Saddle Fitting

Some signs of poor saddle fit

1.)  Behavioural problems in a horse that anticipates or reacts to pain from the saddle.  Behaviour problems can be a problem with the saddle, a problem with the work the horse is asked to do in that saddle or a problem with the attitude of the horse and these causes need to be distinguished.
Reacting negatively to being saddled.
Behaving badly under saddle, especially with a particular saddle
Avoiding pressure when rope comes tight

2.)  Changes in movement or ability to perform compared to other saddles or when unsaddled.  These can include:
Shortened stride
Poor collection when asked
Not wanting to stop hard
Cold-backed. during mounting .
Slow to warm up or relax
Lack of concentration on rider and aids, varying from mild to unrideable
Ducking out of turns, turning wide

3.)  Instability of the saddle.

Constantly rolls side to side
Consistently rides to one side
Loses blankets easily
Moves forward or back on the horse constantly.
Doesn’t find one place and stay there.

4.)  Physical problems on the horse

Sore muscles on palpation (checking by feeling with moderate pressure)
Swelling which develops a few minutes after unsaddling
Dry spots  (Whether these are always a problem is open for discussion, but they are at least a signal to check for deeper problems.)
White hair
Open sores (usually caused by rubbing rather than pressure)
Pain or sores on top of withers from direct contact with the saddle
Hypersensitivity to being brushed and/or touched (There is no such thing as a ticklish horse).

Problems with tree/horse interaction:

To fit properly, a tree has to fit both the size and the shape of the horse.  While a number of measurements can label size, shape is more difficult to classify.  Both are vital to getting the bar to match the curves of the horse’s back, this is what the saddle gauge was designed for.

1)  Size:

a)  Width between bars:  Horses vary in distance from side to side across the back.  A horse that is narrower will need the bars closer together while a broad backed horse will need the bars farther apart.  A tree that is too narrow will sit only on the lower part of the bars, which results in it sitting high, and having less surface area on the horse.  A tree that is too wide will sit low on the horse (possibly hitting the withers) and may no longer contact the horse with the lower part of the bars.  If the shape of the bars is correct for the horse, incorrect widths shouldn’t cause major problems (unless they hit the withers).  The tree will just sit a bit higher or lower with less surface area in contact with the horse.  This is true unless the size misfit is extreme or the bar surface area is minimal to start with.

b)  Angle between bars:  Horses’ backs also vary in shape when seen from behind.  Some are more A shaped, some are more upside-down U shaped, and some are sideways C shaped.  The more A shaped horses need a narrower angle, and the rounder horses need a wider angle.  While wider horses generally tend to be rounder, these shapes do not always vary consistently with the width.  In other words, you can have a wide backed horse that is more A shaped or, more commonly, a narrow backed horse that is very round.  Incorrect angles are more likely to cause problems than incorrect widths.  An angle that is too narrow (acute) will cause the bottoms of the bars to dig into the horse.  An angle that is too wide (flat) may cause excess pressure along the top of the bar.  This is often seen most severely in the wither pocket and bar tip areas.

c)  Bar length:  A short backed horse may run into problems with bars so long that they interfere with hind end movement.  But if the shape and amount of rock is correct, the bars won’t be digging into the loin area and causing soreness.  Short bars have less surface area which increases pounds per square inch.  With large riders, this may lead to problems.

d)  Length of front bar tip:  Shoulders that are very prominent or really laid back may force the whole tree backwards into a totally incorrect position where none of its shape fits with the horse’s shape.  A shorter bar tip that fits into the wither pocket behind the shoulders is an answer to these problems.

e)  Gullet height:  The gullet may hit the horse’s withers for a couple of reasons in the tree/horse mismatch category.  It could be that the bars are too far apart for this horse, and so the gullet touches the withers before the bars contact the sides of the horse.  If the width were corrected, the gullet height might be fine.  Or it could be that the bars are fitting well and this horse needs a taller fork with more clearance under it.  These two causes need to be distinguished, because while getting a taller gullet height will stop the wither from contacting the gullet, it won’t make a saddle that is too wide fit properly.

