Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pyramid of Training

It's that time of year for us Northern folks.  As the ground in the arena goes from brown to white and the needles on the Tamaracks cover more dirt than branch we start thinking about laying off our horses for winter.  While many people do continue to ride in the winter, just as many pull the shoes on their horses and don't climb on again until the round pen thaws enough to "restart" them in the spring.

Luckily we are no longer in the camp that has to forgo riding for the winter months.  We are blessed to be able to board a few horses at a local barn so that we can continue to work on some training through the winter.  It's gone a long way towards keeping us sane during those long cold months.

But, even though we aren't laying off our horses completely in the winter it still is a time for reflection.  We look back on our year with our horses and take stock of where we started and where we would like to go next year.  We check off goals that were attained and set new ones for both rider and horse.

Often in the rush of late summer and fall riding I tend to get distracted a bit with just riding.  I love to get out in the mountains and cover ground and just be with my horse seeing new country. Especially as the daylight and nice weather start dwindling I spend less and less time in the training pen. While it's a great way to put miles and exposure on your horse, there isn't always much training that occurs on the trail.  Winter time is a time for me to slow down and concentrate on where we are and how we are going to move forward.  It's also a time for me to concentrate on just one horse at a time.  In the summer I am rotating between my horses trying to keep the time spent with each of them equal.  In the winter I board one at a time, usually for 30-60 days and concentrate on just that one horse for that time.

One of the tools that we use in the winter months to fix any holes in our horses or ourselves is the Pyramid of Training.  This illustration is provided by Cowboy Dressage.  You can call it any number of different things and the concept is anything but new.  Buster McLaury spent quite a bit of time during our clinic this past summer relaying a story that Ray Hunt used to tell his students about the importance of building the foundation.  You can't spend too much time on foundational training because it's what holds every thing else you do together.

In the world of horsemanship, foundational training starts on the ground.  This where you teach the abc's and communication between horse and handler.  It doesn't matter if your horse is 2 or 20, there are times when going back to the ground to reiterate certain points is immeasurably valuable.   We spend a lot of time doing groundwork exercises during our winter months.  Every single thing that you do with your horse in the saddle you should be able to do on the ground as well.  If you can't do it on the ground, how do you expect your horse to do it in the saddle?   This foundation of communication is so important with a young horse.  If you don't establish the communication, trust and bond in a young horse through careful handling on the ground, everything else you do with him will be a waste of energy.  It's like skipping kindergarten and going to algebra.  You may be able to hammer the concepts in with enough time and repetition but why do that to your horse?  Teach your horse to learn and he will reward you with better attention, try and heart throughout your time together.

For me, in my winter training, this is where I get really picky about my groundwork.  I want exact foot placement in my groundwork.  I want to stop a foot in midair and direct it's footfall.  Often in the summer I am too anxious to just get out and ride and let some of this stuff get sloppy.  Winter is a great opportunity to slow down and concentrate in a quiet setting.

Another thing that we spend a ton of time on in our winter training is transitions.  This is the next level up on the pyramid.  Walk, jog, stop, back.  You cannot do too much of this.   If you spend a half hour in the saddle and all you do is walk, jog, stop, back transitions with as much lightness and softness as possible, you will be further along in your training than if you had done an hour of loping patterns and working on flying lead changes.  The key here is building lightness and communication. If you have to beat your horse into a slow lazy jog lacking in energy and then drag him down again to a stop and back you are not capturing the essence of this exercise.  Over and over again ask your self, "How little does it take?"  Can you move that horse up into a jog through just raising the energy in your body?  Can you bring him back down again by just stopping riding in the saddle?  What about foot fall patterns?  Close your eyes and feel where those feet are landing. How can you direct the feet without knowing which foot is off the ground?  You have to remember that it's not IF you can get it done with your horse, it's HOW you get it done.  You want to get to the point where you think it with your body and they respond.  It becomes a game to see how closely your horse is listening.  You'll be surprised at how closely they pay attention when you still the other chatter that usually clutters our riding.  Make the horse responsible for listening to you and making that change rather than forcing the response from your horse with your hands or feet.

