WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL ABOUT CUSTOM SADDLE FIT?
Saddle fit is a big deal! Horse backs are all unique along their length with many angles; they change throughout their life-cycle, degrees of fitness, and many are not symmetrical. If your saddle doesn’t fit your horse, he will likely be cranky and sore, and may also be restricted in his movement. And just like shoes for people, one size does not fit all. However, once your horse reaches maturity, his bone structure will remain relatively the same so a custom saddle, with a little tweaking over the years, should continue to provide him with a good fit.
Definition of Good Fit
A good fitting saddle should distribute the rider’s weight over a large area, keep the pressure off the spine, tendons, and reflex points, give the horse’s shoulders room to move and stabilize the rider in a balanced position in alignment with the horse’s centre of balance. The quality of the tree and its fit to both horse and rider ultimately determine you and your horse’s satisfaction with the finished product..
Poor saddle fit can cause pain and trauma to your horse, which often manifests as a training issue or poor performance. Think of how much better you can move in a good-fitting pair of shoes versus a poor-fitting pair where you are always distracted by the shoes. As a horse is ridden over longer distances, at higher speeds, or by heavier riders, proper fit becomes more important – an even bigger deal!
The permutations for the shape of horses’ backs are as infinite as the shapes of saddles produced, one size can not fit all. If your horse is to carry you comfortably, you want to get it right. If the saddle is too narrow in the front, it will pinch the wither. Too wide and the saddle may fall onto the wither. If the tree bar (the framework inside the saddle) is too flat, then only the tips of the bars will sit on the horse, losing equal weight distribution along the bars. Too much rock and all of your weight are in the centre and the saddle will feel unstable. Too long and the saddle may hit them in the hip. These are just some things to consider in saddle fit; many fitting solutions require more refined evaluation..
What is your horse telling you?
Most horses are quite willing to try just about anything for you, but if you are facing some difficulty with your horse, saddle fit is one of the things you should check. Pay attention to your horse’s language as he will try to tell you through behaviours such as bucking, rearing, refusal to go downhill, ears back when saddling, won’t pick up one lead, or continually poking his nose at one shoulder. It’s not always apparent as to what is bothering him, and you will wish he could speak your language! With some visual observations of your saddle, you may be able to see things that could be related to the difficulty you are facing. Look for uneven sweat marks, saddle slipping sideways, forward or back, white hairs, and whither clearance. Some issues with saddle fit are hard to figure out, and that’s where a professional saddle fitter can be of help especially when it comes to remedies.
Some not-so-great methods of determining saddle size requirements:
- Standard saddle sizes: It’s interesting to note that there is no industry standard for the terms Quarter Horse bars, semi QH or anything else so you can’t rely on those terms when you are looking at fit. Equally, you cannot lump various breeds into size categories.
- Measuring between the tree tips: People often measure saddle tree width by measuring the distance between the front of the tree tips. Consider that the longer the tree bars come down, the wider they will measure.
- Measuring “between the conchos”: Not all conchos are placed in the same spot on all saddles so you will not likely be comparing apples to apples.
- Feeling under the saddle: Running your hand under the saddle to feel for tight or loose spots is a common method. If you have done this a lot then you may glean some information from doing so, but it requires you to lift the saddle to get your hand under there and move it along. It also requires you to have the horse on-site to try the saddle.
- Measuring at only one point of the saddle: the angles and curves of a horse’s back change all along its length. You need multiple measurements to determine fit
Position Your Saddle Correctly
The saddle must be placed in the proper location on the horse’s back for the shape of the tree to fit the shape of the horse; shift it off an inch and nothing fits as it was designed to. The bar tip of a western saddle tree is designed to fit behind the horse’s scapula while standing straight. The skirt will extend past the bar ends front and back. The bar tips have relief or curves to help guide the scapula under the tree. The front leg is reaching ahead when the scapula travels back under the bar tip so there is no weight on it. Don’t place the saddle over the shoulder to make the rigging straight or place it according to concho placement. Find the bar tip in your saddle, then find the back of the scapula and place the tip right behind. If you need more clearance for the scapula because of pockets, add more rock to move the pressure back into the middle of the tree.
To talk the talk of saddle fit here are some concepts you will need to understand:
1. Bar Angle – The angle of the horse’s back along its length gradually changes from steep in front and flatter toward the rear. Wither shape and length, as well as rib shape all influence the back angle. Each horse is different. If the bar angle is off a bit it will start to concentrate pressure toward the top or bottom of the bar edges. A tree that starts outfitting in the gullet where we can see, can quickly go wrong as it disappears under the middle of the saddle.
