Saturday, May 28, 2011

SADDLE FIT FRUSTRATION: Why Breeding may be to Blame

(This article focuses on Western saddle fitting, but has many points relevant to other types of saddles, as well.)

In the old days, a cowboy had a favorite saddle, and every horse he ever rode was likely ridden in that tried and true piece of equipment. He didn’t spend his time fretting about whether the saddle fit a particular horse perfectly or not – he was too busy working in it. Nowadays, responsible horse owners take great care to ensure that their saddle fits their horse properly because we know that a poorly fitting saddle can not only cause pain, but can also diminish performance. With all this concern, our advances in technology and our greater knowledge of biomechanics, you would think that we should be able to fit a saddle far better than our forefathers did. In reality, however, many of us struggle to find a saddle that doesn’t pinch, poke, bridge, rub, slip or tip on our horse’s back. Veterinarians and equine chiropractors report that back issues caused by poorly fitting saddles are extremely common, even though most of us don’t work our horses all that much. In contrast, those old-time cowboys rode their horses harder and longer than the average modern horse owner ever will, yet those horses were able to keep doing their extremely demanding jobs for years on end, despite the fact that nobody paid much mind to saddle fit. What gives? Is there simply something wrong with the saddles we are making and marketing for today’s horses?

According to custom saddle maker Vic Bennett, of Sherwood Park, AB, the reason for the high frequency of saddle fit problems we are experiencing has little to do with saddles and a lot to do with horses. As he explains, “When people have a problem, they often immediately look to the saddle and think the problem is there, but they really need to look at the whole picture, starting with their horse. If people had horses that had good saddle backs, meaning a nice wither, a level back, and higher in the wither than the hip, we would have much, much less conversation about saddle fitting. But the truth is that we’ve bred a lot of horses in recent years that are just not very suitable for saddles. We’ve bred for the big hip and hind leg for so long that we have these nice, round, muscular, pretty horses with no back. They have hardly any wither, a very muscular wither pocket, and they’re also high in the hip, hence the big butt end and the hind leg. Now, I’m not saying they’re not good performers – because I’ve got some like that myself and they can slide 15 feet – but they’re hard to put a saddle on.”

Kym Slater, a horse owner from Langley, BC, knows first hand how difficult it can be to fit a saddle on such horses. “I would definitely say that my saddle fitting problems are most directly related to lack of wither and too much thickness through the shoulder. My QH gelding has very little wither, a very rounded shoulder, a fairly wide back and a bit of a back dip. My other horse is hard to fit as well due to being mutton-withered and thick through the shoulder. I didn't realize that withers were so important until trying to fit my two horses.”

            One would think that solving this fitting problem would be simple enough – just change the shape of the saddles we’re building to fit the shape of modern horses. However, as Bennett points out, “You would like to think that we could just change the shape of a saddle and solve all the problems a person has fitting their horse, but it often doesn’t work that way. For example, the most common complaint we hear from people is that their saddle is pinching the horse in the shoulders. Why, then, aren’t saddle makers smart enough to just make extra-wide saddles? Then nobody’s saddle would pinch, right? The only trouble is, if you do that, and the horse is downhill, the saddle is going to end up on the horse’s neck, or it’s going to sit down on its wither. It’s like every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so sometimes adjusting one thing that would appear to be a simple solution may cause another problem. You have to take the thing as a whole, and also consider what purpose the horse is put to.”

            Even custom built saddles can sometimes do no more than make the best of an imperfect situation. As Bennett states, “If you’ve got a problem horse, and it’s recognized that this horse needs some special kind of a tree or some kind of adjustment to the saddle, we can often solve a problem or help them quite a bit – but not necessarily. Maybe what you do is make the horse more comfortable, but that horse will always need management. If you have a real round backed horse with a thick, heavily muscled wither pocket, yes, we can build a tree that will sit on that horse and not poke him. But you will always have to cinch this horse tighter than another horse with a good wither. You’ll have to be careful getting on and off him, and you’ve got to sit in the middle of his back because you can’t change the fact that he is round and roly-poly. So I always caution people about a custom fit, because what is their expectation? Often times it is a process of making the horse owner aware of the horse’s limitations, because many people just assume that the saddle doesn’t fit, and that if they had the right saddle built the right way, it would be perfect.”

There are other factors Bennett feels are worth considering before one assumes that the saddle is to blame for a problem one is having. “I’m not saying there aren’t genuine problems with how some saddles fit,” he says, “but in my experience, there can be other issues that can make someone think they have a saddle fit problem when they really don’t. For example, you need to ask yourself if the horse is in condition. Do you have this horse on a program where you’ve been riding him regularly? Is his back firmed up? Are his muscles developed to the point where he can carry a saddle properly? Or, have you just gone and taken this horse out of the pasture and gone riding with your friends in the mountains for three days, and now this horse is sore or rubbed or whatever. In that instance, the lack of condition might be the explanation, not the saddle.

