Fitting Your Horse to the Saddle

General Saddle Facts - Fitting Your Horse to the Saddle

There seems to be much confusion on the fitting of horse and saddle. One article you read tells you that even the least amount of wrong fit will permanently ruin your horse’s spine. They recommend an elaborate computerized measuring system, to be used only by a technologically trained expert, in the field, to recognize all possible pressure points on the back of the horse. The Feed Store employee tells you that the saddles on their racks should fit any horse. Where is the answer? Probably somewhere in between these two scenarios.

Then we need to fit the rider. Which is the right seat size? Why do the saddles feel different when the specs show them all to have a 16" tree? Why do your legs feeling twisted? Does this mean you can only ride a used broken-in saddle?

Now there comes the selection of saddles available. Is a "nylon’ saddle good? How much money should I budget for the saddle? Don’t you save a lot of money at the horse sales? How do I buy a saddle if I have not sat in the seat? Why was that "show saddle" on E-Bay only $350.00 and all I see at saddle shops are $2500.00? Etc., etc., etc.

First, allow me to explain why I feel qualified to answer such questions. My parents have shown pictures of me riding a horse just after learning to walk. They tell me that all I ever wanted, as a child, was to be a cowboy. The Christmas that they gave each of their children bronzed first pairs of shoes, I got a pair of bronzed boots! My childhood heroes were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Later in life, I listened to Roy and Dale give several inspirational speeches on their life experiences. And I was fortunate to know Gene personally. Mr. Autry once surprised me by recognizing who I was in a cafe in Denver. He even remembered my name.

This rambling does eventually come to a point....Early in life I learned the values portrayed in the "good guy" roles of TV cowboys. Even though our family lived in the suburbs, and we did not own horses until I was 15 years old, I had the burning yearning. At 15, we purchased a TWH and soon after, we had purchased a small farm and were breeding and showing horses. As the Walking Horse industry got bad press for the practices used to make "artificial" gaits, I moved into the Western market. Training riders and horses, several of us learned to make a team effort of sharing knowledge while in competition. As a team, we competed together in several breeds and various disciplines. English riding was in my roots with the TWH, so when several team members began riding Hunters and jumping, I did too. It was easy to take the experiences of one breed or discipline and apply those basics to the others.

Over the years, I have been involved in Jumping, Rodeo, Gymkhana, Halter, ... almost every aspect of horsemanship. This vast, well rounded experience, plus having a tack shop since 1974, has given a lot of insight into the correct fitting of horse and rider.

The Western saddle was developed to aid the American cowboy. Almost every part was designed to help catch cows, or make a long ride comfortable, or to keep you in the seat when the going gets rough. This saddle had roots in the deep seated saddles of the Conquistadors. The English saddle was actually developed by the Germans as a lightweight solution for war horses to enable moving faster and jumping higher than the enemy. This was an effective scare tactic used against the enemy footsoldiers and would outmaneuver the heavy armored knights.

The English saddles were first made for larger, wider backed horses that were bred for carrying the heavy armor of the knights. As the horses were bred for agility, their backs narrowed. So, different tree widths were developed to get better fitting. The Western saddles were first used on more narrow backed horses whose ancestors were brought to the Americas by Spanish Conquistadors. To make a long history lesson short, men have always made saddles for specific purposes to fit the horses they rode at the time.

