Updated: Dec 3, 2021
The winter season in Ocala is upon us! It is an inspiring time of year – Old Man Winter fills the town with great horses, riders, and competitions. Our own barn is nearly full already, with just a few more clients and staff members to arrive between now and the new year. Ashlynn is ready to rock and roll on the Ocala winter eventing circuit, and I am heading to WEC with some classy young jumpers and a fancy vendor trailer full of tack, boots, and saddles. It’s going to be great!
People often ask me which side of my career is my primary focus – riding, teaching, or saddle fitting? The answer is all three. It’s a holistic approach to horsemanship, I hope!
Riding and teaching are linked – each makes me better at the other, and they both engage my brain and my focus in the same way. I love them equally.
Saddle fitting and tack selection is the third leg of my triangle. I have always noticed what tack other riders were using. I searched for the details in the sport around me even as a kid. What girths? Why? What bits? Why? What saddle pads? Why? Why do people have both dressage and jumping saddles? What don’t I know yet because I only have one saddle? And on and on. I must have been a delightful child…
Fast forward a couple of decades to a couple of decades ago: I had two nice horses running at the FEI levels, and I had two beautiful, trendy saddles made by another manufacturer. One day I was bathing Ping Pong after a ride, and I realized I could see the outline of my saddle panels depressed into his back muscles. I opened my eyes a little wider and realized there was a reason my coach at the time – Buck Davidson – used Amerigo Saddles. Their panels did not have defined edges which created pressure ridges. Their panels were wool, not foam. Their panels dispersed pressure comfortably around the horse’s center of gravity, not farther to the rear, where the muscles have to move and lift their backs. Amerigo’s soft, round wool panels moved independently from the saddle trees and allowed the horses’ back to move better. I saw a whole new world of details to attend to, and it profoundly changed my riding and my horses’ performance.
Details matter in bridle fit, too. It's been fashionable in recent years to use ergonomically designed bridles (remember when the Micklem came out?). Still, one of riding sport's best-kept secrets is that Vespucci was designing bridles with actual horse anatomy in mind years before it was popular to do so.
The soft, padded leather is designed to sit evenly across the horse's poll, cheeks, and forehead, below the nerves of the face, with the buckles well clear of the TMJ. The geometry and dimensions of the bridle are carefully designed to relieve pressure to the face and poll. Tack really matters – the details matter.
Equipment choice has impacted my teaching, too. My own equipment influences my riding, and the same is true for many other riders. Saddles are, of course, the biggie – an unbalanced saddle makes an unbalanced rider. Or at least makes a rider have to be a much better athlete to find their balance.
(Examples: Is the saddle too high in front? Chair seat. Too high in the back? Hunched forward. Deep spot of the seat too far back? Chair seat again, rider compensating by throwing their upper body forward in the air, or by sitting over the pommel and counter-balancing with their thigh too far back. Deep spot of the saddle too far forward? The rider moves back, looking for the middle, then throws her body forward in the air to catch up with her feet to land.)
I always notice what tack my students have on – does it fit? Can it be easily improved by adjusting it? Is it helping? Is it hindering? Should we add or take away padding to make the horse more comfortable and/or help the rider find her balance?
Even little things like the soles of riding boots: when boots get old, their soles become too flexible and bend around the stirrups, which makes riders clench their toes and creates tension in their legs and ankles. (If the budget doesn’t cover new boots, no worries - add a stiffer insole.) The details matter.
And now, as a saddle fitter, I still enjoy studying the details. I love figuring out how to improve a horse and rider’s comfort and performance. I love seeing all the different horses, hearing the riders’ opinions and points of view, literally measuring every detail, and demoing the saddles (and pads and bridles) until we get everything exactly right. It’s all part of excellent horsemanship.
And now here comes another winter season in Ocala – where great riders and horses come together to train and compete and where I am so lucky to teach, ride, and study the details!