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

Am I Too Heavy For My Horse?

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Question: Dear Julie:

I bet you have never had this question. Last week we bought a really great black & white 51 inch 4 year old pony. He was gelded 5 weeks ago so we are waiting (but doing lots of ground work and round pen work) with him before he is ridden. He is broke to drive and ride. My question is this: what would the top weight be for a person to ride him? We bought him for our grand kids but I love the way he trots and canters while he is in the round pen. The grand kids are 6 & 11 with our 3 year old riding a little Shetland mini cross. Pixie is a gem but the older two have out grown her. If you would let me know about the top weight I am really considering loosing weight so I can ride him. Now don’t laugh. Right now I weigh about 160 but should weight 140 this would really give me an incentive.

Julie, we loved your clinics at Equine Affaire in Columbus Ohio. Hope to see you there next year.

Luanne

Answer: Luanne,

As a matter of fact, I’ve had that question on numerous occasions! The answer is not really cut and dry but there are some guidelines you can use to make the decision on whether or not you are ‘right sized’ for your pony.

The most commonly used guideline, and the one that is suggested by the Certified Horsemanship Association, www.cha-ahse.org, an organization that promotes safety in horsemanship programs, says that the rider (sans tack) should not exceed 20% of the weight of the horse.

However, this is based on the worst-cased scenario: an unbalanced beginner rider, whose weight is shifting constantly and unpredictably. The truth of the matter is, a heavy balanced rider is much easier on the horse’s back and mouth than a light-weight, unbalanced rider.

At 140#, in the worst-case scenario, you should be able to ride a horse that weighs 700#. If you are a decent rider, a lighter pony could handle your weight just fine. You’ll have to estimate the weight of your pony and factor in this guideline to make your decision. There are so many types of ponies—from draft ponies to fine boned light ponies—that height is not really an indication of weight.

For the record, I think 14.3 hands is the perfect size horse! If I could wave a magic wand and make my 15.1 hand horse that size, I’d do it in a heart beat. Although I grew up riding big horses (hunter/jumpers), I find that the older I get the smaller I like my horses!

By the way, you should check out my blog http://juliegoodnightontheroad.blogspot.com/ on the subject of losing weight, how it affects your riding and the different motivations that help. Yours would be a good one to add to the list and we’d love to have you join us in the Five Pound Challenge!

Julie

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