What is good saddle fit? Simply put, it involves a saddle--English or Western--that spreads weight evenly on the longissimus dorsi muscles along either side of the spine. This well-fit saddle has clearance over the withers and doesn't impede movement of the scapulas (shoulder blades). This saddle puts the rider's weight in concert with the horse's center of balance.
SADDLE PRESSURE POINTS
Different saddle fit problems affect the horse's back in different ways based on the area where they apply damaging focused pressure. Some of these problems can be caused by a poorly fitting saddle, some by a poorly placed saddle, some by an unbalanced rider, some by poor conformation of the horse--and some are caused by a combination of these factors. Additionally, a significant change in your horse's body condition can create saddle fit problems where none existed before.
Here are some of the more common saddle fit problems and the areas of the back they affect.
Proper saddle fit is important to the comfort of both horse and rider. An ill-fitting saddle can result in a sore-backed horse, an uncomfortable seat for the rider, or both. The problem is, one size doesn't fit all. Yet, says Jeremiah Watt, a private saddle maker and clinician from Coalinga, Calif., it is impractical to have a saddle made for each horse you plan to ride.
"If you have a saddle made for a specific horse," he says, "it had better be a valuable horse that takes you to the pay window every time in roping or whatever else you might be involved in. If that horse colics and dies or can't be ridden for another reason, you can be stuck with an expensive saddle that you can't use."
The better approach, he says, is to have a saddle that suits a particular type of horse and is also suitable for the discipline in which the rider is involved. A saddle that is comfortable for trail riding, for example, might not be the right one for cutting or roping.
Conformation of the Horse
Many saddle fit problems, Watt opines, begin with conformation. Too many people, he says, buy horses for the wrong reasons--they like the color, the horse seems to like them, they have a friend who has a horse just like him, etc. The prime criteria in a horse purchase, he believes, should be the animal's conformation.
"There are horses out there that no saddle will fit," he says. "They can get sore just walking around carrying a saddle, without anyone being on their backs."
Many people buy horses with poor conformation, then when the horse comes up with a sore back, "They look for a place to put the blame," he says. Often they decide the problem stemmed from ill-fitting equipment, and they set out to replace it. In some cases, Watt says, they might be right; but if the problem stems from poor conformation, new equipment won't solve it.
If your horse of choice is of the high-withered variety, then you should have a saddle that rests comfortably and evenly on the animal's back without having the pommel come into contact with the withers. If you are riding the more round-barreled Quarter Horse or Arabian, then you must have a saddle with a wider gullet--that space over the withers--so that the saddle doesn't sit too high. We are using Western saddle terminology here, but the same rules apply for English saddles.
Saddle pads can be used to help solve the problem of an improper saddle fit, but they are capable of doing more harm than good. For example, placing a thick pad on a round-backed horse--under a saddle with a narrow gullet--is a lot like putting on a thick, heavy sock when a boot already fits too tightly.
A second problem that's people-oriented, Watt believes, involves conditioning. Many of the United States' horses, he says, are fed too much and exercised too little. In many instances, this results in obese horses where proper saddle fit is next to impossible to attain. The other side of the coin, although it isn't as prevalent, involves people who don't feed properly, yet ride their horses very hard.
"There is a middle ground," says Watt, "where the horse is on the proper diet and is in good condition."
Still another people-oriented problem, Watt says, involves using a horse for a discipline it can't handle. Often, he declares, a novice rider will buy a horse and fall in love with it. Later, the novice might want to spread his or her wings a little and attempt something more ambitious, such as roping, cutting, or working cows.
"They will go to a clinic and see an expert doing maneuvers, like rollbacks, and they will decide that it is exciting and is something they want to do with their horse," he says. "The problem is that their horse likely doesn't have the conformation or the ability to do what they are asking. Yet, they love the horse so much, they refuse to sell him and buy a different one that is suitable for that discipline. Naturally, the horse that is being asked to do something it can't handle because of its conformation, and, in many cases, lack of proper conditioning, is going to get sore."
If you have the right horse for the job, the choice of equipment is your next criteria. The quality of equipment, including the saddle, Watt says, is important. Too many horse owners tend to go the cheapest route possible, thus causing a variety of problems. There is also a psychological effect when cheap equipment is involved, Watt believes.
"It's sort of like, if I spend a little more on my truck, I'll be less likely to throw banana peels on the floor," he says.
Some problems placed at the door of an alleged ill-fitting saddle, Watt says, rest instead with the conformation and/or posture of the rider. He tells the story of a woman who asked his help in solving a problem with a sore-backed horse. She knew her saddle was at fault and wanted his opinion on what should be used in its place.
"I watch people," he says, "and as we walked over to where her horse was kept, I walked behind her. I noticed that the shoulder and hip on one side of her body were higher than the shoulder and hip on the other side. Then, I examined her saddle. There was nothing wrong with it, but the seat wear marks showed that she was riding off-balance. When I told her that the problem might be with her and not the saddle, she didn't want to hear it. She had made up her mind that the saddle was to blame."
As a saddle maker, Watt strives to fit the saddle to the rider as much as to the type of horse on which it will be used. To that end, he and his assistants make the saddle trees around which a Watt saddle will be constructed, something many custom saddle makers do not do.
Making a tree to fit an individual, he says, puts the saddle maker in control of the entire project and makes it possible for him to apply the sometimes-subtle and sophisticated touches involving angle that are required for proper fit for rider and horse alike.
"With a factory-made tree," he says, "you have a take it or leave it situation."
Proper placement of a saddle on a horse's back, Watt points out, is also crucial. "We want to place the tree bar in the 'pocket' that is created on the back of a mature horse with good conformation--one with decent wither, shoulder slope, and sound spine," he says. "This 'pocket' is made to carry a saddle bar. If the saddle is placed too far forward, there will be undue pressure on the very end of a shoulder blade when it is engaged in full range movement, such as at the extended trot."
The saddle should not touch the shoulder blades. Instead it should be placed just behind them. "If it is placed too far back, we are faced with a problem of too much of the rider's weight bearing down behind the shoulder blade," Watt says. "If you place a properly constructed saddle on a horse's back and don't cinch it up too tightly, it will move into the correct position for that horse by the action of the horse's shoulder blades and the rocking of his spine in a lateral fashion."
The best way to visually check saddle positioning is to view it from the side. It should be level; if the front or rear is tilted, it is in the wrong position or it simply doesn't fit the horse.
Watt says the trees manufactured at his facility provide approximately 45% more bar surface against a horse's back. More bar surface translates into more comfort for the horse because the rider's weight is spread more evenly along the animal's back. This is something to look for in any saddle you purchase.
Again, there can be people-oriented problems and misconceptions, such as cinch placement. "Many people," he says "are 'sight cinchers.' They decide that, regardless of a horse's conformation and regardless of the way the saddle is rigged, the cinch must lie in a certain spot behind the front legs. So, they cinch it up so tight the horse turns blue, then they put on a breast collar to make sure that it doesn't move."
The cinch should lie in the narrowest part of the rib cage, where you can see a slight upward dip when you stand back from the horse.
A saddle that is jammed into place with an overly tight cinch and a breast collar sets the stage for a variety of back problems.
More Than Just the Saddle
There are, of course, more problems involving proper saddle fit than just what has been mentioned above. Let's look at a trail horse which is ridden regularly during the summer months, but then is laid off for several months in the winter.
Many times when that animal is turned out to pasture for winter, he is in good physical condition. Muscles ripple and the hair coat is glossy and bright. If one presses a hand against the animal's side, the ribs can be felt, but they aren't visible when a person stands back and watches the horse move.
Too many recreational riders turn the horse out in late fall and feed him more than he needs during the winter months. With no exercise, other than to walk across pasture or paddock to the feed bunk or waterer, the horse becomes fat.
When another spring rolls around with leaves turning green and grass growing, the trail beckons. Only now, the rider realizes, the fit horse of last fall is this spring's overweight couch potato. The saddle that fit just right last fall no longer fits the overweight horse. Instead of settling into the pocket, it is perched on the horse's back, out of proper position.
