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Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues Part Two

This page looks at two more 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, so we start with the third:

C)  A fault in the construction or integrity of the tree:

1)  Broken tree:

A broken tree is not only an ill-fitting tree.  It is a dangerous tree which could come apart at any time, possibly resulting in injures to the rider, not to mention the horse.  Because of this safety concern, in any saddle with fit problems the FIRST thing to check is the integrity of the tree.  Only once you know the tree is still in one piece, can you move on in your trouble shooting.

Obviously, once a tree has broken it is no longer a one piece structure that acts to distribute weight as evenly as possible over the entire surface area of both bars.  Breakage causes increased pressure in some areas, such as when the bars break at the stirrup groove.  In this case, the rider’s weight causes the two broken ends to look like a V with the point sticking into the horse’s back.  Breakage of the fork or cantle may allow the bars to change angle or spread apart more.  This compromises the fit of the bars on the horse’s back, and also may allow either fork or cantle gullet to contact the withers or spine, something which would not have occurred before the break.  Any of the signs of an ill fitting saddle can occur with a broken tree, but the history will be that the saddle used to be OK and then started to cause problems (unless they purchased the saddle with a broken tree).  Sometimes the problems start with minor changes and get worse as the first crack gradually splinters off more wood and the rawhide over the area loses its strength.  Other times the break is severe enough to cause clearly defined problems right away. 

2)  Warped tree:

A warped or twisted tree may result in asymmetrical problem areas.  The only way to know a tree is warped is to rip the saddle apart and put the tree on a true (flat) surface.  If it rocks from corner to corner, it is not perfectly square.  If we could see all the trees being used daily which are far from square, we would probably be surprised.  While a tree that is “off” is not ideal, it rarely causes problems unless the twisting is severe.  This is because the horse is constantly moving under the saddle, and the amount of pressure on any one area varies within every stride.  The only exception appears to be in the wither pocket area where the cinch keeps the pressure more constant, and this is where the problems show up as asymmetric pressure areas.  If you suspect the tree is warped, keep it in mind, but continue to look for other problems as well.  A warped tree may be the cause of the problem but may also simply be an incidental finding.  We believe that up to 1/8” (measured off a flat surface) will not be a problem, and more might still be OK.  Make sure everything else is right before considering replacing the tree.

3)  Faulty construction:

a)  Asymmetry:  Anywhere the tree is not built evenly from side to side is a fault.  Some of these asymmetries may be cosmetic only, as in uneven shaping of the fork or rawhide pulling a bit more forward at one cantle point.  Some may or may not be a problem, depending on how the saddle is built.  For example, a cantle that is crooked on the bars makes the tree asymmetric, but if the ground seat is built to place the rider straight, there shouldn’t be a problem with fit.  But some asymmetries can cause severe problems.  If the angles on the bottom of the fork are cut unevenly, it places the bars at two different angles and causes the whole saddle to consistently ride to one side.  Having bars of different length or, worse yet, shapes or styles will cause problems due to the different fit side to side. (Yes, these things happen in production settings. People are still human and make mistakes!) Hopefully these problems will be picked up by the saddle maker long before a saddle is built on the defective tree. 

b)  Poor workmanship:  Lumps and bumps on the bottom of the bars may cause soreness under the protrusion.  These may be nails, screws or staples sticking out the bottom of the wood (much more common than you would think, even on high end saddles), or it may just be poor woodwork causing severe unevenness on the bar surface.  If there are sore spots in unusual places, make sure the underside of the saddle is checked well for smoothness. If you have the skirts pulled off, check the top for areas of high pressure surrounded by low/no pressure, and see what that corresponds to on the tree. Chances are there is a protrusion.

c)  Poor tree design:  A common but relatively unrecognized problem is a mismatch in width between the front and back of the tree.  If there is a wide gullet and the spread between the bars at the cantle is not widened accordingly, the result is a saddle that will tip forward on the horse.  This needs to be distinguished from a horse that is built downhill, a tree with too much rock for the horse or a tree that is just too wide, all of which may look the same when the front cinch is tightened.  Excessively round bar pads will have too much central pressure and cause sore spots.  Gullets that are thick and rounded downward may clear the withers at the gullet lip but actually hit in the middle of the fork or at the hand hole.  Short, narrow bars have minimal surface area, creating higher pressure under them.  A very low cantle gullet may not have enough clearance on a thinner horse and may rub the tops of the vertebrae underneath it.  Excessive length on the front bar tips may cause them to dig into the shoulders.  Not having enough bar behind the cantle can result in the rider’s weight being so far back that the back bar tips dig into the loin area.  Not rounding the edges of the bars may allow the edge to dig into the horse.  Having an inappropriate amount of twist will mean either the front or the back of the bars are at the correct angle, but never both. Starting the twist too far back will lead to too much angle in the middle of the bars, creating high pressure on the bottom edge. Arizona bars, which lack a back stirrup groove, may cause soreness along the lump caused by the back edge of the stirrup leather.  In short, anything in the design that hinders the tree from conforming to the shape and size of the horse’s back may cause problems.