Recent history: During the 1950’s and 60’s, horses were usually rather narrow backed and not tall, as compared with the horses of today. In Western markets, the favored horse was the Quarter Horse. This horse was developed for a short quarter mile race, but became a favorite for all occasions. The standard saddle of the day was one that was built on "quarter horse" bars. It fit most Quarter Horses of the day. The bars are the runners that follow the line of the horses’ back and whose angle is determined by the angle that is used on the pommel and cantle where the bars join those parts. Reference to quarter horse bars is actually referring to the angle of the bars on the tree. Marketing saddles was as easy as saying, "This is a quarter horse saddle. It should fit your horse." You owned a QH. It should therefore fit! English saddle fans, this would be your narrow tree.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a movement to grow bigger horses. I think this was an American mentality at the time. Bigger cars, bigger planes, bigger horses, etc. Many breeds allowed appendix registries so that breeding could develop those larger horses. With these larger horses came wider backs and the need for the semi-quarter horse bars. Semi-quarter horse bars had less angle than the quarter horse bars and thus fit more of these larger, wider bred animals. The angle chosen was one that sort of split the difference between the QH bars and the wider angle that had been developed to fit Arabian horses. Today, semi-quarter horse bars will fit better than 80% of all Western horses. English saddle fans, this would be your medium tree. These QH bars and Semi-QH bars are available on different gullet widths. The most used standard is a gullet width of 6.5". Custom saddles can be made with other widths of gullet. The gullet width is the measurement across the width of the opening under the pommel. It is measured before the skirting and fleece is attached. If you are measuring your saddle, press hard into the fleece to get a more accurate measurement. Fleece will compact, but the leather of the skirting will not. If you are handy, you can detach, then raise or lower the skirt's attachment to the tree for some adjustment in gullet width. If you are not handy, take your saddle to an experienced saddler for adjustment. This is great to know if you just changed horses and if a small adjustment will let you continue to use your present saddle. English fans, you can have your saddles adjusted too. Often, the stuffing in the bottom of the saddle can be added to, or taken out, to adjust for your horse. With the English saddle, you can adjust the stuffing anywhere in the bottom. This allows you to "lift" the fit as needed, front or rear!

Over the past few years, in an effort to be more specialized, many production saddle makers are offering some saddles in the quarter horse bars’ angle on a 7" gullet width. This they call "full" quarter horse bars. It is designed to fit wide backed horses, those who tend to have a problem with saddles slipping sideways due to flat withers conditions or large bone structure. The saddle widens over the center back of the horse then has angles that hold the topsides. English saddle fans, this would fit the horse that needs your wide tree.

If, on the other hand, your horse has a high withers, you will not have problems with slipping sideways. Your problems will be rubbing on the top of the withers or poor fit on the sides of those high withers. Go to the quarter horse bars and request a high pommel clearance. This clearance is also called gullet height. English saddle fans, you have a distinct advantage with your English cutback pommel, open sky clearance!

The sad truth is that there is no true industry standards of measurements in tree widths or angles of English or Western saddlery. Often, in order to market to the masses, production saddlers will call the semi-quarter horse tree a "quarter horse" tree so you will better assume it will fit your Quarter Horse. Modern skirting techniques allow more general fitting than older styling. In today’s Western saddles, you simply assume that the saddle you order will fit 90% of horses. English saddles are often ordered by tree widths. The widths may be numbered, (1,2,3,4,5) or simply called narrow, medium and wide. This sizing varies by the maker and by the level of quality in the makers equipment and methodology.

Now that I have seemingly made everything sound hopelessly complicated, let me simplify in summation. Remember that the standard trees in most Western saddles will fit most horses. The medium tree width on English saddles will fit most horses with no problems. Most of this discussion is to help identify the problem fitting horses. Tell your dealer or saddle maker how your horses are built. Narrow backed and high withered, etc. Show pictures if you can. Discuss what saddles have or have not fit in the past. Has there been any injury that should be accounted for? What is the intended use of the saddle? With enough discussion, you will order a saddle that will fit your horse! Being an Internet source, and a location store, we suggest you call dealers with facts and questions. Be sure their sources use the same general theories that ours do, or have them explain the differences so that you can understand clearly. Saddles are tricky to order with a "BUY" button. Large retailers sometimes have saddles made to their specs.

If you have enough budget, have a custom saddle built to fit each individual horse. Truth is that as your horsemanship needs get more intense and more specialized, you will need to consider this. If after discussion with the saddler, you still wonder about the fit, or if you have had problems fitting the horse in the past, follow these steps. Take a few tracings across the back of the horse at the top of the withers, and every 2" back from the first measurement, until you have the length of the back you will cover with the saddle tree. Do this by bending a wire across the back, then tracing the underside of the wire on paper that can be cut to slide under the saddle which you would like to ensure proper fitting. If your horse has an unusual top line, bend a wire to match it; then trace on paper. Start from the mid withers. If the saddle is custom built, mail these papers to the necessary parties.

