This article is the fourth in my series Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart. I would be delighted if you visited the other three articles in the links below:
Since my last blog I have been thinking hard about how I can open up another drawer of my life and give you some insight into what it actually takes, in my experience anyway, to design and make a new piece of equestrian saddle or bridle technology. It sounds weird to describe it that way, but it is technology and we need to consider it as such.
I thought this article was going to be totally for the makers this time – but in fact I want it to help you, wherever you are currently, understand what it means to design and make saddlery from scratch. By knowing this you can understand that there are people thinking and caring about the direct physical interface between the horse, the equipment and the rider.
I’m mainly a coach and designer at the moment, but over time I have been a Master of a Selection Box of Trades (Jack of None of them, obviously). Because of my tendency to enquire, it’s too late, I can’t just settle down and do something in a single issue kind of a way. My neurons are set to pivot, to cross reference, to generate. If you have a brain like this, you know it’s A Right Pain at 4.15am, and I have to Be Careful not to Go Too Far, but otherwise it has some definite advantages and keeps me hugely busy and experimenting and learning.
I love the process of making. It’s challenging on so many levels, it involves knowledge, creativity, skill development and application. Beginning a new project is so exciting, I feel in the shadow of the horse and other makers, and under a lot of my own pressure to design and make something as well as I can. Being as good as a one person band, means its all down to the choices I make and learning from my mistakes, and trying to figure out mistakes other people have made, or looking into traditonal assumptions and seeing if they fit into new knowledge. I feel tremendously grateful to my more knowledgeable mentors in being free with their thought and time and insight, when they constructively criticise my designs and make me go back to the drawing board or re-think something.
In my less overtly practical mind I’ve been exploring how design paths create what is known as a nexus – a place where they join and connect. My adventures this time have made as many physical connections as metaphorical ones, and with this article I will illustrate how my explorations down all the various paths have become a real thing in the world.
As we know, horses are incredibly sensitive beings, and if we want to use tack (which lets face it is safer on most occasions), I really want to make anything I design as comfortable and as unintrusive as possible for them. Apart from making a purchase, getting insight into what’s involved in making a bridle or other piece of equestrian tech is not very common now the days are gone when we all had a working local saddler we commissioned for our equipment. There are still some around, but in general people talk about buying a generically sized X bridle from Y brand off the internet, made…. wherever can produce it cheapest. It probably doesn’t fit well somewhere, and it will usually need a bigger browband and shorter cheeks, but it was a ‘good’ price.
Leatherwork is a very skillful trade but like many industries it has had its dark side. Two memories stick in my mind – Indian children stitching straps held between their feet because they weren’t provided with a clamp, and the female piece workers in the Midlands in the 1990s (one of whom taught me to stitch), turning buckles in for one of the leading bridle designs for 25p a kick. At about seven buckles a bridle thats less than two quid to the stitcher. Even if you are really squeezed for cash, try to find out where and who manufactured the product, and about the supply chain, some of them still have questionable ethics. Look for a local maker or a maker you can virtually meet online, and you may be able to get something custom made that is not as expensive as you might think, and it changes people’s lives directly.
If you’ve been a designer maker yourself, you’ll know there is so much involved in really responsive design. Even I, who is really an unreconstructed skip diver and would rather forage for my food than buy it, prefers (for the above and other reasons), to spend my hard earned cash on something more expensive but from a real person I can actually meet if I want to and who won’t be earning less than minimum wage or be actively exploited in a foreign country.
How we value the products we choose is a common theme from people who hand make products, and these days even the most ‘woke’ people secretly expect to be able to get items delivered in hours. I have recently designed several pieces of saddlery equipment from concept through to manufacturing, and my thoughts over the last few weeks have included how we, as designers and craftspeople can establish a more fulfilling relationship with our community than Add to Basket.
“Craft is politically charged by valuing its principles of excellence and durability and claiming these as a pathway to the future. A new generation of craftspeople stresses ethical aspects of their work, emphasizing sustainability for instance. They value what they make, but clearly also how it is made. Anthropologists have recognized this as a difference between making and doing, each of which creates its own value.” (Centre for Global Heritage and Development, 2018)
Since I trained as a saddler in the 1990s, I have examined bridle and saddlery technology with a research and development head on, and I’ve been lucky enough to work for several thinking saddlery companies. It’s such a traditional but hugely skilled industry, and this has lead to experimentation, innovation and a lot of new insight. It has also lead to setting up a small company, and to achieving an award from the Scottish Cultural Enterprise Office, and being a finalist out of 500 other products in the Design Council Spark innovation award, and just recently the Elevator UK award for our shortly to be launched product Sculptaseat®.