Once your horse has begun to master these things in a straight line, you can begin work on softness and suppleness.  Lateral suppleness comes first in the pyramid.  I almost hate to even go on to talk about the peak of the pyramid because so many people want to jump up to this level before they and their horse are ready.  It's like the flying lead change.  Everybody wants to do it before they can even really lope a circle. There is a reason that these things are at the top of the pyramid.  Lateral softness should start with your horse in the groundwork so that when you begin to work on it under saddle it makes sense to the horse.   Suppleness and bend isn't just referring to the head and neck but to the entire body.  With good lateral flexion through the rib cage you can create a very arced horse that curves around your leg in a small circle. By getting lateral flexion through the hips you can achieve a haunches in.  Lateral flexion in the shoulder creates a shoulder in.  Each of these body parts should be soft and easy to direct.

Finally at the top of the pyramid is soft feel.  Now, I think of soft feel in every interaction with my horse, but in this illustration we are specifically talking about what other people think of as vertical flexion.  This is asking the horse to get soft in the bridle, shorten his body by rounding his back and stepping his hind end underneath him.  This is the beginning of true collection and is something that must be built slowly one step at a time.  You can't hold a horse in soft feel.  You can ask him to come to you and you can reward him doing so but if you try to hold him there without him holding himself you create a brace and false flexion by breaking at the 3rd vertebrae or creating a horse who is heavy on the front end and has his energy fall out behind him.  Soft feel in true horsemanship where lightness is valued beyond everything else is like a ballet dancer going on point.  It takes years of preparation and training and building the proper form and discipline before you can do it right.  It's not something you can master in 30 days.

The Pyramid of Training is also a great illustration because it emphasizes how much relative time you should be spending on each of these exercises with a horse that is the beginning stages of training or retraining.  With my 3 year old (when he goes into light training this spring) I will be spending the majority of my time at the ground levels working on basics of communication.  He'll get a short session of work under saddle with some forward movement and transitions.  Then at the end of my session I usually do a short suppling exercise and work on breaking the hind end over and bringing the head and neck around laterally.  The last thing I work on at the end of our riding session is just the very beginnings of soft feel.  I'll pick up on the bosal just a little until I feel him soften and shift his weight backwards.  Then we're done.

I have specific goals in place for each of my horses for their winter work.  We enjoy the leisurely time together just hanging out in the indoor arena with friends who are also dodging the weather.  It's a great time for exploring new techniques, trying different exercises and experimenting with mastering footfall.  So, while I hate to see the summer come to an end, it's kind of like the excitement of starting a new school year.  Class is in session!

One Hand, Two Hands, No Hands, Soft Hands

Imagine if a piano player was restricted once achieving a certain level of training to only playing with one hand.  Sure you can make beautiful music with just one hand but why limit yourself in such a way?  While many of you may not be aware of it, a great heated debate is waging right before you in the horsemanship world that is just as silly as limiting a piano player to just one hand.  There are folks quite passionate about riding a western horse in just one hand to the point of accusing those riding in two hands as being ignorant and even abusive!

I know it sounds kind of silly to be making such a big deal about this.  Folks in the english world are likely scratching their heads at these cowboys wondering what in the world is the big debate.  Well, to understand the source of the debate you have to understand that all things horsemanship are seated in deep traditions and those traditions are harder to change than the color of the sky.

 Look at what side of the horse we mount on, for example.  It's considered poor form to mount from the right because knights mounted from the left so their sword wouldn't get in the way and we are STILL mounting from the left. I Can't remember the last time I had to fight with my sword while mounting, but I can tell you it feels weird when I mount from the right. 

But we aren't talking about swords today, we are talking about hands and how we should be using them.  Let's start at the beginning.  In starting all horses in all traditions, be it english, western, vaquero; the horse is started using two hands to make things simpler for the horse to understand.  Folks riding english have a marvelously simple bit called the snaffle that is used with two hands so that direct simple rein pressure commands can be communicated to the horse.  That same simple bit was adopted by the folks in the western traditions for it's simplicity and ease in communicating with the horse.  While many of the traditional vaquero folks shun the snaffle bit as non-traditional, they do ride with two hands with the horse in the hackamore to ease in communication until good rein signal is established. 

Riding with two hands makes perfect sense when riding with a bit that works off of direct pressure as almost all bits will to a certain extent.  You can use light, soft hands with give and feel to help shape the horse into a correct form.  If your entire goal with your horse is to head off down the trail in a straight line, one hand is quite sufficient regardless of the bit because creating shape and form in your horse is entirely unnecessary.  But, if you are riding for correctness of form then two hands and two legs is very useful, nae, necessary, in order to help your horse reach it's full potential.  Anybody who has watched a John Wayne movie has seen how one hand on the reins in a western bit can be quite harsh.  If any of those cowboys had reached down and softly bent the nose in the direction they were going before turning and galloping away rather than reefing the horse's head almost upside down as they cranked across the neck with one hand it would have made the whole picture much more pleasing.  But, that's just not how cowboys ride!

