Top 3 Saddle-Fit Pains

Saddle Fit: Julie and Eddie

Saddle Fit: Julie and EddieAt each of my clinics, my attention first turns to the horses’ tack to check for fit, adjustment and function. When it comes to saddle fit, my eyes always go to these three parts of the horse first: the withers, the shoulders and the loins.

Most of the saddle fit issues I see affect one of these three parts of the horse. Often problems can be fixed by simply adjusting the placement of the saddle or getting a little creative with padding. Sometimes a different saddle is needed and for some horses, saddle fit will always be a challenge. Whatever the case, we owe it to our horses to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible while we ride.

 

The Saddle’s Function

The tree of the saddle serves the purpose of evenly distributing the weight of the rider over a larger area–so that the pressure is not focalized on one point of the horse’s back. When the tree fits the horse’s back well, he can carry the weight of the rider comfortably. When the bars of the tree are not evenly contacting the horse’s back, he will develop pressure points which can lead to soreness, scarring on his back, and even permanent damage. Keep in mind that saddle trees are made to fit average horses, but not all horses are average. Also, saddle trees are made to be symmetrical and not all horses are the same on both sides of their spines.

Whether your horse has anomalies or not, assessing saddle fit each year is important, since horses, just like humans, change body shape as they age. Of course we want to look at the big picture for saddle fit, but here are the three areas that I see the most problems. The best way to check saddle fit is to place the saddle on the horse’s back without any pads, un-cinched, so you can see how the shape of the tree jives with the horse’s back.

 

The Withers

In a perfect world, your horse’s withers would be prominent enough to hold the saddle well, but not so high that they hit the pommel. The “average” horse will not have any problems here, but high withers or very low withers can be a challenge when it comes to saddle fit.

The “mutton withered” horse (very low withers) tends to be quite round, instead of ‘A’ shaped at the withers. There may be a lot of fat or muscling on top of the shoulder blades that make it seem like the withers are low. This horse will generally need the cinch or girth very tight to prevent the saddle from slipping. You will probably not have trouble with the withers hitting the pommel, but you may have too much constriction at the shoulders and/or need an anti-slip pad or a split-withered pad to help keep the saddle from slipping too much.

The horse with prominent withers is more of a challenge for saddle fit. Certain types of horses, like Thoroughbreds, may have prominent withers. As horses age, their withers naturally become more prominent. Obviously, when a horse is in poor flesh (low body condition score), the fat and muscling that often sits below the withers and the flesh that surrounds the spine all the way down his back can disappear, leaving the withers and back bone more vulnerable.

Combined with other saddle fit challenges like low in the back, short backed or long backed, the horse with high withers can be hard to fit in a traditional saddle. Often, horses with high withers can be comfortably fit by using a split-withered pad to gain a little clearance and/or using a back pad or bridge pad in addition to your regular pad to lift the whole saddle (visit http://JulieGoodnight.com/bridgepads for more information).

To check for adequate clearance over the withers, you should be able to stick your whole hand in over the withers, under the pommel, when the horse is saddled and cinched normally. Remember, once you sit up there, the saddle will be even closer to the horse’s withers, so make sure there is plenty of room there.

 

The Shoulders

Just above the shoulders and below the withers, you often see white spots or white hairs on a horse. This is a tell-tail of poor saddle fit and often goes unnoticed or is mistakenly thought to be a natural white marking. It is usually an indication that there is too much pressure on the horse’s shoulder blades and/or his shoulder blades are running into the front of the tree when he moves. Surprisingly, many horses will tolerate this pressure without much protest, resulting in the horse possibly being ridden for years in an ill-fitting saddle.

Keeping in mind that horses change body shape every year from birth to old age (three to four times as fast as a human), a saddle that fit your horse perfectly when he was four, may not fit at all when he is 8. This was the case with my horse Eddie, who I started riding as a three year old. Then, he fit perfectly in a full-skirted saddle with a regular sized Circle Y Flex2 tree. By the time he was seven (when horses really mature), he not only needed a wide-tree version of the same saddle, but he also needed a shorter skirted saddle. We moved him from the Monarch saddle to the Wind River in my line of saddles—the design is almost the same, but the skirt is a bit shorter and rounded in the Wind River. We continue to experiment with denser but thinner pads for him to accommodate his heavy muscling.