Sculptaseat® is a a new generation of seat balancer or orthotic, designed to support the rider’s seat connection and correct spinal alignment. Added to your existing saddle, it enables you to custom fit your saddle to your seat, giving a close contact ‘custom made’ ride feel, and ultimate connection with your horse. It also reduces the number of redundant saddles floating about in the horse community. (This isn’t a sales pitch, but if you are interested, we’re getting ready to launch our website and first edition soon. You can find more details here.)
My design process starts with the ‘first contact’ principle – if the product is mainly in touch with the horse’s body, I want to make the horse as comfortable as possible, and the same if the product is for the rider. Taking a look at a bridle for instance with my ‘first contact’ principle hat on, bridles often require the horse to compromise in terms of comfort. A lot of traditional designs prioritise the nice shiny bits the human sees (smooth flat leather; hidden fixings; minimal visible stitching or turn backs; bling), over what the horse feels (buckle and loop turn backs; raised stitching; metal studs and projecting loops; thick browband loops that push outwards and into the horse’s head; thickly padded areas that pressurise; stiff joints between components).
With this bridle I want my new design to not compromise the horse as best I can, and to draw attention to our thought processes when we choose the shiny stuff over the comfortable stuff. I want it to look nice, but I have given myself some very well defined criteria. I’ve been thinking about saddlery design and use for a very long time, and examining the equipment we use with our horses from four different but integrated perspectives:
- the horse and the extent of our knowledge – i.e what we currently know about them from research, what we can observe individually, and what their species specific needs are, always retaining the option to learn more.
- as a qualified saddler and saddle fitter – understanding the history, the application and the manufacture and construction of saddlery, and looking outside into other industries for inspiration and innovation.
- as a coach and trainer – what I can continuously learn about how human and equine bodies work, and how to make equestrianism ethical and effective, assisted by well designed equipment.
- as a product designer and a thinker – what has lead us to the position we are in today in our industry, how can we ensure the form of our equipment follows the function of the bodies we design it for? Where are our biases, what stories are we telling ourselves? What else can we learn, and how can we constantly improve?
Each one of these persona is a real and active part of my everyday life. I think about this stuff until my brain hurts. My family go barefoot and in rags, birthdays and Christmas are forgotten, names, conversations, diary dates go flying off into the universe when I am thinking about a design. I leave emails half finished, I collect a massive drift of messages of various kinds, the dogs get either abandoned to sleep or walked off their legs (this they prefer), as I need to work a niggly problem out on foot. Horses get quickly fed, then fitted and tested with prototypes, sometimes in the rain or when it’s nearly dark. My workshop and truck and house are filled with scribbled drawings, bits of leather and foam, the kitchen table covered in tools, leather scraps and thread. I treat the sewing machine like a demi-god, bringing gifts of new seams to construct, new materials to bring together.
I start the design process by looking at how an item is currently designed, and why its is designed that way. I consider if it’s sufficient, and if I have sufficient information to make changes that may eventually become improvements. I let my critical mind consider weak points in the design, how the product is used, and look for weak points in my own thinking processes. Let’s look at my current project. I have wanted to design a multi-use bridle for ages. I like to be able to ride bitless and with a bit, sometimes one, the other, or both, and it can be clunky and not very comfortable for the horse to wear a halter and a bridle at the same time. Halters can be OK as a bitless option, but properly designed side pull nosebands are more balanced on the head and are clearer for the horse to understand in training. The original bitless option may have been something like a lungeing cavesson with the reins attached to the nose rather than under the chin.
When I finished my saddlery training in Walsall I was given a bridle sizing chart. I’m not sure when in history the measurements were taken, but the horses they were designed to fit must have been built on a very different scale to those we are breeding today. The first bridle commissions I took needed three adjustments outside of the estimated sizes. They ended up with a way off the scale front (saddlery term for a browband), a bigger noseband, and pony length cheek pieces. I’ve continually heard of this situation since then, even talking on the phone last night. Almost everyone I speak to has cobbled together sizes in one way or another.