So why would it become a tradition in western disciplines to ride our horses with one hand?  Is it because of the big bits that we use that somehow become damaging with two hands on the reins?  Definitely not.  Look at all the metal an upper level classical dressage horse has in his mouth with two very tight hands on the reins. Look at a park horse parading around with the ring with a double bit and two hands on the reins.

 Look at the gaited horse community that show with large shanked bits and two hands on the reins.  The sole reason that western riders ride with one hand on the reins is because the other hand is supposed to be engaged in something else.  That is the entire reason.   Cowboys rope.  So if you are working cattle and roping it is incredibly important that you are able to control your horse adequately with one hand on the rein. 

I'm going to bring the vaquero tradition into the conversation for just a moment because this is one area where this debate is most heated, and for good reason.  The vaquero tradition is all about building elite cow horses.  These are horses that are meant to work off of the lightest signal of the rein for lightning fast reflexes.  They take years and years of concentrated and specialized training and the mark of their achievement is to be "straight up" in the bridle operating with precision and grace off the mere lift of a single hand perfectly positioning their rider to work a cow or rope a calf.   For these folks the tradition is everything.  They stick to tradition in dress, gear and training of their horses.  It is considered poor form to touch the bridle reins with the other hand not because you are afraid of the spade bit the horse is wearing but because of tradition.  You would no more touch the reins with your free hand than you would wear a bowler hat or ride in a cordura saddle.  Tradition. Plain and simple. 

But, aside from the strict traditions of the vaqueros the rest of the western disciplines have had to adopt this method of riding with one hand as well.  Even if these horses will NEVER see a cow in their lifetimes or those riders have no business swinging a rope! 

If we look at the western pleasure discipline you see riders in long draped reins with no ability to communicate effectively with their horse riding around the ring with one eye on the judge waiting for their opportunity to reach down with one hand and correct their horse or lift the reins over their head to bump that head down.  A good showman learns that you sneak a little inside rein with one finger when you are going around a corner to help round your horse.  What do you see in the warm up pen?  A bunch of folks riding around with two hands on the rein schooling their horses getting them ready for the show ring so that they can ride with one hand.

It's utter poppycock.  If your horse preforms more correctly with two hands on the reins then by all means ride with two hands on the reins.  This is one of the beauties of Cowboy Dressage and one of the things that so many people find so attractive about it.  There aren't rules about how many hands you can use with what type of bit.  If we are schooling our horses in correctness and lightness you should be able to help your horse in anyway that you can not only in the warm up pen but in the show pen as well. 

While is true that a well trained western pleasure horse can ride a pretty pattern with a draped rein and one hand, he can't do that pattern with a completely collected and rounded frame, arching in the circle and maintaining that arc then coming straight and collected through the half pass.  That takes aids, and help and two hands on all but the most advanced horses. 

But what about the bits?  Aren't shanked western bits too harsh to use two hands on?  Poppycock.  Sit around a western pleasure ring sometime and watch the way those riders bang on those horses with those great big bits.  That's harsh.  Cowboy dressage is all about light hands.  Any bit in poor hands can be harsh, just like any bit in good hands can be soft.  It's not he device but that hands wielding them that make the difference.  When you are learning to work with your horse with softness and feel it doesn't matter what kind of bit you are using.  Even the traditional spade bit of the vaqueros can be used softly with two hands without endangering the horse.  Cowboy Dressage encourages the use of hinged western bits that allow for independent movement throughout the mouthpiece.  Those bits are designed to be used most effectively with two hands working in lightness and correctness to create bend and suppleness throughout the entire body.  Those bits offer distinct advantages to the cowboy dressage rider over traditional spade bits or hooded half breed that are used in the western pleasure ring. 

What about the new trend of all the bridleless riding?  Should that be the end goal of any great horseman?  I don't believe so.  As a follower of the vaquero tradition, I believe the end goal of any great horseman should be to ride with softness and feel in the bit.  To be able to properly train your horse to be completely responsive and correct in the spade bit takes real horsemanship.  Not to make light of the great training that goes into making a horse listen to your body cues independent of a bit but it isn't as difficult as some might believe.  Horses are great at responding to changes in our body and leg position.  Good riders, I believe, make changes in our body while we are riding without even thinking about it and a horse learns to interpret these changes even when the signal with the bit isn't given.  Anybody can learn to ride without a bit, but it takes a real horseman to learn to properly ride with one. 