If a horse is experiencing too much pressure at the shoulders, he could need a wider tree or the saddle may be bridging (this occurs when the bars of the tree touch in front and back but not in the middle). If the tree is too narrow for the horse, he needs a wider tree saddle; there is nothing you can do to pad that out (it would be like putting on an extra pair of socks when your shoes are too small). But if the tree is bridging, often a configuration of pads will help. Look into bridge pads, shim pads or sway-back pads. Be wary of pads with built up shoulders, since that may just shift the fit problem off the shoulders and onto the loins.

Sometimes I see horses with white marks on their backs caused simply by placing the saddle too far forward. Look for the screw that sits right at the base of the pommel in both English and Western saddles. This screw shows you the forward point of pressure from the tree and it should sit behind the shoulder blades in the “pocket.” Depending on the slope of the horse’s shoulders, the prominence of his withers, the length of his back, and how the saddle is rigged, the saddle may sit farther back on one horse than it does on another. Sometimes people try to position the saddle by lining up the cinch behind the elbow, but that doesn’t really work. Depending on how your horse is built and how the saddle is rigged, the cinch may be farther back on some horses.

To check the saddle fit in regards to the shoulder, put the saddle on the horse without pads and without cinching. Holding the saddle in place with one hand as someone else leads your horse at the walk, slide your other hand up under the saddle until you feel the top of the horse’s shoulder blade. As he walks, you’ll feel the shoulder move back; make sure your fingers aren’t being pinched between the tree and the shoulder blade as the horse walks.

 

The Loins

How the saddle fits at the loins, behind the saddle, is more of a concern in Western saddles but it is an area that tends to be over-looked by all kinds riders, when it comes to saddle fit. The Western saddle is generally longer than the English saddle, giving a greater potential for problems at the loins, but both English and Western saddles can be out of balance on a horse, causing an increase of pressure on the horse’s back.

Once the horse is saddled, with the horse standing on level ground, step back and look at the horse from the side. The seat of the saddle should appear to be level—not inclined uphill or downhill. If the saddle appears to be going uphill, it may be out of balance and putting too much pressure on the loins of the horse, as well as throwing the rider out of balance and into the “backseat” position. Often, moving the saddle back a little will help level it out or using back pads or shim pads may help.

Since the Western saddle is generally longer than an English saddle, it’s important to check how the saddle fits all the way at the back of the skirts. Horses can be quite different in shape at the loins—the spine may rise up there and/or the horse may not have enough flesh to protect the spine. Make sure the saddle accommodates the shape of the horse’s back at his loins and is not pressing down into the back. Keep in mind that whatever you see from the ground could be much different or worse for the horse once the rider is mounted.

Often Western saddles will have a ‘V’ shape behind or the skirts are laced together in such a way so as to not press into the horse’s loins. In the case of very short-coupled horses, you may need to look at a saddle that is shorter in overall length—with a rounded skirt or a saddle that is specifically designed for short-backed horses. ‘Hybrid’ designs (cross between English and Western) or endurance style saddles tend to be shorter in overall length than a traditional Western saddle.

 

Keep Up the Good Work

It’s important to assess your saddle fit every year. Mark it on the calendar and check. It’s so easy to get complacent and overlook developing problems if you don’t check often. Many riders don’t notice a problem until it’s been there for a while, until it causes behavioral issues, or until someone with fresher eyes sees it (this is a big advantage of going to a riding clinic). These three areas—the withers, the shoulders and the loins, are easy to check and I try to assess it on every saddled horse that comes in front of me.

While most horses can fit into readily available saddles, some horses will always be a challenge.  A custom-made saddle or an unconventional type of saddle made for a different discipline may be the right choice.

Think of it this way: shopping for a saddle is a lot like purchasing shoes for yourself. If you wear a size 7, most size 7 shoes will fit—right off the rack.  Some will be a little snug and some too big. Sometimes, with the right socks, all can be comfortable. That’s what we want to do in regards to saddle fit— choose the saddle that’s best for your horse and see what you need to do to make it a perfect fit. Consider all the options. Find the best shape for the horse, and if it’s not perfect, pad it out to make the fit as comfortable as possible.

