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.
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.
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.
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