So what is my take on the great debate, especially since I am a follower of the vaquero tradition of bridle horses yet also a believer in Cowboy Dressage where two hands on the reins are not only allowed but encouraged? I believe it's all in the ability of the rider to ride with soft hands and feel.  I want correctness and softness in my horses above and beyond everything else that I do with them.  While I am working towards having my horse straight up in the bridle eventually, we will be working towards that goal with two hands softly directing and correcting until my horse can carry himself with collection and softness.  I love tradition.  It's fun to learn about how things have always been done and honoring our ancestors by upholding tradition is great.  But if you fly in the face of progress and reality for the pure sake of maintaining traditions that don't apply to you, that's ridiculous.  I believe that you should know how to mount your horse from both sides and how to properly ride your horse with two hands on the reins with lightness and feel no matter what type of gear you choose to ride in or what traditions you choose to follow. 

I believe there is a place for the vaquero tradition in Cowboy Dressage.  I believe there is a place for every type of western rider in Cowboy Dressage.  The pursuit of correctness and softness and light hands can benefit every single western rider out there.  I think it's time for a new tradition in the western disciplines.  It's time for lightness to become the tradition that surpasses all others.

Having Fits with Saddle Fit

I sometimes think that I could make a living in just providing saddle fit clinics for horses and riders.  It's such a universal problem for people that it's difficult to believe that our ancestors rode horses as a means of transportation and didn't sore up every single one of them.  Why is finding a saddle that fits hard for folks today?  Saddle fitting clinics are trending and there are experts all over the place holding expensive clinics to help you find a saddle that fits.  We see saddle fit related back injuries with increasing frequency in our practice.  Is this an increasing problem or an increased in awareness?  Probably a little of both.

Equine Anatomy
First in saddle fit, it is important to consider the anatomy of your horse's back.  Back length, wither height and shoulder angle are all very important in saddle fit.  The bars of the saddle should ride along the top of the rib heads supported by the long muscles of the back.  The front of the bars will sit in the pocket just behind the shoulder and below the wither.  The bars should not extend beyond the flank nor should they create pressure on the loin.  The paddle like portion of the scapula moves in an arc over the front of the rib cage with the horse's stride.  The flatter (more laid back) the shoulder is, the longer the stride length and the more movement of that shoulder.  Pressure in this area will affect stride length.

There is a wide variation in body types and styles within our equine population.  Some horses are high withered and narrow shouldered, some are muttoned withered with huge bulldog shoulders.  It may be hard to believe but horses used to be selected for breeding based on their backs.  A horse was said to have a good back for riding with moderate withers and a good pocket behind the shoulder for the saddle bars. Muttoned withered horses were considered cart horses because it was difficult to get a saddle to stay in place on their back. Often in the discussion of saddle fit you will hear folks talk about how the horse's conformation today is much different than it used to be, presumably because folks have quit selecting for back conformation in their horses.  I don't believe this to be a universal problem across the breeds.  I think many families of the Quarter Horse have lost the nice withers that they were bequeathed from the Thoroughbred and certainly there has been increased selective pressure in that breed for that "bulldog" look. Today's Quarter Horse often doesn't resemble the foundation type in many ways; back conformation among them.  They tend to be lower withered and wider, flatter backed then their ancestors so using an old saddle or one of old type will have a bar angle that is too steep for a flatter backed horse.  I think for my breed of choice, the Morgan, the opposite is true and our horses may have a better back with higher withers than many of their ancestors did.  So, generalizations are not appropriate.  You need to consider each horse as an individual.

This is Moony.  Green lines show the back edge of the shoulder and the front edge of the flank.  These are the front and back borders for your saddle.  Ideally you don't want any of your saddle to extend beyond these points.  The yellow line indicates the part of his back where the bars will be resting and demonstrates the relative length and angle.  The blue line is the height of his withers and the necessary gullet height required to provide him clearance.  The red line is his the angle of his shoulder and indicates relative shoulder action.  The larger the angle of the shoulder the more movement through the joint.
 Salsa has slightly shorter withers than Moony with a steeper relative shoulder requiring slightly room for movement through that area.  Her back is relatively longer than Moony's with slightly less rock.  Both of these horses have a very easy back to fit a saddle to. These horses can easily share a saddle.  The only difference is that when saddling Moony it is important to place the saddle back just a little further than where Salsa wears her saddle to accommodate for more range of motion through the shoulder.

