Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If you Ride Horses in Columbia County- See This Lady about a Saddle

So for anyone who knows me, the fact that I ride (horses that is) is no secret. I’ve been riding in Columbia County since I moved here full time in 1989. Yep, that long. I’ve probably sat on over 100 different horses and been in multiple barns from the Berkshires and back. I’ve spent a lot of time riding in Malden Bridge and of course, Old Chatham, the epicenter for riders now, in the past, and probably in the future.

This post is about riding and the critical role of saddles. In sitting on over 100 horses ("sitting on" the colloquial term in riding for “having ridden”), I’ve also probably sat in more than 150 saddles. Most of them were pure crap, broken, second hand, or just cheap. This happens when you’re first learning, you’re under the impression that a saddle is a saddle. Kind of the “one-size fits all” theory. This couldn’t be more wrong. It would be like assuming that my shoes would fit your kid or your husband.

Saddle fitting is truly an art form, and often it’s the area that gets most ignored by riders, though I have to say, the awareness has risen quite a bit. I'm going to tell you about a master saddle fitter, and a really nice person.

I met Laura Vonk a couple of years ago when she and I were boarding our horses in the same barn. She had just purchased a spitfire chestnut horse named Roxy, and I was riding my horse, Louis, whom I’ve raised from a 4 year old. Laura didn’t stay long at this barn with Roxy, but somehow, probably through mutual friends and Facebook, we stayed in touch.

My first instincts about Laura were that the she was a humble, yet an awesome dressage rider. The barn we were in didn’t do much dressage, and that could be why she left. It was ultimately why I left. Anyway, Laura impressed me because she was so unassuming, polite, friendly and upbeat. It’s not often that someone at her riding level (way up there in the dressage scale ) is so nonchalant. In the riding world, and especially in competitive riding, there’s a lot of people with big egos, big agendas, big dreams, deep pockets and tunnel vision when it comes to needing to be in the ribbons (aka...winning). What I liked most about Laura was what I call her compassion for horses. She was sensitive and her demeanor with Roxy, who could pack quite a bit of energy at times, was always calm, controlled, and effective. "Wow," is all I could say each time she’d enter the ring.

Time passed, perhaps a few years, and I felt compelled to move Louis to a different location. I wanted to be closer to where I was working in Hudson, and he needed higher ground, less mud to help his feet which seemed to suffer in moisture. I wanted to be among fewer competitive riders and certainly in a barn that fully focused on dressage.

 For anyone reading this who doesn’t exactly know what dressage is, here’s a brief, but succinct definition. Dressage (often pronounced in French with the accent on the second syllable, so it sounds more like Dress-ig) is most commonly translated into “training.” It is a competitive equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation as the “highest expression of horse training,” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”

Some talk about dressage as a dance or horse ballet, where the horse performs beautifully and the rider appears to be doing nearly nothing, (which couldn't be further from the reality). The sport or training methods go back to the Renaissance period where in Europe riding masters developed a sequential training system and little has changed since then. (Wikipedia).

I got into this aspect of riding after years of trailing riding, riding cross country, jumping horses and so forth. Dressage appealed to me for the same reasons yoga appeals to me. Both of these practices require intense concentration, agility, flexibility, balance, control of the mind and performance of the body. They both tremendously develop every part of the body, the mind and nurture your spirit as cliche as that sounds. The difference is that yoga invites you have a deepen your relationship with yourself and dressage allows you an intimate relationship with your horse. These two things yoga and dressage, go hand-in-hand, or should I say, hand-in-hoof. I’m a practicing yoga teacher and dressage rider, and for me, that’s perfection.

So back to Laura. Laura, in the time since she left the barn we were in to the time we reconnected, had decided to build her own place where she could train, teach and rescue horses and ride. I’d seen her post photos of the progress of the barn building on Facebook. It looked quite amazing and gorgeous. At some point last spring, I stopped by to see it. Laura greeted me in her gracious manner, with a big hug and showed me and a friend around. It was truly becoming a magnificent facility. I congratulated her. A while later we talked about moving Louis in with her group of horses which consisted of two upper level dressage horses, two rescues off the track and two orphaned babies whose mothers' had died. She had no real borders, and I was basically becoming the first. I felt honored and needless to say, super excited.

