When we see a video or read something about saddles or horses, we always want to know where the author gets their knowledge about the subject. Do they have the experience to really know what they are talking about? Or might they just be repeating things they have heard elsewhere? Here’s our background, and we’ll let you make your own decision about us and if we have anything worthwhile to listen to…
Rod Nikkel knows the saddle from the top side very well because he rode them for years working primarily on ranches and with horses, including 5 ½ years taking care of a herd of 50-60 horses, including all their tack, for a camp. He also did a four month course to become a farrier so he could trim and shoe his own horses. His first custom saddle ended up with a tree that had problems and needed to be replaced. Later, he ordered a saddle with a hand made tree and the difference was immediately obvious to him. This started an idea in the back of his head that some day he could build good trees.
When his last riding job ended the fall of 1995, he started his business building western saddle trees, making almost 2700 trees, one at a time, before shutting down the tree shop in the summer of 2016. During that time, he also built himself two saddles from the tree up.
Denise’s “engagement ring” was a custom saddle, which was OK with her, so obviously horses and saddles have played a big role in her life as well. She had earned her degree as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine before meeting Rod and worked with both small and large animals for a number of years before retiring from the profession to help Rod in the tree business. She also spent years working with horses and kids at camp, giving her practical experience in dealing with many horses of different types. (Horses for kids’ camps are purchased for their minds, not their body type…)
Because the tree in a western saddle is the foundation of western saddle fit, we needed to make trees that fit the horses they were intended for or we wouldn’t have had a business. We started with good instruction and good patterns to fit the body type of a working ranch horse in Western Canada and the north west US. The base of our business started and remained the working cowboy. But over the years the average “typical working ranch horse” shape changed, as seen in the changing specs ordered by our saddle making customers. We also discovered that the “typical working ranch horse shape” varied depending on location as well, with Texas and its surrounding states having a different body type than what was our norm. So we learned to fit these horses as well.
When Dennis Lane came out with his Equine Back Profiling System in 2008, giving an objective standard that horse shapes can be measured against and allowing easy communication of horse back shapes, our learning curve took another sharp bend upwards. Now there was a way to easily see the array of variations in shape that exists in the equine world. While we were building well for the majority of horses commonly used for western riding, more and more people were wanting to ride other horse types in western saddles, but couldn’t find saddles to fit them. Dennis’s cards showed why that was so - their shapes were very different that the mythical “typical Quarter Horse”.
Many people who owned these horse types eventually went to custom saddle makers to have a saddle made to fit their “non-typical for a western saddle” horses. Rod took up the challenge to expand his repertoire and figure out how to build trees that would fit these different shapes. He ended up building trees to fit equines that ran the gamut of sizes and shapes from Hanoverians to Halflingers, from drafts to donkeys, from Tennessee Walkers to Thoroughbreds as well the many variations of Quarter Horses. In doing this, he solidified his understanding of how the many factors built into a tree affect the fit as well as how changing one affects all the others.
Denise, meanwhile, was getting more and more interested in the research end of things. She had always enjoyed anatomy, and she had the opportunity to do some muscle dissections and even assemble the skeleton of a miniature horse, plus play with other bones as well. This increased her interest even more, along with initiating a curiosity about biomechanics and how saddles affect how horses can move and function. She started to spend a lot of time reading academic studies and lay information on these subjects, only to discover that there is very little real research on saddles, and what there is, is almost exclusively about English saddles.
Because she has both the academic background and the practical experience with trees, saddles and horses, she became convinced that in order to get solid answers to questions about saddle fit, academics will need to work closely with saddle and tree makers – and vice versa - each contributing their own area of expertise. We helped instigate the study that proved that the Dennis Lane system accurately reflects equine back shape and thus can be used to quantitatively evaluate equine back shapes But despite many other attempts, we haven’t been able to initiate any other research on western saddle fit. Hopefully some day it will happen.
Hand making trees is hard on the hands, and eventually Rod developed arthritis severe enough that he decided to retire from tree making. Fortunately, we were able to train a few people before we left the profession, and hopefully they can carry onward and upward from where we left off. (See our links page for contact information.)
In looking at information available to riders about saddle fit, it became obvious that there is relatively little information currently available that discusses western saddles, and most of what is presented is English saddle information transposed onto western saddles. But the design differences mean that doesn’t always work, and many of the “saddle fit rules” just do not apply to western saddles. We saw the need for information coming from people who really understand how western saddles work. Thus, these videos. While we sure don’t know everything (there are so many questions still unanswered…) we do have decades of experience with horses, saddles and trees, literally from the inside out.
They say the fight at the OK corral was started by a couple of saddle makers talking about saddle fit… There are many different ideas and opinions about how saddles could, should and do work on horses. With our background and experience, we believe we have something useful to contribute to the conversation. I guess we’ll see if others think so too…
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