“If the saddle doesn’t fit, don’t use it” is the guiding principle for saddle fitter Stacy Hockel. An independent saddle-fit advisor and equine bodyworker, Hockel of Vernon helps horse owners with determining how well their saddle fits themselves and their horses.
“I’ve gone out to evaluate and work on horses only to find that an ill-fitting saddle is the main culprit,” Hockel said. “The benefits of the bodywork may only last a short time due to the fact the saddle is continuing to create pressure points and strain on the body. Combining the services of the massage and saddle fitting creates an opportunity to correct the imbalances and bring harmony to your partnership.”
Hockel apprenticed with George Gullikson, a nationally recognized saddle fitter. Gullikson taught her that along with the horse’s confirmation, movement, temperament, symmetry and discipline level, the art of fitting a saddle to a horse means taking the rider’s body shape and riding style into account.
“If you are getting side aches, back aches and fight for position constantly, it most likely is your saddle fit,” Hockel said.
She urges riders to re-evaluate their saddle’s fit more than once a year.
“Think about being in training yourself, working out at the gym, your body changes within just a few weeks, the same goes for your horse,” Hockel said. “You need to have your saddle checked a few times a year to make sure pressure points are not being created which will inhibit your horse’s performance and attitude.”
Being an independent fitter allows Hockel the freedom to consult on all types of saddles and eliminates having to maintain brand loyalty to a saddle company and meet quotas.
She not only works with getting the best saddle fit for the horse, but takes time to watch and interact with the rider. Her observations are combined with the rider’s input to achieve the most comfortable fit.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a fitting and had to be the bad guy explaining why the new saddle is not the right choice,” Hockel said. “After we go over the ‘why,’ it’s easy for the owner to see what went wrong. That’s one of the hardest parts of this job, telling someone they have to sell what they just bought or why the saddle they love is not working for their horse. But it’s better to get it right than have a lame horse, sore back or many other ailments and a big pile of vet bills”
Hockel believes the saddle is the single most important item a horse owner will purchase for the welfare of rider and the horse. Finding the right saddle can be a daunting task for most horse owners, because of the expense.
“I start all my fittings with an explanation on their horse’s basic anatomy and biomechanics, whether it’s private or group,” Hockel said. “We examine the horse’s asymmetries as well as strengths, whether their horse is right or left-handed, and how we can work on getting him stronger and more balanced. Due to the fact I am also a certified equine body worker, I like to cover muscular development or lack thereof because of how the saddle fit will be affected by the body in motion, rider position and training techniques.”
Hockel does private fittings for horse owners and holds fitting clinics for Pony Clubs, 4-H or riding clubs throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
“Sometimes the groups bring their horses and tack and sometimes it’s just lecture based,” she said. “I’m always available to hold a clinic at any farm with riders who are interested.”
Hockel starts the examination of the fit by checking how the saddle sits on the horse at a standstill, which can change when the horse moves. The questions she tries to answer during a saddle check are — is the saddle balanced horizontally and laterally, is the tree width adequate for shoulder and wither comfort, is the saddle too long for the horse’s back, and is the panel and channel width allowing for even weight distribution and spinal clearance? She also considers girth and billet placement.
“As the horse moves he lifts his back and rocks the pelvis, the withers rock back and forth, the scapula moves back and under the saddle and the rider adds to the balance ‘dance,’” Hockel said.
She watches to see whether the saddle rocks or fishtails, pushes the rider too far back in the saddle, the pommel pinches or hits the horse’s withers, the saddle slides back or forward on to the shoulder and if the horse’s stride changes.
Among the most frequent problems people call Hockel about are whether a saddle seems too tight in the shoulders – which more times than not ends up being that the saddle is too wide, not narrow.
The horse is widest when standing still, the pair of shoulder blades, scapula, are parallel, making the shoulders at their widest. As soon as the horse takes a step, one scapula moves back and under the saddle panel, and the shoulders become narrower. So riders should sit tall or even a bit back, slide their hand under the front of the saddle and then ask the horse to walk. You will be amazed how much room actually is created by that first step.
“When riders check the saddle when mounted, they tend to stop, lean forward and try to get their hand under the pommel or down the shoulder,” Hockel said. “This causes all your weight to come onto the front of the saddle. Then the saddle seems tight, when actually it is falling down and around causing that tight feeling.”
When a saddle shifts off to the right or left, or the saddle is slipping off to one side, Hockel tries to determine whether the saddle is too wide and slipping or the ill-fit is caused by the asymmetry of the horse.
“You see, horses are right or left–handed like we are,” said Hockel. “They like to lean to one side or the other, just like we lean into one hip or the other. This makes one side of the body lower than the other. Then when the horse moves, the saddle follows gravity and falls to the lower side. Most of the horses I see are ‘left-handed’ or stronger on the left hind and weaker on the right, causing everything to fall right when in motion.”
If a horse’s lower back is sore, it’s because the saddle positions the rider too far back into the back of the saddle, not in the center.
“The stirrup bar placement is too far forward,” Hockel said. “The riders’ legs are out in front of them causing a cantilever effect, like sitting in a chair. This affect really takes a toll on the back of the ribcage and lumbar. Another reason can be the panels are just too long and land past the 18th rib.”
More information about Hockel and her business Equine Inspired Touch can be found on her website www.equineinspiredtouch.com or her Facebook page. She can be contacted via email at email@example.com.