RIDE RIGHT WITH Julie Goodnight
By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight — Photos by Heidi Melocco
When did you last check your horse’s saddle fit? Many horses change body shape and therefore saddle fit frequently; changes in your horse’s fitness and shape can make a saddle that fit at the start of the season be ill-fitted just a few months later. Make sure to check your saddle’s fit often with these tips from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
Trail horses often log many miles and work hard as they travel up and down hills. Saddle fit is so important for trail riders because that hard-working horse needs to feel comfortable and have optimum weight distribution throughout those challenging rides. Saddle fit isn’t just about your comfort in the saddle’s seat—be sure to think about the top (your side) as well as the bottom (the portion that fits your horse). The saddle must fit your horse’s back first and foremost.
“As riders, we often think most about how we feel—and have to make time to think about how the horse is feeling on the trail,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “When it comes to saddle fit, your horse is a silent partner; it’s your job to remember to check out his saddle fit and make sure he is moving in comfort. Each year your horse’s body shape can change as he matures, changes condition or gains or loses weight. Your horse can’t tell you in words if he has a problem with his saddle. It’s up to you to be a detective and make sure that your saddle fit is a good fit.”
Saddle fit is something to check constantly. If your horse has not worked for a while, he may be out of shape, not toned and have excess fat. Your usual saddle may not fit a horse that is currently out of shape. When the horse gains muscle during the riding season, he loses fat and changes shape. With these fast changes in body type, a horse’s shape and therefore saddle needs can change within the riding season. Saddle fit also changes as a horse ages. Just as you probably don’t wear the same clothing and belts you wore in high school, your horse’s body shape can change over time.
What can you do to ensure good saddle fit when your horse is constantly changing? Here, Goodnight will explain what your horse’s body may be telling you about his saddle’s fit. Then she’ll help you analyze your saddle fit and provide tips to help fix common saddle fitting struggles.
Bad Fit Signs
Your horse may not speak, but his body can give you clear signs of his saddle fit woes. Start by looking at your horse’s back while he’s resting or in the pasture. Have you ever seen a solid colored horse with white marks on his back? Some people think those are color markings, but they’re really formed from pressure points that cause the hair follicles to stop producing color. Those white spots can appear quickly if there’s a saddle fit issue. If they just appeared, you may be able to correct your saddle fit before the hair permanently changes color. If the horse has had a pressure point for many years, it’s possible that the hair will stay white –even with a saddle fit change. Worse, those permanent white marks may mean that the horse has experienced pain for long periods.
Look at your horse’s back after he’s been ridden. If your horse was sweating, you should see an even sweat mark from front to back in the area where the saddle tree contacts the back. Make sure that there’s a dry area over your horse’s spine—that area should have airflow as you ride. If you see dry marks under the tree, it indicates that there was pressure in that place. Also, if you pull the saddle after a ride and see that the horse’s hair is roughed-up, note that your saddle may have been moving around more than it should. That’s another sign that the fit isn’t right and the saddle is rubbing.
Goodnight says she sees horses “speak” with their bodies through these visible marks and by making agitated movements.
“In my clinics, I often see horses that should be standing still and resting with a rider on their back. The horses that aren’t comfortable with their saddle fit will begin shifting their weight and rocking from side to side–attempting to move the saddle’s pressure points,” Goodnight says. “In the worst cases, horses try to communicate their pain by acting out. I’ve seen horses bolt, spook and buck because of poor saddle fit. If your horse is in constant pain as you ride, he will be spookier. He’s already at his limit so he’s on guard to spook more. Almost any behavior problem could be attributed to saddle fit. If the saddle doesn’t feel good to the horse, he won’t be able to do his best and move his best. It’s always good to check saddle fit and rule that out before addressing any training issue.”
Frequent Check Ups
Goodnight says there are two types of horses when it comes to saddle fit—the average horse that is easy to fit and the horse you know will be a saddle-fitting challenge.
For both horses, you’ll need to check the saddle from front to back and top to bottom—ensuring that the horses have room to move and clearance from the tack in all places except where it should conform to the back along the bars of the tree.
