False "saddle fit rules" regarding the shoulder blades

Posted by RodandDenise on November 18, 2011

We are no longer building saddle trees, but we have two videos about how Western saddles fit horses available on our website.

As you read books or the internet, you will find lists of “saddle fit rules” that everyone is supposed to follow or check when determining how well a saddle will work on a horse.  These come from many different sources.  A lot are ideas transferred from English saddles to Western saddles by people who don’t understand the difference.  Some come from statements made or published by people with Dr. in front of their name, even though they have no research backing them.  Some are ideas that seem on the surface to make sense, but practically, some do and some don’t.  And honestly, many of these “rules” are just simply wrong.  With the information in these previous posts, I think you will now understand why.

False “saddle fit rule” #1 – the cinch needs to hang vertical, in the “girth groove” of the horse.

This idea comes, I believe, from statements made and published by a DVM without any referenced backing, and it has been quoted so often it is now seen as “fact” in some circles.  However, this is not a statement coming from saddle and tree makers, nor cowboys who ride for a living.  They all understand from practical experience that within a very few strides, unless it is held out of place with a breast collar or crupper, a good fitting saddle will move into the place it is made to fit – right behind the shoulder blade – regardless of rigging position.  It is like putting two teaspoons together.  When the shapes are the same, they slide into place relative to each other with very minimal movement.  Yes, the cinch will end up at the narrowest point of the horse’s barrel, and if the latigos are angled, so what?  If the shape of the bar matches the shape of the horse, the insignificant pull due to a slight angle on the latigo is not going to pull it out of place.  Like the two spoons nestled together, it takes a fair amount to slide them apart again.  It is only if the tree doesn’t fit well (a spoon sitting on a fork or knife) that the rigging can have an effect on where the saddle ends up.  But by following this “rule” a lot of people Position their saddle in the wrong place.  They look at the position of the cinch relative to the horse and end up putting it too far forward, sitting it right onto the shoulder blades.  Then they hold it there with a breast collar so that the muscle is compressed between bone and bar, doing damage to their horse.  This “rule” needs to be replaced by a different Principle - Saddle Position is determined by the tree, NOT the rigging.

False “saddle fit rule” #2 –you should have a forward set rigging to keep the saddle back from the shoulder blade

From previous posts, you now understand that the saddle does not need to be kept back from the shoulder blade.  Second, the assumption in this rule that the rigging position is what determines the saddle position is also false, as discussed above.  And in reality, a forward rigging can actually cause problems.  Remember how the back of the shoulder blades slip under that front bar tip when the leg is extended?  If you pull those bar tips down tight because the rigging is close to the front of the bars, what you are doing is creating a wall for the shoulder blade to hit because there is no room under the front bar tips anymore.  If you move the rigging back – 7/8 to 3/4 - you lighten up the pressure on the front bar tips and let the shoulder blade slide under for the small amount of time it needs to.  (The design of the rigging also affects this.  Riggings that spread their pull over more of the tree are better than riggings that pull down only or primarily on the front of the bars.)  While setting the rigging back to avoid shoulder interference goes counter to what we would naturally assume, it does make sense when you think about it and it has been documented in unpublished studies.  A forward set rigging has been shown to actually cause the problem it tries to avoid.  The Principle to learn here – Decreasing downward pressure on the front of the bars by rigging the saddle farther back allows for proper shoulder movement. 

False “saddle fit rule” #3 – set your saddle 2” behind the shoulder blade

While you don’t hear this one as often regarding Western saddles, it shows up now and then.  It is brought over from the English world, where the 2” rule is supposed to apply to where the arches of the English saddle (not the front of the saddle) are “supposed to” fit.  Whether or not it applies there, it does not apply to Western saddles.  Nor will the saddle stay there if it is placed there.  Like we have said before (and will continue to repeat) unless it is held out of place with a breast collar or crupper, a good fitting saddle will move into the place it is made to fit – behind the shoulder blade.  So you can delete this “rule”.  It just won’t work.

There.  I have just added myself to the list of people with Dr. in front of their name making statements without referenced backing.  I know of unpublished work that shows these statements to be true, and hopefully someday there will be real, published research I can reference.

(Next, onto the hind limb…)

For a visual of how shoulder blades work with saddles, check out our Proper Position of a Western Saddle video! 

Posted by Knut on 
The gun fight at the O.K. corral was actually started by two saddlemakers sitting around a bottle of whiskey talking about saddle fitting ! :-)
Posted by RodandDenise on 
Yup. Saddle makers can sure disagree about saddle fit issues! :) But the things most Western saddle makers disagree on are the fine points. By and large we agree on foundational things - if we allow ourselves to listen to what the other guy is really saying! So much of the false information comes, not from varying views of Western saddle makers, but from people who don't understand the basics on how Western saddles work in real life. I have always said that the best saddle makers are those who have spent a lot of time with their backside on the top side of a saddle. When you used one for a living, you get a pretty good practical understanding of how they really work.

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