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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.

The saddle goes a minimum of one inch behind this space!!! Two inches are better!!!

Girth the saddle and put the horse on a lunge line and trot them. Does the saddle stay in place or does it move (up & down or forward?) A new saddle might have some movement, but it shouldn’t be flapping in the wind. Now, mount your horse, using a mounting block. All the care you’ve taken positioning the saddle can be ruined by dragging yourself up into the saddle (to say nothing of how it feels to the horse having all that wood and steel jabbing into their back! And it has been confirmed that mounting from the ground can also twist the tree of the saddle.) Ask your friend to lead the horse forward again while you place your hand palm into the pommel. Ask your friend to trot your horse. How does your hand feel? If the saddle is squashing your hand, it’s squashing your horse’s back.

Now, let’s talk about fitting the saddle to you. Begin by adjusting the stirrup leathers to the length you and your trainer have agreed is best for you. Take up the irons and settle in against the flaps. If your knees shoot over the front of the flap, you need a more forward flap. If your boot tops are catching in the bottom of the flap, you need a longer flap.

Seat shape and size are very individual. The narrowest part of the seat is called the TWIST. Your pelvis will tell you a lot about a seat. If you are tipped forward, or backwards, either the seat shape is wrong for you or the tree size is wrong for your horse. If a saddle feels uncomfortable the moment you sit down, it won’t get better with time! The right saddle for you will feel like a comfortable shoe. A correctly designed and fitted saddle will guide you into the deepest part of the seat. You want three to four fingers of seat from your backside to the end of the cantle. Your knees must be behind the knee blocks, not dangling over the front of the flaps. You want at least 2” of flap before reaching the top of your tall boots.

Caring for your tack begins with a saddle cover. I like the kind that comes with elastic all the way around so that you can “snap” the cover on immediately after riding. NEVER place your saddle on the ground! NEVER leave a saddle where a bored horse can try out leather tooling! In your car or on carpet, store it pommel down. Brush off any dust with a very soft brush kept exclusively for this reason. Clean your tack with quality products. I like Leather Therapy, both the cleaner and the conditioner. Clean your saddle when it needs it. If the sweat is flying, clean. If the dust is getting into the stitching, clean. If the saddle isn’t being used, clean on a monthly basis. For conditioning, pure Neatsfoot oil, not a Neatsfoot compound. DO NOT USE A SPRAY-ON SHINE. This stuff is lacquer and it will kill the leather and look like trash in short order.

Between the extremes of a saddle made in India costing $175.00 and a custom saddle costing $3500.00 to $5,000.00, there a lot of options. If you are working in a budget, it is important to know the country of origin. We have major name saddles now being made in the Far East. The problem with this is that these saddle makers are not steeped in the knowledge and traditions and horsemanship skills that we find in England, Germany, America and Argentina. (The days of an Argentina saddle being considered cheap are long gone. Some of the best saddle makers in the world reside there and their standard of work is equal to Europe.) It is very important that you get salespeople to give you reasons why a saddle commands the price it does and don’t settle for “It’s all the rage!” or “So and so is riding in it.” Popularity is no substitute for quality. I don’t believe anyone should buy a saddle just because some big name rider had received a check for posing with that saddle. The saddle lines that I represent, I do so because they have passed the test of countless horses and riders.

A more interesting question is why I don’t use certain brand names!

Keep in mind that a horse can change several times during the riding season. Even the most dedicated trail rider or lucky rider with an indoor arena is likely to slow down their riding during inclement weather. With this in mind, it behooves you to check your saddle fit whenever there is a substantial change in your amount of riding or your horse’s body condition. In the spring, a horse can be overweight from too much food and not enough activity. Their saddle can be tight. Later in the season, once they are fit, the same saddle can be loose. This is where smart padding can save your horse’s back and your riding. While I want cotton or wool against the back, above it I recommend without reserve the pads made by ThinLine. This open cell foal is 3/8” to 1/4” thick, but through the process of polarization has hundreds of layers stacked at right angles one to the other. As a result, the pad sends shock out laterally, rather than allowing it to penetrate straight up or down. ThinLines remove 95% of shock! Unlike wedge pads of foam, the ThinLine is not used to take up great gaps in fitting.

Use your knowledge to enjoy your riding and to grow as an equestrian. Riding is a partnership and your partner must rely on your wisdom and caring. Keep in mind that the workability of your tools has a huge impact upon the quality of your riding. The old saying goes something like this: While Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel with a broom; his apprentice needed the finest sable brush made. So, if you aren’t a Master yet, go for the best saddle you can get!


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