Getting on with waiting

Drifter has now seen the physio and the saddle fitter since we last “spoke” here. He is sore in the withers.

It probably was the saddle fit that caused the problem. Although I used a pro-lite and a fat saddle pad to make up for the size difference caused by the diarroeah it seems that the saddle must have been rocking forwards. Everyone thought he’d be OK in that set up, but it was clearly not OK.

It’s unfortunate that it took me several more rides to understand him than it usually would have done – I was having some emotional stuff going on with family, and also to a certain extent at work and I knew I was bringing baggage to our rides. You only get out of a ride what you put in, so I saw his unwillingness to work and put it down to my bad riding and emotional unavailability. Also, whenever we’ve had a saddle problem in the past, it’s been a too-small saddle, not a too-large one. I thought that I knew his saddle-related tells, but I failed to realise that they’d be different, so I was looking for the wrong signs.

When the saddle fitter came I asked her to bring my old Ideal saddle, which she’s had listed for second hand sale without success since I got the Bates. I thought that the narrower Ideal saddle I bought to fit the skinny rail of a horse I bought originally from the dealer, might be a good fit for the same horse now he was skinny again. It was too big. He’s even thinner now than he was then – it just doesn’t show as badly because he has more muscle in his neck.

The Bates came into it’s own again and (£50 of inserts and new gullet + the time of an experienced saddle fitter later), the same saddle looks and handles completely differently. Testing it out, I was suddenly in a balanced position, with stability in all directions. We made a few tweaks and retested, but I’m delighted with it. It’s unfortunate that we’ll have to do it all again in a few months as he puts on weight, but how much better than having to buy a whole new saddle, and then know it won’t fit again soon.

As his spine is pretty prominent (although better covered than it was a few weeks ago) the saddle fitter also suggested a sheepskin half-pad, particularly for longer rides. Before I could buy one, a friend on the yard offered a selection of her unused ones, and sold me a high quality one for a very low quality price, which was lovely of her. I offered her more but she wouldn’t accept it.

Unfortunately all this doesn’t make the soreness go away, so we just need to give that one time. My plan is to give him a few days off riding, with turnout and/or hand-walking, then get on for a test ride. If he still seems sore, then another few days off.

It’s a real shame we’re still not clicker training but I’m only very cautiously introducing treats again. His digestion seems to be handling everything I give him fine now, but I don’t want to give him multiple treats in one session yet, which kind of rules out clicker training.  It was very exciting the other day when I declared he’s officially allowed carrots again  – in moderation of course 😉

 

 

 

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The fruits of my admin

As it was, implausibly, heading for 3 months since we got the Bates saddle it was time to book in for another check of the fit. Which meant time to try to match my schedule to a fellow livery’s (as well as the saddle fitter’s) in order to share the substantial mileage and call out fees. This was achieved, although not without some stress, and I spent a week or so with my fingers crossed because I’d booked the saddle fit but my boss was off so I couldn’t book the leave I needed to take on the day of the appointment.

But my manager returned and had no issue with me taking the leave. Great. But to add another layer of complication we also needed to see the equine dentist who by coincidence asked if she could do his teeth on that particular day. Err… I don’t know. A couple of conversations with the saddle fitter later I still didn’t know. They were sending two fitters out to us and weren’t sure if they’d want to fit us in parallel or consecutively. The dentist was committed to come out to us around lunchtime on that day to see another horse so we decided we’d wait and see. If Drifter and I were busy when she wanted to do us we’d just have to arrange another date. She is local and used to work as a groom on our yard so she doesn’t change a call out fee, which is pleasant.

So the day came round and I still didn’t know whether we should be ready to be fitted at 10.30 or at 12, and whether we would be seeing the dentist afterwards or not. I turned up just before 10.30 prepared to wait around a lot. I took my crochet with me. Of course by the time I got there it was raining again so the idea of sitting on the yard crocheting was less appealing than it might have been!

I was pleased to find that they were happy to do the fittings at the same time so I wouldn’t have to wait and we should be done by the time the dentist arrived. Excellent.

I was eager to see how the new measurements of the curves of his back would compare to those from last time we saw the saddle fitter. I feel that his musculature has changed (for the better) since we last saw her but I wanted to see if she agreed, and to match those lines against each other to see what’s changed. Drifter was less eager. In fact it transpired that he was in a bad mood. Luckily he is a good boy even when he’s not at his most cooperative, so we didn’t have any issues getting the measurements, but his expression made it clear that he was not pleased by the process (just wait until you see the dentist, I thought, then you’ll have something to look upset about!)

