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Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues Part One

There are seven main areas that could be causing problems that give signs of saddle fit issues. All need to be considered by the conscientious saddle maker or rider. It is easy to look for a silver bullet answer that will fix all the problems. In real life, difficulties can be a combination of a number of things, and the rider can be a much bigger part of the problem than we realize or want to accept. Here is the list of things that need to be checked out: 

A) Incorrect position of the saddle on the horse. If the saddle is placed where it doesn't belong, the shapes can't match and nothing else you do will make any difference.  
B)  A problem with tree/horse interaction.  The tree is built OK.  The horse is built OK.  But the shape or size of the tree doesn’t match the contours of the horse’s back.
C)  A fault in the construction or integrity of the saddle tree.
D)  A fault in the construction or integrity of the saddle.
E)  An anatomical “fault” in the horse - something that is beyond the bounds of “normal”.
F)  Problems in the way the horse is saddled, with the padding or with the other tack used.
G)  Problems with the rider or the way they ride.

This page looks at the first couple, with two more in part two.

A) Incorrect position of the saddle:

We talk a lot about the proper position of the saddle on the horse because it is the number one reason for "saddle fit" issues. The front of the bar of the tree is made to fit behind the shoulder blade of the horse. (Here's a video that explains why this is correct.) When placed too far forward, it sits on top the shoulder blade, compressing that muscle between the bone and the bar of the tree. It also will cause bridging and higher pressures on the back of the bars. (For a demonstration, check out this video.) If the saddle is placed too far forward, it compresses the muscle between the shoulder blade and the tree and causes damage to the horse

If the saddle is placed just a bit too far forward and not held in place by a breast collar, it will move back to the proper place - if it fits and the shapes match. But if it is placed well forward, right on top the shoulder blade (and many saddles are) there is no reason for it to move back, and it will stay there without a breast collar. A breast collar is misused if it holds the saddle too far forward. It is also misused if it goes over the point of the shoulder and pulls the saddle into the shoulder blade with every step. Ideally, ride without a breast collar unless there is a particular need for one. ie. pulling calves to the fire, extreme speed events And definitely, when you break in a new saddle, position the saddle carefully and ride without a breast collar for a minimum of ten hours to let everything settle in the place it fits best.

So step number one in figuring out saddle fit issues is absolutely checking the position the saddle has been ridden in. If it was too far forward, put it in the correct place and check it out. You may just have a saddle that fits!!

B)  A problem with tree/horse interaction:

To fit properly, a tree has to fit both the size and the shape of the horse. This is the area that most people concentrate on when checking saddle fit, and it is important. (That's why we have pages and pages on this website about it!) But please check out the other six reasons as well - even before you go through all this. They may be the problem and you will have wasted a lot of time, and even changed saddles, when it wasn't a tree/horse interaction problem at all!

The basics of tree/horse interaction are getting the bar to match the shape of the horse's back - not precisely, but with proper allowances built in for movement, etc. While a number of measurements can label size, shape is more difficult to classify.  Both are vital to get correct.  (These are discussed in more depth and illustrated in our Factors That Affect Tree Fit page.) 

1)  Size:

a)  Spread between bars Horses vary in width from side to side across the back.  A horse that is narrower will need the bars closer together while a broad backed horse will need the bars farther apart.  A tree that is too narrow will sit only on the lower part of the bars, which results in it sitting high, and having less surface area on the horse.  A tree that is too wide will sit low on the horse (possibly hitting the withers) and may no longer contact the horse with the lower part of the bars.  If the shape of the bars is correct for the horse, incorrect widths shouldn’t cause major problems (unless they hit the withers).  The tree will just sit a bit higher or lower with less surface area in contact with the horse. A saddle with too wide a spread will also "fall down in front" as it tips forwards, and changes in padding can help get it right. This is true unless the size misfit is extreme or the bar surface area is minimal to start with.  (See our Why We Use Hand Hole Width Instead of Gullet Width page for further explanation.) 

b)  Angle between bars:  Horses’ backs also vary in shape when seen from behind.  Some are more A shaped, some are more upside-down U shaped, and some are sideways C shaped.  The more A shaped horses need a narrower angle, and the rounder horses need a wider angle.  While broader backed horses generally tend to be rounder, these shapes do not always vary consistently with the width.  In other words, you can have a wide backed horse that is more A shaped or, more commonly, a narrow backed horse that is very round.  Incorrect angles are more likely to cause problems than incorrect widths.  An angle that is too narrow (acute) will cause the bottoms of the bars to dig into the horse.  An angle that is too wide (flat) may cause excess pressure along the top of the bar. This is often seen most severely in the wither pocket and bar tip areas. Too wide an angle will also cause the saddle to tip forward, "falling down in front". Changing padding doesn't help mismatched angles.

