SADDLE FIT BEYOND THE GULLET WIDTH
SADDLE FIT BEYOND THE GULLET WIDTH
The gullet width is commonly mentioned on the internet as the only aspect of saddle fit necessary for the perfect fit. Get the gullet right, and the whole saddle fits. But for a good fit, the whole tree must follow the contours of the horse’s back, and the gullet is only one aspect of saddle fit. There are thousands of variations in equine backs and off-the-shelf saddles; saddle fit is more than just then just the gullet width. It isn’t easy to assess the fit of a saddle once the leather is on. Most photos on the web look at the shape of the saddle skirts front and back and the fingers over the withers to asses fit, but never the actual tree inside. I have made trees for many years now, and the only consistent way to assess fit is to measure the horse’s back and then the saddle tree. A perfect-fitting tree for a given horse will fit horses in a less-than-perfect way on either side of perfect. How far off perfect might be acceptable depends mainly on how much you ride, how hard you ride and how heavy the load. Without measuring, you cannot communicate the shape of the back to the saddle maker or the saddle shop. Even with measurements, comparing various offerings is difficult when no industry standards exist.
How do you measure what size western saddle you, the rider need?
Western saddle seats are typically measured from the cantle’s front edge to the fork’s back edge, way above where you will sit. However, that measurement changes if the fork or cantle leans ahead or back while the area where you will sit remains the same.
A better method is to measure the width of your thigh where it lays across the western saddle seat. To calculate thigh width, measure the circumference of the thickest part of your thigh, divide it by 3.14 and add an inch or more for extra spacing. On the saddle, measure from the base of the cantle to the base of the forks.
What About My Horse?
The western saddle tree is unquestionably crucial when asking, “Does the saddle fit the shape of my horse’s back?” The military was the first customer of the saddle manufacturing industry, where each saddle was handcrafted and individually fitted for each horse. Nowadays, the majority of saddles are mass-produced and generic. Saddle tree sizing is not standard across the industry. The industry’s focus has shifted to designing saddles that are pleasing to the eye and comfortable for the rider.
How can you tell if a western saddle fits appropriately?
Place the saddle on the horse with a saddle pad, and check the rock by pressing down alternately on the front and back of the western saddle. If it moves a lot, the rock of the bars is too much. If it moves a little, then check for bridging.
Check for bridging, undo the cinch, lift the fender out of the way and run your hand along the bars between the saddle and the horse in one smooth motion, front to back. Repeat. Pay attention to the saddle’s weight as your hand passes through—less weight in the middle of the saddle and its bridging.
Check that the angle of the front and back of the bar matches the horse. Don’t be fooled by the leather angle only.
There should be a flat spot in the seat parallel to the ground, large enough for the width of your sit bones and long enough for your public bone up front. Women need low or no rise to the front of the saddle seat. Women typically have a wider sit bone and a lower public bone than men. You can check your seat bone measurement by sitting on a piece of corrugated cardboard on a hard flat surface to indent those areas. Overlay the cardboard in the seat to see where the pressure point will be for your rear. You can check the center of the seat to determine if it’s level by laying a large felt marker in the middle and seeing if it rolls.
How tight should a western saddle be?
The cinch should be tight enough to keep the saddle from slipping sideways but not too tight for the horse. A tighter cinch is recommended if your horse has no prominent withers.
The flank cinch is required for roping and should be done up snugly, with two fingers fitting between it and the belly. If left hanging, it is dangerous for the horse and the rider; your horse could put a foot through. Additionally, if only the front cinch is tightened, the saddle may tip forward with the back end off the horse. They are designed to be used in unison.
Easy Fit Saddles use cable rigging that runs through the swell and cantle. When the saddle is tightened, it pulls and holds the saddle both front and back, eliminating the need for back rigging in most cases.
How far back should a Western saddle fit?