I was fascinated to see that he has indeed made good progress with evening up the muscling over his shoulders. The asymmetry is much less pronounced. Also revealed, which I had not expected, is that he has lost some fat in that area. It was not enough to necessitate a change of gullet width, but it was enough that the saddle was sitting lower at the front than it ought to (I thought I was just forgetting to sit up straight, but it turns out it was the saddle not helping me as much as it did before).

So we headed off to the school for a spin in it, so she could see it in action, with the promise of alterations to come.

Drifter was not in the mood. A soft, supple, yielding and submissive horse I did not have. To be honest, I never have that, but I can usually work in that direction. He was feeling decidedly obstructive. I found this unhelpful! It is not easy to feel if the saddle is straight when the horse is too grumpy to go in a straight line without constant discussion about it, and is tense and erratic to ride.

The fitter concurred with what I had felt over the last few weeks: the extra 4mm pads that she put in the right hand side were now not needed and were pushing the saddle over to the left. I still find it miraculous how much of a difference sitting 4mm makes. Additionally we had the girth straps attached at different sites on each side to compensate for his tendency to push it round if anchored equally.

The Bates was in its element again. First she adjusted the anchor points on the girth. We had a ride. To be honest it felt awkward. Drifter was arguing about everything, I couldn’t seem to press the right buttons and it was just, well, disappointing. But this was only the beginning.

She headed out to the van with it while Drifter huffed.

Him: The saddle’s off, so my work is done. I want to go back to my haynet.

Me: No. You are not done, which is why your flash is still done up. You will stay here. In order to keep your brain engaged we will do in-hand walk/halt transitions until you are listening to me.

Him: I will not listen.

Me: Then we will do it for longer. We have lots of time. But we don’t have much space because the other saddle fit is going on around us. Walk on ….

Ten minutes later and she’d had the saddle open, stripped out the pads she added in the right side last time and instead put in a matched pair at the front of the saddle to lift it up a little. We tried it.

I could really feel the difference from the pads at the front of the saddle. I was sitting much less forward. On the other hand I still felt like I was pushing all the wrong buttons and Drifter was still arguing. My fear was that maybe this was a good fit and I’d have to adjust my riding again. I was relieved to find she wasn’t happy with it yet either.

She changed the girth anchor points on both sides and we had another go.

And metaphorically, the sun shone on us. Suddenly I felt straight, he felt straight and we were riding in harmony again. He relaxed and stopped arguing with me. Everything was easy. She seemed happy too. I asked if we could have a canter, to check it would stay put, so we did, a little hesitantly because the other saddle fitting had got to the point of someone trying to have their first canter in a dressage saddle and not being able to get the transition because of the unaccustomed leg position.

When we managed to get a good space to try our canter I was grinning at once. I felt so strong and secure and straight. I felt that whatever he did underneath me I could stay beautifully upright. I realised that I’d been clinging on with my legs because I didn’t have that straight-up security. Now I had it, my legs were so free to ask for refinements in the canter. I have never felt so good cantering any horse, and never so safe cantering this one. D seemed very happy with it also and we had a beautiful downward transition because I’d been so much more balanced now that a) I wasn’t unbalancing him and b) I could help him to balance with more effective half-halts so he wasn’t on his forehand. Equipped once again with a beautifully balanced saddle I feel like I can really make progress with helping him to improve his canter. I can’t wait!

The bad news was that as he’s changing so much she wants to see him again in another 3 months. Sigh.

As we sorted out the bill I confided that I’d love to be shopping for a dressage saddle but just don’t have the budget at the moment. She said, somewhat to my suprise, that she didn’t think I’d get on with one because of the leg position. Interesting! I always listen hard to anyone who could jump on selling me something expensive but instead tells me I don’t need it! This will stop me wishing something I can’t have, and let me enjoy what I do have. I may now be the only adult rider on the yard without a dressage saddle, but just because everyone else has one doesn’t actually make it right for me! I suspect after that conversation that a dressage saddle isn’t really going to give me anything I don’t already have except that look. And if I’m flopping around in it I’m pretty sure that would undermine any look! Maybe if we actually ever get good at this dressage malarky I’ll reconsider in a year or three, but for now I won’t be wishing for a dressage saddle in my Christmas stocking!

Once I’d paid the saddle fitting bill, it was time to wait for the dentist. Happily she turned up only about 10 minutes later and in no time she had her gag in his mouth. She said she was happy to start with him because she knew he was as easy to do as they come. She didn’t need anyone to hold him and although he obviously wasn’t enjoying the process of having the power file wielded in his mouth he endured without any impolite behaviour. It must be so much easier and quicker for modern-day equine dentists than their pre-power-tool predecessors.

