ABC's of Saddlefitting
Dr. Joyce Harmon, DVM, author of an excellent book on saddlefitting, believes that 90% of training problems are born of incorrectly fitted tack. I am in complete agreement with Joyce.
Some of the ways these problems are expressed:
Refusing to stand still while being tacked or mounted
Biting at your foot while you are in the saddle
Crow hopping or bucking
Ears pinned and tail lashing
Throwing their heads up and refusing to go on the bit
Blowing up with air while being girthed
Moving great in the pasture, but taking awkward, short strides under saddle
Shying, refusing jumps, knocking jumps down
Some horses endure a lot of pain without protest. With these, watch out for:
Uneven sweat marks when you remove the saddle pad or dry spots (too much pressure)
White patches of hair showing up on the back where there was no injury
Areas of swelling when the saddle is removed (pressure sores)
Scarring or knots in the muscles or skin
Hollows behind the shoulder blades in breeds that should have muscle there (muscle wastage)
“Twists” of hair or areas where the hair is worn off
Slow to relax or warm up and resistant to work
Difficulty with lead changes or taking a canter lead
Can’t travel straight, one hip inside all the time
Will not raise the back
Can’t stand to be touched or brushed
When fingers are run on the long muscles of the back (on either side of the spine) the horse either sinks away or braces their back.
All of this translates to less than peak performance. With competition getting tougher every season, the savvy trainer will make their job easier by employing correct saddle fit.
For the individual owner and rider, beyond wanting the best for themselves and their horse, there is the comfort of knowing they are doing no harm with their tack. Think back to the last saddle class you watched. How many of the horses in that class had a bulge on the front of their neck and were “leaving their hocks behind,” in other words, not stepping well underneath their hips and belly?
These horses fit the description of a horse going “hollow”---their backs were dropped. When a horse hollows their back, they can’t but help “leave their hocks behind.” Read or watch Dr. Deb Bennett’s “The Principles of Conformation Analysis” and you will probably be amazed that we can ride horses at all. The spine of the horse is not “hard wired,” in other words the vertebral connections are held together by ligament, tendon and muscle, not BONE. In short, the horse’s back is more like a suspension bridge.
And the primary cause of a dropped back is pain caused by an ill fitting or poorly made saddle.
Horses come in three basic shapes. Tent shaped, with high rising withers. (TB/WB) Barrel shaped with mutton wither and a high croup (Qtr/Morgan/Arab.) Barrel shaped with a more prominent wither (Qtr/TB/many gaited/Arabs.) In all cases, the rails of their saddles must lay flat to their backs. Just looking at a saddle will not tell you whether it was built with a “hoop” tree, i.e. a saddle built like the hoop of a barrel or a more “V” shaped tree. You can however learn a system to determine whether a saddle you already own, or one you are considering will be right for your horse.
The important parts of the saddle are the GULLET, which is the channel down the center of the saddle that sits over the horse’s spine, which needs to be of even width down the entire saddle and wide enough not to get near the bones. The POMMEL rises up over the horse’s withers. The CANTLE rises up behind your seat. The PANELS are the stuffed parts that lie against the horse’s body. The FLAP is where your leg rests. After placing a saddle on a “naked” horse, (no pads) ask the following questions:
1st: From the side, is the cantle is higher than the pommel? Does the stirrup divide the flap in two equal parts? Is the lowest part of the saddle in its center & level? Do the panels beneath the cantle lie flat against the back? (Some saddles have tall gullets under the cantle that can dig into the long muscles of the back on horses with heavy croup muscling or a downhill conformation, a trait seen in a fair number of horses.
Reach up under the panel, behind the stirrup. As best you’re able, feel how the panel meets the back. Is it a smooth, uninterrupted contact? When a panel doesn’t meet the back, we call that bridging. Bridging cuts down the square surface of contact between the panel and the back, which ends up concentrating too much pressure in too small of a space. Imagine standing barefoot on four small squares of wood, one on each corner of your foot. Comfortable? Hardly and a horse feels much the same when a saddle bridges on their back with a rider up.
A small amount of bridging can be adjusted by an experienced saddle fitter if the saddle is wool flocked. In a foam paneled saddle, either it fits or it doesn't. Which is why foam risers are such common event in the hunt and jump ring.
2nd: From the front, check the seam that divides the panels and the flap. What you are looking for is a comparison of the angle of the tree points in relationship to your horse’s shoulders.
To find the points, lift the outer flap and look just under the pommel of the saddle. There will be a U shaped line of stitching that surrounds the points of the tree. This is the part that should be parallel to the muscling. If the saddle is narrow and the horse is wide, it will look like a paperclip trying to hold a hundred sheets of paper. If the saddle is wide and the horse is narrow, the saddle will rest on the spine—not a good thing!
3rd: Making certain you won’t be kicked, look at the saddle from the back. Can you see down the gullet? Do the panels have contact with a broad area of your horse’s back?
4th: Slip your fingers between the front of the saddle and your horse, palm down. Ask a friend to slowly walk your horse forward while you follow the glide of your horse's shoulder, back and forth. If your fingers get smashed as the shoulder blade goes under the saddle, it is likely too narrow for your horse. If you feel like you could push your whole arm under the saddle, it's probably too wide. A well fit saddle feels the same a nice hug. Not too tight, not too loose.
5th: If the saddle has passed these tests, now is the time to take cotton saddle pad and place the saddle on the horse’s back. It is vital that the saddle be placed correctly. The thing I see the most are riders placing the saddle over the horse’s shoulder blades rather than behind them. Even on the fattest horse, with a little determination, you can find the back end of their shoulder blades by probing with your fingertips. If this fails, have a friend fold up a front leg, then slowly extend it forward. This will make the shoulder blade accessible.