Chico has a longer back than the other two and is fairly straight through the back.  He has tall withers with a good shoulder angle that requires quite a bit of room for movement.  Chico's saddle fit issues are not in his back, but in his hoof.  He has a tendency towards clubbiness in his left front foot creating unevenness in his shoulders and back.  Those high withers have been a struggle as well!

 The majority of horses are left handed.  In general (and this is a broad generalization) you can tell the horse's handedness by the direction that the mane falls naturally.  If the mane falls to the right, the horse is left handed.  Chico is very very dominant right handed and his tendency to be clubby in his left front foot is either the cause or the effect of his right handedness.  Because of this we had severe lead issues through the first 4 years of his time under saddle.  If you stand at his rump and sight down his back towards his shoulders you can see the difference in the two shoulders.  His right shoulder is thicker and has more range of motion.  His left shoulder is atrophied  yet sits slightly higher and has slightly less range of motion.  Riding in a poorly fit saddle for many years exacerbated this atrophy and I've had a hard time rehabilitating the shoulder to get them more even again.  I do think I've seen some progress in that area since my saddle fit journey began.

Recognizing Poor Saddle Fit

There are many ways you can tell if your saddle is causing problems for the horse.  For Chico I first noticed white hairs at his withers.  White hairs are caused by pressure points from the saddle and indicate chronic pressure damage or damage that was inflicted months ago.  It takes sometime for those white hairs to show up.  A common spot for white hairs to develop is at the hollow behind the shoulders where poorly fitted saddles have been interfering with shoulder movement.  Behavioral or gait changes are often the reason that I am called out to evaluate a horse for back pain and saddle fit.  Hollowing of the back during saddling, dancing around or pulling away during saddling or puffing up at the cinch during tightening can all be indications that your saddle is causing your horse physical discomfort.

Under saddle a sudden reluctance to lope, or extend gait or pick up a certain lead may indicate pain due to saddle fit.  Sometimes the horse has spent so much time in pain from a poorly fitted saddle that they become a chronic bucker.  If your horse is kicking out or bucking suddenly under saddle, ruling out physical pain should be your first thought before trying to "train" the buck out of them.

Other signs of back pain may include head tossing, teeth grinding, agitation as the ride progresses,or horses carrying their heads too low trying to stretch out those back muscles.  What does your horse do as you mount?  Does he pull away from you, buckle at the knees, grunt or hollow his back?

A properly fitted saddle should not need a crupper or breast collar to stay in place when riding on flat ground.  It also should not require an excessively tight cinch.

After riding and removing your saddle you should always examine your horse's back.  Is his sweat pattern even?  In a horse with a healthy back with no previous damage there should be even sweat patterns on both sides of the horse, especially where the bars are located.  If it's been a long ride, the entire area under the pad will probably be sweated up but it's the bar areas that you are most concerned with.  Unfortunately if a horse has experienced previous saddle damage, those areas will not sweat and that doesn't recover with correcting the saddle fit issue.   Check all along your horse's back for areas of raised lumps, excessive heat, rubbed hair or tenderness to the touch.
 This roan horse has a nice even sweat pattern along the bars of the saddle.  This pattern should be even on both sides.  The channel at the top of the spine should be dry and free from rub marks or areas of swelling or pain.

This palomino horse is showing areas of dryness at the fronts of the bars.  This area is not sweating due to too much pressure.  This may be a single incident or the result of chronic saddle fit.

Tools for fitting your horse to his saddle

When I found the white hairs at Chico's withers I assumed he was too narrow for Quarter Horse or Semi Quarter Horse bars causing the saddle to rock down on his withers.  Consequently I found a narrow saddle that I felt didn't hit his withers but was supported all along his back. I thought I had solved our saddle fit. But,  because this saddle had a fairly steep bar angle it dug into the pocket and limited his shoulder movement. This saddle was also very long so I had to put it further up over his withers than I would normally increasing the pressure on his shoulders.   Eventually this made his problem even worse to the point that his stride was so severely shortened that I had to correct it with time off and chiropractic and massage.  I never had dry spots under my saddle.  I never had bucking issues or saddle slippage or white hairs.  It just changed my horse's stride to the point that he couldn't perform.  By trying to fix my saddle fit issue without fully understanding the root of the problem I made it worse.  I also made his back even harder to fit because it caused further atrophy to that shoulder.  You would think that they would teach this stuff in vet school so I didn't have to learn it the hard way!

