Saddle Trees Fit And Riggings

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Saddle Trees Fit and Riggings

I’m often asked about saddle fit and tack— what’s the best type of saddle tree for my horse? How do I know if my saddle fits? And how should I rig the saddle so that my horse is comfortable? The variety of trees and saddles on the market can be overwhelming. It’s a big job to find out what will fit your horse well. Once you purchase a saddle, you’ll need to know which rigging (many new saddles have more than one way to “cinch up” your saddle) to use to keep the saddle safely in place and comfortable for your horse’s conformation.

Here, I’ll help you understand the types of saddle trees (the tree is the inner structure of the saddle and what balances the rider’s weight over the horse’s back), understand how a saddle should fit, then help you know how to cinch up your saddle to make sure your horse is comfortable as you ride.

Saddle Trees
The purpose of the saddle tree is to distribute the weight of the rider over a larger area of the horse’s back. A simple way to understand this distribution of pressure is to poke someone in the arm with the point of one finger versus pushing on their arm with the flat of your hand. In my experience starting young horses under saddle, horses will buck more with an English saddle than with a western one. This is often because the tree of the western saddle covers a larger area and distributes weight more evenly.

In general, you have three choices when it comes to a saddle: a rigid tree (usually wood), a flexible tree (synthetic) or treeless. The rigid tree would give the greatest distribution of weight but may be more difficult to fit. The flexible tree gives good weight distribution and because of the slight flex, it will fit a greater variety of horses. The treeless saddle causes the weight of the rider to be focalized in one spot under the rider’s seat bones but for horses that are very difficult to fit in a treed saddle, it may be more comfortable for the horse.

In addition to the fit issues of the horses, there are several other considerations in determining what is the right type of saddle for you and your horse. First, the size of the rider: a horse that carries a heavy rider will need more weight distribution from a bigger sized saddle seat. A 17″ saddle has more weight distribution than a 14″.

Also you must consider the type of riding that will be done and the rider’s skill level. For very arduous sports like cutting and roping, the horse needs a rigid tree for his own protection. The more skilled a rider is, the better balanced, the less important the tree becomes. A beginner rider that is very off-balance can be hard on the horse’s back. The proof of the pudding is how the horse responds. For instance, my horse is mildly difficult to fit because of his far set-back withers (a good trait, it just makes saddle fit trickier). He works infinitely better in a flexible tree than he does in a rigid tree; the difference is distinctive. I’ve seen horses that love the treeless saddle and others that absolutely hate it. Sometimes that is because of what the horse is used to, other times it is because of the focalized pressure of the rider’s weight.

Saddle Fit
Your saddle should fit your horse so that the seat is level on his back and the bars of the tree do not pinch, but sit level on his back. It’s a good idea to work with a reputable saddle shop and to ask someone to evaluate the saddle’s fit on your horse. You’ll need to make sure the saddle doesn’t interfere with the horse’s motion or block his shoulder movement.

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’s tree—anywhere there are dry spots, there has been excessive pressure and the sweat glands have been shut down.

Saddle Rigging
Once you have the perfect saddle, you may still need help to “rig it up” so that your horse is most comfortable. You’ll know if your saddle can offer multiple riggings if you look under the saddle’s stirrup fender and see multiple dee attachments instead of one metal loop.

While most of us were taught to cinch up a Western saddle with a “full position” rigging, that might not be the most comfortable rigging for your horse. If your horse is high withered or you need to move the balance of the saddle back a bit, another rigging can help. You’ll also need to understand rigging options so that you can switch the rigging if your horse has a girth sore.

There are three basic styles of rigging available in a traditional Western saddle: full rigging, seven-eighths and three-quarter. It will help you to understand each type of rigging, so that you can understand the advantages of having multiple rigging options.

Full rigging: You may be most familiar with a “full” saddle rigging, when there’s a dee-ring attached to the saddle’s tree or skirt directly beneath the pommel. This is the most forward position for saddle riggings. To cinch up, you would wrap the latigo from the cinch to this dee-ring, with layers of the latigo lining up in one vertical line. Saddles with this rigging often have a flank cinch, or rear cinch, (a double rigging because the saddle is attached at the front and back) to keep the saddle from tipping forward when traveling downhill or to help distribute the pressure when the rider dallies the rope to stop a steer. This full double rigging is the preferred outfit for ranch riding and roping. The pressure of the saddle lands just under the pommel then the flank cinch keeps the saddle balanced.
7/8 rigging: This measurement title means that your cinch is 7/8 of the distance from the cantle to the pommel and it brings the pressure from the cinch slightly rear-ward on the horse’s back, compared to the full rigging. You can also use a rear cinch with the 7/8 rigging to help secure your saddle on hills. This configuration helps the saddle sit in a balanced point and can relieve pressure from the horse’s withers.
3/4 rigging: Similarly, this rigging means that the dee-rings are attached a little behind the 7/8 rigging, or three quarters the distance from cantle to pommel. This will protect the shoulders and withers even more and give more room between the horse’s elbow and the cinch. This rigging position can be very useful on a horse which the saddle tends to “bridge” on the back (with pressure at the front and back of the tree, but not in the middle). Keep in mind: The farther back the rigging, the more pressure rests in the middle of the saddle instead of at the front, where the horse may be stronger. This 3/4 configuration moves your cinch back from your horse’s heartgirth—switching to this rigging can help your horse avoid girth sores during long rides.
There’s a great illustration of the saddle riggings from The Horse Saddle Shop http://www.horsesaddleshop.com/:

If your saddle has multiple rigging options, you’ll have more flexibility for saddle fit and making the saddle useful on a variety of differently shaped horses and circumstances. In a saddle with 3-way rigging, there will be two dee rings at the front of the saddle and it can be rigged up three ways—in the full, 7/8 or 3/4 positions. Make absolutely certain when using a saddle with multiple rigging, that the rigging is the same on both sides.

Armed with these tips and ways to affect the weight your horse carries and the way he carries it, I hope you have many good, long rides together! I’m glad to help with more saddle questions and talk to you about the saddles I designed at facebook.com/horsemaster.tv

–Julie Goodnight

Keeping Saddle On

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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

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. I also often use an open-cell foam pad that has a suction-like effect and holds on the back really well.

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!
–Julie Goodnight

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