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Saddle Fitting Savvy

Rebecca Colnar

The next time your horse misbehaves, you might blame your saddle instead of his high-protein feed regimen. "One of the benefits of a properly fitting saddle has to do with how the horse performs and behaves. If the saddle is ill-fitting, you'll see training problems,"says Deborah Witty, owner of Performance Saddlery in Groton, N.Y. and a qualified fitter with the Society of Master Saddlers.

Often problems seem like they originate in the horse's mouth, when the cause is actually a pinching saddle.

"If a saddle fits poorly, it creates discomfort for the horse as well as imbalance for the rider. The rider will constantly try to correct his or her position,"explains Witty. "If the cantle is too low, which pushes the rider's legs toward the front, it makes the horse's back sore. Even a saddle that is placed a half-inch too far back creates too much friction, shoving the saddle forward and creating pain in the horse's back."

One of the most common problems that occurs is due to incorrect placement of the saddle. It must be placed with a tree point two fingers behind the shoulder blade, allowing freedom of movement for the shoulder.

Behavioral problems could include bucking or the horse not wanting to move forward. Witty says that what often happens is that the back becomes sore from an ill-fitting saddle. As a result, the horse hollows its back and carries itself in a poor way, which in turn creates more problems for the rider, which then creates more pain for the horse. It can be a vicious cycle.

A horse that shows agitation when the girth is being tightened also may indicate a saddle-fitting problem.

"When you tighten the girth, do so gradually. Walk the horse forward, then stop and tighten the girth in small increments, repeating the process two or three times,"she recommends. "But if your horse looks very uncomfortable when you tighten the girth, or is difficult to mount, there's a chance that saddle is not fitting properly. Remember that an ill-fitting point of a tree can create so much pressure that it can pinch the horse and cause great discomfort.

"We can often accommodate a horse when the saddle is moderately too wide with padding. But if the saddle is too narrow, we have more problems—unless we widen the tree, the pressure will create muscle atrophy as well as acute, then chronic, pain," Witty explains. Saddles can be padded and shimmed to make a horse's body more symmetrical. The danger point is when the tree is too narrow or extremely wide where the saddle sits down on the withers.

"These situations will create an imbalance and instability for the rider as well as great discomfort for the horse,"says Witty.

Proper fit of a western saddle has the same basic concepts as any other saddle fit. As with an English saddle, one of the signs of an improperly fitting western saddle is bad behavior in your horse.

"Keep in mind that when your horse turns, the right side of the back arcs, but the saddle tree does not get shorter,” says Lisa Brown, former co-owner of Ortho-Flex Saddle Company in Kansas City, Mo. “This means that the shoulder blade turns into the hard part of the tree." "The saddle tree is the key,"states Brown. "Saddle trees today are generally made out of a piece of wood that is about two inches thick. There's only so much curve in a tree. You want to have your weight spread over as many square inches as possible. The larger you make it, that drops the pound per square inch."

Brown explains that the key is not to have pressure points. If you have a tree that has a straight bar, it’s possible to have pressure at both the front and the rear, although problems occur more in the front.

"When you remove the saddle after a ride, look for dry spots in an oval area on each side of the horse's back. Dry spots indicate there was enough pressure that those glands couldn't sweat. A big dry spot isn't a problem but if there's a little two-inch spot, you’ll eventually see white hair there," Brown says.

Fitting a saddle

If you want to make sure your saddle fits your horse properly, get a piece of solder or a flexi-curve tool. Mold the material down the horse's body and withers, two fingers behind the shoulder blade, keeping as close to the contour as possible. Place the solder or flexi-curve on a piece of paper. Trace the inside, then make a cardboard cutout and place it up inside the front of the saddle. Remember that padding in the saddle will compress. You can place the front of saddle over the tracing, spread the flaps out and see if you can accommodate the angle of the tree.

"You may want to choose a wool-flocked panel rather than foam. As long as the tree fits properly, the wool can be adjusted to accommodate the horse's back and any changes that might occur in the future,"says Witty. "Make sure that your saddle maker has received training from someone who is reputable. Make sure they use wool. There are many different products put inside saddles, but sheep's wool is especially conditioned for flocking saddles."

When you're examining a saddle, turn it over and look at the bottom. "The channel or gullet needs to be a minimum of three fingers wide,"explains Witty. "Look for a gusset on the panel - under the cantle is a wedge of leather stitched on called a gusset, which gives you more height and adjustability to create more balance."

When examining a used saddle, put the pommel against your hip and pull it towards you. If there's any creaking, the integrity of the tree has been challenged.

Although pads can help, remember that they change the fit of the saddle. "Pads artificially make the horse's body wider, so the tree has to accommodate the fact that you've made the body wider,"says Witty. "Often, more padding will give you two surfaces in the front, and one in the back. It doubles the lift in the front, creating an imbalance."

If you ride multiple horses with the same saddle, determine which horse is broadest and pad the narrower horse. "This should work as long as their shapes are similar,"says Witty. After completing the wither tracings, place the tracings one on top of the other, the widest on the bottom. If the difference in the width is more than two fingers at the bottom of the tracing, you will need to consider using different saddles with different trees because the differences are too extreme. If you have more than two fingers difference side-by-side, then you’ll need to consider using different saddles with different tree widths.

Brown advises that to test a western saddle, stand up in the saddle and put your fingers under the front of the tree. If, when the horse walks, you feel pressure on your fingers, the saddle is not fitting properly.

Another good test is this: when the horse extends its leg forward, curl your fingers under the front of saddle. You should feel the shoulder blade rotate back three or four inches.

"Every time a horse takes a step, that shoulder blade rotates back three or four inches. Hopefully, there’s enough flare or saddle position far enough back that it won't hurt your finger or the horse,"Brown cautions.

"The seat shouldn't pitch you forward or back," she says. Also, be careful with saddle placement. "If the saddle is too far forward, it will hit the shoulder, but if it’s too far back, it will hit the horse's loins."

Witty encourages anyone purchasing a saddle to find saddle companies who will stand behind their products. "Make sure you have a test-ride period. If saddle fitters say they're certified, make sure you know by whom,"advises Witty. "Find someone who has been trained in that product or in saddle fitting and make sure they have references."

My Aching Back

Lisa Brown, founder and former owner of Ortho-Flex Saddle Trees, offers advice on how to probe the saddle area to discover soreness in the horse.

- Probe first for friction soreness then probe next for deep muscle soreness.
- Palpate one side of the back at a time.
- Use two or three fingertips with 25 pounds of pressure, holding 15 seconds.
- Next palpate both sides at once.
- Know where the saddle lies and pay close attention to the area where the arch rests, the center of the panels and the rear of the panels.
- Watch your horse’s face.
- Give the horse time to register a reaction when you probe each new point.
- Always probe the rear process of both shoulder blades with each foreleg extended.
- Always use fingertips, never finger nails, nor any narrow, blunt object.

©1997-2004 Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points magazine, Feb 2004, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.