The saddle must be placed in the proper location on the horse’s back for the tree’s shape to fit the horse’s body; shift it off an inch, and nothing works as it was designed to. A western saddle tree’s bar tip is designed to fit behind the horse’s scapula while standing straight. The skirting leather will extend past the bar ends in front and back.
Please don’t place the saddle over the shoulder blade 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 put the bar tip behind it. If you have an atrophied pocket behind the scapula, you may need to shim the holes so the tree doesn’t fall in and hit the scapula.
Where should the girth sit on a horse?
You can place the cinch anywhere, but it always moves it to the smallest circumference around the horse’s barrel. It does not need to fall perfectly vertically but will often lay at an angle. The cinch buckle should lay a few inches above the horse’s elbow. Cinches come in a multitude of different shapes, sizes and materials.
Points TO PONDER:
Definition of saddle fit
A good saddle that fits your horse is best defined as maximizing the amount of tree bar contact with the horse while avoiding pressure areas and restricting movement. The tree should distribute the rider’s weight evenly over the horse’s back, lowering the pound-per-square-inch ratio. It should carry the rider comfortably, balanced and securely.
Conditioning and age
Riding a horse without conditioning it for the length of ride you intend to take will causes many saddle problems. During conditioning, their muscles develop, and their skin toughens in preparation for a long ride. The shape of a horse constantly changes, from unfit and plump in the spring to fully fit after a season of consistent riding.
Age, work, fitness, diet, and muscle change from work done. A visit from a therapist will also change and relax the muscles. Whether your horse is a novice or experienced, changes will occur. If you go to the gym, you probably do so to get in shape and improve your muscle tone and, thus, your body. Schooling your horse is similar.
Parts of the tree for proper horse fit
The goal of the bars is to distribute the rider’s weight evenly all along the back while providing stability and support to the rider while keeping pressure off the spine and ligaments. To do this, the bars must fit into the area just behind the shoulder blades and follow the curve and angle of the back, front to back. Check both shoulders since we often encounter horses with asymmetrical shoulders. In that case, you always want to fit the bigger shoulder.
The rock is the curve of your horse’s back from behind the scapula to the end of the saddle bars, perpendicular to the horse’s back (rather than perpendicular to the ground). Simply changing the gullet width will alter the location of the curve and, most likely, the shape of the rock.
Understanding that saddle pad thickness affects fit is essential. A thicker saddle pad will remove rock from the tree. Pad thickness will also affect how high or low the saddle sits above the wither and back. So padding must be used when fitting a saddle to the horse.
The Angle and Twist
The horse’s back changes angles, beginning steeply in front and gradually flattening toward the rear. This is known as a “twist,” The tree bars must conform to the rock and the twist of the horse’s back for a good fit.
An incorrect angle at any point along the rock will cause the bar’s outer or inner edge to lift off the horse, creating a pressure area and, to some extent, discomfort for your horse. When your saddle is covered in leather, it isn’t easy to see or feel the inner edge.
Gullet width is the term used on the web to solve most saddle fit problems. We can’t disagree more as it is only one small area of saddle fit to base the whole tree. Getting your saddle to fit correctly with a level seat requires the proper combination of gullet width, rock, and twist all along the horse’s back. Changing one will affect the others. Shopping for or ordering a saddle by gullet width alone is not a good idea.
LEVEL SADDLE SEAT
The western saddle seat must be level for rider security and balance, allowing your bones to work instead of your muscles. Not only is the rider more secure, but it also takes much less effort to ride.
When the front leg reaches ahead, the scapula rotates back under the front of the bar. This is typically and incorrectly demonstrated by the rider picking up the horse’s front leg and observing the shoulder blade move around, causing the scapula to poke out. In reality, when your horse moves its leg, the muscle pulls the scapula back and toward the spine, eliminating the bulge. Walking beside your horse and observing the shoulder rotation, you will notice that it flattens out and is barely visible as the horse’s muscling pulls it back toward the spine. Better yet, saddle up and place your hand under the western saddle to feel the shoulder rotate. The most extensive lump forms when the horse’s leg begins to bear weight. The scapula is still in front of the saddle, and the portion is straight up and down. All the talk about a wider saddle gullet to accommodate scapula movement is false. It usually causes the saddle to tip down in front of the saddle, pinching the area and exacerbating the problem. (Many thanks to Rod and Denise Nichol.)
