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.
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.
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,
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,