But, because of that journey I have learned more and more about saddle fit and am better able to help both my horse and my clients.  I have also done some limited work with thermal imaging and feel this is a great technology to aid is saddle fit diagnosis and determine how to correct the problem.

The very first thing that I did to try to determine exactly what type of saddle I was going to need for Chico was to do a tracing of his back.  This is a very valuable exercise that will help you to determine what kind of back your horse has.  It requires such high tech equipment as a length of outdoor plastic coated wiring and a tape measure.  You can get some of it at the hard ware store.  It's thick and malleable and it will help you to determine the shape and angle of your horse's back.   This website gives you directions to walk yourself through the process.

Basically you take a length of this plastic coated wire and create a tracing your horse's back from the base of the bar along the withers at the sweet spot where the front of the bars will rest in the pocket.

What you end up with is an outline of your horse's back that demonstrates the shape and relative width.  (Please see the webpage for a more detailed description of this process)

What I was very surprised to find out was that the relative shape of all our horse's back's was remarkably similar when measuring at the correct spot.  Although Chico's tracing did illustrate some atrophy at the point of the withers and his wither height was a little higher, the angles and width were the same.  He doesn't need a narrower saddle, he just requires a little higher clearance in the gullet so it doesn't hit his withers.

Using the tracings I had done of our horses I was able to check all our saddles for each horse to see what saddle fit which horse the best. Again, the website goes into more description of this process, but basically you take the tracing of the horse's back and place it in the bottom of your saddle.
We had one roping saddle that was far too wide for any of our horses.  The saddle I had been using was far too narrow for any of our horses and by a lucky coincidence, the saddle that Dan had just had made fit not only his own horse but most of the rest of the horses in our herd as well.  This tree has a 3b visalia tree which is an older traditional style tree.  The channel is fairly large with a good bar angle for our horses.  This is a hand constructed wood tree that sits nicely on most of the horses that we have had it on.  The only concession that I made in ordering my own tree was to increase the height of my gullet and allow more room for Chico's withers.  It doesn't change the angle or width of the gullet, just the clearance for a horse with slightly higher withers.

A new emerging and gaining in popularity modality for saddle fit is thermal imagining.  This can be very useful tool in determining pain in a horse's back and if it is related to saddle fit.  A thermal imaging gun is one that measures hot spots on the horse's body and on typically on the saddle as well.  Usually a horse's back is scanned for an image prior to riding and then after a period of 30 minutes of exercise.  Then both the back and the saddle are evaluated.  Images such as these are useful in determining how that saddle is interacting with the horse's back.

The image on the left is a saddle that is bridging on the horse's back.  The red areas indicate areas of greatest heat.  The image on the right shows a saddle with fairly good fit along the entire bar length with the exception of a a little extra heat in the right front of the bar.  Suppose this horse is right handed?  Or does this rider tend to lean on that side just enough out cause extra pressure there?  With the good distribution in weight it is probably not a significant issue, but still an interesting finding.

Choosing the right saddle for you and your riding style

Many people who are struggling with saddle fit are lured into the flex tree or treeless saddle option.  Some even decide to just forgo the saddle and ride bareback.  Let's take a minute and discuss why these are not good ideas for most riders.  If the majority of your riding is for 30 minutes or less on level ground with low impact, then you do not need to read any further.  Limited riding of that sort can be done bareback or in in a treeless saddle with no ill consequences.  If you ride a little harder than that, keep reading.

First of all, let's diffuse the myth that bareback is more comfortable for either the horse or the rider. While I do fully recognize the benefits of bareback sessions for developing rider balance and harmony with the horse, these sessions are best kept to short rides in the arena or jaunts down to the lake for a swim.   I spent a lot of time bareback as a kid and I suppose when you only weight 75 pounds it's a moot point.   The entire purpose of a saddle is to distribute the weight of the rider's seat bones over a larger area on the horse's back.  Without a saddle tree all the weight of the rider is consolidated into one area thereby increasing the pressure points.  It's like the difference between going on a long hike with a properly fitted external frame backpack spreading the weight over shoulders, hips and back or carrying that same weight in a purse slung over one shoulder.  This is a  well documented fact and many recent studies have been done to scientifically confirm what should be common knowledge.  Here is a link to a study completed using pressure pads to measure mean pressure points along the horse's back both with a saddle and without.

