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Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues Part Three

This page looks at the last three of 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.

The first two were talked about here, and the next two were talked about here, so we start with the fifth:

E)  An anatomical “fault” in the horse:

While no two horses in the world are built identically, there is range that would fall within what we would call normal.  Then there are “the others”.  There can also be physical defects in horses, either congenital or caused by injury or chronic misuse.  All of these will affect saddle fit.

1)  “Extreme” horses:

A horse that is on either end of the “normal” bell curve will have more problems with saddle fit.  These can be extremely muscular horses whose muscles round out extensively.  Extremely fat horses are totally round everywhere for a different reason.  Both these types of horses need flatter crown on the bars, and most will still dry spot to some extent.  But even within these groups the width and angle needed can be different.  Some horses have extremely tall withers, and while narrowing the tree will raise the gullet relative to the withers, it is not always the best answer.  The width and angle of the bars need to be correct to properly fit the horse’s back, and the gullet height is raised by increasing the fork height in order to clear the withers.  Some horses have tall withers that extend back well into the wither pocket area, so having a tall enough hand hole height is very important.  (See Avoiding the Withers for further explanation.)  Some horses have backs so broad they can be used as a table, or some so narrow that most of today’s common saddles won’t fit.  Bar angle and width are important here.  Some horses have excessive rock in their back and some have very limited rock, both of which need to be compensated for.  Some horses have shoulders that stick out from the horse, or shoulder blades that extend well back into the wither pocket.  The length of the bar tip needs to be considered here.  Knowing what is normal will let you see if the horse is extreme in any area and if that is what is causing the problem.  Then you can take the special measures often needed to fit these horses. (Here is part one of a three part series on Evaluating a Horse's Back.)

2)  Downhill horses:

A common fault today, especially in Quarter Horses, is having withers lower than the croup, but the most important area to check out is where the bars of the saddle sit.  Does this area tilt down toward the front?  If so, conformation and gravity work together to cause the saddle to want to slide forward on the horse, putting excess pressure on the front bar tips and often interfering with the shoulders.  Horses grow rump first, with the front end gaining in height later, so some horses may grow enough that this won’t be a lifelong problem.  But some adult horses are still severely downhill, enough to cause problems that would not exist if the horse were level.  The tree built to fit the curves on the back will still slope downhill on these horses because that is the way the horse is built. If your customer consistently rides this style of horse, you may want to consider putting more rise in the seat in order to level it out somewhat when placed on the horse.

3)  Defects:

Some horses have physical defects that cause problems with saddle fit.  Most common are horses that are asymmetrical, and how severe it is determines if it will be a problem or not.  It can cause either a one-sided problem or different problems on each side.  Sometimes asymmetry is due to conformational defects in the underlying structure.  Sometimes it is due to how the horse is used, making it more muscular on one side than the other.  And sometimes it is the result of injury or muscle atrophyLooking from above and behind the horse helps you compare one side to another.  Once the asymmetry is recognized, checking with a vet or other health care professional to see if something can be done to make the horse symmetrical again would be the first step.  Specialized padding should be considered while it is being remedied or if it can’t be remedied.  We will not build an asymmetric tree because the tree will last longer than the horse’s problems or the horse itself and will cause problems for the other horses it would be used on.

F)  Problems in how the horse is saddled, or other padding and tack:

Only by watching the rider saddle up can things like saddle and cinch position, cinch tightness, blanket quality, condition and placing, and breast collar or crupper placement be properly assessed to see if they contribute to the fit problem. 

1)  Saddling:

a)  Position:  As we said in the first Reason in this series, position is the number one cause, in our minds, of "saddle fit" issues. So we are going to talk about it again!

