Saddles for the Hard-to-Fit Horse

Finding saddles for the hard-to-fit horse can be a problem as they do not fit the norm found in most tack shops. Your horse may have a high wither or a low round one; his shoulders may be wide or narrow; his back may be shorter than average or flat. The permutations for the shape of horse’s backs are as infinite as the shapes of saddles produced. Trying to find that one saddle that fits him can seem like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

SADDLES FOR THE HARD TO FIT HORSE
Saddles for the Hard-to-Fit Horse

In general, horses are trending toward wider and shorter backs, and cross-breeding of horses worldwide has created even more shapes. Even though the old cowboys insist that one saddle will fit all horses, this is undoubtedly not the case. This is similar to you fitting into your brother or sister’s clothes; we are all unique. To compound the problem, there is no industry standard for saddle sizing and limited ways to describe the fit you are looking for. Ultimately, each horse is as unique as we are as individuals. One saddle size will fit a range of horses very well, and others on each side of the ideal in a less-than-ideal fashion. Horses with severe atrophy, asymmetry, muscle loss, and on the extremes of “average” may require additional help beyond what most saddle shops can provide.

If you were to go hiking in shoes that were either too big or too small, you’d be uncomfortable. Chances are, you’d wind up with painful blisters on your feet, and you might end up with a backache; it’s no different for your horse. A saddle that doesn’t fit causes tension, and when his body is tense, every footfall hits the ground with greater force. That kind of repetitive concussion can contribute to soundness issues down the road and change their way of moving, causing muscle atrophy.

To survive in the wild, horses have evolved the ability to change their way of going to conceal their discomfort. Some horses let you know immediately, while others are very stoic. In the wild, a horse that looks hurt attracts predators, and when we humans finally recognize a problem, the horse could be very sore. A hurting horse will express displeasure by being resistant and may have difficulty performing maneuvers.

Definition of Good Saddle Fit

Good saddle fit for the horse is defined by a tree that matches the angle, rock and width of the horse’s back as it changes along its length. This maximizes the amount of tree bar in contact with the horse’s back to reduce the pound-per-square-inch pressure. The tips of the bars, front and back, should arc upward to prevent interference. The central channel must be wide enough so as not to impede the horse’s spine or wither when performing maneuvers. The tree must be appropriately positioned. To do its job right, the tree must fit the contours and angles of your horse’s back: too narrow, and it will pinch, and too much curve it could bridge; too wide, and it could sit too low and dig in front.

The fit of the western saddle does not have the luxury of adjustment with wool stuffing like an English saddle but instead has a lot more surface area to help compensate for imperfect fit. Saddle pads, blankets and shims pads can all be utilized to affect the fit.

Finding Perfect Saddles for the Hard-to-Fit Horse

POSITION ON THE HORSE
Tree bar tip behind the blue line

POSITION ON THE HORSE

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 skirts will extend past the bar ends front and back. The front bar tips have an arc to help guide the scapula under the tree. The scapula is pulled back under the bar tip by muscles attached to the spine. The movement of the scapula is back and toward the spine, not out and up, as you will see if you lift your horse’s leg for him. There is no weight on that leg as the scapula rotates under the saddle. Walk beside your horse with your hand behind the scapula to feel its movement, and watch where the leg is in relation to the scapula.

The myth that you need a tree with room for the scapula to move freely under the tree is false; a wider tree will cause the saddle to tip forward and dig in, creating an even bigger restriction. The tree must match the shape (rock and angle) of the horse’s back along the entire length. If pressure is distributed evenly for the entire length, then there is no need for extra room in the front.

Don’t place the saddle over the shoulder to make the rigging straight, or place it according to conchos. Find the tree bar tip in your saddle, then find the back of the scapula and place the tree tip right behind the scapula. Almost all horses have one shoulder larger than the other. Place the saddle behind that bigger shoulder. With someone holding your horse straight, stand behind your horse and look down his back up to the wither. Does one side look larger? Stand on a stool next to your horse’s shoulder and find the back of the scapula on both sides. Is one side further ahead?

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Using an Easy Saddle Fit System to determine angles all along the horse’s back

BAR ANGLE

The angle of a horse’s back along its length gradually changes from steep in front and flatter toward the rear. The size and shape of the wither and ribs influence the back angles and rock. The angle measurements must follow the horse’s back along the area where the tree bar will rest. Each horse is different. If the bar angle is off a bit, it will concentrate pressure toward the top or bottom of the bar edges. A tree that starts fitting in the front or back, where we can see, can quickly go wrong as it disappears under the middle of the saddle. 

Terms used to describe angle include Quarter Horse, semi QH, full wide, narrow, medium, wide, uphill, steep, flat, and spread. Unfortunately, there is no industry standard associated with these terms so when comparing saddles made by different companies, there will be differences.