For my new project I first established a set of criteria that my design needed to fulfill, which includes a measured fitting system rather than ‘pony – cob – full’ or whatever they might mean in real life. My workshop notebook has a bunch of sketches and my bridle design criteria mapped out:
Ergonomic ‘horse-centric’ design
Bitless & bitted options within one bridle
Balanced, symmetrical design and construction
Smooth interior against the horse
Distribute pressure at known pressure points
Refined / quality / attractive / beautiful
Disciplining myself to plan and research before setting a knife to the leather means I can attempt to be efficient with time and resources. Good leather is hugely expensive, and you don’t want to measure once, but cut three times when it costs a mint. During the planning process for this prototype bridle I have covered a lot of ground: I carefully measured heads and bridle parts, researched other ergonomic designs and up to date bridle research, examined traditional designs, examined construction details to make the design as horse centric as I can, refined strap sizes, checked out ergonomic details, redesigned two articulation points, redesigned fixing points, tested lining processes and materials and considered padding, and considered a variety of style options. And that was before I cut any straps or punched any holes!
Into the workshop next – cutting patterns, checking measurements, finalising punch sizes and testing lining on the sewing machine. There is always learning to be had at every stage, and during the first prototype I expect to rip things apart and rebuild a fair bit. Sometimes I need to find out the right process for the best finish, and practise things.
It all builds into a crescendo of making, which often involves protracted construction late into the night to the sound of talking books, surrounded by cups of cold tea – but there, in the morning, is a new gleaming, new beautiful, new leather, new bridle, right there in front of me.
Innovation kind of precludes being too fond of your ideas – I might like them but they’ve got to be something special and fit the criteria to make the final cut. The horse needs to love my prototype or I will adapt it until they do – the finish I can deal with in time but the bridle needs to disappear as much as it can into the horse’s proprioception from the first contact and survive handling and the barn environment. (That ‘first contact’ principle again). Equipment sometimes gives a horse a strong reason to be frightened (see my last article on poly vagal theory), and do we want to use anything that doesn’t keep a horse as calm and attentive as possible?
There is a small gap between finishing a design and testing it (yeah, about a nanosecond…). As soon as there is sufficient daylight I take it out and try it, putting myself and my lovely, helpful horse-ea pigs under the microscope to see if they are happy (most, most critical) and if it works within appropriate limits. Husband with camera recruited to take pictures. If the horses approve and it does work I’m all “Awesome!!” and can’t wait to make another one and refine the design. If they aren’t and it doesn’t, it’s probably a Dog Walk of Doom along the river, then back to the workshop and a swift re-think. If it’s all going pretty well, I see if I can make it fail in various ways. Then I bring it home and take various bits apart and sweat over them and re-make them until it really works. Then I work on making it look good as well as working, and think carefully about whether I have over engineered it, or whether I’m trying to do too much, and whether I can be more efficient with leather.
I’m at that stage now. I’ve been using my first prototype for three weeks in both bitted and bitless set up, changing between horses. Both horses are calm and settled wearing it, and my rein communication works well. I’ve made several alterations, and fixing changes. There are three or four refinements I want to build into the next one. I need to make detailed drawings and component descriptions today, because otherwise I will go away and do something else for a week and forget what I meant by ’36 @ 1 1/4′ or some other scribble.
When you next go and use your saddle or bridle with your horse, step back for a second and have a think about whether it’s doing the best job it could do for both of you? If it doesn’t a designer might like to know, particularly if you find yourself adapting it in any way. After all you and your horse are the end users of saddlery tech, and are both sentient and remarkable beings. It is supposed to be designed with both of you in mind.
I would love to hear your ideas about things that do and don’t work for you, and what clever stuff you have invented to make things work better? You can message me , I would love to talk.
Values of Craft Expert Meeting (2018) Centre for Global Heritage and Development, University of Leiden. https://www.globalheritage.nl/agenda/2018-03-29-expert-meeting-the-values-of-craft
There are three other articles published in this series:
My own website can be found at annistonebridgedotcom.wordpress.com
For useful information on training and riding with Least Invasive Minimally Aversive principles, you can find the World Bitless Association here.