 

Designing Saddles to Fit

There’s no one magic saddle that fits every horse, that’s why I decided I had to have different types of saddles in my own line. The saddles had to be available in regular and wide trees and I wanted to make sure there were different lengths of skirting to fit the longer and short-backed horses. The design of the tree was most important. I wanted to make sure that there was a substantial tree that would distribute weight well. I ultimately chose Circle Y’s Flex 2 tree as it has some give for the horse—allowing him to move comfortably without a rigid tree, but is strong enough to carry weight without bowing. Other flexible trees could not make this claim and having a rigid tree made it more difficult to fit many horses during my travels.

My favorite saddle in the line is the Monarch—it has a more traditional, longer skirt and room to attach bags and jackets for the trail. The shape matches the traditional Western saddle look. The same saddle with a rounded skirt (better for short-backed horses) fits my horse, Eddie better than a longer skirt would. Having the tree widths available in wide and regular (with a 2-degree difference) helps fit the high withered and the stocky horses. Plus, having a tall gullet and opening at the back of the saddle keeps weight off of the horse’s spine. It’s got other comfort features for both the horse and rider, making a more comfortable ride for both. Check out all of my saddles at http://JulieGoodnight.com/saddles.

We owe it to the horses to get the best fit possible. Get expert advice whenever you can. Professional saddle fitters are well worth the expense and are experts not only in fit, but also in how saddles are constructed and what options are available. I prefer certified saddle fitters. Often horse trainers, riding instructors and veterinarians can help with saddle fitting advice, in lieu of a saddle fit expert.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight

 

Editor’s Note: See Goodnight’s full list of clinics at http://JulieGoodnight.com/clinics and ride during the 2-day clinic weekends across the country. Goodnight has her own saddle with her at each event and offers a test ride to anyone looking for help with saddle fit.

 

Keyword: saddle fit pains

Eddie’s New Saddle – How Saddle Fit Changes Over Time

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IMG_5913julieduallyeddie
I bought Eddie in the spring of his 3 year old year; he was a handsome and sensible youngster with a great pedigree. A very ‘typey’ stock horse, he stood 14.2 hands and weighed in at about 950; now he is seven years old, 14.3 hands, 1200 pounds and counting. He has matured from a gawky adolescent into a beefcake (think line-backer) —having filled out more than up in the last couple years. And with all these physical changes, he managed to outgrow his saddle this year.

Eddie as a 3 year old
Eddie as a 3 year old

A horse’s body shape changes drastically every year, especially when they are young. If you think about how the human body changes from birth to old age, you know that our bodies change a lot over time as well. But the horse’s body changes three times as fast. If you’ve ever raised foals, you know that it if you sit still and watch long enough, you could practically see them grow.

Growth, stage of life, condition, weight and conformation can all affect saddle fit. What fits your horse today may not work next year, so it is important to analyze your horse’s saddle fit regularly. For the last three years, I’ve ridden Eddie in my favorite ranch saddle, with a regular sized, rigid tree and it fit him well. Until the day it didn’t. Perhaps I was a little slow to notice the subtle changes in his performance as his saddle became uncomfortable, but when the tell-tail white hairs started appearing below his withers, I knew it was time for a change.

Horses are instinctively stoic animals and may work day-in and day-out in discomfort, without much complaint. There may be subtle clues of discomfort in watching the horse work and some horses will let you know if they are uncomfortable, but many will remain silent. Eddie, true to his ranch horse heritage, is very stoic. My other horse, Dually, not so much. If there is so much as a hair out of place, he will be sure to let you know.

For decades I have been traveling around the country and around the globe to help people with their horses. I have often seen horses in my clinics that are hollowed out and inverted (arching their backs and star-gazing instead of rounding) simply because the saddle was causing them discomfort. Lots of things can cause inversion, including the rider, but an ill-fitted saddle can make it downright impossible for a horse to round its back. Adjusting tack, mitigating the fit with pads (when possible) or changing saddles (when it’s not) can often have an immediate and dramatic effect on a horse’s performance.

In Eddie’s case, he had filled out so much (as horses do between 6 and 7), and he had developed heavy muscling over the shoulders and below the withers. Eddie is a classic stock horse type—short, stout and heavily muscled. Sired by Sixes Pick, the world champion ranch horse stallion from the 6666 Ranch, Eddie has taken on the handsome and rugged looks of this classic Quarter Horse. When it comes to tree size, the only part of the horse that matters is from the withers, about 7 inches down; in Eddie’s case, this was the culprit.

