Choosing a Saddle Fitter - Part 3

 Qualifications

You've seen it, all over the place on social media, leaflets, website, articles, especially from the public bodies, the official ones – "always use a qualified saddle fitter".  So what does that mean?  What are the qualifications and is a qualified fitter always better?  Are there valid reasons for ignoring this advice?

The first thing to say is that I am sticking my neck a LONG way out by making this post as the content could be construed as quite political!

I have flirted with joining one of the main organisations, of taking their qualification. I ummed and ahhed for a very short time after attending a short course with them, but ultimately I would have had to have significantly changed my approach to saddle fitting to pass the exam, and that means fitting saddles to my own customers, their way, to provide the required case studies.  Once I couched it in those terms it was a no brainer that I would continue the way I am.  I only went along because of the concern that we might all be forced to take qualifications somewhere down the line.

So first things first.  What IS a qualification?  It’s actually not what most people think it is.  A qualification is a GCSE, an NVQ, a degree.  It’s something that various organisations can provide training for, a recognised syllabus that can be taken nationwide, and different courses held up against each other as being similar standards.

So, is saddle fitting a profession with qualifications?  No.

If you remember my post on the existence of different approaches to saddle fitting the vast majority of these supposed qualifications are, in fact, accreditations.  It has become convention to call these two qualifications:

Society Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitter - SMS QSF

Master Saddle Fitting Consultant - MSFC

The former is the longest standing, the latter slightly more recent, but over 15 years old.  So any saddle fitter saying they are qualified who has neither of these accreditations is on thin ice and not marketing themselves fairly.

There are others, some of which are accredited themselves with external third party bodies:

Saddle Fit for Life/Schleese Equine Ergonomist and Saddle Ergonomist

International Saddle Fitting Academy

Horse 1st Saddle Fitting

There may be others I’ve not come across.  I don’t know the details of all of them, but the ones I know are absolutely training you in fitting their way, their paradigm and often their saddle designs.  One at least has several principles that absolutely cannot be applied to all saddles.

Some are more practical; the SMS was originally set up in 1966 to represent the British saddlery (making) industry, and moved into formal saddle fitting I think in the 1990s and fitters still have to offer a selection of British brands if they want to remain members.  Some are more academic; the Master Saddle Fitting Consultant "qualification", which spends a lot more time on theory than on practical saddle fitting.  Some are tied to a brand, some are not.  But in my opinion none of them can train anyone to fit absolutely any saddle, and in some cases, every single horse/rider combo.

So, are qualifications important to you?  If so, why?

Non-qualified fitters can get insurance, especially if they are experienced.  I was lucky enough to be on the AH Saddles fitters' insurance for my early years.

Non-qualified fitters may do a ton of CPD.I do all sorts – some of it formal, big paid courses where I get a certificated (though darned if I don't often forget to get it!), but much of it informal, whether it's working with mentors, or learning from others.  Do you check what sort of CPD your fitter does, whether or not they're qualified?  A lot of the training and learning I do falls way outside of these more standard saddle fit approaches.

So, if we've ticked off insurance and CPD, why do you want a qualified fitter?  Perhaps you feel like you'll get more help if things go wrong?  Should I mention the words "chocolate teapot" crop up with worrying regularity with some of these organisations.  And from conversations with other fitters it seems they seldom help the fitter either!

I'd recommend you read up about how much help you may get, and you'll only get that help, what little there may be, if your fitter has paid this year's dues and kept up with the CPD requirement.  They need to be members, not just qualified and bear in mind some of these organisations offer more than one accreditation so check which one you require.

You think the training means they're better fitters?  Some will be brilliant, and the training may have been part of it.  Others will not be, and reading up about horror stories with fitters seem to show there isn't much difference between the proportion of unhappy customers of qualified fitters compared with non-qualified especially if experienced.

Training can vary a LOT:

Is it simply one way of fitting a saddle (true to an extent of most of them)?

Is it moving with the times, keeping up to date with new developments in the science of saddles and movement?  Does it appear cutting edge, yet is sticking to pretty much disproven dogma?

Is it simply reinforcing the way our top horses are moving as something to aim for, working with the way they are being trained?  Are we measuring saddle fitting and biomechanical correctness/"success" based on dysfunctional movement which is seen in so many places these days?  Is it part of a concerted attempt to have healthier horses, to help them move better, to help them avoid long term lameness?  Is it concerned with rider health and performance, in and out of the saddle?

Is it empowering fitters to feel they can fit ANY saddle?  No matter whether it's on a tree or not, whether it's of traditional construction or not, whether they have any idea at all as to what tree shape is in the tree.

On that last point, would it be better to have an expert, trained by the saddle designer, in the brand, especially once you have that model of saddle?  There may be value in having a fitter out who only gives advice, or who stocks a ton of brands, or a "van full" of used saddles, of course, and they are probably more likely to be your local qualified saddle fitter.  Arguably we have generalist "qualified" fitters as they can, as they are marketed, fit and check any saddle.  Is it possible to have an in-depth understanding of the designer's approach to saddle design and fit, enough to adjust it to improve the functional fit, if it's a brand we don't stock and have never been trained in?  If we stock 5+ brands, perhaps even 10+ brands, is it possible to be fully trained in the design and fitting paradigm for all of them, for all the models? Many fitters gravitate to just some models from each range, or even hone in on just one or two of the brands they list, for this reason, we all have our preferences!

So why do societies etc promote always using a qualified saddle fitter?  

This industry is huge, and yet we all know it's tiny, really.  Everyone knows everyone, and the big organisations are all connected, networking, and we wouldn't want it any other way.  So there's a level of indirect pressure, but also the knowledge that the organisations are much "safer" recommending the use of a qualified fitter, especially meaning the SMS.  If things go wrong for the customer THEY can't be blamed for recommending anything other than a qualified fitter.

From a fitter's point of view the financial and time requirements for these courses are enormous, and so many fitters quit, even within 5 years I think the attrition rate could be as high as 50%.That's highly likely to leave debt behind.

There are issues with pass marks – one organisation seemed at one point to be failing experienced fitters, as well as failing people who were seen as "difficult" by the person running the course.  Another has an incredibly low pass rate which could be seen as worrying for the standard of training, or as a plus point that only the best get through, though if this is the case it's also potentially gatekeeping an industry where many argue there is a lack of fitters in many areas.

We do now have some new organisations coming through who will represent saddle fitters, providing services, usually some protection for the consumer, for fitters from all backgrounds, giving "grandfather rights" to non-qualified fitters with a good reputation.  I watch these with interest.

As with all things with saddle fitters and, as I stated in my post about why saddle fitters can't agree, you need to know what is important to you.  I would strongly argue that someone with years and years of experience, with very positive reviews (no-one has wholly positive reviews!!), who offers a brand or three that could suit your particular situation….may well be much more important/relevant to you.

Think carefully.  Research thoroughly.  Ask the right questions. 

CHOOSING A SADDLE FITTER PART 2

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