BAR ROCK 

Different rock shapes
Different rock shapes

Rock or rocker refers to the curvature of the horse’s back along its length in the saddle fit area. The amount of rock needs to conform to the curvature of the horse’s back. Too little rock will concentrate pressure on the bar ends (bridging). Too much rock will concentrate pressure on the middle of the tree; the act of cinching up the saddle can roll the saddle to the front and pop it up in the back if it’s not right. The front can look like a good fit, but there will be a gap in the back until you sit in it.

Placing the tree higher or lower on the withers is done by changing the gullet width through shimming, or using a thicker pad alone. The treewidth, shimming, or padding will also change the rider seat angle and the rocker. The rock of a horse’s back will change due to age, conditioning, and poor saddle fit. 

BAR TWIST
The change in angle is called the twist.
The change in angle is called the twist.

Horses’ back angles are steeper in front over the whithers and flatter over the rear; the tree bar angles change along its length to correspond to the horse’s shape; this is referred to as the twist in western saddle terms. (English riders refer to the twist as the saddle’s shape under the rider’s thighs.) The culmination of angle and rock must both be correct, or fit is compromised.

We all know that if your saddle doesn’t fit your horse, he will likely be cranky and won’t perform his best. We all want to do our best to keep our horses comfortable; happy horses, happy riders. Combining the intersection of bar angle and bar rock is the basis of saddle fit. Quantifying the curve of the back and the angle in known locations makes it easy to compare horse to saddle, saddle to multiple horses, and the change to the horse’s shape over time. Our Easy Saddle Fit System is designed to measure the angle and twist and easily communicate, compare and help find or build a saddle tree or a saddle that fits.

is it even possible to achieve a good fit for him?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” Over the last several years, innovations in saddle-making have made it possible. Whether your horse is the full-figured type like a lot of Haflingers and Fjords, or angular and athletic like many Thoroughbreds, or even if he’s one of those in-between horses who are either still growing or has a conformation that doesn’t fit the mould of the average horse, Easy Fit Saddles can build you one!

Here are some tips for achieving a good fit for a horse with a hard-to-fit physique:

Have your horse and/or your saddle measured with our Easy Saddle Fit System

Our Easy Saddle Fit System is designed to measure the angle and rock of your horse from the back of the scapula to the last rib to determine the tree shape and size required. You can also use our fitting system to measure the shape of your saddle and then compare it to the horse’s measurements. With these measurements, we can build a tree to fit.

Consult with a saddle fitter:

Your trainer or instructor may be able to help you determine if you have a problem with saddle fit but a saddle fitter is trained to assess the fit of a saddle on a horse and can offer recommendations for shims or saddle pads that may assist in fine-tuning the fit for your horse’s shape and size. We have a network of saddle fitters in Canada and the United States that can help you out. Alternatively, you can use our Easy Saddle Fit System to measure your horse and/or saddle yourself!

saddle pads and shims:

Padding and shims will help with small adjustments in a fit, but never correct for a bad fit. Saddle pad thickness will change the rock in a saddle; thicker pads will add more rock, and thinner pads will remove the rock. Too much padding will destabilize the saddle and rider and/or can cause pinching in the withers. Too thin of a pad and the cushioning is lost. Comparatively, adding thicker socks in your shoes will not necessarily make them more comfortable.

Shim pads allow you to insert shims into pockets to correct asymmetries, take out rock or make the fit narrower. Use a foam insert with soft edges that will blend into the back. Remember that adding a shim in one place can create a problem elsewhere. Use as small a shim as possible, avoid hard edges, and always look for signs of potential problems. Palpate your horse for any tenderness before you saddle up, and pay attention to your horse’s back after each ride.

Ensure the saddle is properly adjusted:

The saddle should be adjusted so that it sits evenly on the horse’s back, behind the scapula, and is not too tight or loose. The girth should be tightened enough to hold the saddle in place but not so tight that it restricts the horse’s movement or causes discomfort.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR HORSE’S BEHAVIOUR:

If your horse seems uncomfortable or exhibits behavioural changes when being ridden, it could be a sign that the saddle is not fitting properly. In this case, it is important to reassess the fit and make any necessary adjustments.

Saddle Trees

When talking to a salesperson, saddle fitter or saddle maker, it’s good to have the lingo!

Tree parts
The top side of a saddle tree
tree bottom marked
The underside of a saddle tree

let’s look at some of the most challenging equine physiques:

Although we are all familiar with the main types of equine conformation, horses are as unique as we are. When it comes to horse withers and backs, qualities that appear to go together naturally—tall and narrow, round and short, and so on—don’t always. However, if you take the time to consider how your horse is built and what a “good fit” means for him, you’ll be more likely to select a saddle that will make both of you happy. A good fit is important to all horses. A better understanding of achieving a proper fit will result in a more comfortable ride so you can both focus on the task at hand.