The height of the horse or even the width of the horse’s back doesn’t matter much—it’s only what’s going on at the withers, and this is an area that changes a lot over time. Age, fitness and body score (fat deposits) can make a big difference in what the withers looks like. Do not be lulled into thinking that because you have a wide or heavy horse, like a draft or draft cross, that you automatically need a wide tree. Many big horses have prominent, V-shaped withers and need a regular tree. Height and body width aren’t the issue.

There’s lots of confusion on tree sizes in Western saddles, which is one reason why saddle makers are getting away from the baffling terms like ‘Semi quarter horse’ and ‘Full quarter horse bars,’ and instead call them Regular and Wide trees. It matters not at all whether you have a quarter horse, a Haflinger or a gaited horse.

Looking at the front of the saddle, under the pommel at the bars of the tree, the regular tree is generally a 90 degree angle and the wide tree is usually 92 degrees. That’s not a lot of difference to see (or try and measure) but it can make a huge difference in fit. If the saddle tree is too narrow, it will perch on top of the shoulders instead of sitting ‘in the pocket’ behind the shoulders and put undue pressure at the top of the shoulder blade (where white spots often appear). Although a majority of horses, even Quarter Horses, fit in a regular sized tree, some horses will need the extra width. If the tree is too wide, the saddle may sit down too low and there may not be enough clearance at the withers.

When I bought Eddie as a 3 year old, I did not buy a saddle for him, since I already had a tack room full of saddles that I loved. For the past three years, I’ve been using my Rocky Mountain Ranch saddle (a working saddle designed by me and made by Circle Y) with a wooden, Kevlar reinforced, regular size tree, which fit him well. Until the day it didn’t. It’s a beautiful and functional saddle which looked very handsome on my honcho ranch horse.

Eddie as a 5 year old in the Rocky Mountain Ranch Saddle
Eddie as a 5 year old in the Rocky Mountain Ranch Saddle

If I had bought the saddle just for Eddie, I would’ve bought a wide tree, knowing there was a very good chance that he would need it in the future, given his type. When in doubt, it is not a bad idea to go with a wide tree, because if it is a little too big, you can usually pad out the fit. But if your tree is too small, there’s no fixing it. It’d be like wearing a pair of shoes that were too small and then putting on extra thick socks to try and fix the discomfort.

Once it became clear that Eddie had outgrown the regular tree, and I was going to have to buy a new saddle for him, I decided to switch him to the Circle Y Monarch Arena/Trail saddle with a Flex2 tree in a wide size. I designed this saddle for comfort, balance and close-contact communication with your seat and legs. It helps center the rider and has a narrow twist with memory foam in the seat. I’ve been riding my other horse, Dually, in this same saddle (regular tree) since I designed it, nearly a decade ago.

On my very first ride on Eddie in the Monarch, I was astounded at the change and wished I had switched sooner. With the right size tree and the additional comfort that the flexible tree provides, Eddie was immediately more relaxed, lengthening in the neck and lifting his back. Not only that, his rough gaits were significantly smoother, not only because he was relaxing and rounding more but also because the Flex2 tree provides shock absorption that is easily felt by both horse and rider.

I’ll admit, Eddie is definitely more handsome in the ranch saddle, as is befitting of his heritage. But I will trade that for comfort and performance any day of the week. The Monarch is also a beautiful hand-tooled saddle that any horse looks great in and once I am up there, it only matters how it feels—to both my horse and me!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

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.”

 

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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

Issues From The Saddle: Rearing Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight

I am writing to you in regards to my horse’s problem with rearing, as someone that is experienced in horse behaviour I can not find the cause that is triggering the behaviour, it’s like one minute is his normal self which a good natured, relaxed and laid back and the next minute he is running backwards then twisting himself inside out finishing with a rear that the black stallion would be proud of and then he is back to his normal self as though nothing has happened. I can’t work it out there is nothing the rider has done there is nothing in his environment that upsets him and there is nothing physically wrong. I have no reasons to explain his behaviour if I had I would be able to solve the issue. The only thing left is a neurological disorder or he is trying to tell us something but I just don’t get it. Do you have any advise? I am at a total loss!

Leonora

Answer: Leonora,

The behavior you describe sounds pretty volatile and dangerous, so first I would caution you to be careful about your own personal safety and to consider getting a professional evaluation of this horse. Since you do not give much history on this horse or his training and experience, and since I cannot actually see the horse in action, I really cannot say what might be causing this reaction or what the solution might be, but I can give you some things to consider.

