We have done many saddle fittings, and given saddle fitting clinics. These are some of the general things we have learned that we hope will be helpful to you and your horse's comfort! We do realize that there are many differences of opinion on this subject and we are constantly learning, have an open mind, and will change our opinion if convinced we are wrong. Also, see our Saddle Fitting How To Guide, Saddle Pad, Stock Saddles & Equine Neuromuscular Dentistry pages!
*Pain to a horse caused by an ill fitting saddle is one of the number one causes of ill behavior. Can you blame them? If you were forced to wear shoes that were way too narrow for your feet then told to go for a nice long hike with a heavy pack on your back what do you think your attitude would be like?
1. Saddle Fit Evaluation - The first, most import and most overlooked aspect to saddle fitting is determining if the horses back is healthy!
90% of the horses we do saddle fittings on have some degree of damage to their backs, due to an ill-fitting saddle. Many horse owners and the saddle industry are not aware of this fact, so when they are evaluating saddles, they are fitting to an unhealthy back, which causes the problem to continue.
Indents and dishing out on the sides of the withers is not a sign of a horse with “good withers” or that they are “Thoroughbredy”! Healthy Thoroughbreds have higher, more prominent withers, but they are not supposed to be dished out on the sides of the withers.
The #1 problem is the bar angle not being wide enough to accommodate the horse's scapula and muscles, so it pinches the withers and causes muscle atrophy, which in turn causes their whole top line to drop in an effort to get away from the pain.
The #2 problem is the whole saddle being too long, to the point that it starts riding up on the hip where the center of the saddle bridges, and all the pressure is on the front and back of the bars which causes pain in both areas. A correctly fitting saddle needs to be wide enough and short enough to be comfortable, to allow the horses room to fill out in their withers & raise their spine/top line.
2. The majority of horses we see, (not all of course) of many breeds, are getting flatter & wider backed, shorter coupled in the critical area where the tree of the saddle sits and don’t have much definition in the withers. We have found the best universal tree (if you can have only one saddle) has a much wider bar flare (14” - 15”) compared to most saddles. The bars have no convex bump in the front bottom part of the bars and the bar lengths are 22 1/2”- 23 1/2” long depending on seat length needed, with a gullet width of 6 3/4” & a gullet height of 8”.
*Unfortunately many of the “full quarter horse” tree bars are not angled out wide enough and not all “full quarter horse” trees are the same; in fact, we have seen a big difference in them. Many saddles called ”full quarter horse” are wider in the gullet but not angled out much different than “semi quarter horse” bars. The bars also need to be flatter on the bottom without a convex ball pushing into the wither pockets.
*A lot of the saddle industry is basing the design of their trees on horses with abnormal anatomy, muscles atrophied especially in the wither area and a dropped top line from being ridden with saddles that are too narrow. It is like in China where some of the women bind their feet to make them smaller and deform the shape! Bad fitting saddles will deform a horse’s back and interfere with their ability to perform their best, in comfort and style.
*If you can only afford to have one saddle it is much better to have a saddle that is too wide than too narrow. If it is too wide, you can correct that with the saddle fitting pads we make. The pad can correct for a saddle that is a little too tight in the withers, and improve the fit of a saddle that is way too narrow, but it can’t fully correct the problem. See our Remuda Saddle Pad
page for more details on how to use it for correction. If you ride a lot of different horses the ideal is too have two saddles, one wider one narrower.
3. Many horses can’t accommodate more than 22 1/2” long bars on a tree. The majority of western saddles made today have 24” bars. Unfortunately for bigger riders that need a bigger seat 16” and up we are forced to use bars that are 23 1/2” long.
*When a saddle is placed in the proper position (the front of the tree bars should rest right behind the shoulder blades where there is often a soft pocket) nothing, including the skirts, should go past the cowlick on the flanks. If any part of the saddle goes past that point, you are interfering with the critical movements of the horse's hindquarters and your saddle can’t settle into the back which will cause bridging (where the saddle does not contact the middle of the back), pain and unstableness. For proper fit and comfort, you should have even pressure on the whole of the tree bars to distribute the rider’s weight over as big an area as possible. A saddle that is very short doesn’t distribute the weight as well.
4. We believe the saddle seat should be flat, not built up in the front, so you can sit centered where your legs are more straight down and your weight is more forward on the horse.
The seat should not be built up in the front because this position pushes you back against the cantle and your legs forward next to the shoulders, which we call the “lounge chair position”. The “lounge chair position” puts you off balance and makes it hard for the horse to keep his balance. The horse is built the strongest and can best carry your weight in the most forward 1/3 of his back which is also his center point for balance. Riding in the “lounge chair position” often causes pain in the back 1/3 of the horses back, which is also the weakest part of his topline.
