How do you know if your saddle fits?
Horses communicate through behavior. If your horse becomes grouchy when the saddle appears, bites while being girthed up, bucks or won’t stand for mounting, it could be because your saddle doesn't fit.
Poor saddle fit also affects the horse's performance. If your horse has trouble with leads, gaiting, engaging his hindquarters, going down hill, refusing jumps, turning a barrel, is anxious or nervous, it could be because your saddle doesn't fit.
Poor saddle fit will affect the horse's health. If you horse has back soreness, white hairs, damage to the soft tissue or little bones in his front feet, other unexplained lameness issues, hock or stifle lameness, requires regular chiropractic care or injections it could be because your saddle doesn't fit.
To evaluate your saddle fit put your saddle on without a saddle pad and stand your horse up as square and level as possible. His head should be straight and at a normal height which is the ears level with the withers. After you check the wither clearance, length, width, angle, billets or rigging, channel or gullet width and the horizontal contact then you ride. If the saddle doesn't pass all of these tests then there is no point in riding but if it looks good, the final test is to ride in it.
Most saddles can be ridden without a pad to determine fit. Some wider saddles might need a thin blanket or pad. And again, we are not looking for sweat. You cannot diagnose saddle fit by the sweat patterns or in pictures! Diagnosing saddle fit with a picture or a sweat pattern is like sending a picture to the Doctor and expecting him to give you a diagnosis and a prescription. You might get lucky but also, you might kill somebody. We are looking at what the saddle does while riding. Does it stay in place? Does it slip to one side or back? How does the horse move? Is the rider in a balanced position? What does the rider feel?
After you ride without the pad for 10 or 15 minutes there will be an impression or dust pattern the saddle makes on the horse's back. The hair should be flatten but not ruffled. The channel should be clearly wide enough to not put any pressure on the spinal ligament. The contact should be equal top and bottom.
Let's get started with the static fit:
Does the saddle sit level? A saddle that is too high in the front usually equals too narrow tree. If the tree is too narrow, there is nothing you can do. Most of the time a saddle pad cannot fix too high in the front. Lifting the back of the saddle would simply push the narrow tree right into the shoulders.
If the saddle is too low in the front it means the tree width or the tree angle is too wide. Sometimes a wide tree can be helped with a pad but it should be only a temporary fix until the horse returns to his normal weight or until a proper fitting saddle can be purchased. But a saddle that has too wide tree angle cannot be fixed with a pad. Tree width and tree angle are 2 different things.
Is there enough wither clearance? The correct answer is there must be clearance on the sides and the top of the withers all the way back to the base of the withers. It is usually 2-3 fingers on top and on the sides without the pad. There must also be clearance with the pad, girthed up with the weight of the rider. There must never be pressure on the top of the withers which is the spinal ligament. A lot of saddles would fit better without the big bulky pads taking up all the extra space. Usually trying to create clearance with a pad won't work very well because the pads move and the rider's weight will compress the pad.
The withers are the longest vertebrae wrapped with the spinal ligaments. They act as a fulcrum pulling the back up so the horse can engage. Pressure on the ligament will prevent the horse from being able to lift his back and engage causing muscle soreness and lameness.
Does the tree angle match the horse’s shoulder angle? Looking at the front of the saddle the angle of the tree or the bars must be the same angle as the horse’s shoulder, not the angle of the wither area. The shoulders need to have the freedom to pass under the front of the saddle. Saddles that slip back or to one side usually don’t have enough room for the shoulders to pass under the front of the saddle so the shoulders simply push the saddle out of the way.
The worst thing we can do is put a breast collar on to keep a saddle from sliding back if there is no room for the shoulders because the top of the shoulder is delicate cartilage and can easily be damaged by a saddle tree if it pinches or doesn't match the shoulder angle.
Are the billets or rigging in the right place? After you have determined the tree width and tree angle match the horse’s width and shoulder angle, check and make sure the girth will fall into the right place approximately 4 fingers behind the elbow. A girth that is back too far will drag the saddle forward then the shoulders will kick the saddle back then the girth will pull it forward. This back and forth, back and forth every step equals girth sores.
Is the saddle too long? This is a very controversial question. Some say the saddle support area ends at the last rib where it connects to the last thoracic vertebrae. However, the bars of most western saddles are longer than that. So which is correct? Well, the answer is different for every situation. A good fitting western saddle has some of it’s tree over the shoulders and over the lumbar however, the weight is mostly in the center over the rib heads and the rider’s center is towards the base of the horse’s withers.
Saddles that bridge put painful pressure on the shoulders and lumbar area instead of on the belly of the longissimus muscle over top the ribs. Bridging saddles causing muscle soreness, irritation to the spinal ligament and can cause kissing spines, hunter’s bumps, and chiropractic and lameness problems.
Is the channel wide enough? The channel down the middle of the saddle needs to be wide enough to allow clearance for the vertebrae and the spinal ligament. Most horses are 3-4 fingers wide. No horse has a vertebrae width of 1-2 fingers. The English saddles with 1-2 fingers gullet width don’t fit any horse. It is not possible. We didn't know what we didn't know. Now, thanks to modern technology the vets can x-ray and scan the vertebrae. Now we can see the need for the wider channel and hundreds of horses have shown me their appreciation for it.
Is the horizontal bar or panel contact even? It is best to go ahead and ride the horse without the pad for a few minutes to see the contact. We would like to see even pressure on both sides with a nice 3-4 finger wide area on top that is untouched. The goal is to have 1-2lbs per square inch.
However, it is very easy to see or feel if a saddle is bridging or not touching in the middle of the horse’s back. If it is not too bad, a pad can be shimmed to fill in the space. In my experience that is the only thing that can be fixed with a pad. A saddle that fits in all other areas can be shimmed to fill in a spot on the horse that is hollow or not as big as the other side but, it must be rechecked frequently. Shimming a saddle pad is definitely not a good long term solution because the horse changes shape and the saddle pad needs to also be changed to prevent a pressure point.
After you ride, take the saddle off and look at the marks on the horse’s back. I like to see that the hair is flatten all the same on both sides with nothing touching the top or the sides of the withers or any where down the middle of the horse’s back. There should not be too much pressure in the lumbar area or on the shoulder’s. There should not be any hair ruffed up. Both sides should match. A little bit of sweat in the front and back is normal for a short ride.
Remember, if the saddle doesn’t fit, you need a different saddle or a different horse to fit your saddle. Joanna Robson DVM, said “if you can’t afford a saddle that fits, get a cheaper horse.”
Good saddle fit is like preventative maintenance. If you don't take care of your car, you are going to pay big time in the long run. The same with saddle fit. If you don't pay attention, you and your horse are going to suffer painful and usually expensive damage. Don't you and your horse deserve better than that?
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