First, I think it is important to rule out a physical problem. It is quite possible that your horse could have a problem in his back, ribs or hips that causes him sudden pain after moving a certain way. I would have this horse checked out by an equine chiropractic or vet that specializes in performance horse problems. Once you have ruled out a physical cause, you’ll have to look to the horse’s training.

Rearing is a behavior caused by one of two things: either a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Regardless of the cause, the solution is always to get the horse moving forward. Most often, rearing behavior is a fear response. From the description you give, it sounds to me like this horse is refusing to move forward. Horses don’t do anything without a reason, particularly when it comes to moving. Are there any common factors when the behavior occurs? Place, time, weather, tack, other horses? Does it happen every time you ride or only occasionally? Does he ever display this kind of behavior from the ground? If he doesn’t, I would want to check his saddle fit carefully to see if there could be some physical cause. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of awareness, the keen senses and the hyper-vigilant state that horses live in as prey animals. Their sight, hearing, smelling and instinctive survival is so much keener than ours that we are often tempted to say that the horse is acting a certain way for no reason. The truth is that they may be sensing something we are totally oblivious to. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. I am inclined to think that this horse has something physical going on or that there is something in his environment or in his experience that is frightening him. I would have him checked out by an equine chiropractor (ask your vet for a referral) and have the saddle fit checked by an expert. Once you have definitively ruled out a physical problem, I would look to the horse’s training history. Has he always been this way or is this something new? Was he given a proper foundation in his training or was he just rushed along by someone that didn’t really know how to put a proper foundation on a horse? Has there been an incident in his experience that may have caused him to get hurt or loose his confidence? Is there something in his environment that could be causing a fear response, such as another animal or object or something he has made an inadvertent association with? When we get horses like this in training, first we will definitively rule out a physical problem, then start the horse over from scratch in his training as if he had never been saddled or ridden. We would do both round pen and lead line work with the horse and take note of any “holes” in his training. We will proceed with saddle training once the horse is solid in his ground work, again taking it one step at a time and taking time whenever necessary to lay a proper foundation on the horse.

You would be surprised how often horses just have a saddle thrown on their back and someone hops up there and starts riding without ever really teaching the horse what is expected of him. Modern horses, for the most part, are so willing and kind that they will let you do just about anything that you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. They will gladly go along with you and will try to figure what you want them to do. But when the horse is not systematically taught to respond in a certain way to various cues and if he is not given the time and consistency needed to truly absorb the training and generalize it to different places and situations, his training can unravel in an instant. I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. I know from my years of working with horses and riders that sometimes what the rider describes is not at all what I would see, if I were able to watch. But hopefully this will give you some food for thought. Be careful with this horse.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Saddle: Horse Won’t Stand For Mounting

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I ran across your website while searching for an answer for a behavior problem with my daughter’s 7 year old quarter horse mare. We have owned this mare about 2 1/2 years. The mare is very sweet and was well behaved when we first got her and would do anything my daughter asked to do. During this past spring the mare has started stepping away from Michele (my daughter) when she tries to mount her. At a horse show on Sunday the mare would not even let her tighten the girth when Michele tried to saddle her. Michele ended up loosing her patience with her mare and I think made the situation even worse. The look in the mare’s eyes was one of fear when Michele got upset with her. We did take her to the horse chiropractor in July and he said the mare’s neck was sore. In August she was tied in a stall at our county fair and I don’t know if the situation at the fair has somehow made her afraid of horse shows. Do you have any other suggestions? The mare has turned into a completely different horse and I want to get her back to her old sweet self again.

Thank you for any information you can provide.
Vickie

Answer: Vickie,

The first thing to do when a horse’s behavior changes is to rule out any physical problems. Based on what you describe, I would look for saddle fitting problems. Even if you have not changed saddles, it is possible that the horse may have changed her shape enough to develop a fitting problem; the problem may be exacerbated at mounting since a lot of torque is placed on the horse’s back at that time. There is also increasing research being done on mares that indicates that at various points during their heat cycles the mare may be experiencing back pain when under saddle. I would have the mare checked thoroughly by an equine vet and have them check your saddle fit as well.

