We have done many saddle fittings and saddle fitting clinics on all types of horses and mules. 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 there is a better way.
For more information see the following pages:
Saddle Fitting How To Guide
Saddle Fitting Pads
Semi-Custom Stock Saddles
Full Custom Saddles
Equine Neuromuscular Dentistry
*Pain for 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 and 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 important and most overlooked aspect to saddle fitting is determining if the horse's 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, muscles, and nerves, so it pinches the withers and causes muscle atrophy, which in turn causes them to use their whole body incorrectly 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.
The #3 problem is an incorrect rocker, the amount of curve in the bars head to tail. They can be too curved or too straight where you can have either too much pressure in the middle or not enough.
*A correct fitting saddle needs to be wide enough in the bar angle and short enough to be comfortable, to allow the horse's room to fill out in their withers, take a nice long stride and the scapula to rotate under the front of the tree bars of the saddle & raise their body up to meet it, resulting in a beautiful topline and strong supporting structures.
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 some 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 front 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 the seat length needed, with a gullet width of 6 3/4” & a gullet height of 8”.
*Unfortunately “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 unintentionally 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, these problems are so common it has become the norm. Horses will deform over time, given enough pressure, especially during the growing years. Ill-fitting saddles will deform a horse’s back and interfere with its ability to perform their best in comfort.
*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 when way too narrow. 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 to have two saddles, one wider and 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 super short doesn’t distribute the weight as well.
4. We strongly 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 over their balance point.
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, behind the horse's center point of 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 horse's 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 primarily on the inside of your thighs 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.
Our favorite is our Double Rigged Cinch! Our custom double-rigged saddle cinches make the saddle have a universal, super wide center fire rigging position! Very comfortable for the horse, pulls down equally from the front and back with the front angling back and back angling forward. Helps free up the shoulders, you don't have to cinch as tight, secures the saddle better than a regular cinch and back strap!
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 most horses we see and circumstances for western saddles is the 3/4”. If your saddle fits very well no inserts are needed and should be removed. If you rope, do long rides, your horse has any muscle atrophy (dishing) behind the withers or you weigh 160+ lbs. a 3/4” 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 energy, and their comfort and endurance. We discovered a special wood felt (from trees) that breathes, has excellent shock absorption, is very washable 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 like a swamp cooler!
**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 health, 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 horses' 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 rigid 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 backpacks 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 unsupportive of the skeletal structure. With each ride, the back becomes more unstable, and can’t stay in alignment as well.
*This being said, we would rather see a treeless saddle on a horse, rather than a regular treed saddle that is way 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 article about Equine Neuromuscular Dentistry. Spencer LaFlure is the master in Neuromuscular Dentistry and Albert Einstein of Equine Dentistry!! For more information check out his website to learn more and find a certified practitioner in your area. The Center for Natural Balance Horse Dentistry
11. Equine Nutrition - we believe one of the most important aspects to what we should feed our horses should be based on keeping things as close to nature as possible honoring how their systems were designed. Do they eat soy, rice bran, beet pulp, molasses, garlic, apples, carrots etc. in nature? No! Many of these ingredients in processed feeds are causing a lot of endocrine and metabolic issues. Systems of their body go out of balance due to these feeds, chemical fly sprays and wormers, fluoride and chlorine in their water etc.
We offer an evaluation service using applied kinesiology from a picture to determine which systems are in need of support in what order for more information see our Out West Herbs page.
**We are very big fans of a holistic, whole-horse approach to the prevention, evaluation, and treatment of horses (all animals & humans as well). We do love and appreciate what our 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