The study of equine behaviour is a huge subject, this…
Few people stay the same weight and shape throughout their adult lives. Horses also have the ability to change shape rapidly, which can be due to differing weather, stress levels, management, feeding, training and exercise. One of my horses needed 4 different saddles in one year due to him changing so much through training, I’ve also known horses change an entire width fitting in 3 weeks due to alterations in their diet.
The job of saddle flocking is to fine tune the fit of the saddle to the individual musculature and fat of the horse and distribute pressure as evenly as possibly. Whilst the tree should be symmetrical and follow the profile of the horse’s back, few horses are symmetrical, so the flocking assists the rigid tree by having the ability to mould to the horse’s back. Flocking cannot be used to make a saddle fit if the tree is the wrong width or has the wrong curvature from front to back, nor can it be used to make a saddle fit if the panel type is wrong for the horse.
The panels of a saddle can be flocked with synthetic fibres, wool, air or foam. Adjustable airbags have been scientifically proven to minimise and distribute pressure the best. Flocking with wool is the next most preferable option. Synthetic fibres are cheaper but they cannot absorb sweat or concussion like wool and they become hard and compacted much more quickly and should be avoided. Foam can degrade, becoming thinner and inconsistent or sometimes very hard and it cannot be adjusted to the individual horse. There is a system of non-adjustable air and foam combined but these panels are often rock hard and neither can they be changed to a horse’s individual shape, having taken a saddle apart that uses this system, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole!
The market for second hand saddles is huge, particularly at the cheaper end. An often overlooked point is that any second hand saddle MUST be re-flocked before being used on a new horse. The flocking would be settled and in the shape of the previous horse (and possibly rider) and it is highly unlikely that the next wearer is identical. Try wearing your shoes on the wrong feet, even slippers are uncomfortable! Pressure distribution is hindered if the flocking isn’t correct for the individual, with a resultant potential for pressure points and discomfort for the horse, even pain.
There are several other reasons why a saddle will need re-flocking, including just plain old use. If the tree still fits but the horse has changed shape and the fit needs to be fine tuned or if the panels become hard, lumpy or uneven, then re-flocking is required. Mounting from the ground will cause flocking to be compressed and dented under the stirrup bar and an asymmetrical rider will also cause problems. Re-flocking may just require the addition or removal of air or wool or it could be starting again from scratch, depending on the situation.
Just like farriery, dentistry and worming, having a saddle checked should be part of a horse’s routine care. Just as rugs rip or start to leak and therefore need replacing or feet grow and need to be trimmed, flocking also needs maintenance if the horse is going to be kept comfortable and able to perform when being ridden. Performance includes just hacking or being backed- times when people often skimp on saddles because the horse isn’t ridden much or is going to change shape but these horses are no less worthy of a comfortable saddle that fits. Finally, as with everything, you get what you pay for, so check the credentials of someone who is going to check your saddle, the most popular person might be popular because they are cheap, not because they are good at their job. Re-flocking is a skilled job to do correctly and I have seen many disasters that people have paid good money for, with lumpy, synthetic flocking that looks like it has been shoved in with a broom handle!