She was pleased with his teeth and did not have too much work to do on them. As I paid she recommended that we go from 6 monthly visits to annual ones. Hurray!

We were all done for the day, we’d managed to see both professionals and I hadn’t had to wait around more than 10 minutes or so at any point. Not a bad morning’s work!

A fitting saddle from the saddle fitter

I was very nervous on the morning of the saddle fitting. The kind of nervous where you spend time looking something that turns out to be already in your hand; the kind of nervous where it takes five attempts to get something out of the kitchen because every time you go in there for it something distracts you and you come out without it; the kind of nervous that makes you incapable of efficient ordinary logical thought.

In short, I appeared to be afraid.

Upon (finally) reaching the yard I yammered on about my nerves to a couple of members of staff and came to the conclusion that a) I was afraid of making a costly mistake and b) my last experience with a saddle fitter left me feeling like I’d done battle and lost.

I left the staff in peace and went to groom, which helped a bit.

The saddle fitter arrived a little early and introduced herself. She began measuring him and taking a history. When she transferred the shapes of him from her flexible curve to the paper she showed me how the left shoulder (which he uses to compensate for the weak right hind) was considerably larger that the right. She had a nice manner and D was very calm.

She began by putting his old saddle on him. Ungirthed it looked OK. And even girthed most of it looked OK, but she had me look at first one shoulder then the other and I could see how the large left shoulder had no room although the other had a nice fit. She will try to sell the old saddle for me, on commission, and the guide price she suggested she’d try to get for in was almost twice what I’d feared she might say. Clearly the scuffs and scratches didn’t take as much off the value as I feared.

So time to try on the contents of her van …

She tried about 6 different saddles on him in the stable, some of which were obviously not right, others of which seemed better. The two that seemed best were both Bates adjustable ones. While I fetched his bridle and put that on she switched the gullet over from a medium wide to a wide in one of the Bates and we could take him to the indoor school for a spin in it. She took my stirrups from the old saddle and remarked that my leathers were such different lengths. I explained that because there was a lot more horse under one side I’d been told to do that so my irons were level.

Unfortunately he and I had a bit of an embarrassing argument about whether he was going into the school… but once we were in and I was on … oooh! After a walk in which I couldn’t tell how he felt about it, we had a trot. A really fast, bouncy, free, happy trot. Crikey! If I buy this saddle I might need a stronger bit to slow this speed demon down! Clearly he liked it! On my side of things although it was very comfortable I felt like it was very unforgiving if I had a wobble of balance. We had a (fast) canter on each rein too.

She showed me how on the left canter lead the strong left shoulder had shoved the saddle so that the cantle was off centre and the weight-bearing area encroached on his spine. She suggested we try the other Bates as the saddle was more supportive and she’d put one of the pad inserts in it to try to compensate for the shoulder.

Although both of the Bates saddles are general purpose, the second one had a more dressage-y shape to it with a deeper saddle but will still be fine for me to jump in for the time being. If we were to start jumping big obstacles it wouldn’t suit, but to be honest I have no great desire for that.

With the insert in, I was impressed to see that my stirrup irons were level when the leathers were the same length. Hurray! Unfortunately that left canter pushed everything off-balance again. So she tweaked the pads, and we tested and it was better but still not perfect and then she moved the location of one of the girth anchor straps on one side.

It stayed put! My legs stayed the same length! Drifter and I both found all of the adjustments felt very strange. We were used to being slightly off-balance and slightly off-centre so  will take us a little while to settle in, but I’m sure we’ll do so much better for it.

When we were properly set up, compensating for his asymmetry of build, I felt for the first time ever that my legs were sitting equally and had equal jobs to do and got equal reactions from him. I had to ask slightly differently for things than we’re used to, so we both had confused moments but it was all positive change.

I couldn’t believe how much difference could be made by using a 4mm insert, but it was so much better. I’m delighted I can ride with both stirrup leathers on the same number hole because I always felt uneasy about them being different and never felt right in the stirrups even though people told me that they were how they should be.

I think this is the one.

Bates_AP_SC_blk

It was really fascinating to learn, for example, how much difference it makes to him where the girth straps were positioned. I truly felt looked after and felt that Drifter and I were getting the best possible care. The entire fit process took two and a half hours, but it felt like a miracle to me how much balance she gave us.

To compare this to my last experience with a different saddle fitter … well this one came off very favourably indeed! I have every confidence that this fitter did her best to get everything right for us. I believe we have a great saddle and a great fit, but if something did go wrong I’d be confident that she’d look after us well. She gave me the confidence to give her feedback on what I felt and it was a positive experience throughout, for both of us.