A saddle tree should extend from the back of the scapula to the last rib. This distance, or length of back, varies widely amongst horses. The longer your horse’s back, the longer the tree bars your horse can accommodate. When considering the rider’s weight, having a bigger, longer-backed horse and longer tree bars will better accommodate weight distribution. A western tree’s bar ends are flared up and away from the horse’s back so the bar tips do not interfere with the horse. The leather skirting that covers the tree should also be flared up and away. The first saddles were designed with long skirts to accommodate cowboys and military personnel who needed a place to transport their bed roll, fencing supplies, and food. They added the saddle skirting out behind to support them. Ensure that your saddle skirts are not being bumped by the hip, causing them to push the saddle forward with each stride or interfering with the hip when making sharp turns.
Many horses display muscle atrophy in the area behind the withers, usually due to narrow tree bars. Whether too narrow or too wide of a tree, it will prevent all of the back muscles from contracting, negatively impacting how the horse uses himself and how willing he is to engage his hindquarters. Muscle damage over time due to an ill-fitted tree can mean permanent damage, and when you see white hairs, the injury is already quite significant.
Measure with Padding
A lot of advice on the net says to try the saddle fit without a saddle pad. English saddles have padding built into the saddle, while western saddles do not. Understanding how pad thickness affects fit is essential. A thicker pad will remove rock from the tree. Thicker or thinner will change how it sits over the wither and along the back. A saddle made to be used with a 1/2 pad will not do better with a 1-inch pad. Padding must be considered when measuring and fitting a saddle to the horse.
A pad for your horse must:
A pad should provide cushioning under the saddle and help with weight distribution. It should breathe. It should be contoured to the horse’s back to prevent bunching and wrinkles under the saddle. A thicker pad can affect saddle fit but does not necessarily make a saddle more comfortable for the horse, just as thicker socks in your shoes do not necessarily make them more comfortable. Some saddle pads have cut-outs under the leg to reduce width and provide closer contact. If your saddlebags hang below your skirts, you may want the pad to hang down longer, between your horse and the bags. Saddle pads must be replaced periodically as they will break down or compact over time.
- Be contoured to the horse’s back to prevent bunching under the saddle and to pull the saddle pad tight over the horse’s withers.
- Allow heat and moisture to escape. Too large a saddle pad with limited air circulation can overheat your horse.
- Wick moisture away or allow it to evaporate through the material.
- Be the appropriate thickness for the horse and saddle. Too thin and there may be inappropriate protection; too thick and there could be pinching and compromise the fit.
- Be the appropriate length and depth for the saddle and horse.
To the rider:
- Wear leather to protect the pad from the fender and rider’s leg movement.
- Cutouts under the legs and rigging allow for closer contact and keep the pad in place under the saddle.
Then, what about interchangeable gullet plates or adjustable systems? They have been one of the best innovations in the world of saddle-making. It sounds so brilliant: just a few screws, and you can adjust your saddle in minutes. Easy! And, of course, you can fit any horse in the barn! This is misleading marketing. It might help a horse pressure its withers from too narrow or too wide a saddle, but it is not the answer to every saddle fit problem.
Remember, though, that most saddle fitting evaluations are unfortunately done in a static state. Therefore, you want to allow some room for the back to move up when the horse is working, depending on its training level and ability to collect.
For your next saddle, ask the saddle maker or fitter what the specs are for this tree, rock, angle, flare, and handhold width. Only through a thorough understanding of the tree’s shape and the shape of your horse’s back in saddle fit can we be more assertive in seeking better-fit solutions and being provided with specific information. We, as consumers, should demand accurate details about the trees that are the foundation of the saddles. Our horses deserve it!