In the “lounge chair position,” your weight is primarily on your low back and knees, often causing a lot of pain and stiffness. When you sit centered with your legs long and ankles lined up with your shoulder, your weight is now on the inside of your thighs, and a little on your low back and feet which is much kinder to your body, because there is much less muscle brace. When the seat is not built up, you have closer contact with the horse for better communication.
5. Rigging Position: When the saddle is placed in the proper position your cinch should come straight down behind the front leg. If the cinch tilts forward the saddle will want to work too far forward, if the cinch tilts back the saddle will want to work too far back.
6. Cinch Length: The cinch ring should be above the elbow of the horse for comfort and so there is no interference.
*We recommend 100% mohair cinches for durability and comfort to the horse.
7. Padding: Choosing the right thickness of pad.
We believe you should use as thin of padding as possible so you have as close of contact with the horse as possible, for better communication, (which is how we also build our saddles) but have sufficient protection for the horse's back. We feel the best all around thickness for Western saddles is the ½” and for English saddles use the ¼”. If your saddle fits very well no inserts are needed and should be removed. If you are roping a lot, riding long hard miles or weigh 200+ lbs. a 1” thick pad would be the most suitable to protect the horse's back. *You do not add more padding where your saddle is too narrow/tight!! If we put on shoes that are too narrow do we add more socks to help the problem? The same goes for padding. Too much padding causes rolling of the saddle, which means you have to cinch much tighter, which interferes with the horse's breathing, and the tree of the saddle can’t settle into the shape of the horse's back, and therefore can’t do its job of distributing your weight!
7B. Padding: Materials.
We have found the material padding is made out of makes a big difference in the health of a horse's back, their potential energy, and their comfort and endurance. We discovered a special wood felt that breathes, has excellent shock absorption, and wicks away moisture and heat off the horse's back. On a hot day you can wet the pad, saddle up and the wicking action of the pad material actually helps cool the horse's back!
**We have found that excess heat on a horse's back causes muscle fatigue and muscle atrophy, which lowers their energy, comfort, and endurance. The second-best material to our felt is wool felt, as it breathes and wicks moisture, but it does hold heat! ......Why do we wear wool? To hold in our body heat!! When we are exercising, we don’t want to wear heavy clothes that make us hot and excessively sweaty. We feel that most of the synthetic pad materials (especially neoprene) are awful for the horse's back, because they hold in moisture and heat!!
*Never use soap when washing pads as many horses are allergic to soaps. And, it is almost impossible to get all the soap out of pad material.
8. We do not recommend treeless or flexible tree saddles as we have seen a lot of pain and damage to horse's backs from them, especially when the rider is over 120 lbs. and /or rides long hours.
The treeless saddle allows your pelvic bones to dig into the horse and puts all of the rider's weight in a small area of the horse's back. The purpose of a stiff tree is so that your pin bones don't dig into the horse, and to distribute your weight over a much larger area, which is much more supportive and comfortable for the horse and helps them comfortably balance your weight.
*This proven weight-distribution is why backpackers like to use stiff frame back packs to keep their load more stable!
A flexible tree can end up digging into the horse's back, creating tender/sore spots. Flexible trees cause a lot of chiropractic problems because it is as if their backs are constantly being manipulated by the rider's pelvis and the tree, which causes the ligaments to become loose and unsupporting of the skeletal structure. With each ride, the back becomes more unstable, and can’t stay in alignment.
*This being said, we would rather see a treeless saddle on a horse, rather than a regular treed saddle that is too narrow in the wither area... but neither option is healthy!!
9. We don’t recommend saddle trees made from synthetic materials, as they are more prone than wood/rawhide trees to warp, which can cause some serious pain and damage to a horse's back.
10. Sometimes when it appears the saddle is not fitting properly (like dry spots or sore areas on the horse's back) the problem can also be:
~The horse or rider is out of adjustment: A chiropractor suited for either can sometimes be of help.
~The horse has not been shod/trimmed properly.
The horse's mouth is out of alignment/balance with the TMJ joint and needs his teeth worked on by a qualified neuromuscular equine dentist. For more information on this subject we have an an article about Equine Neuromuscular Dentisry and an incredible DVD now available by the country's leading expert, practitioner and instructor, Spencer LaFlure. Click here to learn more about the DVD!
**We are very big fans of a holistic, whole-horse approach to prevention, evaluation, and treatment of horses (all animals & humans as well). We do love and appreciate what open minded, talented veterinarians do for us all!! We strive to learn and share everything we can about all aspects of horses mental, emotional, and physical well being.
Thank you for considering this information for the sake of all horses!
Keep a deep seat and enjoy your ride!
Thanks! Bob & Terri Beecher