Know who you are dealing with – and, take a break – but make good use of the time!

sms_logoKEN’S COLUMN

THIS MONTH: know who you are dealing with – and, take a break – but make good use of the time!

It is surprising how few people understand the differences between a Society of Master Saddlers’ qualified saddle fitter and a Society of Master Saddlers’ qualified saddler.  The former specialises in fitting saddles; he or she – there are a lot of lady saddle fitters – will have trained and passed the SMS assessment for this qualification.  They are then entered on the Society’s register and must re-register on an annual basis.  They are also required to undertake a refresher course every two years. (When the qualification was instituted, I had the honour – and pleasure – of being one of the very first course lecturers and assessors.)

A qualified saddler is a craftsman who will have undertaken a minimum of four years’ training, almost always part of it at the Saddlery Training Centre in Salisbury. Most qualified saddlers go on to become Master Saddlers and/or Master Harness-makers – (this requires a minimum of a further three years’ experience). Most Master Saddlers specialise in a particular type of work such as made-to-measure bridlework, bespoke side saddles or saddle flocking and refurbishment – and so on.  Many also develop non-equestrian related specialisms such as designing and making handbags, belts and other fashion goods; travel items and various types of case; purses and wallets – in fact, virtually anything and everything in which ‘leather’ is the medium.

saddle_lo-resAre some individuals qualified as a craft saddler and a saddle fitter?  Yes – but not many.  I would add that a saddler and/or saddle fitter who benefits from in-depth riding experience will find this immensely helpful in a multiplicity of circumstances. I am an SMS qualified saddle fitter and I worked with master craftspeople to design and develop a range of saddles.  Without any doubt whatsoever, I know my experience as a three-day event rider helped me to produce saddles that benefited both horse and rider – and my experience as a rider certainly helps me in my work as a saddle fitter.


The end of the season – well the outdoor season at least – is nigh!  Once upon a time that was regarded as affording opportunity for a welcome break – for horse and rider.  These days large indoor arenas make it possible to compete all-year-round in most disciplines, consequently the diaries of some riders are fully booked virtually every weekend.

There are still a lot of riders who welcome a break for themselves – opportunity to do something entirely different (often to the relief of the family!). And of course, a lot of owners consider it vital to give their horse a proper rest, especially after a demanding season. A break is good, anyway, because it allows time to catch up with jobs that have been set aside because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day – too many commitments such as school and work to interfere with the horses! Rather more seriously, a gap in the normal routine does mean that those put-to-one-side tasks can be sorted!

SADDLESFor example, when a saddle is in daily use during the season, repairs to minor ‘flaws’ are often left for a more convenient time.  A couple of frayed or missing stitches can multiply – the old adage ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ holds good!  Master of Saddlers’ qualified saddlers are generally pretty busy and so it is advisable to book the repair well before the holiday commences.  Of course, stirrup leathers or girths with missing or frayed stitching demand urgent attention because the chances of an accident resulting can be seriously high.

Re-flocking a saddle is highly skilled – it doesn’t just mean opening up the tree panels and bunging in some stuffing! The most favoured flocking material continues to be high quality pure wool but other materials – wood chips, sawdust and discarded tights, for example – have been used by non-qualified, unethical saddlers! How to tell if a saddle needs to be re-flocked? Check the saddle flocking automatically every time it is used. The saddle needs re-flocking if the panels have become ‘hard’ – the wool has ‘settled’ and become notably ‘ungiving’ – the saddle no longer looks symmetrical; the saddle feels uncomfortable and ‘lumpy’. And of course, ask the saddle fitter’s advice when he visits to check the fit of the saddle.

The best re-flocks involve complete replacement of the existing material (not a ‘top-up’ – not a ‘taking out, a shake and fluffing up’ of existing material. (The price of re-flocks can vary considerably; when obtaining a quote, ask the saddler to explain what processes and materials he/she will be using,) The flocking must be totally symmetric and without ‘lumps’. Incorrect flocking can produce a series of lumps and hard points that could create severe back pain, muscle spasm and other symptoms in both the horse and the rider.

Another problem that I constantly come across relates to bridlework with overlong head or cheek pieces or a browband that ‘flaps’ because it is too large.  A bridle that is untidy can impact on the horse’s overall appearance and totally spoil even the most attractive head. Arrange for a Society of Master Saddlers’ qualified saddler to carry out the adjustments needed first checking that repairs are cost effective in relation to the overall state of the bridle – in extreme cases it might be cheaper to lash out and buy a new bridle!

Another remedial job that is often ignored concerns small tears and rips in rugs, broken fastenings, frayed bindings –and so on. Rugs aren’t cheap and it is wise to have the repairs undertaken before the tear or rip gets larger!  A number of entrepreneurial people have set up small businesses offering specialised services repairing, cleaning, laundering and re-proofing rugs. They can be very busy and so book well in advance.

KEN LYNDON DYKES is an ex-international level three day event rider.  A qualified Society of Master Saddlers’ saddle fitter, his specialities include competition horses and ‘difficult’ fittings.  He is increasingly in demand as a professional witness and adjudicator in relation to saddlery-related claims and disputes.  KEN can be obtained at head office (01622 844440) or on his mobile: 07973 501873

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