c)  Bar length:  A short backed horse may run into problems with bars so long that they interfere with hind end movement, but only if they aren't shaped properly. We say the bars can extend to couple of inches ahead of the point of the hip, because if the shape and amount of rock is correct, the bars won’t be digging into the loin area and causing soreness.  Short bars have less surface area which increases pounds per square inch, and having bars that are too short creates higher pressures than longer bars which distribute the weight better. They are also more apt to dig into the loin, causing soreness, unless they are designed very carefully. 

d)  Length of front bar tip:  Sometimes the "wither pocket" area is smaller, and if the front bar tip is too long, the bars can't fit behind the shoulder blades and still match the rest of the back. This happens with shoulders that are very prominent (resulting from previous damage and atrophy behind them) or really laid back.  A shorter bar tip that fits into the "wither pocket" behind the shoulders is an answer to these problems.

e)  Gullet height:  The gullet may hit the horse’s withers for a couple of reasons in the tree/horse mismatch category.  It could be that the bars are too far apart for this horse, and so the gullet touches the withers before the bars contact the sides of the horse.  If the width were corrected, the gullet height might be fine.  Or it could be that the bars are fitting well and this horse needs a taller fork with more clearance under it.  These two causes need to be distinguished, because while getting a taller gullet height will stop the wither from contacting the gullet, it won’t make a saddle that is too wide fit properly. It is important to remember when we evaluate a tree or a saddle bare on a horse that padding lifts a bare tree or saddle fairly substantially, so gullet height needs to be assessed with padding to make a proper evaluation. (See our Avoiding the Withers page for more information.) 

2)  Shape:

a)  Rock - the curve in the bar from front to back: Some horses are very flat backed from fore to hind, while others are very curved. Some mules actually bend slightly upwards (which we have heard called hog backed).  Horses start flatter and develop more rock as they age.  A tree with too much rock will tend to lift off the horse somewhere behind the stirrup groove when the saddle is cinched up.  The more severe the mismatch, the more of the tree will be lifted off the horse.  When mounted, or if the back cinch is tightened snuggly, the back of the bar will contact more, but this also means the center of the bar gets increased pressure.  We believe that too much rock is the lesser of two evils.  More problematic is the bar with too little rock which “bridges” – hits at the front and the back and spans the middle. A little too much rock or a little bridging seems to be OK, because there is a lot of movement in the horse's back at different phases of each stride. But bars being too different than the horse will cause higher pressures under the parts that do contact. Note: when there is no weight in the saddle, the back bar tip should lift off the horse a bit, because it will press down more when mounted.  If it contacts without weight, it will dig in when mounted. 

b) Crown - roundness of the bar side to side:  "Wither pockets", the area behind the shoulders and below the withers where the front bar pads sit, come in different shapes.  Some are concave, some are totally flat, some bulge out with muscle, especially up top, and some bulge out with fat.  The bar should ideally match the shape of the wither pocket – rounder for more concave, less round for flatter or bulging wither pockets.  A bar pad too round will cause excess central pressure.  A bar pad too flat may, on a horse with a very deep wither pocket, only contact around the edges and may dig in, especially at the bottom.  Because it not wise to build concave bar pads (edges dig in), horses with bulging wither pockets will not uncommonly dry spot.  But the spots should be large and symmetrical on both sides and shouldn’t cause soreness.  Small central spots are always danger signs.  The back bar pads need to be round enough that the edges don’t dig in when the saddle is ridden.  For very muscular horses whose back muscles bulge upward from the spinal column, a flat back bar pad increases the contact area between bar and horse.  Horses without the bulging muscles need a rounder back bar pad to relieve excess pressure at the bar edges.  Having the correct shape here will increase the stability of the saddle, but a misfit in this area would rarely be enough to cause soreness.

c)  Twist – the change in the angle of the bars relative to each other from the front to the back:  Ideally the angle of the bars will match the angle of the horse’s back all the way along, so if the twist isn’t correct, the angle can match at one place and not another.  A problem can occur if the angle anywhere is too narrow and the bottom of the bar digs into the horse.  We see this most commonly in the middle of the bar, even if the front and back bar pads are OK, and is the most likely cause of soreness mid-back. 

d)  Bar edges:  If there isn’t enough rounding or relief built into the edges of the bars, the sharper edge can cause pressure points or ridges which is seen as soreness under the offending area.  This can be a problem anywhere along the bars, but it is especially important at the front and back bar tips. 

The next two reasons are in Part Two of Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues