"IF THE SADDLE FITS"; DOES IT REALLY?

by

Dan Simmons

Let me say here first of all that I am not claiming to be an expert by any means, but rather sharing what I have learned from those that are, and from personal experience which has largely confirmed what they have taught me.  I’m sure there are many of you out there who are perfectly aware of everything I’m going to say; I’m equally confident there are those like me who had never heard of this technical stuff related to saddle fitting.  There are also likely some who will disagree with what I’m going to pass on here; but as they say, “Different strokes for different folks.”  Bottom line; consider this info, maybe give it a try, and keep what works for you.

 
I had spent many years around horses to varying degrees in my life being a passenger on a horse, even owning them, neither of which makes you a horseman I’ve learned.  Several years ago I made a commitment to myself to start learning more about horsemanship as opposed to just being carried around on their backs.  Anyway, one of the more dramatically demonstrated areas of my ignorance was the science of saddle fitting; and I know from personal observation that I was/am not alone.  I’ve learned that just because a saddle looks great and feels good to you, doesn’t mean your equine partner feels the same way, and in fact it could be doing them permanent harm, not to mention making your ride miserable for both of you.


Most of my first life in horses was around quarter horses with the exception of one Arab in the mix.  Then I met my future bride Letha who converted me in short order to Morgans.  That in itself brought the saddle fitting issue to the forefront, what with Morgans having shorter, flatter backs with wide withers as compared to quarter horses.  The vast majority of saddles off the shelf in tack shops we discovered are oriented to fit the quarter horse, not surprisingly considering their numbers.  As a result, the un-informed can largely get away with just picking out a saddle they like and throwing it on their horse without a detailed saddle fitting process.  Those that own Morgans or Arabs, as a couple of examples, and who know enough to pay attention to their horses and their reactions, are not as likely to get away with that approach.


My first Morgan was a five year old mare that had spent the previous two years on pasture after having 90 days put on her as a three year old.  She subsequently had five more rides put on her due to my interest before I bought her.  She inherited my Circle Y Park and Trail saddle from my previous quarter horse and it seemed to fit her just fine; she had no behavior issues and her back was fine. 


Sometime during the initial six months under this saddle Letha and I attended a saddle fitting clinic at the University of Arizona Equine Center put on by a vet and a saddle fitting expert whose names I don’t remember (my wife could probably tell you; you ladies never forget anything!).  We both learned a lot there.  They started out by talking about a horse’s bone and muscle structure and used chalk to draw key components on the horse such as the hip bone, shoulder blade, and rib cage.  They had a number of different horses there including a mule as I recall and used several for comparisons of differences in structure.  They related the chalk lines depicting the horse’s bone structure to where and how a saddle tree should line up and fit.  They also had student helpers walk the horses around without saddles so we could see how these chalk lines moved as they walked.  This they followed up with saddles that fit correctly and riders aboard to see how the horses moved under saddle.   Then they changed out the saddles to ones that didn’t fit correctly and had the students again ride them for us to watch for changes in how the horses moved and acted.  The differences were immediately obvious and dropped jaws all over the stands, even by people far more experienced than us, it was so dramatically different.


They also talked about specifics as to what ill-fitting saddles can do to the horse and exposed a few myths long passed around by horse folks.  One of those myths was that a horse that acts up initially just needs a 10-15 minute warm up to settle it down and then it is fine.  This is often the result of a saddle that is too tight in the withers and is pinching them and causing them discomfort; after 10-15 minutes of “warm up”, the nerves that were being pinched go numb and they can’t feel the discomfort anymore so they settle down.  How many times have you seen a horse with white spots on its withers?  This they explained is a result of chronic abuse by an ill-fitting saddle that has not only damaged the hair follicles and turned the hair white, but also the muscle underneath which basically atrophies and never recovers.


Another myth less critical is something we all see and probably do or have done; that is standing up in the stirrups and leaning forward slightly while our horse urinates.  Contrary to the common belief we’re helping or making the horse more comfortable the vet explained, we are actually doing the exact opposite.  The horse’s urinary track she said is in no way affected by us standing in the stirrups and leaning forward; it is way too deep in their body below the spinal column to be affected.  The standing in the stirrups and leaning forward in fact transfers more of our weight onto the front of the tree and the horse’s shoulders rather than spreading it evenly across the entire tree and their back and is more uncomfortable for them by comparison.