Having seen her working on the Bates saddles I’m a real convert to the world of adjustable saddles. To be able to try something knowing it can be instantly corrected is amazing and knowing that if he changed shape we can accommodate it gives me real peace of mind. I can’t wait for our next ride!

 

Here’s a youtube video about the adjustable system, which briefly shows the inserts and the structure of these saddles. It’s obviously a sales video but I still think it’s interesting.

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*I know there are kinder bits than snaffles, but as I’ve posted before, a snaffle seems to be what makes him happy, so who am I to argue? But it’s not like I had him in something really harsh.

In which Drifter gives his opinion

I have not had much practice dealing with a horse who plants his feet and won’t be led forward, but we had issues a few weeks ago going into the indoor school, which were attributed  to his being concerned about the doors (which can be difficult to manage if the weather is windy) or the reflections in the mirror. The first time I employed the trick of getting him to move sideways, to un-plant his feet and then circling to the door once he was moving. I assumed it was a one-off issue. The second time, a few days later, was before a lesson so the instructor went behind to drive him in. Obviously not a one-off then, so the next time the indoor school was free we had a training session based on going in and out of that door. At first it took time for him to relax and trust that it was OK to go through the door, which at first I had tied open, but after about 10 minutes we had progressed to the point that we could approach the closed door, stop, open the door, go through as soon as I asked and close the door again on the other side, with no stress, fuss or arguing.

That seemed to have been time well spent. However on Thursday a little resistance crept back in about going into the indoor school. I assumed it was the same issue recurring and made a note to repeat the training when the opportunity presented itself. It being very nice weather we went outside yesterday and I was surprised to find him planting his feet against entering the outdoor school, which he’d never had an issue with. With a little encouragement I got him into the school and rode.

This morning, however, he planted his feet shortly after coming out of his stable. “That’s odd,” I thought, “but perhaps he’s reluctant to walk past the farrier.” I got him moving again but he stopped again within sight of the school. “Somebody is not in the mood for work today,” I thought, getting him moving again.

But outside the school he totally put the brakes on. I tried the sideways and circling maneuver, but he would go no closer. I tried voice (coaxing – no use; cross tone – no use), tapping his girth area, tapping his quarters. I even tried backing him up every time he refused to go forward, hoping he’d end up grateful to be led forward. No dice.

Putting everything together as these approaches failed I came to the conclusion that he might be communicating that the saddle was just too small and too uncomfortable. I now had no intention of getting on board and putting my weight in that saddle, but I wasn’t going to let him learn that he could avoid going places by planting his feet. It’s true that I can’t drag him, but humans use brains and tools to win arguments with horses, not just brawn. So I would win. Little by little I coaxed him close enough that I would grab a lunge whip from the pot by the fence. Armed with that I could lead from in front and tap him on the rear at the same time. Finally I had my horse in the school. Now what?

While I have been toying with the idea of trying my first bareback ride on him one day, my plan for that was to have a neck strap, someone leading him and to be damn sure I would stay in walk. Trying it alone on a fresh and apparently argumentative horse on a windy day did not seem like a good plan, particularly as I couldn’t be sure it was the saddle causing the unusual behaviour. So it would have to be lunging.

After all the fuss to get him in the school I would have to take him back to the stable to get the lunging gear!

So back we went to the stable. Off with the saddle and reins, on with the boots and roller. I didn’t want to use the pessoa because I wanted to be able to see him move as he chose, so I took the side reins with us to put on if he proved he moved normally.

Leading him across the yard past the farrier he moved freely and willingly. He almost seemed eager to get into the school. Removing the saddle had removed the reluctance.

We had a nice little lunging session. Interestingly what I’d been feeling under saddle was confirmed on the lunge – he’s now cantering much better on the previously non-cantering right rein than he is on the left. He’s always been stronger in the left canter, but it’s a stiff strength. The right canter tires quickly but does better with corners and circles than the stiff left.

Although I’d had to pit my wits against his strength to get him into the school I realised, as I put him away, that I was proud of him. He had communicated to me that something was wrong in a way that was completely safe but effective. He had planted his feet and refused, but nothing beyond that. I believe that many horses would communicate saddle fit issues by bucking their rider off or biting, either at girthing or mounting. This was far safer and calmer.

The saddle fitter is coming on Tuesday, so we don’t have long to wait. As long as I go early tomorrow or late in the day we should manage to get somewhere to lunge and, weather permitting, he should be turned out on Monday so he can have a day off from structured exercise. It’s just a shame the saddle fitter didn’t come last week as originally planned, but hey ho!