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To flock or not to flock?
This essay is designed to let you know some of the things involved in English saddle panel flocking.
What is it?
(noun) Flocking is a wool fiber used to stuff the panel of a traditionally made English saddle to fine tune the fit of the saddle tree and to protect the horse’s back from the tree parts.
(verb) To flock a saddle means to add, subtract, or move the position of flock within the panel.
On a traditionally build English saddle, the panel is basically a pillow or cushion that goes on the underside of the saddle. Similar to a pillow, the panel is filled with long staple wool fibers. Wool has traditionally been used for it takes a set shape with pressure over time. It also is a bit springy to provide cushioning and shock absorption. Wool does not hold heat as many modern synthetic fibers do.
The panel is shaped with a center channel called the gullet to allow clearance of the horse’s spine. On each side of center is the “pillow” shaped panel with a sweat flap sewn to the bottom. The panel under the saddletree is made from specially tanned “panel leather” and the sweat flap is usually made from a veg tanned bridle leather. The thinner non-stuffed sweat flap allows for a closer contact with the horse’s sides by reducing bulk. The more rugged bridle leather is less likely to wear out with the constant pressure of the girth buckles. See diagram of the parts of an English saddle to see what this arrangement looks like.
A flocked panel provides the interface between the saddletree and the horse’s back. To a certain extent, the panel also affects the balance of the saddle in relation to the seat of the rider. It is this balance effect that is of utmost importance in a correctly shaped and stuffed panel.
Why a panel needs re-flocking
A panel needs to be adjusted or re-flocked when these things occur:
The panel has become flattened through use and no longer protects the horse’s back from the underside of the tree.
The horse’s back or topline has changed shape due to conditioning, training, or age, but the tree still fits the horse.
What are the requisites of flocking a panel?
Specialized knowledge about anatomy and riding on the part of the saddler
English saddle construction knowledge and skills
Correct type(s) of wool flock
The horse and rider must be present during the process to get the correct fit
Conceptions and misperceptions about flocking
If the tree fits the horse, flocking a panel allows the saddler to fine-tune the fit and balance of the saddle. If the tree does not fit, no amount of flocking will remedy the problem.
Think of a panel like an inner tube inside a tire of a car. If under inflated, it will sit slightly on the walls with the treads giving a wide flat contact on the road. If the right amount of air is added, the treads will bear evenly on the road giving the best traction, wear, and safety. Now, if over inflated, only the center part of the tire will contact the road, leaving the least amount of contact for grip and traction. The same is true of a panel.
Most people believe that constant flocking is necessary. Again, only do this if needed for reasons already given. Over-flocking produces a panel that is tall and narrow, giving very little bearing surface on the horse’s back. With such a concentration of high pounds per square inch (PSI), the saddle will tend to dig into the horse’s back making him sore backed from too much concentrated pressure.
Flocking will not make an uphill saddle balance properly. Many riders believe that a little flocking under the cantle will raise the back end and thus make the saddle sit level. Remember the over-inflated tire? This is a good way of making a horse very sore near the loins.
Who should flock a saddle?
As you can see, there is a lot of expertise needed to flock a saddle. Only a person who has been properly trained to do this procedure should flock a saddle. There are issues of safety, comfort for horse and rider, and rider balance. If any one thing is off, you run the risk of damaging a horse’s back. When horses are hurting they resort to behavioral changes that range from mild irritation to completely going ballistic. Again, a safety issue. Unless you thoroughly understand and are trained in the mechanics of the various English riding disciplines, horse and rider anatomy, and the interaction of the two, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS PROCEDURE.
Copyright 2010 American Saddle Makers Association, Inc.