Saddles for the Hard to Fit Horse

A lot of horse owners think their horse is very unusual and hard to fit when in fact they are more becoming more common. They have gone from shop to shop and tried a number of saddles with no success. In general, horses are trending to wider and shorter backs, cross-breeding of horses from around the world have created even more shapes. In the end, each horse is as unique as we are as individuals, a saddle size will fit a range of horses very well and others on each side of the ideal in a less fashion. Horses with severe atrophy, asymmetry, muscle loss, saddle pinching may be unaware that their horse needs additional help beyond what a saddle shop can provide.  If we get information on a horse that is obviously abnormal or off the end of the bell curve of horse shapes, we will talk with our customer to determine what can best help this horse and owner, whether that be medical help, special pads, etc.   

“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 differe

nt 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.

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 is an old term used to try to describe the bar angle, see below
  • Bar angle generally refers to the angle of the bars behind the scapula and below the withers.
  • Bar twist in western saddles refers to the change in bar angle from front to back coupled with the rock. The angle and rock must match the angle and rocker of the horse front to back on both sides. In an English saddle, it refers to the width and angle of the saddle under the rider’s thighs.
  • Bar flare refers to the bar tips,  front and back, where they curve up to help guide the scapula underneath and in the 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.

The problem that mutton withers create in saddle fitting is that most saddles are built with normal withers in mind. The withers help keep the saddle in place, creating a ridge. 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 effect of a wide horse and saddle 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 a challenge. Abnormally high withers can actually improve your horse’s performance because of its increased ability to lengthen its stride. This means that once you get the right saddle fit, your horse will stride out more and be freer moving. 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 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. In general smaller horses mature faster than larger, all horses will put on muscle as they mature and are working. Ideally, a horse should be in their normal fit working condition, but you need to be honest about what that is. A young horse started in an ill-fitting saddle will affect the way they move and develop, continuing to work in an ill-fitting saddle could permanently change their way of going, but they need to be worked to reach their full potential.

Challenge 4: Sway Backed

The goal of saddle fitting is to have the rider’s weight evenly distributed. This is especially crucial for swayback horses, as too much pressure on their already weak ligaments can cause kissing spine. Building a saddle to fit their shape can help them, but could make the problem worse. Best to get some X-rays as well as a veterinary check. Lots of pads out there to help with this problem but again padding just hides the problem, lots of riders end up with a really thick pad in the wrong place.

Challenge 5: Short backed

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 (look for the change in the way 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 aeroplane wings. The spine ahead of this junction moves differently than the spine behind and some horses are very sensitive 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 be can be so long that the hip can push the saddle up into the wither with each stride and or as they turn and the back shortens on one side.

Challenge 6: Flat Backed Horse

Bar crowns refer to the roundness of the bars , 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.

Challenge 7: Gaited Horses

Gaited horses tend to be hard to fit because of the layback 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 do non-gaited horses, calling for a saddle that fits differently than most others. Although the saddles are generally designed to fit the gaited horse’s back, saddle makers know that each individual horse has its own conformational issues.

Challenge 8: Draft Horse Saddles

Draft horses are being used under saddle more often now than ever, resulting in a need for saddles designed specifically for their very wide backs. These saddles are marketed specifically 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 do larger, hitch-type drafts 17 hands and taller. Besides these differences, individual horses within each breed or type show differences in their shoulders and withers. To accommodate these differences, draft horse saddles come with or without draft bars and in different tree widths.