“Then you have to ask, does the rider ride properly? Do they sit on the saddle square with their weight even, or are they a poor rider bouncing up and down and banging the horse on the back? Is this rider overweight, leaning to one side – there are a lot of things that can influence what that back looks like or feels like before you get to the saddle.  I’m not trying to make an excuse for the saddle, but you never hear much about these things, and they are very significant.”

If you have looked at all these variables and still suspect that you have a saddle fit problem, it is best to seek the help of a professional in order to determine what the problem is and what you can do about it. However, there are a number of steps that you can take yourself to help evaluate whether or not your saddle fits well.  Veterinarian Joyce Harman, of Flint Hill, VA, has written a book, The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle Fit Book, and put out a DVD, Western Saddles – How to Fit: Pain-Free, both designed to help the horse owner get a handle on this complex issue. (Note: Harman also has materials on fitting English saddles.) Harman, who specializes in treating horses with back problems, describes a variety of techniques that include examining the saddle off the horse, looking at the saddle on the horse, and looking at the rider in the saddle.

Harman recommends that evaluation of a saddle begin with an examination of the saddle itself. As she explains, “Many saddles have manufacturing defects or have gotten worn or broken during use. You need to check for symmetry both underneath and on the top side of the saddle. You need to check for nails, lumps or bumps in the fleece. You must also look carefully to try to determine if the tree is cracked or broken. It can be hard to tell, as even a broken tree may not have much give, but sometimes you can feel or hear a difference on one side when you push or pull on it.” One nifty trick Harman describes for checking symmetry is to put the saddle on a stand, then loop a piece of string around the horn, which you then use to check if the girth and billet dees are in the same place on both sides. Hold your thumbnail on the string where a dee is on one side, then keep it on the string while you turn the string to the other side and see if your thumb comes to the same place at the opposite dee.

The next step is to look at the horse’s back to get a sense of the shape, existing pain issues, and potential problem areas. Says Harman, “Feel the back muscles for anything hard or knotted, and to see if pressure from your hands elicits a pain response. Start by palpating softly at first, then a bit more firmly, and see if the horse is bothered by pressure in any specific area. Look for any white hairs on the back, which are indicative of an area that has been exposed to excessive pressure.  Also look at the type of muscling and overall shape of the back. If the horse’s back is dropped down, this can be a sign of pain or discomfort. Horses will often hollow or drop their back down to protect it from pain caused by a poorly fitting saddle. Try to notice any muscle atrophy or depressions.”

The third step is to sit the saddle on the horse without any padding underneath to see how well the shape of the tree matches the shape of the horse. What you want to see and feel is no excessive pressure or binding on the shoulder, and even contact of the bars all along the back, except for a slight upwards flare at the back end to prevent pressure on the lumbar (loin) area.  These can be a tricky things to judge because all the skirting and fleece lining hide the tree to some extent. Therefore, if possible, get your hands on some bare trees of different types and see which is the closest match. When you are looking at a bare tree or a saddle on the horse, the problems you are keeping an eye out for include:

- The saddle is too low in the front and lifting at the back. This indicates that it is too wide and would cause pressure on the withers. A saddle in this position will tend to tip the rider forward and cause your legs to slip back.
- The saddle is too high in the front. This indicates that it is too narrow and will therefore put pressure on the shoulders. It may also tip the rider back or push you to the back of the saddle, causing your legs to slip ahead of you. This also puts excessive pressure on the horse’s loins.
- The saddle is bridging (has a gap over the center of the horse’s back). This indicates that the saddle is either too narrow, and/or is too flat (not enough rocker front to back) , causing pressure points on both the shoulders and the loins.

Before you judge the tree, however, be sure that you place the saddle in the right place – something many people fail to do, according to Harman. “Placing the saddle too far forward is the most common error people make,” she states, “and correct placement is probably the most important aspect of fitting. When you have a rigid structure on top of the shoulder blade, it prevents the shoulder from moving freely. The result is that the horse starts to shorten its stride, and it hits the ground harder with its feet – something I believe is a contributing factor to some of the foot pain we see in our horses.” Harman explains that the front edge of the saddle tree must sit slightly behind the shoulder blade, though the flexible skirting should overlap the shoulder. The skirting, however, should not press down on the shoulder blade, as it can poke or rub – another common problem. Of course, you also want to avoid the opposite error – placing the saddle too far back. When this happens, the saddle will tend to tip forward in front and lift at the back. Says Harman, “What you need in many cases is more flare at the front of the tree and skirting to allow proper placement of the saddle – neither too far forward or too far back – and enough room for the shoulders to move freely without any pressure, poking or rubbing.”