A treeless saddle creates similar problems.  Not only are they more likely to cause pressure at a single area because they lack a real tree they are also prone to slippage and create more difficulties with the need for an excessively tight cinch in order to keep the saddle in place.  Again, especially for folks doing a lot of long hours in the saddle, this is not a good choice.

Flex trees are another  option people commonly turn to when fighting saddle fit.  The important thing to remember about flex trees is that they are not meant to "conform" to your horse's back.  The flex trees are a solid traditional tree with areas that will flex slightly (and we're talking millimeters) or trees made entirely of a hard neoprene.  Think of a hard sole to a work boot.  More flex than wood, but not a lot of give.  The idea with a flex tree is that it moves with your horse.  Of course, it is also going to move a little with the rider's weight.  Therefore if you are off balance at all a flex tree would increase that problem of uneven weight distribution for the horse.  Many people believe that a flex trees allows for movement in the horse's back for a better athletic fit.

Let's look at where the bars of the saddle ride on a horse.  The bars rest on a fairly stable area on the horse's back.  If you have ridden bareback you know that while there is some flex and movement there, it is minimal.  A horse can round or hollow his back and arc his rib cage laterally slightly.  The flex tree is allowing for flexion outward or at the leading edge of the bar to allow for movement of the shoulder.  We have already determined that proper placement of the saddle and proper fit require the saddle to be out of the way of the shoulder.  If your saddle is interfering with shoulder movement then it doesn't fit properly and it will not help to have it flexing a few millimeters.

While I don't believe a properly fitting flex tree will cause problems for the horse, I also don't believe it will correct a poor saddle fit nor do I feel it provides any true benefit over any other well fit saddle tree.  The one thing that I don't particularly like about the flex trees is that I prefer natural products that are more forgiving in the construction of a saddle.  Ralide and neoprene are not my favorite saddle components. Neoprene is a source of extra heat in your saddle and isn't a good choice for any of your tack.

Besides fitting the saddle to you horse, it is also incredibly important to fit the saddle to you.  The bars, while designed to distribute weight over the back evenly can only do so if the weight that they are carrying and placed evenly on the bars.  There is a trend towards people riding in saddles that are too large for them.  Many people do not realize what size saddle they really need.  A larger saddle with longer bars is more likely to cause bridging and extend into that area of the loin that should be avoided.  If any part of your saddle, extends back over the horse's hips where the hair changes directions it is too long for that horse.

A properly fitted saddle for a the rider should place the rider's weight directly and evenly over the stirrups.  You should not be sitting in a recliner with your feet out in front of you.  This places pressure on the back of the bars and will sore your horse over his lumbar vertebrae.  You should not have more than just a few fingers of space in the area in front of your leg nor should there be more than just a hand's breath behind you at the cantle.  Your weight should not be pressed into the back of the cantle but centered over the center of the bars.  A good saddle should make your riding and keeping your balance easier.  If you have trouble keeping in the center of your saddle, keeping your feet underneath your body or loose stirrups often you may be fighting a saddle that doesn't fit you or is poorly made.

So, having been there and struggled with saddle fit, let me give you some advice. First of all realize that this is a process of trial and error to a certain degree.  Just because you have one saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" doesn't mean another saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" will fit your horse.  Unfortunately there is no uniformity in the measurements used by saddle makers and most custom saddlers will tell you that these measurements have little meaning.  Shop around for the best saddle that you can afford.  Stick with a quality made tree by a reputable tree maker and a saddle made for years and years of use.  Quality materials mean better wearing on the saddle and less incidence of warping of the tree, stretching of the leather or defects in the materials that cause the saddle to have pressure points.   You will be much further ahead having one quality saddle that fits several horses than 3 cheaper factory made saddles that don't fit anything really well. Consult a known expert in the field that has experience in saddles and fitting them to horse and rider.  Then do your research.  Use the tools mentioned above to determine if the saddle is fitting your horse like it is supposed to.

Here are a few other websites I found helpful in my research besides the ones mentioned in the text.

The Suitability of Suitability Classes in Cowboy Dressage

It has been interesting to watch the different directions that Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage have taken since their public inception only a few short years ago.  Developing a new "discipline" in which you encourage others to participate obviously has its demands and difficulties as you try to make sure that everybody is on the same page and viewing the goals, methods, and definitions of the discipline in the same way.  In order to establish any form of competition in which people can showcase their work a common ground is necessary.  Establishing that common ground can be most challenging.

