Saddle Fit Guide

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RIDE RIGHT WITH Julie Goodnight

Saddle Up

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.

 

The Challenges

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.

Possible Solutions

“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.”

 

Sidebar

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.

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

Saddle Fit Issues

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
Is My Saddle Causing My Horse’s Issues?

Question: Dear Julie,
Six months ago I bought a seven-year-old Quarter Horse gelding and he has turned out to be an awesome trail riding horse and a promising versatility ranch horse prospect. He is dark brown and very cute but over the past couple months he has developed spots of white hairs just below his withers on both sides—but worse on the left. At first there were just a few white hairs, but now the dots are about an inch around and almost solid white on the left.

When I purchased Sonny, I had a vet exam done and he passed with flying colors. The vet said he had good conformation with a short strong back. It seems like this could be a saddle fit issue but I am not sure what to do now.

Thanks for your time, Polly

Answer: Dear Polly,
You’ve definitely got a saddle fit issue and most likely it is from “bridging,” which means there is pressure from the tree in the front of the bars and the back but not in the middle. This means there is an excessive amount of pressure at the front of the tree, at the point where you are seeing the white hairs.

These white hairs represent scarring and in time the scars may become permanent. These marks are often worse on the left because when you mount the saddle shifts and a lot of riders fail to balance the saddle after they mount, continuing the whole ride with un-even pressure from the tree on the horse’s back.

Given the relatively short amount of time the spots have been present on your horse, if you get your horse better fitted in a saddle, they’ll probably turn back to brown and you may see a reduction right away in the number of white hairs. For horses that are ridden in ill-fitted saddles for years, these marks become permanent scars, often mistaken by the novice horse-person for white markings.

Since your horse is appendix registered, it means he has some (or a lot) of Thoroughbred in him so he is probably fairly narrow and high withered, compared to a foundation-type QH, which may cause the saddle to sit down more in front. If the withers are set well back (which often comes with a short-backed, athletic horse), that would contribute to the bridging. Short-backed horses, both broad and narrow, can be really challenging when it comes to saddle fit. Other horses that may have bridging problems are older horses whose back has begun sagging and sway-backed horses of any age.

One of the easiest ways to check saddle fit is to look at the sweat marks from your saddle and pad right after a long hard ride, when your horse is fully sweated up (not just damp). If there are any dry spots under the bars of the saddle tree, which you will likely see right over the white spots, that is where there has been excessive pressure and the sweat glands have been shut down. This could be a sign of bridging or too narrow a tree or even too wide a tree that is pitching forward.

The job of the saddle tree is to distribute the weight of the rider evenly over as broad an area as possible, to protect the horse’s back. If the saddle is bridging, there could also be excessive pressure on the horse’s loins which would contribute to back soreness as well.

Actually, bridging is a big problem with my personal horse, Dually (a purebred QH but very athletically built with withers set far back), and one reason I switched to the Flex2 saddle tree made by Circle Y and worked with them to create a saddle line that has the horse and rider in mind. Because the bars of the tree flex slightly with the weight of the rider (the flex tree is only advisable for riders under 230#– and not for all western disciplines), it increases the contact in the middle of the tree and actually causes the front of the tree to flare out a little giving the horse a little more room at the shoulders. Unless you are roping, cutting or a heavier rider, the Flex2 tree may be a good option for your horse.

Another thing that has really helped my horse’s bridging problem is using a saddle with multiple rigging options. Several of the saddles in my custom designed line of saddles have rigging options (rigging refers to the D-ring that the latigos and billets are attached to). For a more thorough explanation of saddle rigging, check out this video. But the short story is that a “full-rigged” saddle has the D-ring for the cinch hanging directly below the pommel; a 7/8 rigged saddle has the D-ring a little farther back and the ¾ rigged further back yet. The farther back the rigging, the more the contact comes toward the middle of the bars of the tree. In a Flex2 tree, this really helps the bridging problem. Here are some videos helping to understand saddle rigging: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmgykJDIX1s and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEXKcjRzcBY

The saddle that fits my horse the best is the Monarch Arena Performance/Trail saddle http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/images/Monarcharenaperformance2.jpg I designed this saddle to give optimal performance in the arena, but be comfortable enough for both horse and rider out on the trail and my horse and I absolutely love it.

When I am doing a lot of cutting, roping or cow work, I switch to my ranch versatility saddle, the Rocky Mountain High Performance saddle http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/images/rockymountainsaddle1.jpg , which has a rigid high-tech tree. The other saddles in my line of 5 custom designed saddles by Circle Y are all Flex2 trees and are designed specifically for reining, trail or gaited horses. For a look at my full line of saddles, check out my website.

It is possible to pad out a saddle with a minor fit issue. In the case of bridging I’d use a special pad made for that—thin in front and back and more padded in the middle of the horse’s back (sometimes called a ‘bridge pad’ or a ‘shim pad’). But be very careful about trying to pad-out a mis-fitting saddle. In many instances, adding more padding could make the saddle fit issue worse (imagine wearing shoes that didn’t fit and were putting pressure on your foot – then adding an extra thick pair of socks). In the instance of too much pressure at the front of the tree, if you padded up the front of the saddle, it would likely put too much stress on the horse’s loins, which is also a big problem.

The best-case-scenario would be for you to have a professional saddle fitter take a look at your horse and saddle in action. I’ve been around horses my whole life and dealt with literally thousands of horses but I learn something new every time I work with a professional fitter. Unfortunately they are few and far between (and easier to find them qualified to fit English saddles than western). Many trainers and some vets are good with saddle fit too, so you may want to get a professional opinion—since diagnosing a saddle fit problem via the internet is not a sure bet! Here’s a clip of a show that we did on saddle fit, that might help, too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1qceJLjhOM
Good luck and enjoy the ride!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series