If you have a budget for one saddle that you need to fit yourself, but must use with all your horses, get a saddle built upon a medium tree, semi-quarter horse bars. Or if all your horses are wider backed draft breeds, or narrow backed gaited horses, buy accordingly. There are some wonderful pads made to adjust saddle fitting to an art.

If you have several varieties of bone structure with which to deal, use a cutback, built-up pad for the high narrow withered animals. Use a thin non-slip type of neoprene pad for those wider backed, flat-withered guys. There are also various wedge pads, pads with holes drilled for spine relief, contoured pads for the backs that seem to have more curvature, and gel pads that absorb the shock of hard work or a "not quite fitting" situation. Talk with your favorite tack dealer, Cultured Cowboy, about these needs in more detail.

Most all saddles are made with length of bars so that they fit almost all horses. Even when the seat sizes change, much of the change is done on top of the running bars. The cantle is moved forward or back on the bars, rather than elongating the bars to an uncomfortable position for the horse. Occasionally, you will have a short backed horse that is the exception to the rule. Semi-custom or custom bar lengths for trees can be made. We like to work closely with the tree maker and the saddle maker when this is the case. You do not want too much pressure on the kidneys. Or perhaps a round skirt will get the saddle off the flank area. Many Arab saddles are rounded for this reason.

Sometimes a "barrel racing type saddle will help fit a horse. They are usually made on the semi-quarterhorse bars and are designed to fit a bit higher on the back of the horse. This is done to cut weight, but effectively makes fitting some horses easier. Most have a rather deep pocket and higher cantle designed for staying in the saddle on fast take-off. This tends to be very supportive to the lower back of the rider.

One of the features of the "treeless" or flex tree type saddles is that as you tighten the girth, it conforms to the back of the horse. Circle Y pioneered this saddle and Tex Tan also has a great version. Big Horn has just finalized their version. Big Horn flex tree will flex front to back as well as side to side. This is great for horses with sway back conditions, or extremely flattened backs. Dakota now has a great version. Moderate in price and toward the lighter weight of saddles, these units often fit when nothing else seems to be able to work. This flex tree is great for pleasure riding. However, if you need the rigors of ranch roping or wild cow catching, do not tie a rope to these things. They are durable, but not made for heavy pulling work. Go back to a regular ranch or roping saddle and use "too much" padding for the comfort of your horse. The best of all saddle trees do have some flexibility. This is done in the thinner bar area. A little bounce in the saddle, and proper padding, allows some give as the horse’s back changes shape in extension and collection of their movement. The more a saddle is designed for movement, the more flexibility is desired. The heavier the design for pulling work, the less the flexibility will work.

What are some of the tell-tale signs of an ill fitting saddle? First, look for any places where the hair seems to be rubbing off. Hopefully you will catch the problem before there is a raw spot. If you find a horse with white patches on the area of the back, it usually had a problem with saddle equipment fitting in the past. Many pads are designed to allow air flow through them. If you are using one of these pads, look for areas of the horse's back that are wetter than others. Check to see if there is a tighter fit in this area than on the rest of the saddle fitting area. Other pads, such as wool pads, work to cool the back by wicking moisture. If there is a dry area, keep a close watch for problems. Especially watch for lines of sweat or dryness that tend to indicate the saddle is resting on either the top line of the bars without resting on the entire bars, or if the saddle is resting on the bottom line and not touching the top line. Saddles are designed for the entire bar width to rest in alignment, properly and fully along the line of the horse's back. If the saddle constantly slips sideways, use a three way breast collar with a wider, flat, comfortably textured neoprene girth and comfortably textured neoprene pad. If this does not stop the slipping, you probably need another tree type. If the withers area looks previously rubbed, use a cutback pad. If your saddle gusset is still sitting on the withers with no clearance, try that cutback pad or you need a different, usually more narrow gullet saddle. If your saddle seems to fit the alignment of the horse's back, but slips forward or back, check the tightness of the girth often. Change to a wider girth, and/or neoprene girth and pad to stop the slippage and a breast collar and/or crouper may be in order. If these tools do not stop the movement, you may need a different saddle. 

I hope this answers many of your questions about fitting the horse. As I get a lot of response, with the more interesting questions, and/or solutions, I will amend this article to reflect addressing those issues. Now, coming soon: Fitting the Rider.

Chuck Taylor

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