Challenge 1: The mutton-withered, broad-backed horse
mutton wither flat back
Mutton withered, flat-backed horse.

You know them—Fjords, Haflingers, Canadians, Gypsies—

The withers create a “ridge” that help keep the saddle in place. Mutton withers mean that the withers are not prominent, they are more rounded than average and will allow the saddle to slip side-to-side more easily. Even with a good-fitting tree, you may have to use a breast collar and crupper to keep the saddle in place.

Typically mutton withers go hand-in-hand with a broad back. A broad-backed horse will probably take a wider saddle, but be aware that those with a wide tree can be uncomfortable for the rider. Easy Fit Saddles are designed with a shimmable seat. The thicker the shim under the rider’s seat, the narrower the seat/saddle feels.
Many round-barrelled horses are also short in the back, so consider round-skirted Western saddles over square skirts if that’s the case for yours.

Challenge 2: The High-withered Horse
A High-withered Horse
A high-withered horse

The wither is the high point of your horse’s back between the back and neck vertebrae. Some horses have a sharp, high wither, which may cause trouble when looking for a saddle with a high enough gullet.

Your horse’s saddle should have enough side space for the withers to move, but it shouldn’t be loose from the top of the withers. The space enables your horse to bend easily while riding.

Many Thoroughbreds and their crosses, Appendix Quarter Horses, and other athletic riding types sport high, sharp “shark” withers that challenge saddle fitting. Abnormally high withers can improve your horse’s performance because of its increased ability to lengthen its stride. Once you get the right saddle fit, your horse will stride out more and be more accessible in its movements. Getting the right fit is easier for a high-withered horse because the symptom is more common than other hard-to-fit conformations. Many of these horses have withers that taper into a broad, athletic back with a well-sprung normal rib cage. Picking a narrow saddle by only measuring the angle and width at the wither on this kind of horse will probably cause pain because, for these horses, the angle at the rear of the bars will not fit. The idea that it’s OK to fit a saddle too wide and then pad it up is erroneous. It’s just as uncomfortable on the horse, like a saddle that’s too narrow.

Challenge 3: The Changing Horse

Horses of any breed, age, or gender can be found in this category. Your horse might be young and still growing or getting back into condition; either way, his back could change. In general, smaller horses mature faster than larger ones. All horses will put on muscle as they mature and work. Ideally, before a horse is fitted with a new saddle, it should be in its normal fit working condition, but you must be honest about that. A young horse started in an ill-fitting saddle will affect how they move and develop. Continuing to work in an ill-fitting saddle could permanently change their way of going.

Challenge 4: Sway Backed

Fitting a saddle on a horse with an extremely swayed back (extreme rock) is challenging because the tree may only make contact front and back and not in the middle. This is referred to as bridging. The goal of saddle fitting is to distribute the rider’s weight evenly. The horse may have weak ligaments in their back and too much pressure on the ligaments can cause a kissing spine. Building a saddle to fit their shape or shimming under the middle of the saddle can help them if the sway back is not extreme, but it could worsen the problem if it is. It is best to get some X-rays as well as a veterinary check. Lots of riders end up with a thick pad in the wrong place.

Challenge 5: Short Back

The problem area for a short-backed horse comes in the length of the bars of the saddle tree and the length of the skirt. The saddle tree or skirt should in no way interfere with the movement of the horse’s hip. After the last rib (to find the last rib, look for the change in how the hair lies on the side of your horse; follow that up to the spine) or 18th vertebra, the vertebra changes from being attached to ribs to being attached to a bone that looks like airplane wings. The spine ahead of this junction moves differently than the spine behind, and some horses are susceptible to this difference in movement. There should be no pressure from the saddle behind this junction; the bar and skirt should flair up and away. The skirts can float behind, not applying pressure. But beware, they can be so long that the hip can push the saddle up into the wither with each stride, and as they turn.

Challenge 6: Flat-Backed Horse

To fit a flat-backed horse or mule, you will require a saddle with very little rock (curvature from the front to the back of the tree). If the saddle has too much rock there will be a great deal of pressure under the center of the tree and very little tree contact front and back. Your weight then is not distributed equally along his back. This will be uncomfortable for your horse and cause him to be sore. Additionally, it will make the saddle unstable for the rider as it will move forward and back in a rocking motion with every movement of the horse.

Challenge 7: Gaited Horses

Gaited horses tend to be hard to fit because of the laying back of their shoulders and the unique muscling in their backs and shoulders. Gaited horses also need more freedom of movement in the shoulder area than non-gaited horses, calling for a saddle that fits differently than most others. Although the saddles are generally designed to provide the gaited horse’s back, saddle makers know that each horse has its conformational challenges.

Challenge 8: Draft Horse Saddles

Draft horses are being used under the saddle more often now than ever, resulting in a need for saddles designed specifically for their very wide backs. These saddles are explicitly marketed as draft horse saddles and are only suitable for larger horses.

