Understanding Saddle Fit, Part II: Saddle Construction

Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. The present design of saddles has been primarily for the comfort of the rider; riders want close contact with the horse. However, in trying to achieve that effect, manufacturers have removed most of the support the horse needs in the panels. The riders then try various pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit better, but in doing so the close contact is lost.

In horses, skin or muscle damage and the pain associated with it usually shows up as performance problems, rather than overt sores. Performance problems range from a mildly “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between those two extremes is a whole host of symptoms most of us consider training problems, such as resisting, jumping poorly, being slow to warm up or not paying attention to the rider. Most of the time these behaviour problems are related to pain and poorly fitting saddles.

Panels And Bars

Moving the saddle back off the shoulder blade also increases the contact area between the panels (underside) and the horse’s back. When saddles are too far forward a bridge is created with pressure on the shoulders and the back of the saddle. The rider’s weight becomes distributed on four points: one on each side of the withers/shoulder blade and one on each side of the back at the rear of the saddle, rather than evenly along the horse’s back. This bridging causes the horse to stiffen his back.

Many saddles, both English and Western, have this bridge between the front and the back due to poor construction or poor fit even when the saddle is in the correct position. Bridging needs to be avoided. Most of the new flexible panelled endurance saddles are too long for the horse’s back and cannot follow the contour; this creates pressure points on the shoulder and loins. Then the flexible center of the panels offer no support and the same type of bridging is created.

The English panels need to be wide enough to offer good support without losing the contour needed to fit the horse’s back. The gullet needs to be wide enough (2-1/2 to 3 inches) to allow the spine complete freedom from pressure and to allow the spine to bend slightly laterally during movement. The angle of the panels needs to follow the angle of the horse’s back under the cantle. Many saddles have too acute of an angle, putting pressure on the outer corner of the panel and creating pain at the center of the longissimus dorsi (back muscle). Many saddles have a wide gullet part of the length of the saddle, then a narrow gullet for the rest. Where the gullet becomes narrow, whether it is near the withers or the cantle, the movement of the horse’s spine will be compromised.

English saddles need to be reflocked (restuffed) every year or even more frequently to maintain good contact with the horse’s back and finding a saddler who really knows how to reflock a saddle can be a challenge. Wool stuffing is often the best at present as it is resilient and offers a smooth surface to horse’s back. Foam-stuffed panels are hard to replace and most foam loses some of its resilience in a short time. Foams can be excellent, however, if the panel is correct for the horse’s back since they do not change shape and do not need restuffing. Many panels are stuffed with a hard material, whether it is wool, synthetic material or foam; hard panels can be very painful against the soft muscle of the back.

Western bars need to have enough rocker (curve to the bottom) and flair (curve at the ends) so the bar shape conforms to the shape of the horse’s back. Very few trees have enough rocker and flair. Trees that are too straight will bridge, putting pressure on the shoulders, the loins and even the gluteal muscle when the bars are too long. The skirting needs to be short and flared so it does not interfere with the shoulders and loins. The bars should only put pressure on the rib cage; any part of the saddle extending past the rib cage should not put any pressure on the loins.

The saddle must sit squarely down the middle of the back supported by the bars or panels, as the spine is not designed to carry weight directly on it. There is no muscle covering over the spinous processes (bone along the top of the spine), therefore nothing to cushion the hardness of the saddle on the hardness of the spinous processes. Pressure can lead to bone pain and to degeneration of the ligament that runs along the top of the spine. Some preliminary diagnostic ultrasound data from England indicate that damage to this ligament may be common and may be an important factor in back pain.

Trees

The tree of the saddle, as it crosses the withers, must fit the horse without the use of pads. In fact, a bare tree with no leather should conform to the horse’s back. If the tree is too narrow for the withers, pressure points or sores will be created and the pommel will sit up too high, unbalancing the rider. In this situation, if a rider placed pads (keyhole and bounce pads) under the back of the saddle to raise it, more pressure would be placed on the withers. If the saddle is too wide across the withers the rider will be tipped forward and the saddle will make contact with the withers.

Many saddles are poorly designed through the withers area and have pressure points built in. On many western saddles, the bar is grooved too deeply for the stirrup leathers, leaving a pressure point at the base of the fork. English close-contact saddles often have an outward flare to the tree along the withers. This causes a very small and painful pressure point since the horse’s withers are flat in shape at this point. Most horses do not tolerate this pressure well and will shorten their stride and hollow their back.

Other saddles especially some of the dressage and a few western/endurance saddles have pressure points underneath the stirrup bars or attachments. In the dressage saddles pressure points sometimes occur under the stirrup bars because the manufacturers try to design the saddle wide through the front of the tree to clear the shoulder blades, leaving the saddle tight near the area of the stirrup bar.

Level Seat

An important aid in determining saddle fit is that the seat must be level when viewed from the side and the rider must be placed in the center of the seat. If the seat is not level or the lowest point is incorrectly placed, the rider will be out of balance and will be unable to help the horse or ride correctly. The rider may be totally unaware of the problem.

A saddle that is too narrow will sit up too high at the cantle since the tree is too narrow to follow the contours of the withers. The rider’s weight will be pitched toward the cantle and the rider’s legs placed forward, one of the most common rider faults. If the saddle fits well but needs significant restuffing, it will also slope down towards the cantle. A saddle that is too wide will tip forward or down at the pommel, pitching the rider forward and the rider’s legs back behind the vertical.

One method that can be used to determine the levelness of the seat is to pretend to roll a marble from either the cantle or pommel towards the center of the saddle. The marble should stop in the center of the saddle, not towards the front or rear. If the marble rolls towards the front, the saddle is probably too wide; if it rolls to the rear the saddle may be too narrow. The marble rolling to the rear can occur if the saddle is made with the center of the seat placed too far to the rear.

In the next two installments, Dr. Harman will discuss horse and rider fit and changing variables, including therapeutic pads and shims.

About Joyce Harman: Dr. Joyce Harman opened Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd in 1990, bringing holistic healing to horses from all walks of life, backyard retirees to Olympic competitors. Over the years, Dr. Joyce Harman has observed and adapted to the changing needs of the industry. Twenty-plus years ago, no one had heard of Lyme disease or Insulin Resistance, yet today that makes up a large part of her clinical practice.

In 2001, she wrote the first paper in a peer-reviewed journal about the possibility that horses have insulin resistance (IR), and now it is part of our everyday conversation. In 2004 she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800s, with the western version of the book following in 2006. To this date, these books are the only books written by an author who is independent of a saddle company, which brings unbiased information to the horse world.

In 2015, Dr. Harman released the Harmany Muzzle, a customizable and breathable grazing muzzle designed with the horse in mind. Because she deals extensively with metabolic and insulin resistant horses, she felt it was her duty to offer them a comfortable muzzle option.