The basics of checking a saddle for fit they explained to us are:

  • Put the saddle on the horse’s back without a blanket; feel with your fingers and find the top back corner of the horse’s shoulder blade (if you can’t find it, your horse is too fat!) and position the front of the tree (which should be directly under the concho screw below and slightly forward of the horn) about an inch behind the shoulder blade; if it is any further forward you will impede the horse’s shoulder movement as it moves which will result in discomfort and limitation of its ability to move the shoulder.  This was one of the obvious things we observed when they put ill-fitting saddles on the horses they had there and rode them for us. 
  • You should have enough room to be able to run your fingers laying flat under the edge of the front skirting between it and the horse’s withers; if it’s tight and you can’t get your fingers under there without forcing them, it’s too narrow and tight of a fit.  Putting a blanket or additional blankets under the saddle to try and compensate will only make the clearance narrower and tighter.
  • The rear skirting of the saddle should not extend over the rear hip bone and needs to give the hip bone some clearance throughout its range of motion; failure to do so will again limit its movement and cause discomfort for your horse, particularly when bending the horse to the inside.  That is the main reason you will see short rounded rear skirts on most Arabs and Morgans with their short backs.
  • The rear part of the saddle tree also has placement concerns.  As I mentioned, they drew in some of the ribs for us with chalk lines in the front and back of the horse’s rib cage.  They said to again feel for the last rib in the rib cage with your fingers (again, if you can’t feel them, your horse is too fat!) and that the rear part of the tree should not extend beyond that point as there is a lack of support for the tree beyond that.
  • There should not be front to rear rock in the saddle and the tree should make even contact so your weight is spread evenly across the tree and the horse’s back.  When you remove a saddle after a ride there should be an even sweat pattern without dry spots across the spread of the saddle to confirm this.

There may have been other points they mentioned, but these are the key ones that I recall and have experienced.


Not long after we attended this saddle fitting clinic, my future bride and I got married and didn’t ride for a couple months while we consolidated households, did the wedding and all the other details of a merger.  Near the end of that period I sent my mare to our trainer, Lanny Leach, for a thirty day tune-up.  He had me come and get her after just three weeks and said she didn’t need much and said she was “a horse with a great work ethic that would do anything for you”.  When I got her home I saddled her up with the same saddle I had been riding her with before with no problems and went for a ride around the property; she was almost uncontrollable, refused to walk, broke into a trot on every turn, and generally fussed the whole time.  My wife got on her thinking it was probably just me and had the same result.   I thought, “What did Lanny do to this horse!”  We called him and told him what was going on and he was sure it was my tack.  I said it was the same saddle she had been under for six months with no problem before and he still swore it was the tack and said to bring it and her back to him and we’d get it figured out.


We went back down there a few days later and he got on her with the tack he’d used and she was just fine.  I got on her then, still with his tack, and she fussed briefly and then settled right down.  We then put my saddle on her and Lanny got on her and she wasn’t as bad as she had been with me, but she did begin to fuss and didn’t move or perform anything like she just had with his tack on her.  I got on her then and she really acted up.  My wife’s jaw was hanging open just like before at the clinic.  Lanny said after six months of riding and three weeks daily there with him, she had apparently muscled up after her two years of lounging in a pasture and my saddle that had previously worked for her, didn’t fit anymore.  He also said she likely acted up with me worse than him because she associated me with the pain of the ill-fitting saddle.  It was again stunning what dramatic changes an ill-fitting saddle could make right before our eyes!


We went looking for another saddle that fit her and after an extensive search throughout Tucson found a lightly used McPherson that passed all the fit tests we had learned at the clinic and she was back to her old self.  That lasted for about a year and a half through lots of riding; then some of the old symptoms began to crop up again.  We realized after a bit that maybe we had saddle fitting issues again and re-did the fit tests with the saddle on her bare back.  It didn’t pass the fingers between the skirting and withers test and was too tight; the girl had continued to add muscle and size with the work and age.  We had a Fallis Balanced Ride saddle that had been on a big gelding we had for awhile and we fit tested it on her; it fit and she was happy again.


My wife had a similar experience to a lesser degree.  We were on a trail ride trip at Groom Creek near Prescott with a friend and she was having a little trouble with her mare, a half-sister to mine, and suspected a saddle issue as she knew the one she was using didn’t pass the fit tests all that well.  Our friend lived not too far away and they went to her house and picked up a Specialized endurance saddle she had that had adjustable padding on it.  They brought it back and tinkered with it for a while and then tried it on her horse.  The results were again immediate and obvious!  Her horse’s front leg action was much more free and higher and her previous reluctance to go downhill was gone instantly.


In summary, I again want to stress that I am by no means an expert on this or any other horse related subject; but I have learned a few things and wanted to share them with other riders like me and especially those who are new to the equine world.  By shear observation on the many rides and events we go to, I know there are those out there that it could benefit.  Seeing the changes it has made in our own horses has been a real eye opener for us.


Happy trails!

My willing model: Rose K Sunday Star

Diamond H Paladin X Mary Mels Snipper

2007 Gaited Palomino Gelding