Although almost all drafts and draft crosses have wider backs than standard-size horses, back conformation and size vary. Smaller drafts that measure around 16 hands have different needs in saddles than larger, hitch-type drafts that measure 17 hands or taller. Besides these differences, individual horses within each breed or type show differences in their shoulders and withers.

As we mentioned above, a wide tree can be uncomfortable for the rider. Easy Fit Saddles are designed with a shimmable seat. The thicker the shim under the rider’s seat, the narrower the seat/saddle feels. 1/4″ – 1/2″ padding makes a significant difference.

Do You Think You’ve Found The Best Saddle? Take it For A Test Ride!

Sitting on your saddle while it’s on a saddle stand feels very different from sitting on your horse. A test ride can be very enlightening when trying a saddle on your horse for the first time. It can reveal many secrets and highlight details you didn’t even notice.

Here are a few tips for your test ride:

  1. Warm up your horse: Before you ride, it’s essential to give your horse a chance to warm up and loosen up its muscles. This can help reduce the risk of injury and ensure they are comfortable and relaxed during the ride.
  2. Place the saddle properly: Find your horse’s wither and the bar of the tree. Ensure the bar sits behind the wither. Check both sides as horses often have one larger wither that sits further back than the other.
  3. Check saddle fit on the horse before you get on: Place a saddle pad under the saddle and tighten the cinch. Try to rock the saddle front to back a few times, it should have very little motion. Feel under the saddle, does it fit evenly against the horse? Can you get 2 fingers between the swell and the top of the wither?
  4. As you ride, pay attention to how the saddle sits on your horse’s back. The saddle should sit evenly side to side, and not shift or move around.
  5. Watch your horse’s behaviour: Pay attention to your horse’s behaviour during the ride. If they seem uncomfortable or exhibit behavioural changes, it could be a sign that the saddle is not fitting properly.
  6. Test out different gaits: Try riding at different gaits to see how the saddle feels at each pace.
  7. Ride up and down a hill: Depending on the steepness of the hill, the saddle should move very little or not at all.
  8. Get feedback from others: If possible, have someone else watch you ride and provide feedback on the saddle’s fit and your horse’s behaviour.
  9. Does the saddle fit you? Seat size and shape, stirrup length and placement are important. All of these things are crucial for you to achieve alignment, balance and comfort in the saddle which will also affect how your horse moves and performs. Be sure to look up the Easy Fit Saddle features which allow you to make the ride optimal for you too.
  10. If you noticed any issues with the saddle’s fit or your horse’s behaviour during the test ride, it may be necessary to make adjustments or try a different saddle. It’s important to find a saddle that fits well and is comfortable for you and your horse to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride.

why not a treeless saddle

It’s important to note that treeless saddles are not a poor choice for all horses, and in some cases, they may be a good option for certain types of horses or riders. However, treeless saddles are not suitable for all horses and riders, and there are a few reasons why they may not be the best choice in some cases:

Limited weight distribution:

Treeless saddles do not have a traditional saddle tree, which means they do not provide the same level of support and structure for weight distribution as a saddle with a tree. This can be a concern for heavier riders as the treeless saddle will not distribute the rider’s weight in turn, putting more pressure in one spot on the horse’s back, right where the rider sits. Horses with a round or curved back may also benefit from the additional support of a saddle tree to distribute weight. The concentration of a rider’s weight on the sway-backed horse could worsen the problem.

Reduced stability:

Treeless saddles may not provide the same level of stability as a saddle with a tree, as there is not the same defined fit in the wither/shoulder area. This can be a concern for riders who need more stability or for horses prone to quick movement or saddle slip.

Reduced durability:

Treeless saddles may not be as durable as saddles with a tree, as they do not have the same level of structural support, allowing them to flex and move like the leather in a pair of shoes. This can be a concern for riders who need a saddle that will last for many years or for horses that are ridden frequently.

It’s essential to carefully consider the pros and cons of treeless saddles and consult with a saddle fitter or a trainer who has experience working with them to determine if they are a good option for your horse and riding needs.

Easy Saddle Fit System

Easy Saddle Fit System eliminates guesswork when measuring your horse and saddle for a perfect fit. Our system measures your horse’s back where the saddle tree bars will lay. Rock, angle, twist, saddle placement area, gullet width, and wither length are all included. The measurement system also contains templates to measure saddles.

You can measure your horse by having one of our saddle reps visit, or you can do it yourself by paying for the kit here. Upon return, we will fully refund the cost if purchasing a saddle or the total price, less shipping and handling, if you decide not to purchase.

The Easy Saddle Fit System contains everything you need to measure your horse and saddle. We have an online video you can watch, written instructions you can download, pictures taken at each step of the measuring process, and you can contact us by phone or video app so we can see what you are seeing.