D)  A fault in the construction or integrity of the saddle:

1)  Damage to the saddle:

On occasion a damaged or poorly repaired saddle may cause fit problems.  A rigging that has stretched unevenly may cause the saddle to twist on the horse’s back causing discomfort or even soreness.  Stirrup leathers that stretch unevenly will cause the rider’s weight to be carried unevenly.  Nails that work loose from the gullet or cantle gullet may rub on underlying vertebrae.  Nails or staples working loose from the underside of the bars cause lumps and bumps that can create sore areas. (Note that on good saddles, there shouldn't be nails or staples on the underside of the bars, but this is seen on poor quality saddles.) Wear on the sheepskin can contribute to problems, or at least show areas that need to be checked out further.

2)  Faulty construction:

a)  Asymmetry:  The worst problems are caused by an uneven rigging, either because the two sides are not cut identically or because they are placed on the tree unevenly or both.  This can cause the saddle to ride to one side, the saddle to twist on the horse resulting in uneven pressure and pain, the saddle to constantly shift, etc.  Uneven stirrup leathers or holes punched unevenly in the stirrup leathers will cause the rider to weight the stirrups differently, resulting in saddle shifting or uneven pressure points.  A seat that is not level side to side will have the same results. 

b)  Poor workmanship:  Improperly blocked skirts which don’t follow the relief built into the bar edge will stick straight out, possibly rubbing the shoulders or the loins. Lumps and bumps on the underside of the saddle may result from nails or screws extending through the tree, strings improperly placed through the bars, etc.  These will cause pressure points for the horse.

c)  Poor saddle design:  Poor ground seats that force the rider’s weight to be in an unbalanced position can cause all sorts of problems.  Especially common is the seat that throws the rider’s weight to the base of the cantle.  This puts more pressure on the back bar pads and exacerbates any problems with the back bar tips or the skirts back of the cantle.  Skirts that are placed too low so they don’t cover the top of the bar may result in rubbing along their top edge.  How the skirts are laced together at the back may cause rubbing on the loin or even lifting of the back of the tree off the horse.

3)  A word about rigging position and back cinches:

If the shape of the bars match the shape of the horse’s back, the fit is like two spoons nestled together.  Unless it is held in the wrong place by a breast collar or crupper, or placed way too far forward on the shoulder blades, the saddle will move to sit where it fits properly and then stay there.  Riders tend to be overly concerned about rigging position being too far back so the latigos and cinch angle forward. The "rule" about the latigos and cinch being vertical doesn't apply to western saddles. Having a vertical cinch with a western saddle in the proper position is almost impossible unless the horse is very straight shouldered and the rigging is very far forward. The latigo may slant forward more than what the owner would prefer, which may make them think the saddle is too far back.  Some even move the saddle forward and hold it out of place with a breast collar to make the cinch stay vertical, causing saddle fit problems.  We maintain that if the tree fits the shape of the horse’s back, the rigging position won’t pull the saddle out of place if it fits well, even at center fire.  If it is a poorly fitting saddle, then there is no “curve-and-hollow” fit stopping the rigging from moving the saddle around.  If the saddle continually moves forward onto the shoulders, it doesn’t fit well. 

A saddle rigged very forward on the bars (full or more) will pull down much more on the front of the bars, often impeding the shoulder blades from slipping under the bar tips as they should do when the leg is fully extended.  The same saddle with a rigging farther back allows much freer shoulder movement.  This goes counter to the “rig it forward to hold the saddle back so you get free shoulder movement” idea, but it has been shown to be a fact.  If there are problems at the back of the shoulders and the saddle is rigged full, moving the rigging back may solve the problem. As a general suggestion, we recommend rigging positions of 7/8 to 3/4 for most saddles and horses.

A saddle that is double rigged is meant to have the cinch doing something, not just hanging in the air waiting to cause a wreck.  However, the back cinch will loosen up over the course of a ride.  Constructing the rigging so that it exerts its pull more centrally on the tree is a good thing.  For saddles rigged with the front cinch pulling mainly on the front of the saddle, doing the front cinch up tight increases pressure under the front bar pads and lifts the tree off at the back.  If the rider is not willing to continually tighten the back cinch to the point of contacting the horse, it is better to move the rigging back or change it so it will have a more central pull on the tree. 

The last three reasons will discussed in Part Three of Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues