My suspicion was leaning towards a saddle fitting problem, as I have three mares with three very different backs, and one saddle that has one fixed shape or tree.

A saddle is basically a frame that rests on the long muscles that run the length of the rib cage on a horse. It is covered with leather, usually, and padded on the bottom to accommodate the shape of the horse’s back. It has to clear all of the bony processes and provide a comfortable way to lug a live load around. This is no small feat and the evolution of saddle design is long and is far from over. Like a hiker wearing a heavily loaded backpack that is ill designed and which inevitably causes sores, bruises, and strains, so too is the importance of a good basic fit and design for a saddle. It must fit both the horse, and the rider, so that they can work together in harmony, and both be pain free. 

My saddle is a Stubben, one of the best made, with top quality leather and workmanship on a spring, or semi-flexible, tree. Every time I climb aboard it is like sitting down into the most comfortable leather easy chair ever, which always makes me sigh. It has zero leg rolls, (which place a rider’s leg in a predetermined spot on the horse’s sides), it has a fairly flat seat, and the leather is soft, supple, and is a well tanned black. My saddle allows my legs and my seat the freedom to go wherever I want them to go and not be rigidly held in place as though I was off to go jousting, like some saddle versions do. I bought the saddle years ago and have thrown it on everything in my barn and have had no issues with it fitting any horse, until now.

As I mentioned before I have three mares: Kitty, the oldest, an alpha of the herd, a short , round, bright eyed bay; Sunset,
next in age, a red tank with lots of chrome, with a work ethic that never stops, solid, and is a part time clown; and last a younger mare, Cistine, a very tall, elegant, sensitive, and very willing mare that floats over the earth she covers with her long strides. The first two have similar backs, broad and well muscled, they are power models. The younger mare is a thinner and longer lined build and has steeper withers which drop off to a much narrower top line, and this, is where my quandary began. Remember the one size saddle doesn’t fit all thing?

Horses are notoriously bad liars. I have known some dogs who were pretty good and pulling the wool over my eyes but horses, no. If they are scared of something they either leave or go nuts trying. If they are hungry they eat, and if they feel bad, they don’t. If they are sore or are hurting they will let you know that too. Lately I had been getting similar signals from all three that something was irritating them and the common denominator was regrettably, my saddle.

I borrowed a saddle from a friend to use in my experiment to see if indeed my saddle was the cause of my horses‘ new behavior. This particular saddle has no rigid tree and in theory shapes itself to any horse’s back bringing comfort to any equine back. My plan was to A-B this saddle with mine in as controlled of a situation as possible. I had let them all have the week previous off to rest any sore muscles and hopefully have a clean slate to test with.

My hope for a controlled situation was first vexed with a cold front that popped through over night and brought in chilly temps and gusty winds, just right for making the steadiest of beasts more excitable and stupid. The second was that my neighbor across the fence thought today would be a good time to run their four wheeler through their back pasture. The driver and another person were talking and moving about causing the horses much distraction even before we got started. Her head was high and muscles were tense on Kitty, who I saddled first with the borrowed one, as we walked out to the arena. My plan was to lunge them, one, so that I could see how they moved and what their opinion of it was, and two, avoid being tossed if they either really liked it and bucked, or if they really  didn’t like it and bucked with determination. Either way being a bystander seemed the more observant, and safer, way to run the experiment.

After finally sort of getting Kitty’s attention, difficult, her reaction to the saddle was difficult to determine. Another variable I had forgotten was that my older two girls hadn’t seen a lunge line since they were started many years ago, so this whole process was going to be exciting to them. It was. Kitty took off around me, though careful not to pull too hard, bucking like a rodeo bronc, digging her short little legs in and letting go with explosive jumps and leaps and bounds. I was very glad I was merely observing these airs above the ground, but I could not draw any conclusion of whether she liked the freedom of the saddle or was just being a nut because of the weather and distractions. I put her away and got out Sunset  to repeat the process.

Sunset was less distracted by the neighbor across the fence but when I asked her to trot a circle around me, there was a pause, followed by her taking off in similar leaps and bounds as Kitty. I was befuddled now because these two mares have had saddles on them since their youth and have never bucked with me on them and I don’t remember such theatrics when I did lunge them. The borrowed saddle didn’t look any different but something was causing them to find the sky, and the question remained as to whether they thought the saddle was yucky, uncomfortable, or if it was really super comfortable and liberating. It looked like it fit okay but I did notice that on them it tended to slide forward a bit, so maybe that was an issue. Still unclear on this test I put Sunset away and tacked up Cistine.

Cistine seemed to like the shoulder freedom at the trot and her stride lengthened but at the canter I could tell she found the new shape weird and she tightened up her back considering a buck, and kept a cocked ear in the direction of the saddle. I put her old saddle back on to compare and her stride shortened up again, but she seemed happy enough. I put her back in the barn and was left to ponder my lack of any conclusion at all.

Tomorrow is another day and another experiment. Perhaps the newness will have worn off, the wind will die down a bit, and the neighbor will refrain from being a mysterious distraction so that I can draw some bit of information from these horses. I think I will remain a grounded observer until I can tell if their action today was buoyancy or annoyance, or both. If only they could speak, what would they tell me?  

to be continued.... 


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