The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Brianna Wray
the Times 

Suze's Travels

The journey to becoming a master saddle fitting consultant


Courtesy photo

The course offered access to a wide selection of horses not necessarily available in Waitsburg, including an entire herd of Icelandics.

WAITSBURG-Licensed equine massage therapist, Suze Wood, recently returned from an educational expedition to western France. She traveled to attend practicum for certification as a master saddle fitting consultant.

The learning took place in the picturesque Moutiers-Sous-Chantemerle, in the Deux-Sèvres region of France. The course offers a rigorous curriculum, 750 hours in total, which culminates in timed testing of saddle faults, conformation, gait analysis, testing the saddled areas for soreness, bridle and bit fit, and fitting of saddles to horse and rider.

"Much of it is done via distance learning. Then you go to the facility and it's basically a seven-day bootcamp of going through the physical aspects of all the things that you've spent all of these hours learning about," Wood said.

She describes the experience as, "intense, and exhilarating!"

Wood chose this particular program because it, among others that are developed to promote commercial interests, strives to maintain neutrality to commerce by focusing on the needs of the horse and rider.

The program's curriculum was developed by a veterinarian who specializes in equine back pain and rehabilitation, and who served as faculty of veterinary medicine at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Wood also selected this program for its universality; it includes training in both western and English saddle styles, a rarity.

The universality is supported with an array of horses available to learn from. On the grounds, students have access to exotic horse breeds.

"We had a whole herd of Icelandics to work with. We had a bunch of draft horses, we had the sal frances, a french jumping horse, and all of these horses have unique needs for saddle fit," Wood said.

"I learned how to judge conformation for saddle fit purposes and how their conformation can impact the way that a saddle is going to perform on their back. I learned how to check bridles for fit, and mouthpieces (the bits) for fit. I learned how to pick up a saddle and run it through a series of tests that tell me within moments whether that saddle is symmetrical and whether or not that tree is safe. Also, whether or not the billet straps are in great condition or are rotting and are at high risk of breaking when somebody actually mounts that saddle which could cause a big accident.

"So many of the physical issues and performance problems that I see are directly related to back pain because of poor saddle fit. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of saddle construction and how we can use saddle fit to improve horse and riders comfort and optimize performance," she added.

The only American in a class of eleven students, Wood relished the exposure to different perspectives and ideas.

"Because of the intensity of the program, our group really pulled together and bonded over the experience. There was a lot of support and help studying as well as outings, and evening debriefs over a shared bottle of wine. And a lot of laughs-a whole lot of laughs!" she said.

Among the ranks, were a diverse selection of equine enthusiasts.

"We had people from Britain, Iceland, the Netherlands, a gal from Belgium. We had people whose backgrounds were as dressage trainers, who performed and competed at a very high level. One of them was actually a saddle fitter who had been doing saddle fit for more than a decade and the very highest level, fitting saddles for people who go to the Olympics and compete who just wanted a fresh perspective.

"We had a fellow who recently started selling saddles from a specific distributor and wanted to have background knowledge but competes as a stadium jumper. We had osteopaths for horses we had chiropractors for horses, it was an amazing mix of people," said Wood, who can already see the benefits of her training.

Upon her return to Waitsburg, Wood settled back into working with her massage clients and found an opportunity to use her new knowledge to determine a better outcome for two horses.

"I had been watching some changes going on with a horse I knew was stepping up through the levels. I was seeing some interesting muscle development along the back and asked if I could check the saddle. Luckily my client is very supportive and said, 'absolutely...' and sure enough two of the three had significant issues going on with their saddles that were really easy to fix. Luckily there were several saddles to choose from and there was a better pick in the bunch that, with a little padding and shimming, would give that horse all the space that it needs to use the muscles through its back so it can continue to perform dressage at a very high level," she said.

Because the nature of a relationship between horse and trainer or rider is so frequent, needs can be overlooked. Things change minutely every day, so it is important to schedule regular evaluations to redetermine the best saddle fit.

"It's easy for riders to forget that horse's bodies, just like ours, are constantly evolving. Something that fit great a year ago may now be hurting their horse and impacting performance if their body has changed," Wood said.

And with saddle fit, the stakes are high. A poor-fitting saddle can be seen in attitude changes of the horse, decline in performance, atrophy of muscles, to crippling the animal.

"It's like putting on a shoe that doesn't fit, putting all of your body-weight on it, and asking you to run a marathon. It just doesn't work," Wood said.

Wood's interest is helping the horse and the rider, not selling saddles. This mindset makes her an impartial advocate for horses who cannot speak for themselves.

"Of course I think it's wonderful that saddle makers and vendors understand saddle fit and can help their customers find the best choice from their range of products, but I'm uncomfortable with the commercial incentives and inherent biases that come with representing specific brands of saddles," Wood said.

"At the end of the day if your job is to sell a saddle, and you don't happen to have the saddle on hand that is the perfect fit for that horse, you're going to be selling the thing that comes the closest. It's not that they're bad; everybody's doing the best with what they have, but I don't like that mix of commerce, especially when we're talking about something that has such dramatic ramifications for the horse and for the rider," she added.

Wood suggests saddle fit evaluations about every six months and to keep an eye out for subtle behavior changes that may indicate early signs of poor fit.

Looking fondly at pictures from her time studying in France, Wood smiles and says, "I am glad to be home."

Now a master, Wood can not only get busy using the new skills attained, but also continue learning about saddle mending to further her skillset.


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