Career Opportunities in the Equine World

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Becoming a professional competitor was the first thing I thought of when someone once asked me what I would like to be, given my love of horses. (This reminds me of a joke: how do you become a millionaire in the horse industry? Easy—start off by being a billionaire!) Then I became more practical and decided to combine my hobby with my career, and I started my saddlery apprenticeship with Passier. This year actually marks my 40th year of working in this field!

As young riders head into a new school year, thoughts may turn to “what happens when I finish? What are my options? I want to do something with horses, but what?” Unless you have lots of money, an extremely talented horse, and are a very good rider, you may consider one of the many other career options open to people who want to be involved somehow in the world of our four-legged friends. You could pursue the science of equine medicine as a veterinarian, equine dentistry, blacksmithing, chiropractic, trainer/instructor, barn manager, and so on. The jobs I specifically know the most about are those of saddler and what we have established under Saddlefit 4 Life® as new opportunities in equine and saddle ergonomics.

Education at any level is a significant concept—especially in our industry, which is still largely unregulated in many areas for a sport that is so inherently dangerous that this situation boggles the mind. Through public awareness in the last years, the demand has been raised by the consumer (i.e. riders) that their trainers have a certain accreditation; they know their farriers have been trained and certified, and they expect a certain base level of knowledge from the professionals who work with their saddles. However, people can still pretty much call themselves whatever they want; add the word “master” whatever to their titles and for the most part, people are still reluctant to question the credentials of their equine professionals. There is a certain fear in requiring standardized professional development and testing, especially from those who may have been working in a certain part of the industry for years and don’t want to be discredited.

Recently, it seems that everyone has become an expert in saddle fitting, and while this is certainly a career path that has arisen due to consumer demand and a real passion to do what is right for the horse, this can backfire where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We very much believe that to be a good saddle fitter, you need to know a bit about how the saddle is made in order to determine what you can do with it and how you can use it to fulfill the needs of the rider and horse. While there are superficial courses available where you can get basic training very quickly, there are also a few very intensive, in-depth training courses that require constant re-certification and working under the supervision of qualified instructors. Equine Ergonomics training includes physiology, anatomy, and biomechanics in order to allow qualified applicants to take the necessary measurements, make the required diagnosis, and extrapolate that information to give the client an educated opinion. Only saddle ergonomists are then actually trained in making the necessary adjustments. Saddle fitters are usually a combination of both, however, one does need to remember that a true saddle adjustment means more than just reflocking and changing the tree angle to accommodate the shoulder angle (not the wither angle!). The tree width is a key component of making the saddle fit properly as well, yet too many saddles are still not adjustable in this way.

Where I come from in Germany, saddlery is a trade that requires a three-year apprenticeship at an accredited saddle manufacturing company. From there, if you have worked a minimum of three to five years as a journeyman after completion of the apprenticeship, you can pursue becoming a certified master saddler. This is a rigorous educational and training process, with examinations in various subjects (administrative, practical, and design, to name a few) under the watchful eye of a board of master tradesmen. In Germany, you cannot open or run your own shop unless you either are a certified master in any given trade or you have a certified master on the premises. In addition, you cannot hire and train apprentices unless you fulfill these qualifications.

In 1990, together with the Ministry of Skills Development in Ontario (it has since changed names several times) Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd. set up a 6,000 hour (three year) Schedule of Training for the trade of saddlery. It encompasses all of the basic sewing, cutting, and dyeing skills required to manufacture not only saddles but also the accompanying accessories such as girths, bridles, and leathers. In addition, the saddler needs to learn (at least) a smattering of physiology, anatomy, business math, and “administrivia” to calculate the cost-effectiveness of what he/she makes.

It’s also gratifying to see that more and more universities and colleges are offering degree and diploma courses in many different aspects of equine education. A recent article in the Journal of Veterinary Science concerning the “repeatability of 20 Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) Qualified Saddle Fitters observations of static saddle fit” outlines the lack of cohesiveness in the methodology of assessing saddle fit. The SMS has committed to overhauling their entire saddle fitting curriculum within the next year or two—recognizing the fact that a) saddle making does not equal saddle fitting, and b) their saddle fitting training is somewhat remedial in its ramifications. Further work is definitely necessary to standardize the criteria of what is saddle fit and how should saddles be fitted and perhaps to develop a common language that is accepted throughout the industry.

The Equine Studies Diploma and Degree courses being offered all around the U.S. and Canada for interested students wanting to work in the equestrian industry are a huge step forward, but the potential lucrative job market for graduates is still disturbingly small. It is only with constant communication and continuing efforts in education that change will come.

Contact for more information on upcoming certification courses in both equine and saddle ergonomics.

Categories: Saddle Fit Tips from Saddlefit 4 Life®