2)  Shape:

a)  Rock:  Some horses are very sway backed.  Some horses are very flat backed from fore to hind, and some mules actually bend slightly upwards (which we have heard called hog backed).  Horses start flatter and develop more rock as they age.  A tree with too much rock will tend to lift off the horse somewhere behind the stirrup groove when the saddle is cinched up.  The more severe the mismatch, the farther forward it will lift off.  When mounted, or if the back cinch is tightened, the back of the bar contacts more, but this also means the center of the bar gets increased pressure.  Too much rock, however, is the lesser of two evils.  More problematic is the bar with too little rock which “bridges” – hits at the front and the back and spans the middle.  When mounted, this tree may contact in the middle, but at the expense of excess pressure in the wither pocket and back bar pad or, worse, the bar tips.  Note: when there is no weight in the saddle, the back bar tip should lift off the horse a bit, because it will press down more when mounted.  If it contacts without weight, it will dig in when mounted.

b) Crown – roundness of the bar side to side:  Wither pockets, the area behind the shoulders and below the withers that the front bar pads fit into, come in different shapes.  Some are concave, some are totally flat, some bulge out with muscle, especially up top, and some bulge out with fat.  The bar should ideally match the shape of the wither pocket – rounder for more concave, less round for flatter or bulging wither pockets.  A bar pad too round will cause excess central pressure.  A bar pad too flat may, on a horse with a very deep wither pocket, only contact around the edges and may dig in, especially at the bottom.  Because it not wise to build concave bar pads (edges dig in), horses with bulging wither pockets will very commonly dry spot.  But the spots should be large and symmetrical on both sides and shouldn’t cause soreness.  Small central spots are always danger signs.  The back bar pads need to be round enough that the edges don’t dig in when the saddle is ridden.  For very muscular horses whose back muscles bulge upward from the spinal column, a flat back bar pad increases the contact area between bar and horse.  Horses without the bulging muscles need a rounder back bar pad to relieve excess pressure at the bar edges.  Having the correct shape here will increase the stability of the saddle, but a misfit in this area would rarely be enough to cause soreness.

c)  Twist – the change in the angle of the bars relative to each other from the front to the back:  Ideally the angle of the bars will match the angle of the horse’s back all the way along, so if the twist isn’t correct, the angle can match at one place and not another.  A problem can occur if the angle anywhere is too narrow and the bottom of the bar digs into the horse.  We see this most commonly in the middle of the bar, even if the front and back bar pads are OK.

d)  Bar edges:  If there isn’t enough rounding or relief built into the edges of the bars, the sharper edge can cause pressure points or ridges.  This can be a problem anywhere along the bars, but it is especially important at the bar tips.

An anatomical “fault” in the horse:

While no two horses in the world are built identically, there is range that would fall within what we would call normal.  Then there are “the others”.  There can also be physical defects in horses, either congenital or caused by injury or chronic misuse.  All of these will affect saddle fit.

1)  “Extreme” horses:

A horse that is on either end of the “normal” bell curve will have more problems with saddle fit.  These can be extremely muscular horses whose muscles round out extensively.  Extremely fat horses are totally round everywhere for a different reason.  Both these types of horses need flatter crown on the bars, and most will still dry spot to some extent.  But even within these groups the width and angle needed can be different.  Some horses have extremely tall withers, and while narrowing the tree will raise the gullet relative to the withers, it is not always the best answer.  The width and angle of the bars need to be correct to properly fit the horse’s back, and the gullet height is raised by increasing the fork height in order to clear the withers.  Some horses have tall withers that extend back well into the wither pocket area, so having a tall enough hand hole height is very important. Some horses have backs so broad they can be used as a table, or some so narrow that most of today’s common saddles won’t fit.  Bar angle and width are important here.  Some horses have excessive rock in their back and some have very limited rock, both of which need to be compensated for.  Some horses have shoulders that stick out from the horse, or shoulder blades that extend well back into the wither pocket.  The length of the bar tip needs to be considered here.  Knowing what is normal will let you see if the horse is extreme in any area and if that is what is causing the problem.  Then you can take the special measures often needed to fit these horses.

A fault in the construction of integrity of the saddle:

1)  Damage to the saddle:

On occasion a damaged or poorly repaired saddle may cause fit problems.  A rigging that has stretched unevenly may cause the saddle to twist on the horse’s back causing discomfort or even soreness.  Stirrup leathers that stretch unevenly will cause the rider’s weight to be carried unevenly.  Nails that work loose from the gullet or cantle gullet may rub on underlying vertebrae.  Nails or staples working loose from the underside of the bars cause lumps and bumps that can create sore areas.  Wear on the sheepskin can contribute to problems, or at least show areas that need to be checked out further.

