Blocking Skirts and Saddle Fit

Posted by RodandDenise on April 13, 2024

A part of saddle construction that is very important for good saddle fit, but that is often missed in more quickly made saddles (see what I did there?) is blocking the skirts. So what is it and why is it important?

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These pictures courtesy of saddle maker Ed Odgers.   

When a better quality saddle is made, time is taken to wet the leather for the skirts and mold it to the bottom of the tree bars. It is then tacked in place until it dries completely, and when it is removed, it will maintain the shape of the bars. Please note that all the tacks and screws you see will be removed permanently when the blocking process is finished. 

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So here is what it looks like from the top after the skirts are dried and taken off the tree. The tree sits nicely into the skirts, and the skirts have now taken on the shape of the tree that matches the shape of the horse. 

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Here are pictures of skirts taken off some used saddles. You can see the blocking still in place. In fact, as saddles get used, sweated on, etc. the blocking will be enhanced. 

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So why spend the time and energy to block skirts? Well, on the other side, why spend all the time and energy to shape bars to fit the horse, and then put a thick, flat piece of leather beneath the tree and the horse which defeats the purpose of shaping the bars? All the rounding and edge relief put into the bars are useless, because the flat skirts are all the horse feels. 

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But you keep saying more surface area is better! If the skirts distribute the pressure over a wider area than the tree, isn’t that good? No – because we work really hard to match the tree to the shape of the horse (with allowances) and putting what amounts to a soft board between the two means the shapes no longer match. It doesn’t let the tree settle into the curves of the horse’s back, especially in the wither area. It holds it above and negates the fit of the tree.

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And more than that, it can actually cause high pressure points on the horses. Here, the unblocked skirts don’t follow the curve of the front of the bar and stick straight forward into the horse, Poking and causing a high pressure point.

The same can be true at the back of the saddle, where the skirts dig into the loin even though the tree has enough relief and lifts off the horse. If the skirts had been properly blocked, this wouldn’t be happening.

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It is true that with a lot of riding and use, the skirts will start to form to the bars somewhat, but they will never be as good as a saddle with well blocked skirts is right from the get go. Here is a picture of unblocked skirts that have been taken off a used saddle. The dark areas are wear areas where there was higher pressure, but although there is a dark line along the edge of the bar, there isn’t much indentation from the bar edge. It is still pretty much a flat piece of leather. With more use, it may form a bit more to the bar, but never as much as if the saddle had been properly made to start with. 

So, blocking is good. Not blocking is bad. But practically, this is a step that takes a lot of time, and in production saddles, it is almost always skipped. The vast majority of saddles you find on the market today do not have blocked skirts. So how do you know if your skirts are blocked or not? 

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Well, if you feel under your saddle, if your skirts are blocked you should be able to feel the shape and the edges of the tree at the front, the back and along the bottom of the bar pads. You won’t be able to feel the shape under the middle of the tree where the stirrup leathers come through. If you feel the tree easily, you have well blocked skirts on your saddle – which generally speaks something to its quality too.

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If you can’t feel the bars of your tree from the bottom of the skirts, check by feeling the top of the skirts between the skirts and the jockeys. If you feel flat leather, not formed to the bars, you have a saddle where the skirts have not been blocked. If everything else is right, this might not cause problems. But in many cases some of the “fit problems” you might encounter have nothing to do with the tree. It could fit your horse great. Unblocked skirts could be your problem.

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