The problem becomes even more involved. As the rider seeks to return the horse to a state of fitness, he or she will discover that the horse might go through as many as four stages. The first stage involves being too fat. The second stage comes when the horse begins to round into condition after a month or so of riding. The third stage arrives when the horse reaches that peak of physical fitness most riders desire. The fourth stage might be when the horse, for example, is ridden on competitive trail rides or in an endurance race, becoming even more fit in the process.
Now, the horse has passed the point where he is simply physically fit for casual riding. There might be light ripple of ribs observable under the skin as the horse moves. He is fit and ready for serious competition. The saddle that was perfect for the horse that was physically fit for trail riding might not fit as well on the finely tuned athlete.
Weight changes, says Watt, can definitely have a bearing on proper saddle fit. The best way to solve the obesity problem, he says, is not to let it occur in the first place. If the horse is on a proper diet and gets sufficient exercise, he should remain in at least a semi-fit condition and not become overweight. Also, if you are observant during the winter months, you will see if the horse is becoming obese and can cut his daily rations accordingly. This will negate, in part at least, the problem of a totally improper saddle fit in the spring.
The next step, he points out, is to get the horse into working condition in a sensible manner. This does not mean, however, that the conditioning process will be totally pain-free for the horse.
"It is sort of like you and me," he says. "We might be in good enough physical condition to do a day's work, but if we go out and dig a bunch of post holes by hand, our muscles are going to get tired and sore and our hands are going to become calloused. While we might be sore, we will also be getting more fit and as we continue to work, we won't get stiff and sore anymore. We won't have changed post hole diggers or other equipment, we will have gotten more fit."
This doesn't mean the horse should be pulled from the pasture and a stint of hard riding initiated. What it does mean is that there should be a gradual conditioning program that will allow the horse to work through sore and stiff muscles without undue aggravation.
To get that job done without laming the horse, however, the appropriate saddle for that type of horse must be in use. As the horse goes through various conditioning phases, Watt says, proper saddle fit can be given an assist through the use of appropriate saddle blankets or pads. However, sometimes pads are not a solution, therefore they must be used carefully.
Riders should also learn how to detect a sore back in a horse, Watt believes. One popular approach is to palpate the horse's back. This can be tricky because one first has to learn what a horse's reaction to palpation might be when there is no soreness in order to determine if a reaction truly indicates soreness. However, unless you jab a horse really hard, any uncomfortable reaction does indicate pain, whether that includes muscle spasms, bracing, looking uncomfortable, or biting or kicking.
Watt is not a believer in the palpation approach. "I think that it is an inaccurate way to determine back soreness," he says. "You can get about any response you want, depending on how much pressure you apply. I don't think the average person knows enough about equine physiology to make a determination through palpation. It's too easy to hit a pressure point and get a response that can be misinterpreted.
"I prefer to feel the back with the palm of my hand," he continues. "I'm looking for signs of swelling and heat. I will also stretch the limbs, front and rear, and check for the horse's reaction. After unsaddling, I look first for turned hair as well as rub spots of any size and galls of burned-off hair."
Dry spots (the horse not sweating at one point under the saddle) can indicate that something is not right if you have ridden for 20 minutes and have some sweating. However, they are not easy to interpret. A dry spot can mean too much or too little pressure, says Watt.
There is no magical approach for constructing the appropriate saddle according to Watt: "The customer, I feel, has all of the control on his or her side. They buy the prospect, they feed him, they condition him, they buy the gear, and they saddle him. When things go wrong, the best I can offer is more careful workmanship and full-scale attention to the mechanical parameters of the tree so that it will properly fit the type of horses the customer rides."
The keys to success with saddle fit are to have a saddle designed for the type of horse you ride, then employ a common-sense conditioning program that allows the horse to round into good physical condition without becoming sore.
CHANGES IN SADDLE TECHNOLOGY
Saddles are like horoscopes in the newspaper...each is different, but each one must fit thousands of end users. That fit might be right on target, or miss by a mile.
When a saddle does not fit properly on the muscles behind the horse's shoulder, it pinches the muscles and makes the saddle fit improperly on the horse's back. The rider then tries pads to make the saddle fit better, but it becomes a vicious cycle of unwanted pressure that makes the horse sore.