2)  Faulty construction:

a)  Asymmetry:  The worst problems are caused by an uneven rigging, either because the two sides are not cut identically or they are placed on the tree unevenly or both.  This can cause the tree to ride to one side, the saddle to twist on the horse resulting in uneven pressure and pain, the saddle to constantly shift, etc.  Uneven stirrup leathers or holes punched unevenly in the stirrup leathers will cause the rider to weight the stirrups unevenly, resulting in saddle shifting or uneven pressure points.  A seat that is not level side to side will have the same results.

b)  Poor workmanship:  Improperly blocked skirts which don’t follow the relief built into the bar edge will stick straight out, possibly rubbing the shoulders or the loins.  Lumps and bumps on the underside of the saddle may result from nails or screws extending through the tree, strings improperly placed through the bars, etc.  These will cause pressure points for the horse.

c)  Poor saddle design:  Poor ground seats that force the rider’s weight to be in an unbalanced position can cause all sorts of problems.  Especially common is the seat that throws the rider’s weight to the base of the cantle.  This puts more pressure on the back bar pads and exacerbates any problems with the back bar tips or the skirts back of the cantle.  Skirts that are placed too low so they don’t cover the top of the bar may result in rubbing along their top edge.  How the skirts are laced together at the back may cause rubbing on the loin or even lifting of the back of the tree off the horse.

3)  A word about rigging position and back cinches:

If the shape of the bars match the shape of the horse’s back, the fit is like two spoons nestled together.  Unless it is held in the wrong place by a breast collar or crupper, the tree will move to sit where it fits properly and then stay there.  Riders tend to be overly concerned about rigging position being too far back so the latigos and cinch angle forward.  It may slant forward more than what the owner would prefer, which may make them think the saddle is too far back.  Some even move the saddle forward and hold it out of place with a breast collar to make the cinch stay vertical, causing saddle fit problems.  We maintain that if the tree fits the shape of the horse’s back, it doesn’t matter.  The rigging position won’t pull the saddle out of place if it fits well, even at center fire.  If it is a poorly fitting saddle, then there is no “curve-and-hollow” fit stopping the rigging from moving the saddle around.  If the saddle continually moves forward onto the shoulders so the cinch is vertical, it doesn’t fit well.

A saddle rigged very forward on the bars (full or more) will pull down much more on the front of the bars, often impeding the shoulder blades from slipping under the bar tips as they should do when the leg is fully extended.  The same saddle with a rigging farther back allows much freer shoulder movement.  This goes counter to the “rig it forward to hold the saddle back so you get free shoulder movement” idea, but it has been shown to be a fact.  If there are problems at the back of the shoulders and the saddle is rigged full, moving the rigging back may solve the problem.

A saddle that is double rigged is meant to have the cinch doing something, not just hanging in the air waiting to cause a wreck.  However, the back cinch will loosen up over the course of a ride.  Constructing the rigging so that it exerts its pull more centrally on the tree is a good thing.  For saddles rigged with the front cinch pulling mainly on the front of the saddle, doing the front cinch up tight increases pressure under the front bar pads and lifts the tree off at the back.  If the rider is not willing to continually tighten the back cinch to the point of contacting the horse, it is better to change the rigging so it will have a more central pull on the tree.

Problems in how the horse is saddled

or other padding and tack:

Only by watching the rider saddle up can things like saddle and cinch position and tightness, blanket quality, condition and placing, and breast collar or crupper placement be properly assessed to see if they contribute to the fit problem.

1)  Saddling:

a)  Position:  Given the option, a tree will move to where its shape best fits the shape of the horse’s back.  The problem arises when the rider thinks it should be somewhere else, and not only starts the saddle in the wrong place but holds it there with a breast collar or crupper.  The saddle is often placed too far forward, interfering with and even being forced to ride on top of the shoulder blades.  Placing a saddle too far forward may cause the cinch to rub behind the elbow.  Other riders are so concerned about shoulder interference that they place the saddle too far back.  A good fitting saddle will cause problems if forced to remain in the wrong position.  If it is not held there, it can cause skin irritation or wrinkles in the blankets as it moves into the correct position.  The best way to saddle is to place the saddle one to two inches ahead of where it should sit and then shake it slightly side to side.  This way it slides back, with the hair, into the correct position, where it can then be tightened.  Some riders need to step back and be shown where the saddle is meant to sit relative to the withers and the front legs in order for them to understand how far out of position they are placing it.  Tact is required in this instance.

b)  Cinching up:  A good fitting tree should only be as tight as needed to keep it in place when mounting and riding properly.  For roping or doing fast work, it will need to be snugged up more.  But sometimes the saddle is cinched up tight and then ridden or left for long time periods without being loosened.  In this case, both the cinch and the saddle are exerting unnecessary, excessive pressure on the horse and in the long run may cause problems.  The old cowboys not only “aired out their horses’ backs” during the day by uncinching and lifting the back of the saddle, but often unsaddled over lunchtime to give their horse’s back a break.  Cinching too tightly for too long will exacerbate any potential problems areas and may even cause the problems.

