Saddles for the Hard to Fit Horse

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Here’s how to choose the right saddle for three equine body types that are especially difficult to fit.
Many of us know the sinking feeling that comes when you put your foot in the stirrup and feel your saddle roll sideways. And sometimes saddle slips occur even after you’ve tried every­thing to prevent them: riding in a wide saddle, using a nonslip girth and pulling the cinch as tight as your core strength allows the other side of the equation are those shark-withered Thorough­-bred types who sprout white hairs even under a sky-high gullet. Your saddle stays put, but you’re always on the lookout for signs of damage to your horse’s back and withers.Yes, there are all sorts of horses whose shapes make finding the right saddle difficult, and there’s a lot at stake. A saddle that pinches a horse’s shoulders or presses on his withers can have all sorts of negative effects.

“If you were to go hiking in a pair of 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.”

Likewise, some behaviour problems may be traced to discomfort related to saddle fit problems. “It’s easy to assume a horse who walks away from the mounting block, can’t stand still or is excessively spooky is just that kind of horse,” says Anderson. “But sometimes ear pinning, tail swishing, teeth grinding, evasion of the bit, and even difficulty with upward and downward transitions can be linked to discomfort in the horse. And much of that discomfort can be traced to poor saddle fit.”

But, if your horse has a hard-to-fit physique, you might be asking the question—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 is either still growing or has confirmation that doesn’t fit the mould of the average horse—there’s a saddle out there to fit him. Here’s how to find one.

Form and function

Saddle fit starts in the tree. If the tree fits the contours of your horse’s back, everything else will fall into place. For that reason, your saddle search begins with a solid under­standing of tree shape and how it relates to saddle fit.

Aside from a little tweaking here and there, the basic design of the saddletree hasn’t changed much in almost 2,000 years. In fact, today’s saddletree looks a lot like the ancient versions—just two strips of wood (or composite) connected by two arches—a pommel or fork at the front and a cantle at the back.

“Think of the tree as the skeleton of your saddle,” its function is simple—to provide stability and support, both to the saddle and the rider. It must distribute the rider’s weight evenly over the horse’s back while keeping pressure off his spine. To do its job right, the tree must fit the contours of your horse’s back. Too narrow and it could bridge, creating pressure points. Too wide and it could sit too low on your horse’s spine.

Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of variations in bar spread, flare, width, rock and length that can enable saddletrees to fit the contours of any equine back comfortably. Understanding the following terms can help you make an informed decision.

Bars are the two strips that run parallel to your horse’s spine and are connected in front by the fork or pommel and in the back by the cantle.

Bar spread refers to the distance between the bars. The bar spread determines the width of the saddletree’s channel or gullet that straddle the horse spine, to narrow and it can pinch the spinal process.

Bar angle is comparable to the pitch on your barn’s roof. Some angles are narrow and steep, bar angle, in this case, refers to the angle of the bar at the front of the tree.

Bar twist refers to the change in bar angle from front to back as it follows the contours from just behind your horse’s shoulder toward his croup. The angle must match the angle of the horse front to back both sides.

Bar flare refers to the bar tips,  front and back, where they curve up to help guide the scapula underneath and in back to stop the tree from digging in.

Bar rock refers to the amount of curve in the bars from front to back. A horse with a flat topline, for instance, will need a tree with very little rock while a swaybacked horse or one with a dip will need a tree with a significant rock to it.

Now let’s take a look at three of the most challenging equine physiques and saddle suggestions to fit them.

Challenge 1: The mutton-withered, broad-backed horse

You know them—Fjords, Haflingers, most Mountain and Moorland breeds—
just about any horse who has huggable but hard-to-fit conformation.

A broad-backed horse will probably take a wide saddle, but be aware that those with very wide twists can be uncomfortable for the rider, easy fit saddles are designed with a shim in the seat, the thicker the shim the narrower the twist will feel.

Note that many round-barreled 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

Many Thoroughbreds and their crosses, Appendix Quarter Horses and other athletic riding types sport high, sharp—“shark”—withers that make saddle fitting tough. Take one look at those withers and you might think narrow saddle. But that’s an all-too-common mistake. Many of these horses have withers that taper into a broad, athletic back with a well-sprung rib cage. A narrow saddle on this kind of horse will probably cause pain.

For these horses, you’re probably going to be looking for a V-shaped tree, especially if your horse is angular. Opinions vary in the saddle-fitting community over whether it’s advisable to buy an extra-wide saddle and add padding at the withers to make it 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 as a saddle that’s too narrow.

Challenge 3: The in-between or immature horses

Horses of just about any breed, age or gender can be found in this category. They can look like a bulldog from the front, with a concave pocket behind his shoulders and a fairly average back. Getting a saddle to fit him was tough. Your horse might be young and still growing or getting back into condition, either way, his back could change.

Bar crowns that fill in gaps or hollow pockets, bar flares for beefy shoulders or high croups, and a substantial sweep or rock for the dippy-backed horse work well. There is so much variation in this group that you’ll want to consult a certified saddle fitter.

Although we all know the basic types of equine conformation, horses are as individual as we are. And often traits that seem to go together naturally—tall and narrow, round and short, and the like—don’t when it comes to equine withers and backs. But if you take the time to analyze how your horse is put together and what a “good fit” means for him, you’re more likely to choose a saddle that will make you both happy. All horses appreciate a good fit. A better understanding of how to achieve a perfect fit will pay off in a quiet and focused ride.

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