First, make sure that there’s enough clearance under the saddle’s pommel—allowing your hand to fit above your horse’s withers and below the pommel. This area, called the gullet, shouldn’t sit down on your horse’s withers. If there is only room for one finger, or the bottom of the gullet is touching the horse’s withers, the tree may be too wide to fit the horse.
By the time you sit in the saddle and compress the pad, the saddle will move down onto the horse’s back. Make sure there’s plenty of clearance to allow for this compression while still leaving room to clear the horse’s withers.
Also check the horse’s shoulder blades. Make sure that the forward point of the saddletree doesn’t interfere with the horse’s shoulder. If the saddle’s tree digs into the horse’s shoulder, he won’t be able to move forward without pain. Feel beneath your saddle’s skirt at the horse’s shoulder.
Behind the shoulder and below the wither is called the “pocket” in saddle fit terms. That’s where you want the saddle to sit to avoid impeding the shoulder’s range of motion.
There’s a screw in both western and English saddles below the pommel that shows where the forward point of pressure from the tree of the saddle is. When you place the saddle on your horse’s back without a pad in place, you can tell where that screw is and make sure it’s behind the shoulder blade, in the pocket. This is a common area to see white marks on a horse—that happens when the tree places pressure onto the shoulder.
Also make sure to look at the rear configuration of the saddle. Make sure that the horse’s spine is protected from pressure from the saddle. The saddle’s skirt shouldn’t put pressure into his loins or cause the saddle to dig into his hip as he moves. The back of the skirt should sit in front of his hip, with enough room for the horse to bend and turn without his hip running into the skirt. You can opt for a saddle, such as Circle Y Saddle’s Wind River, that has a rounded skirt to keep the saddle from hitting the hip. If your horse is very short backed, you may opt for a gaited horse saddle or an Aussie saddle that is made with a short tree.
Now step back and note the saddle’s position and levelness. The saddle seat should look level to the ground while on the horse’s back. If the saddle looks uphill, it may be too far forward; if it looks downhill, it may be too far back.
If your horse is a known saddle fit challenge, he may have conformation issues that affect saddle fit. This doesn’t mean that your horse has bad conformation, Goodnight says. Many great horses have conformation that makes saddle fit a challenge. If your horse has asymmetry in his shoulders or hips, has a short back or has a slight sway in his back, you may find saddle fit more of a challenge.
With these conformation types, bridging is a common problem. Bridging happens when there’s excessive pressure on the front and back of the saddle and no pressure being applied in the middle of the horse’s back. That creates pressure and white marks below the withers or chafing at the horse’s hip. That means that the saddle’s tree isn’t touching along your horse’s entire back.
Custom saddles can be wonderful for some horses and riders, but many horses change shape so often that a custom saddle won’t fit for more than a season or two. In general, saddle trees are made to fit average horses. If your horse is not average or has asymmetry, no saddle is made to fit that body type. That’s when you find the best fit you can and pad out the best with specially made bridge pads.
Tree Size and Shape
When you have a bigger seat size in your saddle, you also have a longer saddle tree. That means that there’s more room to distribute weight along the bars of the tree. If you are concerned about the amount of weight your horse is carrying (with the saddle, bags and the rider), make sure that you chose a seat size that is correct for you and made to distribute weight.
Western saddles offer more weight distribution for a horse than an English saddle or a saddle with a short tree. If you start a young colt with a Western saddle then switch to an English saddle, you often see a little crow hopping when the horse feels a higher concentration of pressure on his back.
In addition to having room to distribute weight, the saddle must have bars angled to match the angle of the horse’s anatomy. You’ve probably heard of a “regular” or “wide” tree. The different tree sizes refer to the angle of the tree’s bars that sit under the saddle skirt and along the horse’s spine. The difference between a regular tree and wide is only 2 degrees, but that difference in angle can mean a totally different fit for the horse.
If the saddletree is too narrow for the horse, it cannot be helped with pads. A tree that is too narrow for a horse will perch on top of the horse’s withers and cause pinching to his withers and spine. A saddletree that is too wide will sit down too far on the horse’s back and cause pressure to the horse’s topline.