Come to find out months after we moved in,  Laura represents Trilogy saddles. We spent many hours talking one day about her work with the really unique company that was started by a woman who just didn’t think that the dressage saddles out there were really working for her. Leave it to an entrepreneur to reinvent the wheel when the wheel no longer works. So Trilogy was born with this idea of making real saddles for real bodies and real horses. The founder, Debbie, went to England to find the best saddle makers and now the saddles are widely used by both amateurs and high level dressage riders. 

For years I’d changed saddles on my horse. To this day I still have four saddles I’d like to sell. My problem was two-fold. Louis changed shape over the years and that is the plain fact about most horses. From a skinny four-year-old, he filled out and grew taller by the time he was six. Now he’s eleven, big muscled, 16 3hh and a lot of horse. Through the many phases of his growth and our training, his body matured, muscled up and in places, slimmed down in other places. I changed saddles many times to keep pace with his metamorphosis. 

One day Laura invited me to ride in her Trilogy. The first thing that struck me was that Louis was instantly more comfortable. I know this because he dropped his head, which in turn lifted his back and filled up the seat below me. It literally felt like I was suddenly sitting on a massive beach ball. He blew out a big breath which told me he was relaxed, and when we trotted off, he was smooth and swinging, two more indicators that he liked what he was feeling. I, too, felt more comfortable. The saddle didn’t rock, sway or tip to any side. The seat was comfortable and totally balanced and sat flat. My leg hung in a really great spot lining up my heel with my shoulder, and  I stayed put when he had a little falter.  When I asked him to go round (that basically means he pushes from the rear legs and carries himself very lightly, with his neck arched), it was smooth and even and elegant. Wow. Laura watched and I know she was smiling. She didn’t say much except that I should ride in that demo saddle a few more times, which I did.

So, I guess that many of us have slipped on the perfect pair of jeans or sat in the front seat of a sports car. There may be other experiences to explain what this feels like, maybe, but for me, being in this saddle, it was like being carried on a magic kidding. I loved the feeling.

If I had thought about investing a boat load of cash in a new saddle for long, I may not have taken the plunge.  I didn’t think too long. Later that day Laura did meticulous measurements on Louis, tracing his back, measuring his sides and having me sit in a variety of tree sizes (trees are the middle part of the saddle and vary from wide to narrow to fit the rider’s body). I’m not that big of a person and the narrower tree worked well for both me and Louis. She did the ‘fittings” and put the order in with my down payment. Since the saddle was to be made in England, it could take 4, 6 and sometimes 8 weeks to complete. I figured that the saddle would arrive somewhere around my birthday, May 4, and I might be able to justify the expense, somehow.

It’s July 1 and the saddle and I had our first date today. Laura popped it on Louis’ back to see how it fit yesterday. We both marveled at how beautiful it was and how level it sat on him. Only a dressage rider can appreciate this minutia. She added just a bit of flocking (real wool that is inserted into the panels, the place where the saddle meets the horses back) which gave it a better cushion. Finally came the test drive I’d been waiting for. I added my leathers and irons (stirrups) and I climbed aboard. Instantly I smiled. This was amazing. Louis, who had been kind of stiff and cranky in the last few rides, sighed deeply and dropped his nose. With a gentle bump of my inside calf he took off and we did a big rising trot around the arena on a long rein. The more he flowed, the more I smiled. Laura was again watching from the corner silent. She offered a few observations which helped me focus and the ride got even better. Had it not been 90 degrees, I would have ridden for quite a while longer, but I got off and gave Louis a long cool bath. My Trilogy got a good long oiling and put to bed.  The maiden voyage was more like a luxury cruise. Go to and talk to Laura Vonk.  She’s by far the most professional and knowledgeable saddle fitter in Columbia County and a really nice person.