2)  Padding:

a)  Type:  When you ask people who do ranch work on horses for long hours, day in and day out what type of pads they use, the answer is close to unanimous – wool or wool felt.  Wool dissipates pressure better than any other material, and it conforms to the shape of the horse’s back better than anything else.  It doesn’t trap heat next to the body like a lot of synthetics do.  Wool pads are not slippery, as some synthetics are, so they stay put and help hold the saddle in place with less cinch pressure.  Pads contoured to fit over the withers don’t put pressure on the top of the withers like unshaped pads do.  This pressure, if unrelieved over a period of time, can harm a horse.

b)  Amount:  Over padding is a common cause of saddle fit problems.  Too much padding negates the good fit between the shape of the horse and the tree by diminishing the curves.  It causes the saddle to roll around more so the cinch needs to be tighter to hold it in place, causing possible cinch soreness problems.  It also effectively widens the horse, often causing dry spots and maybe necessitating a wider, poorer fitting tree to make up for the added width of the padding.

c)  Condition:  Dirty blankets, folds or wrinkles – anything that rubs on a horse can cause sores.  Worn or damaged padding that is no longer a uniform thickness may also cause problems.

d)  “Corrective”:  Shims, wedge pads, pads that have varying thicknesses in different areas – all these have to be used with caution or they may cause more problems than they solve.  Thick edges are especially bad for making ridges that cause pressure points.

3)  Other tack:

a)  Breast collars and cruppers:  A good fitting saddle should rarely need either of these.  Used incorrectly, they often cause problems by holding a saddle in the wrong position.  Improperly adjusted, they can rub and even sore a horse.

b)  Cinches and latigos:  Synthetic cinches and latigos have no give to them, so using only synthetics all the way round makes it more difficult for a horse to expand its chest when breathing.  As well, there is no stretching or loosening up as the horse warms up to give relief from tight cinching.  It is recommended that at least one section be made of natural materials to avoid these problems.  The narrower the cinch, the less surface area the pressure is spread over.  While some cinches appear to be wide, all the tension is actually put on a narrow band of nylon that runs down the middle of it.  Some synthetic cinches also hold a lot of heat next to the horse.

c)  Uneven loading:  All manner of things are tied onto saddles or carried in saddle bags.  While each item may not weigh much individually, putting all the fencing tools in one saddle bag or continually having a heavy water bottle on one side will weight the saddle unevenly, causing constant shifting to one side and increased pressure on that side.

Problems caused by the rider:

Only by going out and watching the rider in action will a saddle maker be able to discover to what extent a rider may be contributing to the saddle fit problems.  Since the rider is generally in constant motion, they will frequently be adjusting their weight and so don’t often place unrelenting, excessive pressure in one spot for a long time.  But over time even a moderate increase in pressure over one area can make a horse sore.

1)  Riding position has an effect.  Riders who tend to prefer to ride a horse as they sit in a chair – legs forward, weight thrown to the back of the saddle – will increase the pressure on the back of the saddle and may cause the back bar tips to dig into the horse.  Some riders carry more weight to one side than the other, which causes the saddle to ride to that side.  Rarely,a person might have uneven leg lengths and need to have uneven stirrups in order to weight both stirrups evenly.  Some ropers deliberately have uneven stirrup lengths because they feel it helps them rope.  Most people, though, don’t realize they are riding unevenly.  Some just have poor body posture normally.  Others have injuries, arthritis, etc. and riding unevenly alleviates their discomfort.  But riding for long hours in this manner can cause increased pressure and soreness for their horse.

2)  Riders who sit still for long time time periods on their horses without allowing them to move have the same effect on their horses’ backs as sitting on a hard wooden bench for the same time would have on a person’s backside.  This can happen when attending a clinic, when waiting for a turn at roping, etc.  Dismounting or allowing the horse to walk around a bit will go a long way to relieving his discomfort in these situations.

3)  Heavyset riders, especially if they are shorter, will also bring out problems that may not exist if they were lighter.  They may tend to cinch tighter to hold the saddle in place as they mount.  If this is the only reason to cinch so tightly, using a mounting block would help.  Heavy riders create more PSI on the horse than lighter riders, so total bar area contacting the horse is more critical.  If the rider is top heavy and has short legs they often will rely more on their stirrups during fast work, especially if riding large horses, necessitating tighter cinching to avoid saddle slippage.  Loosening the cinch between riding times is crucial if this is the case.

4)  Riding skill plays a big part if they spend long hours in the saddle.  A rider who sits quietly and balanced in the center of his horse will be much easier on his horse’s back than one who is bouncing all over the place.  Good riding, giving the horse a break from their weight or even the weight of the saddle for a few minutes here and there over a long day’s ride – these are the things good horsemen do to keep their horses sound.

Sources [1] [2]