I was one of the first members of the WDAA.  I participated in their members forum as many of the definitions and terms and goals of this fledgling organization were discussed.  It was frustrating to be part of, quite frankly.  There was such a vast gulf in where folks were coming from with backgrounds in such opposing methodologies and training practices.  Just deciding what a WD "trot" was supposed to mean and whether or not it would be called a trot was a long and painful discussion with passionate opinions on all sides of the discussion.  I'm afraid that the beginning of the end of my participation with this organization was the decision to be adopted by the USEF.  While I understand how inclusion in this organization lends a fledgling group credibility, it really began to interfere with what I felt was the purpose of Western Dressage as I had been introduced to it.  Don't get me wrong, Western Dressage and the WDAA is here to stay.  It offers a well thought out and very structured discipline for folks that like to ride dressage but prefer the comfort/style or lure of the western tack.  It allows many dressage horses to branch out a little and explore their ability to be ridden under two styles of attire and gear. Unfortunately, it is this very aspect of the thought of a dressage horse in western tack that gives the discipline its most vociferous opponents as well.

But, riding a dressage horse in western tack has never been my goal.

I was introduced to the notion of Western Dressage as Cowboy Dressage by Eitan Beth-Helachamy.  As a devout Morgan enthusiast I had long admired Eitan and his dancing Morgan Holiday Compadre.  Watching Eitan represent the United States in the Equestrian Games on the ever impressive Santa Fe Renegade brought tears to my eyes.  I jumped at the opportunity to ride with Eitan at a regional clinic and my devotion to this style of riding and the goal of lightness was cemented.  I assumed at that time that Western Dressage would be my avenue for that goal.

As it became increasingly obvious that Western Dressage was evolving into something much different than Eitan's original goals for Cowboy Dressage the two entities respectfully parted ways to pursue what they believe to be the purpose of their respective organizations.  While folks continue to use the two terms interchangeably I am quick to correct that misconception.  Cowboy Dressage is NOT Western Dressage and vice versa.

One of the many ways to illustrate that principle lies in the recent inclusion of the Suitability class in the Western Dressage shows.  Suitability is defined as "the quality of having the properties that are right for a specific purpose".  Many Western Dressage shows are now including this class for young horses that have never shown Western Dressage before.  They are to be  shown at gaits to include extensions of the jog and collected walk. They are to be judged on their ability to move freely in a steady rhythm with light contact on the bit and suppleness and lightness on the forehand and engagement of the hindquarters.  My understanding is that this class is a group class similar to other horse show venues where the horses are all asked to perform at the same time.  I'm told it's a great way to introduce a green horse to the environment and see if your horse is well suited to pursuing work in Western Dressage.

Many of you might be reading along thinking, uh-huh, of course, that makes sense.  It is common practice in many other disciplines to judge young horses for the potential to succeed in the show ring down the road.  Here is my issue with the class.  Looking at a group of horses that have yet to embark on their training in the field of dressage and judging them on whether they are suitable to continue is like evaluating a class of first graders on their ability to go on and be rocket scientists.

Cowboy Dressage is about getting the absolute best out of both you and your horse.  It is a personal journey to correctness of form, lightness of aids, and elevated communication between rider and horse.  It is NOT about which horse has the "springiest" movement, or stretchiest jog, or lowest headset.  It is about where you are today and where you are going tomorrow.

Cowboy dressage has a come one, come all attitude of inclusion.  You and your horse, no matter your ability, background, breed, age or training style are welcome to participate, share, learn and grow for the improvement of the movement of the western style horse.

There are no membership fees. There are no dues. There are no training packages or special tack items that you need to buy to participate in Cowboy Dressage.  Nobody is going to tell you to don a helmet or ride with one hand or not ride in your ranch saddle fresh off the range.  There is no "type" or "breed" of horse that is designed to excel in this endeavor and that is why judging a horse on its ability to respond to lightness and correctness before its journey has even begun has no place in Cowboy Dressage. You, the rider, gets to decide what direction your horse's ability and aptitude will take you, not a judge.  The judge is there merely to help you mark your progress along your way.

Let me just make this perfectly clear.  If you are a rider who embraces the Western style and mentality and you have a horse that you would like to help reach his full potential as a collected, correct and responsive partner in ANY western discipline, you and your mount both are very well suited to Cowboy Dressage. Welcome, friend, and let the journey begin.