Each year, about this time, I make it a point to look with fresh eyes at each of my horses to see if any saddle adjustments are necessary. Horses that I have had for years (riding in the same tack) can suddenly outgrow or change enough to need a new saddle or pad.
Time Will Tell
A horse’s body shape changes drastically throughout his life each year can bring a whole different shape. If you think about how much the human body changes from birth to 80 years, then consider that a horse’s body matures three times faster due to their shorter life span, it’s no wonder we see such drastic changes. If you raise a foal from birth, each day and week brings big changes. Just think about a young horse’s withers the baby foal seems to have no withers, but by the time that same horse reaches 25, he is beginning to look like a camel with ultra high withers. Experienced horsemen can look at young horses and know ages without asking. A yearling looks much different than a two year old; big differences occur between 2 and 3 and again between 3 and 4. In a horse’s middle years, we don’t see as many rapid changes in body shape. As he gets into his teens, the changes increase again. Other factors besides simple aging also affect saddle fit. As the horse’s weight fluctuates, tack problems can come and go.
His fitness level can also have a huge bearing; both weight and body condition can change dramatically in a year. Even a custom-made saddle can cause problems for a horse down the road, when his body shape changes because of physical maturity, weight or condition. Injury or asymmetry in his body can cause problems, and as one side becomes stronger to compensate, his conformation changes.
Checking for Fit
For all of these reasons, re-examine your saddle fit at least once a year. Put it on your calendar annually in the spring. My main areas of concern for saddle fit are: clearance at the withers; pinching or constricting at the shoulders; whether or not the bars of the tree are contacting the back evenly; and how the saddle fits at the loins. The Western saddle can be a little trickier in the fit department, because it is longer and affects a larger area of his back.
Wither Clearance: As the horse ages, his withers become more prominent and his back may drop lower. If you add to that a loss of weight and/or condition, you may find your horse develops a clearance problem at the withers, even though he never had one before. One of my geldings, Doc, is currently experiencing this problem. As a six year-old, when I bought him, he was almost mutton withered. Now, at 13, the clearance problem is minor, so we are experimenting with different types of pads to see if we can improve his comfort.
The Bars: How the bars of the tree distribute the weight of the rider over the horse’s back is important. It’s hard to see what is going on under there once everything is covered with pad and saddle. Looking for even sweat patterns on the back, for roughened hair under the saddle or white hairs below the withers are all important indicators of how your saddle is fitting. “Bridging” occurs when the front of the bars and the back of the bars are contacting the horse’s back, but not the middle. My number one horse, Dually, has problems with bridging, unless I ride him in a Flex2 saddle. His far-setback withers and short back are wonderful for athleticism, but challenging for saddle fit.
The Flex2 tree allows just enough flex to fix the bridging problem for Dually, and the difference in the way he works is remarkable. Since it is the job of the tree to evenly distribute the weight of the rider over the largest area possible, evidence of bridging means the tree may not be fitting right. Look for signs of uneven pressure under the saddle in front or back. Often, the use of bridge pads or shim pads can help resolve bridging issues.
Loin Pressure: The back of the saddle, where it sits over the loins, is another area I like to watch to for problems. Depending on how the saddle is cut in the rear, it can be riding up too much or digging down into his loins. In either case, it is not a good fit for the horse. Sometimes rebalancing the saddle on the horse’s back (moving it slightly forward or back) can help. A more specialized pad may help. Sometimes, if the saddle is not fitting in the loins, it also may not be fitting somewhere else — it may be time to look at a different saddle. Well Padded Specialty pads can help improve saddle fit: bridging pads, shim pads, wither pads, etc. Sometimes lifting the front or middle will help balance a saddle, but you have to be careful not to trade one problem for another (like lifting the front for better clearance over the withers but causing more pressure on the loins).
Just remember, if the saddle is too tight or pinching at the withers, more pad will not help (imagine wearing a thicker pair of socks when your shoes are too small). I most often choose a ¾-inch wool felt pad. Not too thick; not too thin. Wool has some nice qualities in both hot and cold weather and over time, it shapes and conforms to the horse’s back. I like a pad that is contoured like the horse’s back and I always make sure to pull the front of the pad well up into the gullet before I cinch, to ensure there is no pressure on the withers and to create a channel of air over the horse’s spine.
Many horses of today are quite short backed, Quarter Horses, Arabs and gaited, especially. They can be tricky to fit because of both bridging and interference with the hip because the saddle is too long. The evidence you look for is point tenderness or rubbed hair at the hip. Our sweet little Quarter Horse mare, Annie—a small cowhorse, is very short in the back and long in the hip (a conformation trait I love). She does fine in a rounded skirt, like my Wind River saddle, but a fully skirted saddle is too long for her and digs into her hip when she bends and stops. The shortest saddle in my line is the Blue Ridge Gaited saddle; it also has Y rigging, and a Flex2 tree, which helps prevent bridging. This saddle is not only popular for gaited horse owners, but for many non-gaited, short-coupled horse owners too.
I remember reading an article on saddle fit about 20 years ago that has stuck with me all this time. The prominent vet that authored the article compared saddle fit to buying a new pair of shoes. You look at all the shoes that are offered in the store and you pick out the shape and size that comes closest to fitting your foot. It may not fit perfectly, like a custom made shoe would, but it should fit well enough. If there are serious problems with the fit, you probably bought the wrong pair of shoes. Finding the perfect saddle fit for any horse is a challenge, and for some horses it is downright difficult! But finding a saddle that fits well enough is not too hard for most horses and the fit may be enhanced by employing specialty pads. But even if your saddle is a perfect fit for your horse this year, next year things could be totally different. Start each spring by looking at your tack with fresh and objective eyes. Check out http://juliegoodnight.com/saddles”>JulieGoodnight.com/saddles for more info.
Enjoy the ride,