Does Your Horse Like Your Saddle?

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At a recent clinic weekend, I rode with a lovely woman, MaryAnn, who had hauled her Paint mare eight hours. MaryAnn was a sponge of a student—my favorite kind. She was knowledgeable, experienced and a very good rider who couldn’t learn enough. We always do introductions at the start of the clinic and she stated then that her horse bucked at the canter. That’s never a good thing. I was eager to find out why this horse was bucking and see what we could do to help the problem. I wondered right away if this was a personality issue, training issue or had to do with her physical build and the saddle’s fit. Too often, I see horses that learn to fear or dislike the canter because they feel pain from the saddle as soon as they enter the fast gait.

Knowing MaryAnn’s concern, I kept an eye on the mare while the whole group practiced groundwork and manners. I wondered if the mare had a touch of what I call PMS: Pissy Mare Syndrome. Some mares can be kind of cranky and bossy, but overall the horse was doing what MaryAnn asked of her. MaryAnn seemed to have a good handle on her. I began to rule out a personality issue as the cause of her bucking.
It wasn’t until after lunch that I first saw the mare under-saddle. As we warmed up at the walk and trot I didn’t see much that concerned me; although the mare was a little cranky, she did everything asked of her. I was eager to see this horse canter and find out more about what could be causing the problem.

The first time I ask people to canter–in a clinic with 15 horses that are unfamiliar to me–I always ask them to canter two or three at a time. That keeps my blood pressure down. When it was MaryAnn’s turn to canter, her horse stepped right up to the canter on the correct lead, but as she proceeded around the arena, it was obvious the mare was not happy. She was crow-hopping around like a pogo stick with her tail was wringing like a propeller. The mare didn’t warm out of it and get used to the gait. She stayed at the canter, but no one looked happy or relaxed. Taking a closer look at the picture, I knew it was a physical problem—a saddle fit issue.

MaryAnn had a very nice saddle with a Wade tree—a popular kind of Western saddle that is built up in front with a deep seat to help keep the rider seated. Very popular amongst colt-starters, for the same reason MaryAnn liked it—helps you ride through the bucks. Although it was the right saddle for MaryAnn, it just wasn’t the right saddle for the mare.

When I evaluate the saddle fit on a horse, the overall balance is important, as well as checking some specific areas on the horse. If I step a few paces back and look at the horse from the side, I want to see the saddle (be it English or Western) sitting level on the horse’s back. If it is sitting downhill, the horse’s shoulders or withers could be uncomfortable and if it is sitting uphill, the horse may be getting undue pressure at his loins. In either case, the rider’s balance and position is impaired when the saddle does not sit level and balanced on the horse.
I could see from looking at MaryAnn’s saddle, and the uphill slant, that the horse was getting a lot of pressure on the loins from the way the saddle fit her. It is not surprising that the mare protested the canter; she has to round up her back and lift it with each canter stride; not to mention that the rider’s weight can come down hard on the saddle at the canter.

I tactfully suggested that perhaps MaryAnn might like to try the demo saddle I had brought to the clinic. I knew the saddle she had was not cheap, nor was it the first one she had purchased for this mare. I know the thought of getting yet another saddle to resolve this problem was not what she wanted to hear. But of course she listened and tried out the new saddle.

It was at the end of the first day—all the horses and riders were beat and headed for the barn, but quite a few spectators stuck around to see what happened when MaryAnn tried the new saddle. She trotted a circle or two and cued her horse up to the canter. Although the mare still seemed tense and tight in the back—there was a noticeable improvement. MaryAnn was eager to try the saddle again the next day.
The next day, MaryAnn saddled her horse with my Monarch Arena Performance/Trail saddle. We spent a long time working at the walk and trot and when she cued her horse for the canter. The mare was smooth, relaxed and with her ears perked forward. Gone was the crow-hopping, wringing tail and pinned ears. MaryAnn went home with a brand new saddle and a smile on her face.

It’s amazing how often horses work day in and day out with ill-fitting and inappropriate equipment. Imagine working on your feet all day in shoes that caused you pain. Did you ever notice the number of horse’s that have white pots on their backs? Did you know those white hairs are scars caused from pressure points? Sometimes, when the fit-issue is fixed, the hair color comes back but over time the scars become permanent.
The other things that are important to check on the saddle is the clearance at the withers (can you stick your whole hand in there?)—even the pad pressing on the withers can cause painful pressure. Check to make sure it is not pinching at the withers at the front of the tree and, in the case of Western saddles, that it is not too long for the horse and or pressing into the loins or hips.

Most of the saddles in my line of saddles made by Circle Y have a Flex2 tree. Although the flexible tree is not suitable for all riders (you can’t rope in it; the rider must weigh under 230 pounds), it offers greater comfort to the horse and fits a wider variety of horses than a traditional wood tree Western saddle. It has enough rigidity to distribute the weight of the rider while flexing enough to conform somewhat to the horse’s back. As the bars of the tree flex slightly, the front of the bars open up just a little, giving the horse much more freedom in the shoulder.
Since I have a saddle with me everywhere I go, I’ve tried it on a lot of different horses around the country and have been very impressed by the fit and balance to most horses. The design of my saddles also takes the rider into consideration—the saddle should be fitted to horse AND rider and be comfortable for both. So for the rider, my saddles have a very narrow twist (the part that is just in front of the seat), close contact to the horse’s sides, highest quality pre-softened leather, pre-twisted stirrups and memory foam in the seat.

The seat size of the saddle should be comfortable for the rider—neither riding on the cantle or crowded by the pommel. With Western saddles, styles vary so greatly that you probably need to sit in a saddle to know for sure how it fits you. The stirrups should be the right size for your feet with the leathers short or long enough so that you ride in the middle hole. The width of the saddle is important too—you should not feel outward pressure on your seat bones or get the feeling that your legs are being wedged apart. The comfort and balance of your saddle are huge factors in how well you ride so these are things you don’t want to compromise on.

There is much to know about saddle fit, for both horse and rider, and I always appreciate advice from professional saddle fitters. I am by no means and expert but after decades in the business and working with thousands of horses and riders, I’ve developed an eye for it. If you’re not sure about the fit of your tack, consult a professional and get the best advice you can. If your horse has “issues” under-saddle, always consider a physical cause first. If you have “issues” in your riding, you may want to check your saddle.
I’m glad I could help MaryAnn and her mare and I look forward to hearing more about how they progress.
Enjoy the ride,
Julie