2. Bar Rock – Rock or Rocker refers to the curvature of the horse’s back along its length in the saddle fit area, about 4” down from the spine on both sides. The amount of rock in the tree bars needs to conform to the curvature of the horse’s back. Too little rock will start to concentrate pressure on the bar ends (bridging) or too much rock will start to concentrate pressure on the middle of the tree and the saddle will pop up in the back. Placing the tree higher or lower on the withers by changes to the treewidth, shimming or padding will change the rider’s seat angle and change the rocker. The rock of a horse’s back will change due to age, conditioning, and poor saddle fit.
3. Bar Twist – The combination of bar angle and bar rock is called bar twist in western saddle fit terms. (English riders refer to twist as the width of the saddle under the rider’s thighs.) The twist, or the culmination of angle and rock, must be correct or fit is compromised.
4. Gullet width vs Handhold width – Gullet width is a term commonly discussed on the internet but it is not generally a good indicator of how a saddle fits. This is because (as you can see from the picture above) its width changes from front to back. A saddle maker will instead talk about the handhold width which is where the swell meets the bars.
HOW WE BUILD OUR MADE-TO-MEASURE TREES TO TRULY FIT YOUR HORSE
We have developed a 3D Equine Saddle Fitting System which allows us to quantify and communicate the shape of a horse’s back and /or saddle for optimum saddle fit. With a series of cards and an angle gauge, we can measure your horse’s back along its length to determine the width, angle, rock, twist and length. From these measurements, we will build a tree to fit your horse.
Our lightweight trees are made of modern materials, so we can easily shape them to your horse’s specifications, and yield higher strength while eliminating weight. The extra-wide bars evenly distribute the rider’s weight, eliminating pressure points and giving your horse a good, comfortable fit.
We have been building and testing various versions of these trees since 1995, and they are in use by ourselves as well as endurance riders, western sports competitors, mounted police, outfitters, feedlots, and parks throughout the world. Our latest version is our best ever.
Our qualified saddle fitters understand horse anatomy, the concepts of recognizing and resolving asymmetry, fitting the tree, and fitting the rider with the correct seat size, individual seat inserts, and adjustable fenders.
FINE TUNE SADDLE FIT FOR YOUR HORSE WITH OUR UNIQUE FEATURES
A tree built for your horse is the first and most important step of your custom saddle, but we have added a couple more features that can give you an opportunity for fine-tuning: shim pockets and cable rigging.
We have incorporated detachable bar pads with shim pockets under the tree bars to allow the saddle to be easily adjusted by the rider or professional to properly fit your horse’s asymmetrical or changing shape. The bar pads are approximately 1/2″ thick and are made from breathable materials. Shims can be inserted at any point along their length. An example of a time when you would use this is if your horse has one shoulder larger than the other. A shim on one side would make the saddle sit straight and keep your weight from tipping into that pocket. Or, if you have an older horse who is becoming more swaybacked with age, a shim in the middle might help keep more contact between the bars and his back and prevent saddle bridging.
Our cable girth rigging system is a continuous loop of poly-coated, stainless, aircraft cable which is moulded into the tree. This is what your latigo and the off-side billet are attached to and from which your cinch is hung. It pulls evenly from side to side and front to back and can eliminate the requirement of a back cinch. It is stronger and lighter than any other rigging system we know of while allowing for close contact with your horse by eliminating the bulk and weight associated with traditional rigging. The cable can be adjusted to full, 7/8, 3/4 or even centerfire positioning but left alone it acts as an equalizer allowing the saddle and cinch to find their natural positions. For asymmetries, the position can be adjusted differently on each side and, in conjunction with shimming, pull the saddle off a small, weak or atrophied shoulder, so it can rehabilitate.
A saddle that fits your horse well is necessary for his comfort and ability to perform. Horse backs are all unique and it is difficult to find an off-the-shelf saddle that will fit especially if your horse does not fit into the “normal” category. Looking at one spot on the saddle to determine if a saddle fit is not sufficient; it can be difficult to know how a saddle is fitting all along his back. Easy Fit Saddles have developed a 3D Equine Measuring System that can precisely measure all of the angles, curves and lengths of your horse’s back and then build a tree to those measurements. If your horse could, he would tell you that custom saddle fit is a big deal!