In addition to inadequate flare, Harman sees many saddles with bars that are too flat front to back. Such saddles are not able to follow the shape the many horses’ backs, leading to painful pressure points. Having the rocker of the saddle match the horse’s back as closely as possible is very important, but you do want to see that bit of extra upward flare at the rear of the saddle to protect the lumbar area. Saddles that are too flat often end up being too long, as well, as the lack of rocker and rear flare can cause the weight-bearing area of the saddle to extend onto the loin area – the weakest and most vulnerable part of the horse’s back. Even skirts that are too long can cause a problem if they don’t flare up at the back, as they may rub or put pressure on the spinous processes, as well as possibly interfere with the movement of the hips and hind legs. For this reason, Harman is a fan of rounded skirts. “A rounded skirt is functional,” she says, “giving more room for horses with heavy muscle or short backs.”

If you are encountering problems like bars that are too flat, too long, or don’t have enough front flare, it could simply be a reflection of the quality of saddle you are looking at. Says Bennett, “You can see those sorts of problems with certain types of saddles out there, but you won’t see those things in a good performance saddle, or even the saddles we make for non-performance riders, because we put the performance features into all our saddles. Performance riders have valuable horses that have to be able to move well and look good doing it, so we build in features to ensure the best fit possible with the greatest comfort for both horse and rider. We try to put as much of the bar surface on the horse as we can to distribute the weight, while leaving the edges of the bars off the horse. On a good tree, that means it flares open at the front so it allows the shoulder to move, and at the back, the end of the bar comes up off their back so that when you sit on it you’re not poking them. You don’t want to just make the bars shorter, unless you’re talking about barrel-racing saddles with the short trees, because short bars can dig the horse right in the loin. What the longer bar does is that it allows you to gradually taper the weight off the horse, so in a sense it doesn’t matter how long they are. That’s why I would argue against shorter bars – I dislike shorter bars and I think you can sometimes cause a lot more problems that way.”

For Kym Slater, getting the right fit – or at least something close to it – was a process of education, coupled with a whole lot of searching. As she recalls, “I started doing research via the internet, watching saddle fitting videos, emailing saddle fitters for advice and asking the help of some experienced horse women who were trainers as well as coaches; I figured that they would have the best eye for correct movement and fit. Through all of these things, I learned how to feel along the shoulder blade following the curve, sliding my hand along feeling for uniform snugness or loose spots, or very tight spots. I also became aware of what a saddle looks like when it tips forward or slides back.”

Slater ended up using an old Western Rawhide saddle that served her well for many years with her mare, but when it came time to get a new one, the search was on once again. “It is now time to upgrade for my mare, she says, “and I’ve discovered that full bars with the right spread are very hard to come by.  As for my gelding, he takes the QH bar, but only one brand/style of at least ten I tried really seemed to fit. It has different angles than others of the same size, so you can’t just go by size alone. I have come to the conclusion that there must be many, many horses out there who have to endure a poor fitting saddle because like me at one time, their owners don’t know what to look for or how to look for it. I am not 100% confident that I am getting it right, but for the most part things are looking good.”

One pitfall Slater avoided was the often-tried method of attempting to fix a saddle fit problem by adding more padding or buying the latest ‘back saver’ pad. While pads are necessary, they are rarely the answer to a saddle that doesn’t fit. “We’d love to buy a pad and have it fix all our problems,” says Harman, “but when we add a pad to a poorly fitting saddle, we often just move the pressure to a different area. With a thick pad or extra pads, we usually end up unbalancing the saddle and making it too narrow up by the tree. Think about how you would feel if you put on a pair of thick socks inside a close-fitting boot: you would end up squishing your feet. Therefore, if you add an extra pad or go to a thick pad, you have to recheck every parameter.” Harman points out that a thicker pad can be beneficial if you have a saddle that is a little bit too wide, but in general she recommends a simple 1”, wool felt pad if the saddle fits well.

Bennett also tends to stay on the slim and simple side when it comes to padding. As he explains, “There has been lots of innovation in pads, and that’s fine, but one thing I know is that there is going to be another jet-age pad next year, and then the next year. Maybe they’re all good, but they’re all pretty expensive. I’m not against the high dollar pads, but personally I don’t use them. I use a light wool pad and I put a double weave blanket on top of that. I used to rope, and when I was going roping I would pad a little differently, but I still wouldn’t pad as much as some of the guys do.  If your saddle does fit and you jam a lot of pads in there, you may change the fit of the saddle, so you must use discretion.

