Thirty years in “Pursuit of Perfection
Josephine Giles Dancy
qualified saddle fitter
They all looked so beautiful – like Italian handbags and so very touchable that I couldn’t resist stroking them. “ Oh yes” I breathed, “we will definitely take this range, two seat sizes and what widths do you find work best?”
“Why all of them” answered the attractive, silver tongued salesman “the biggest saddle seller in the land has just had his third order – can’t keep them on his shelves”……….Well, we’d make our name,…………foolish not to have them all
”Both colours?” Oh Yes, why not?...........after all they wouldn’t be here five minutes and as exclusive sellers of this prestigious brand, we’d soon be the largest saddler in the South West.…
OH WHAT A LEARNING CURVE!!
Anybody who has gone naively into the “Tack Shop” business will recognize the greater part of this scenario….and like most who go down this path, with the love of all things equine as their prime motivation, the path is rocky, full of pitfalls, long and hugely expensive as one’s “mistakes”, multiply and sit on the shelves year after year gathering dust and mould.
Then the questions start……………that saddle is a narrow – why didn’t it remotely fit that horse who had withers like a hairpin and no flesh at all on its back?................This is the widest saddle produced in this make……………yet you could put two fists between the top of the pommel and the withers…………… Why does it move around so much when the horse is being ridden? Does anybody try these saddles on anything? Well guess what I found out? The research in the saddle industry was practically none existent………….the manufacturers occasionally hit on a lucky design by good fortune and then usually because the saddlery shops reported that, yes, they had sold a couple of those in a medium wide……………… they would increase the range to the other fittings and guess what?............just because it worked in Medium or Medium Wide that was no guarantee it would work in Extra Wide or Medium Narrow…………..and why when the saddle looked pretty good ,and you could tick the umpteenth saddle fitting requirement in the 17”, was the same saddle so hopeless in an 18”?
Once, exasperated by the whole business, I arranged for one of our most persistent salesmen from a large national saddle manufacturing company to bring saddles to fit me and three good competition horses we had on the yard – one 17h.h Event horse, a 16.2h.h. TB. 4 yr old, and my 15.3 h.h. favourite hunter – it was to have been such fun and from this I was to select saddles for the shop for the season, in as much as if the saddles suited me and three quite different horses they would be bound to work for quite a lot of my customers. It was a disaster………….not a single saddle, in a single width fitting, remotely ticked the boxes – They either fell on the withers and got sucked tight into the horse’s back the second I sat on them or if we got a modicum of clearance the balance was completely wrong……………..just none of them were right on any of the horses. “Doesn’t anybody even try these on horses?” I wailed……………….well…my lovely salesman thought they did ……….but sorry, no, he wasn’t quite sure who in the company was in charge of this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Then there was the male/female scenario. The saddles looked quite good on the horses and they had been recommended and developed with “such and such” stellar male dressage rider - so we had to have them……………… almost every lady dressage rider (and they make up nearly 90% of our dressage customers) got down from our test ride, their faces frozen in agony of such a personal nature that it could not be readily described! Likewise a middle aged lady “keeping her son’s eventer fit whilst he was at uni,” chose and ordered a saddle so wide in the twist and seat that whilst it was “bliss” for her – it was an instrument of torture for him………. Horses were off the menu for the holidays until that “terrible saddle” could be replaced with something a little more male friendly…………..Another lesson learned, a lot of food for thought ,and don’t get sucked in by the marketing.
Well, those were the very bad old days and it has taken me the best part of 30 years to come to some sort of real grips with the problem…………….Yet still a huge number of saddles are manufactured with little or no thought for the horse. Manufacturers will make the same saddle on different trees with no reference to their customers and however much we may talk of the “tree” it is mighty difficult to tell exactly what it looks like once the saddle is built around it…………and it is only when the horse is working under the saddle the thought begins……………….”I wonder why this one is not stable as the previous ones we’ve had”…………….we have learned that every horse and rider is a slightly different combination so………perhaps if I pop a bit of extra flocking in just there………..you get my drift. Nobody has thought to inform us that they have decided for some nebulous reason to change the tree – the customers no longer ooh and aah the second they sit in It and somehow they have “come up different” this time.
So NEXT QUESTION Like Oliver Twist asking for more…………..”May I see the trees on which this saddle is made?” is greeted with shocked silence. One manufacturer told me “our trees are our intellectual property and are not available for inspection”………….you would think they had been asked to strip naked. Did they think that I was some kind of industrial spy? Did they want to confiscate my camera? I was reminded of a visit to a textile mill in some small town in India. Imported from Lancashire and probably in use in the UK in the early years of the 20th century, all tourists were closely surveiled, cameras left at the entrance, confidentiality agreements signed etc………. Just what were they thinking? When you buy a car you are allowed to look under the bonnet.
How long were saddlery shops and saddle fitters prepared to put up with this arrogant “mother knows best” attitude? – longer I suppose than I care to admit – how long before independents with questioning minds stood up against the establishment and said “ are we getting this wrong?” My saddle fitting life has seen many such brave souls come and go – there has been the WIDE.WIDE WIDE brigade – some valid points but just as many downfalls – the treeless saddle (Oh dear!); the flexible tree, air, glorious air; some wonderful chap had the panel of a saddle under which you put your hand whilst he brought a large lump hammer down on top (close contact?) – if there had been any feeling at all you would have been on your way to hospital! . In some ways we haven’t come very far, - 30 years is not much in the evolution of the horse and yet I suppose I have learned and taken something from each and every fad as it has come and gone.
The saddle manufacturers we use, these days, are so much better and more approachable now,. More and more of us are asking difficult questions and whilst I still wouldn’t use the word “transparency”, at NSC NZ, we no longer have any saddles made on trees we haven’t seen and assessed as being suitable for the kind of horses we are being asked to fit. In fact without seeing the tree we are totally unprepared to accept any manufacturers marketing claims. No tree fits every horse, and with some horses choice is far more limited. – we are very conscious of conformation, and get quite excited about our customers trying what we deem to be the most suitable saddle before they make their choice. If the tree is right we can do an awful lot with different panel shapes to get that customized fit……….BUT……….. COMPROMISE is a big word in saddle fitting and sometimes when there is not an obviously perfect scenario, we have to back our judgment and our client’s choice and try out a solution and just see what happens All this is dealt with under our Guarantee Section
My journey in the saddlery industry, I hope, explains how and why the National Saddle Centre brand came into being. I know every rider/horse combination is unique – we offer saddles on several different tree profiles to accommodate the conformation of the horse and we have a huge selection of different panel options to bring utmost stability to the saddle – comfort for the horse, support for the rider. It is my individual “pursuit of perfection”.
It’s still not perfect, and unreserved apologies all round when we get it wrong, but I am doing my best and I believe we are getting there.