“Switching to a saddle that fits is an instant relief for the horse,” Goodnight says. “If I found a saddle that fit, I would never ride the horse in the ill-fitting saddle again.”
But how do you find the best saddle and fit for your horse? If you checked your horse’s saddle fit and found that his current saddle isn’t fitting, consult a professional. Your local tack shop may suggest a professional saddle fitter who can try several saddles on your horse to see what fits best.
If a new saddle is out of the question or your horse usually fits in his saddle but just had time off, adding a bridge or shim pad can be a helpful answer. Asymmetry or bridging issues can be helped by adding a special pad that is designed to fill in areas where the saddle tree needs support. It means adding a therapeutic pad in a precise area—not adding a bulky pad under the entire saddle. Too much padding is never good and only accentuates saddle fit problems when horses are pinched beneath an ill-fitting saddle and a thick pad.
Choosing a saddle with a flexible tree (a current model instead of the first “trial” models of this unique tree) can help alleviate pressure points and help a horse move easily beneath a tree that is strong yet slightly flexible. For horses with a slight bridging problem, often the flexible tree is all you need.
“My horse, Dually, performs much differently in a Flex 2 tree versus a solid tree. With the flexibility of the saddle, he relaxes his back and uses his hindquarters more. He doesn’t keep any discomfort a secret. He is much more fussy in a rigid tree saddle. You can ride him, but he is more fussy.”
You can also affect your saddle fit by changing how you “rig” it to the horse. The saddle’s rigging is how the saddle is strapped on to the horse. The dee ring where the latigo attaches can be positioned in different ways. A “full” rigging is attached directly under the pommel. A 7/8th rigging brings the pressure slightly farther back along his spine and a ¾ rigging attaches the farthest back, closer to the center of the saddle. In a flexible tree, if you attach the saddle farther back the horse will have more room to move through his shoulders. If your horse is sway backed, attaching the saddle with a center fire rigging or a 3/4 rigging could help conform that saddle to the horse’s back.
Check your saddle’s fit often and learn more about fitting options at JulieGoodnight.com/saddles for more tips and PDF guides.
“We owe it to the horse to make sure that he’s as comfortable as possible when we ride,” Goodnight says. “Just by changing the saddle, you can see an instant difference. It is worth it to find the saddle that your horse feels good and moves well in.”
Should You Ride Bareback?
Riding bareback can be a fun balance exercise for the rider. It helps you feel how the horse move and improves your balance. However, on the trail, you may be asking your horse to move athletically over varying terrain. The saddle’s main job is to distribute weight over the horse’s back. If there’s no saddle, there’s no weight distribution. That said, if you choose to ride bareback, you probably won’t ride the horse as hard or ask as much.
If you’re just learning to ride, I recommend starting in a saddle. Riders who began riding bareback often have habits that are tough to break once they ride in a saddle. They often grip with their lower legs and perch forward. If you ride in a saddle first, you’ll learn to balance without gripping then can apply your balance skills to bareback riding.
Choosing A Children’s Saddle
You want the saddle that you’re teaching a child to ride in to help promote balance and life-long riding postures.
There are many kids saddles on the market—but buyer beware. Make sure that the saddle you choose has a tree that is made for the size of horse that will carry it. A saddle made for a pony may not fit a full size horse. Many small children’s saddles are made with inexpensive materials. You don’t want a saddle to sit down, flat on the horse’s spine—even with extra padding the tree must fit!
Make sure that the saddle you choose has a good tree that will fit your horse. Look for the best quality small saddle then mitigate the stirrup length for a child. A saddle with a 13-inch seat that is designed for a horse will fit your horse well and allow a child to use the saddle for a long time. Choosing a seat that is a little too big will allow the child room to grow and help with your saddle budget (rather than purchasing a new saddle every few years).
You may opt to add short stirrups (the saddle shown from Circle Y can be purchased with semi-custom short stirrup fenders that may be replaced later). You can also get kid’s stirrups that attach over the pommel with webbing or replace the Western stirrup fenders with English stirrup leathers that can be easily adjusted to a short length. That’s a great way to help teach balance.