If you are still having difficulty tightening the cinch, most likely the horse has become “cinchy,” which simply means reactive to the cinch or girth. Generally humans tightening the girth too hard too fast induce this problem. There are several Q&As on my website about how to prevent a horse from becoming cinchy and how to resolve it once the problem has occurred.

Ruling out any physical problems with the back or saddle fit, we must look to a training issue regarding the horse moving away for mounting. It is very common for a horse’s training to deteriorate when being handled and ridden by novices and especially a horse as young as yours. Given that she was less than five when you got her, even though she was very well trained, she was not very seasoned, or experienced. A horse this young is pretty easy to untrain. Horses are very good at following rules and behaving in an obedient manner, when the rules are clearly and consistently enforced, as they are with a trainer or very experienced rider. When the horse is not handled consistently, it leads to small erosions in the training, which tend to get bigger and bigger over time.

If the horse is not standing for mounting, you need to first work on teaching the horse to stand when you ask her to. Then carry this over to mounting, take it very slowly and correct her when she moves. Again, there are several Q&As on my website that explain in detail the process for teaching a horse to stand for mounting.

Make sure that the horse is standing square when you go to mount and that there is not excessive torque being put on her back and withers. If you unbalance the horse during mounting, it is hard for to stand still. If you hang on the horse’s sides, it can put excruciating pressure from either side of the saddletree. If the rider doesn’t square the saddle before asking the horse to move off, the pressure can lead to serious damage to the horse’s back.

Finally, it is quite possible that if your horse had a bad experience at a show that she would have a bad association with shows. I am not sure why being tied in a stall would cause this, but horses are very place-oriented when it comes to the associations they make. In other words, if a horse has an unpleasant, frightening or painful experience, it will tend to associate the place where it happened with the bad memory. This is why it is extremely important to make sure a horse has a very pleasant experience at its first few shows. Even if it means not actually showing the horse, but hauling it to the show to simply let it become accustomed to the environment with as little pressure as possible being put on the horse. There is also a Q&A on my website called “Seasoning a Horse for Shows” that will explain this process. There will always be small setbacks to a horse’s training and times when we have to back up and iron out the rough spots. In addition to consulting with a veterinarian, you may need to get some help from a trainer or instructor that can take an objective look at what is going on with your mare and help you develop a plan to counteract it.

Good luck!
JG

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Talk About Tack: Saddle Slips

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Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: Dear Julie,

My friends and I have a problem with our saddles rolling over to the side when we get on. My horse in particular has a flat broad back with wide withers. Any suggestions? I know we are cinching our western saddles up tight enough.

Roly Poly

Answer: Dear Roly,

A round, mutton-withered horse is difficult to keep a saddle on, but there are a few things that may help.

First, make sure your saddle fits. That seem like a no-brainer, but if your tree is too wide or too narrow, it’ll be more likely to slip. Often a flexible tree will hold better on a round horse than a rigid tree saddle because it shapes to the horse’s back. This is one reason I like the Circle Y Flex2 saddles.

Secondly, the saddle pad you use can really help or really hurt. Make sure you are not using too thick a pad—usually round horses don’t need a lot of padding. For the really round horses I like to use a split-withered pad—sometimes called a cut-back pad (incidentally, this also works for very high-withered horses). It helps to hold the pad in place around the withers.

Make sure when you saddle that you pull the pad well up into the gullet of the saddle—causing a V-shape to the pad, which is less likely to slip. If you don’t pull it up and create an air space over your horse’s spine, the pad sits right on the withers and has a round shape which slips much easier (not to mention puts uncomfortable pressure on his spine).

Unfortunately for the round horse, you have to keep the cinch much tighter than you would on a horse with good withers. Make sure you tighten the cinch slowly—don’t gut-wrench him right off that bat—that will create a cinchy horse, or one that is resentful of the cinch. Tighten the cinch gradually over 10 minutes or so and walk him a little between tightenings. Check your cinch again about 15 minutes into your ride or before you do any loping.

Finally, you might consider using a breast collar and/or a crupper, which attaches to the back of the saddle and goes under the horse’s tail. Neither one will stop your saddle from sliding but they will help stabilize it. Good luck and be sure to keep you weight in the middle of your horse!

JG

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Talk About Tack: Saddle Fit

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Question: Dear Julie,

Six months ago I bought a 7 y/o QH 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 not for all western disciplines–no roping from flex tree), 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. 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, 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

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.