Given the option, a tree will move to where its shape best fits the shape of the horse’s back.  The problem arises when the rider thinks it should be somewhere else, and not only starts the saddle in the wrong place but holds it there with a breast collar or crupper.  The saddle is often placed too far forward, interfering with and even being forced to ride on top of the shoulder blades. Sometimes it is placed so far forward it will not move back into place. Placing a saddle too far forward may cause the cinch to rub behind the elbow.  Other riders are so concerned about shoulder interference that they place the saddle too far back, though unless held back by a crupper, the saddle will almost always move forward into the correct position - unless is really doesn't fit, of course!  A good fitting saddle will cause high pressure areas if forced to remain in the wrong position.  If it is not held there, it can cause skin irritation or wrinkles in the blankets as it moves into the correct position. Here's a video that demonstrates how to find the proper position.  Some riders need to step back and be shown where the saddle is meant to sit relative to the withers and the front legs in order for them to understand how far out of position they are placing it.  Tact is required in this instance.

b)  Cinching up:  A good fitting tree should only be cinched as tight as needed to keep it in place when mounting and riding properly.  For roping or doing fast work, it will need to be snugged up more.  But sometimes the saddle is cinched up tight and then ridden or left for long time periods without being loosened.  In this case, both the cinch and the saddle are exerting unnecessary, excessive pressure on the horse and in the long run may cause problems.  The old cowboys not only “aired out their horses’ backs” during the day by uncinching and lifting the back of the saddle, but often unsaddled over lunchtime to give their horse’s back a break.  Cinching too tightly for too long will exacerbate any potential problems areas and may even be the sole cause of a problem.

c) Not using the back cinch: Saddles with a more forward rigging or a rigging that pulls primarily on the front of the tree, need a back cinch to distribute the pull over the whole tree. But the back cinch needs to be snug to the horse to be active. Having a back cinch hanging below the horse's belly is useless and dangerous. With the pull down only on the front of the saddle, there will be excessive pressure toward the front of the saddle and the back will have excessive movement - both of which can cause problems.

2)  Padding:

a)  Type:  When you ask people who do ranch work on horses for long hours, day in and day out what type of pads they use, the answer is close to unanimous – wool or wool felt.  Wool dissipates pressure better than any other material, and it conforms to the shape of the horse’s back better than anything else.  It doesn’t trap heat next to the body like a lot of synthetics do.  Wool pads are not slippery, as some synthetics are, so they stay put and help hold the saddle in place with less cinch pressure.  Pads contoured to fit over the withers don’t put pressure on the top of the withers like unshaped pads do.  This pressure, if unrelieved over a period of time, can harm a horse. 

b)  Amount:  Over padding is a common cause of saddle fit problems.  Too much padding negates the good fit between the shape of the horse and the tree by diminishing the curves.  It causes the saddle to roll around more so the cinch needs to be tighter to hold it in place, causing possible cinch soreness problems.  It also effectively widens the horse, often causing dry spots and maybe necessitating a wider, poorer fitting tree to make up for the added width of the padding. We recommend between 1/2 and 7/8th inch of a good quality wool felt pad, with the thicker pads used for roping. 

c)  Condition:  Dirty blankets, folds or wrinkles - anything that rubs on a horse can cause sores.  Worn or damaged padding that is no longer a uniform thickness may also cause problems. 

d)  “Corrective”:  Shims, wedge pads, pads that have varying thicknesses in different areas – all these have to be used with caution as they often cause more problems than they solve. Putting extra padding under a high pressure area just adds extra pressure. The idea is to add extra padding where there isn't any contact to distribute the pressure better. Thick or squared off edges on shims are especially bad for making ridges that cause pressure points. Shims should be angled off to create smooth transition zones.

3)  Other tack:

a)  Breast collars and cruppers:  A good fitting saddle should rarely need either of these.  Used incorrectly, they often cause problems by holding a saddle in the wrong position.  Improperly adjusted, they can rub and even sore a horse. A breast collar can be useful when roping or doing extreme speed events. Both can be useful when riding in the mountains going up and down very steep slopes. If you need a breast collar or crupper for basic trail or arena riding, the saddle doesn't fit the horse well.

