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Understanding Saddle Fit

Understanding Saddle Fit

If your saddle does not fit properly it can cause a realm of unwanted behavior in your horse. If your horse hollows his back when you ride, bloats, nips or swings his head, pins his ears, does not glide into a naturally smooth gait he may be trying to tell you that his saddle is not fitting him properly. In the majority of cases most people simply want to ride and in their hurry ride simply ignore these subtle complaints. It isn't until sores, inflammations or some other physical abnormality occurs that they realize there is a problem.

Imagine you and I are walking down the street side by side. As we walk, I reach over and put 2 fingers on your spine, pressing down hard right behind your shoulder blades. I ask you to continue our walk together in this manner. It would cause your back to hollow. While it may not bother you at first, but if we walked in such a manner for miles it would leave you sore at the point where the pressure was held. It would cause tense and sore muscles that would not have been normally sored (like on the mares’ neck in the story below) from trying to evade the pressure.

I happened to watch a television program that was aired on the Horse Channel from a horse educationalist that wants to sell the horse public on their videotapes. The title of this show was “Adjusting Your Horses’ Attitude.” This lady brought her horse into an arena and in front of the Instructor and was asked to explain the problems she was having with this particular horse. The lady claimed she had brought the mare to the clinic because she was a chronic trail wringer but yet explained that she was an excellent horse as far as ground manners. She mounted the mare and then asked her to go forward. The faster she asked the horse to go the faster the tail wringed. I might take the time to add to this discussion that she had a western saddle on the horse.

Then the educator asked the lady to come to the center of the ring and remove the saddle from the horse. At this time they started poking and prodding amongst the mare’s neck and she really did protest. They found that she was sore from about 4 inches behind the poll and throat latch back to the wither continuing on from the wither itself all the way to the point of hip. I was totally surprised that they fully blamed it on it what may have been an old injury that the horse received from being tied before this woman purchased her. That was comprehensible by me at first. But then in the very next segment that the instructor was riding the same horse in an English saddle without any tail wringing. If it had been me the first thing I would have asked you to check for the bad behavior was the saddle fit. Why did this horse behavior change from the Western saddle to the English saddle? It may have been that the Western saddle was to narrow in the gullet and inhibiting free movement or the bar angles of the tree were off offering no support in the shoulder at all thus the riders weight would rest totally on the top of the wither area. But whatever the real cause, it very well could have been that saddle. The saddle as a potential issue was never addressed. Rarely is a saddle even checked when it really should be the first thing ruled out for the cause bad behavior. If you have a horse that has good manners while you are on the ground and then it totally changes disposition under saddle, maybe it is time to check the saddle.

Checking the fit properly of your current saddle takes about 15 minutes and it is so simple to do.

All of the information you need to measure your horse for proper saddle fit is found by clicking here.

Using the wire described in the instructions on how to measure your horse, you can easily determine if your saddle fits your horse. If your saddle is fitting properly, all of the wire except for the top should be touching the lining under the very front of the tree in the saddle at the very angle. 

See photos to the right. The red line in this photo represents what your wire should look like if the saddle is fitting properly over the shoulders.  The wire should make contact along the surface of the bars and have plenty of clearance under the pommel.  Gaps are common and depending on the severity of the gap, proper fit can still be obtained by changing rigging and/or saddle pads.  If the tree is to wide, pulling away on both sides, it may be possible to still get an acceptable fit.  If the tree is too narrow, it will never fit.
Evaluating saddle fitEvaluating saddle fit
The photo with the white triangle illustrates a great way to check to see if the tree of a saddle is the correct size for a horse. Using the same wire that you had for a tracing make a triangle out of a piece of cardboard. At the point where the wire breached the top of the wither measure straight down straight down about 3 inches and then measure straight across between the 2 points and this will give you the actual gullet measurement that you will need for your saddle. Then if you measure the bottom of the triangle that will give you the bar spread in inches. So according to the wither tracing we did on this gaited horse we would need a saddle that had a 6 inch gullet, and an 11 inch bar. The space between the top point and the bottom of the swell indicates the clearance you will have in your new saddle and ideally it should be at least ¾ to 1 inch. So now then you just take the piece of cardboard to the retailer and find a saddle with the same dimensions and you can be reasonably sure that it will fit before you buy it.Evaluating saddle fit
Now then let's look at a photo of a saddle that is not fitting on the horse properly. If the wire is not touching the liner under the tree bars then the fit is not good. This saddle below with the blue and red lines is too wide at the shoulder for the horse that we did the tracing on because as you can see the wire is actually going away from the tree. If it were too narrow at the gullet then the wire would not fit up into the tree at all and this indicates the gullet is too narrow and will cause pinching at the wither on the horse. In this case the gullet is good but the wire is away from the tree ½ inch at the bar thus indication that the bar spread is too wide and this will also cause soreness in the wither area because all of the weight of the rider is actually on the wither instead of being fully distributed over the entire area.Evaluating saddle fit
A semi quarter horse tree typically has a 6 inch gullet to a 12 inch bar spread and a full quarter horse tree has a 7 to 8 inch gullet and a 13 to 14 inch bar spread. The tree in this diagram is a semi quarter horse tree is on a gaited horse. Gaited horses tend to be much narrower than a quarter horse and their bar angles are very different. Thus most saddles designed for the gaited horse simply will not fit correctly. The photo on the left below shows the same saddle on a horse and you can see how the tree pulls away from the horse in the shoulder area offering no support at all. The bar spread is much too wide for this horse the red line follows the angle of the shoulder and the blue line is following the angle of the bars in the tree. The photo on the right below shows a good fit and it is also the same saddle that the triangle fit into so well.
Poor sadle fitCorrect saddle fit
If you happen to have a horse that is displaying bad behavior after recently purchasing a saddle and his manners have changed dramatically since that time, then the underlying problem most likely is the saddle. By following these simple steps to check proper saddle fit you can avoid a lot of future problems by simply taking a few minutes to see if your saddle passes the triangle test. Not any one saddle made today can fit all horses and you should avoid those who ever make such a claim. Even if you make an accurate measurement on the wither tracing no two horses withers and shoulders are the very same. You goal here is to get as close as you can, and then use different types of padding to see what works the best for the horse that you have.

If you have a saddle that fits your horse properly you should notice a big difference gait when the saddle fits him well. His movement will be flowing and smooth, not choppy and hindered. When you mount a saddle that is well conformed to the withers it should not roll off to the side unless you just do not have enough spring to enable you to clear his back without a struggle. For now on, let you horse be the judge of a saddle fit. He will be sure to tell you what he thinks if you are aware enough to listen to him.

The Rider Also Affects Saddle Fit

Rider position influences and changes the horses' center of gravity. Crest Ridge saddles put the rider in a deep, centered position helping the horse to retain more stability. With the saddle better balancing the rider on his back, the horse becomes maneuverable, distributing the weight equally on all four legs, enabling him to engage his hindquarters, which is important in all breeds, gaited or otherwise.

A good center-balanced tree puts the rider in the area of the lowest (last) vertebrae of the horse’s wither and the first (even) vertebrae of the back. The deepest part of the saddle should be in the same area because the rider is to sit in the deepest part.
Many novice riders have a feeling of insecurity and develop a seat that tends to stick the legs forward, pushing on the stirrups to prevent them from feeling like they are falling over the neck of the horse. This results in a 'chair-like' position which causes the saddle to constantly slide to the rear. A higher pommel and cantle can provide the security necessary, while still allowing the rider to achieve a centered position, and without hindering the horse's movement. If the rider is unbalanced and in a 'chair-like' position, you often end up with a stiff, unbalanced horse.

The saddle should be large enough so the rider distributes his weight in the center of the saddle, not pressing into the cantle and putting the bulk of his weight on the rear portion of his gluteus maximus and seat bones.

A tree made with the fender-slots angled forward tends to result in the rider positioning his legs out in front of his torso. In this position, if the horse happens to spook and bolt, often the rider is propelled out of the saddle because the riders center of gravity has been shifted forward and up. Often a horse will compensate for rider imbalance by leaning more into the bit or refusing it altogether, thus traveling on his forehand. A horse compensating for the rider not being in a center balanced position often flexes in the center of the neck rather than at the poll, refusing the bit by going behind vertical or pulling into the bit. These 'chair-like' saddles also push the weight of the rider more onto the loin or withers, hence causing great discomfort to the horse and often making him sore in the back, shoulders and/or the withers area.

Center balanced trees can prevent a lot of riding accidents because the feet are positioned directly under the rider and the center of gravity is much improved.

We also recommend you read “Important Considerations On Saddle Fit for the Gaited Horse” by Anita Howe and Centered Riding by Sally Swift.