"We have a much greater recognition of the considerable damage we do to a horse's back with pressure points," says Ron Bates, president of Bates Australia, which manufactures several lines of saddles including Bates and Wintec (distributed in the United States by WeatherBeeta USA). "That pressure will affect the whole topline and hindquarters of the animal, as well as affect the horse's performance because he is not comfortable."
In the past, saddles were made to "fit" horses by use of pads and increasing/decreasing the wool flocking (stuffing) in the panels that sit on either side of the horse's spine. In recent years, saddle-making technology has introduced air as a cushioning panel rather than wool-stuffed leather.
Two innovations in saddle fit have been incorporated into the saddle lines from Bates, one of which allows the rider in a few minutes to change the spring steel gullet plate that fits over the withers. Bates explains that it is as simple as putting your saddle on and marking where it sits on the horse's muscles on either side of the withers, then using a gauge that comes with the changeable gullet system to pick the color steel (each color corresponds to a size) that should be used on that horse. Four screws hold the steel in place and make change-out easy enough that it can be done between chukkers at a polo match (15 minutes or less).
The interchangeable gullet is being combined with the latest "air ride" technology in the saddle panels that sit on either side of the horse's spine and distribute the rider's weight. The traditional stuffing has been replaced with four sealed air bags. (There is another brand of saddle, Flair, with air bags the rider can inflate or deflate using a hand-held pump.) The advantage of air panels is to spread the rider's weight evenly so there are no pressure points under the saddle.
"What is unique is that air is fluid, so the air moves with muscles as the horse moves," he says.
"A warmblood's back at three is not the same as that horse's back at six, but this saddle can adjust to a horse as he changes condition and shape," says Bates. "Otherwise, you either buy another saddle, or put on more and more pads."
Bates notes that it is crucial for riders to understand that heavy weight on a bad-fitting saddle for a short period does less damage than medium weight for long periods of time. "If you stay on your horse for long periods of time--like for a trail ride--you need to make sure you have a good-fitting saddle," Bates warns. "Whether you are a light or heavy rider, the longer you restrict the blood flow with a poor-fitting saddle, the more damage you do to muscles under it."--Kimberly S. Herbert
WHAT TO LOOK AT WHEN FITTING A SADDLE
Evaluate saddle fit without pads (a thin sheet or towel can help keep your saddle clean). Look at:
- The way the saddle is made and its structure (examined off the horse). Look for symmetry and any manufacturing defects or twisting of the tree, which is quite common. (Photos 1-3)
- The saddle's position on the back. The center of the seat should be centered over the lowest point on the horse's back, and the saddle should sit squarely in the center of the back.
- The tree should fit parallel to the withers and be behind the shoulder blade. (Photo 4)
- The fit of the saddle tree to the horse, especially across the withers. A low-withered horse might have four fingers' width or more between his withers and the tree (especially on a Western saddle) and be just fine, while a high-withered horse might have just one or two fingers' width there and be fine. That one-finger clearance has to be with a rider and has to be maintained when the rider stands in the stirrups, however.
- The seat should be level.
- Smooth, continuous contact of the panels or bars against the horse's back. Look for bridging (when there is less contact in the center and potentially painful pressure points near the front and back of the saddle).
- The panels should be wide and thick enough for good support, and follow the same angle as the horse's back. Evaluate this by viewing the saddle from behind the horse. (Photo 5)
- The gullet should be wide and high enough to clear the spine with a rider. (Photo 5)
- The girth should drop in a straight line to the narrowest part of the horse's chest, which is usually right behind the elbow to six inches back, averaging about four inches back. Billet straps or rigging Ds should be positioned above this point.
- The saddle should stay in place while the horse is moving.
- Proper stirrup placement for rider balance. The ideal stirrup placement allows your leg to hang straight below your body for dressage and trail riding, and far forward for jumping. This keeps you from riding too far in front of or behind the horse.
- Evaluate how the rider fits in the saddle. How does the seat fit? Are the flaps or fenders the correct size? Does the center of the seat allow the rider to sit in the center of the saddle? A saddle that tips the rider to the back or has the stirrups placed too far forward can cause increased pressure at the back of the saddle. Conversely, if the saddle tips the rider forward or the stirrups are too far back (less common), the rider will put excess pressure on the wither area.--Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
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