b)  Cinches and latigos:  Synthetic cinches and latigos have no give to them, so using only synthetics all the way round makes it more difficult for a horse to expand its chest when breathing.  As well, there is no stretching or loosening up as the horse warms up to give relief from tight cinching, leading to constant high pressure under the saddle and cinch.  It is recommended that at least one section be made of natural materials to avoid these problems.  The narrower the cinch, the less surface area the pressure is spread over.  While some cinches appear to be wide, all the tension is actually put on a narrow band of nylon that runs down the middle of it.  Some synthetic cinches also hold a lot of heat next to the horse. So called "anatomic cinches" have become popular. The idea is that the latigos will not have as much angle while the cinch sits more forward. (Remember that it is fine to have angled latigos because they won't pull a good fitting saddle out of position.) Depending on the horse's anatomy, these may or may not function well. Often, they create excess pressure as the solid cinch tilts, contacting the horse only with its back edge, so they need to be checked every time to ensure there is even pressure under the whole cinch.

c)  Uneven loading:  All manner of things are tied onto saddles or carried in saddle bags.  While each item may not weigh much individually, putting all the fencing tools or large bottles of medications in one saddle bag or continually having a heavy water bottle on one side will weight the saddle unevenly, causing constant shifting to one side and increased pressure on that side. 

G)  Problems with the rider or the way they ride:

Only by going out and watching the rider in action will a saddle maker be able to discover to what extent a rider may be contributing to the "saddle fit" problems.  Since the rider is generally in constant motion, they will frequently be adjusting their weight and so don't often place unrelenting, excessive pressure in one spot for a long time.  But over time even a moderate increase in pressure over one area can make a horse sore.

1)  Riding skill plays a large, but underestimated, part in how much pressure is exerted on a horse's back. Research shows that with good riders at a walk, the total pressure is basically equivalent to the rider's mass. At a trot it is double and at a lope it is 2.5 times the rider's mass. This is increased with an unbalanced or poor rider. Someone who sits quietly and balanced in the center of his horse will be much easier on his horse’s back than a person who is bouncing all over the place. Posting has been shown to cause less overall pressure on the horse than sitting the trot. Good riding, giving the horse a break from their weight or even the weight of the saddle for a few minutes here and there over a long day’s ride – these are the things good horsemen do to keep their horses sound.

2)  Riding position is also important.  Riders who prefer to ride a horse as they sit in a chair – legs forward, weight thrown to the back of the saddle – can increase the pressure on the back of the saddle and may cause the back bar tips to dig into the horse.  Some riders carry more weight to one side than the other, which causes the saddle to ride to that side, increasing the pressure there.  Rarely, a person might have uneven leg lengths and need to have uneven stirrups in order to weight both stirrups evenly.  Some ropers deliberately have uneven stirrup lengths because they feel it helps them rope.  Most people, though, don’t realize they are riding unevenly.  Some just have poor body posture normally.  Others have injuries, arthritis, etc. and riding unevenly alleviates their discomfort.  But riding consistently in this manner can cause increased pressure and soreness for their horse. 

3)  Riders who sit still for long time time periods on their horses without allowing them to move have the same effect on their horses’ backs as sitting on a hard wooden bench without moving for the same amount of time would have on a person’s backside.  This can happen when attending a clinic, when waiting for a turn at roping, etc.  Dismounting or allowing the horse to walk around a bit will go a long way to relieving any discomfort in these situations. 

4)  Heavyset riders, especially if they are shorter, will also bring out problems that may not exist if they were lighter.  They may tend to cinch tighter to hold the saddle in place as they mount.  If this is the only reason to cinch so tightly, using a mounting block will help.  Heavy riders create more PSI on the horse than lighter riders, so total bar area contacting the horse is more critical.  If the rider is top heavy and has short legs they often will rely more on their stirrups during fast work, especially if riding large horses, necessitating tighter cinching to avoid saddle slippage.  Loosening the cinch between riding times is crucial if this is the case. Overall, however, rider skill is more important than rider weight. A heavier but quiet rider will be better for their horse than a lighter but unstable and bouncy rider.

Now that you know the basics of the reasons, you can move on to Diagnose Saddle Fit Issues.