Saddle Fit Myths


Being knowledgeable about tack is part of our journey as a horseman. Yet when it comes to saddle fit, confusion and misinformation abound, Horses’ backs are complex shapes and a lot of factors need to come together to achieve a good fit.  Horses can’t talk so it’s up to our measurements and observations to evaluate saddle fit. This is a difficult task since the critical saddle tree is concealed from view. To cloud the matter further, the tack industry lacks clear and consistent standards to communicate the dimensions and shapes of saddle trees.

Myth: I need a saddle made uniquely for my horse to assure a perfect, comfortable fit.

Don’t expect to find and maintain a perfect fit, but avoid a bad one, Horses’ backs change with age and conditioning, but a custom tree will get closer to a good fit than most off the shelf saddles.

“About 60 percent of horses have good backs and will get along with the commonly available, average tree, Another 40 percent may have some special need that a custom tree can fix.

Myth: My horse is so big he must need a wide saddle.

This might be true for draft-cross horses but the opposite is more common. Many big saddle horses carry a lot of Thoroughbred blood and have prominent withers and a narrow back profile.

On the other hand, it is more common for smaller horses bred for cutting and reining to have less prominent withers and rounder back profiles that may benefit from a wider angle and/or gullet width.

Myth: Wade saddles (or Bowman or Association, etc.) fit the best.

The names attributed to saddle styles such as Wade, designate the general shape of the fork and have no direct bearing on how the saddle will fit either the horse or rider, The original Wade saddle and early copies made by Hamley Saddle Company in the 1940s had a distinctive tree bar style but modern day copies vary considerably.

Many production manufacturers simply install a Wade-like fork on the same tree bars they use for other saddle styles.

Myth: Rigging location and type will determine saddle position.

When a saddle tree fits, it fits in one place on the back, like a couple of spoons nested together, A good back will have an hourglass shape called rocker, where the bars rest and well-defined wither pockets behind the shoulders.” A tree that matches that shape will resist movement.

It is commonly thought that the cinch needs to be perfectly vertical or it will pull the saddle forward. Consider the physics,  a cinch that is angled forward by 1.5 inches–the typical setback of a 7/8 rigged saddle–has about 94 percent of the cinch’s pull acting vertically and only 6 percent horizontally. Thus, if the cinch is tightened to 40 lbs., only 2.5 lbs. will be acting to pull the saddle forward.

Such a minor force will not counteract the fit of the tree. While there are other good reasons to select a rig location and style, the math and experience of tree and saddle makers confirms that the commonly used rigging positions (full, 7/8, 3/4) will not influence the saddle’s location on the horse’s back.”

If the saddle tends to shift and not settle into a consistent location, it is probably not a good fit, the rider may be over padding, or the horse may lack the shape to hold that saddle well. The back cinch and how it is tightened can play a bigger part in saddle movement.

Myth: Thicker padding is more comfortable for the horse.

The functions of saddle pads and blankets can be compared to socks, providing a cushion, dissipating heat, and absorbing moisture, thereby protecting the saddle leather.

Cushioning can minimize minor fit problems but just like wearing three heavy pairs of socks, too much padding can ruin a good fit and reduce stability. Heavier padding can help if the saddle tree is too wide, but a too-narrow fit will only get worse.

Myth: This high tech pad will fix my fit problem.

Saddle fit problems, real or imagined, have sold a lot of pads, but most pads can only fine-tune a saddle’s fit, If the shape of the horse’s back doesn’t correspond to the shape of the tree bars, there will be pressure points. Padding materials can spread that pressure out slightly but none will fully correct the problem. A new pad can change the problems pressure location and provide tempory relief for the horse, giving the rider into thinking the problem is solved.

Be cautious using pads that are not uniform in thickness, are wedged or built-up. they will alter how a tree fits and may cause serious harm. One example he offered is when using a pad with the front built-up or wedged to level the saddle on a downhill horse. In this situation, the back of the tree bars will be tipped and potentially gouge into the vulnerable lower back or cause the tree to pinch over the withers.

Myth: All horses are straight.

All horses and people are asymmetric, we are prominent right or left, most asymmetries are insignificant and don’t pose an issue.  The problem may start out small but escalate into a serious problem, once the saddle starts to fall off to one side  It may be necessary to customize pad thickness to compensate for asymmetrical, atrophied or otherwise extreme back shapes but do this carefully with the help of a competent saddle maker.

Myth: That saddle looks too big to fit my horse.

Saddle fit refers to the tree buried under layers of leather. Don’t confuse the saddle skirts with the weight-bearing tree bars within. Feel the underside of the saddle to determine the location of the tree bars and how they fit your horse. The skirts of a properly made saddle should be moulded to flare away slightly from the horse and shouldn’t contribute any significant pressure. A lot of off the shelf saddle don’t provide relief for the horse’s spine in back. The motion of riding causes the saddle to slide back and forth with each stride if you have a horse’s whos spine is proment above the muscle watch for rubbing in this area.

Myth: I ride Quarter Horses so I must need Quarter Horse bars.”

Semi-quarter horse, quarter horse, and full-quarter horse bars are general terms used by some tree makers to describe the width between an angle of their bars. These descriptions are most useful for comparing saddles by the same maker. They are not an industry standard and actual measurements and fit will vary.  Most custom tree makers do not use this system, they use a more accurate measuring system, that taking to account the angle, bar twist, and rocker along with flare variations to fit many types of horse and mules.

Myth: Treeless saddles are more comfortable for the horse.

The bars of a properly fitting western saddle distributes the rider’s weight and the pull of the cinch over a large area. This results in less pressure (pounds per square inch) than an English saddle, treeless saddle or a bareback rider. Especially for faster riding,  longer rides and heavier riders, a good fitting tree will benefit the horse.

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