“Also, some of these pads are quite firm, and if you have a firm pad, the movement of the horse causes the lining under the saddle to move the pad, and the pad is going to move the skin of the horse, which can irritate the horse. If you have a soft pad, like a blanket or something, then that movement can be absorbed by that soft material and not move the skin of the horse so much. Another potential problem is that some of those pads are full of rubber which might seem like a good idea, but they can move the skin of the horse a lot, and they can also hold heat. They can be useful for shorter training sessions, but if you’re in the saddle for 6-7 hours going up the continental divide or something, you might scald that horse pretty good.

As a rule of thumb, Bennett likes to use the least amount of padding he can get away with. He says, “People tend to like soft fuzzy things and lots of padding for themselves, so they assume that’s what the horse would like. Therefore, they think that if one pad is good more pads are better, but it doesn’t really work that way. If their saddle is tight at the front, half the time people put on more pads – but if your boots were tight you wouldn’t put on an extra pair of socks, would you?”

Ultimately, says Bennett, the fit comes more from the tree than the padding. “Nonetheless,” he states, “you do want some cushion, and on that point I think that people keep their pads too long, which causes the pads to become packed out under the weight-bearing areas of the saddle tree. The outside of the pad will appear to be nice and thick, but if you reach under that spot where the saddle actually sits, sometimes it’s packed right out. When the pad is in that condition, you’re more likely to get a dry back and what have you. Sometimes I just turn my pad around and ride it backwards to extend the life of the pad.”

Like Harman, Bennett notes that there are some cases where specialized padding can be helpful, for example, in some instances of bridging. “If the saddle is bridging,” he explains, “you may want to do something like I did with this filly that my wife rides. The saddle was bridging on her, so I took a felt pad and thinned out the areas where the saddle had more pressure – just worked it with a wire brush until it got thin. Then in the middle under where the bar would sit I glued on some fairly dense, shock-absorbing foam and just contoured that to make it custom fit. This is what I would have done if I had taken the saddle apart – I would have used leather on the bar to create the shape I needed –  but I didn’t want to do that because she rides other horses in that saddle. If you don’t want to customize your own pad as I did, there are some pads that have pockets in them and you can monkey around with various shims and things, and those are kind of neat. You just have to keep playing with them until you get it right.”

Playing with it until you get it right pretty much sums up the whole adventure of saddle fitting, as it is a process that often requires a considerable amount of trial and error. Hopefully, you will be able to notice any fitting issues before they cause you or your horse any real problems (see sidebar: “Symptoms of Saddle Fit Problems: What Your Horse is Trying to Tell You).  Just remember that there may be no such thing as a perfect fit, and as Vic Bennett says, “Nobody knows how to fit a horse 100% anyways.”


Symptoms of Saddle Fit Problems: What Your Horse is Trying to Tell You

Although most horses are good natured enough to endure the discomfort of a poor-fitting saddle without repeatedly dumping us in the dirt, there are usually some symptoms that all is not well. Signs that may indicate a saddle fit issue include:

·         hollow  or “inverted” back
·         raised head
·         reluctance to turn, especially in tight circles
·         reluctance to pick up the lope
·         short, choppy or heavy stride
·         pinned ears or swishing tail when cinched or mounted
·         moves away or walks off when you try to mount
·         humping up the back or bucking
·         reluctance or inability to work off the hind end
·         rushes or is very slow downhill
·         stumbles when ridden
·         becomes increasingly tense the longer you ride
·         bites at your leg or the saddle
·         heavy on the forehand

SIDEBAR:  Treeless Saddles

Mike Lane, at 6'2" and 200 lbs., has no trouble riding his wide-shouldered
horse in his FreeformWestern Saddle. "The horse loves it and moves great
in it," he says, "and it's the most comfortable saddle I've ever ridden in." 

Treeless saddles are another option that some riders with hard-to-fit horses are exploring. While not suitable for roping, they are used extensively in endurance riding and are making inroads into some of the Western disciplines. Says WPRA barrel racer Tammy Key-Fischer of Ledbetter, TX, “I started riding in a treeless saddle in 1998, when I was having trouble finding a saddle to fit a horse. I found the treeless option to be fabulous because they conform to the horse’s back and they are light weight. They allow your horse more flexibility in movement because there is not a hard tree to get in the way. Now, I only ride treeless.” 

Two concerns that people often have about treeless saddles are that they won’t distribute weight well, and that they won’t provide clearance for the spine. While these problems may have been more of an issue in the past, makers of modern treeless saddles have designed them to address these concerns. In fact, independent testing using the Port Lewis Impression Pad (considered the gold standard for assessing weight distribution) found that the treeless saddles tested distributed weight as well as or better than the treed saddles tested.

So, if you’re just not finding a treed saddle that fits, or you simply like the idea of going treeless, here are a few websites where you can get more information:

Bob Marshall:


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