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 are your legs
feeling twisted? Do your knees and ankles hurt after
a ride? Does this mean you can only ride a
used broken-in saddle?
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 $450.00 and all I see at
saddle shops are $2500.00? Etc., etc., etc.
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.
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 didn't 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.
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
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.
history: During the 1950’s and early 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 that time. 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 bottoms, 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
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
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" to
7.5" 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. The Gaited trees used among TWH &
similar breeds is usually built on 6 3/4 gullet
width, but with a taller clearance under the pommel
to allow freedom in that area of a horse's
back. This type saddle also works with many
older horses who have dropped off muscle mass.
English saddle fans, you have a distinct
advantage with your English cutback pommel, open sky
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 narrow, medium, medium wide, and wide. This sizing varies by the maker and
by the level of quality in the makers equipment and
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 American 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.
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. BE ACCURATE with these
Better yet, Cultured Cowboy
has saddle forms we can ship to you to try on. You
can see through these forms and can know which is
going to be the best base for you horse's fit. For
hard to fit horses, this is a really nice option.
You pay the shipping, but the forms will ship back
& forth for a lot less than a saddle. And you
know your saddle will work properly when you get it.
(Especially important if your saddler takes a long
time to work your saddle into their time slots.)
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. It is not unusual to need correct
padding to finish the fit.
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
or neoprene combination pads that absorb the shock of hard work or a
"not quite fitting" situation.
probably has the best overall selection of saddle
pad possibilities. There are varieties of felt
qualities, differences in neoprenes used, wear
leathers, and pad pocket placements. Talk with
your favorite tack dealer, Cultured Cowboy, about
these needs in more detail.
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 by becoming too short. 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. But,
many of the better Barrel racers use more rocker in
the bars, front to rear.
This means the newer deep
front, shallower rear skirted, "Trail"
saddles, without the need for speed, will probably
distribute weight placement over a larger area, thus
adding more comfort and less stress to the horse.
They look similar to gymkhana saddles, but are
designed for long rides. These trail saddles are
most popular with "returning" older
riders, and really can be adjusted to fit rider
comfort too. Half of our saddles sold fall into the
"trail" category. The rider
adjustability and light weight makes 'em great for
riding lessons too.
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 others also have a great
version. Big Horn has just maximized technology in
their Sil-Cush versions.
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 triple choice of Steele flex,
Steele Evo Flex & Ralide flex versions. Moderate in price
and toward the lighter weight of saddles, these
units often fit when nothing else seems to be able
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. Flex trees 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 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.
The best of all
saddle trees do have some flexibility. If you come
to Greenwood, I actually have trees you can stand
in, without any leather attached, so you can
first-hand feel the difference. The flex is done
in the bar area of most trees. The pommel and cantle
are fixed at the bar angles and the bars can move as
needed. 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.
"Treeless" saddles? I think Bob
Marshal with Circle Y made these famous.
Smaller riders have found them to work. The more
weight to be distributed, the more a fuller support
seems needed to perform. (Kinda like a sports bra vs
sexy underwire vs much needed heavy support all work
for breasts. Ya just gotta choose the right one for
the right occasion!) Cashel
experimented with their cushion materials in a
treeless and a bareback model. We found they did
well on average to fatter horses. The materials
pulled down & rubbed narrowly built horses. So
we added a blanket under the skinny horses to stop
I do not
remember the name of the best treeless saddle I ever
saw. Came from Australia, and the price was just way
out of what my buyers would spend. But This saddle
Velcroed together all over the place. I loved it!
Almost everything was adjustable as rider needed,
and much for the horse. It really used velcro and
foam padding for its tree. Lost track of that maker,
but my friends at JT International now import the
next best thing! And you can get a package for under
$300.00. The Velcro type & foam materials give
stability and versatility. Comes in both an English
& Western version.
We took this
JT International "treeless" saddle to the barn and rode thinner horses, fatter horses,
for hours. Adjusts up for children, legs came
down for adults. Places you can add or take away
knee rolls, as experience dictates. The bottom is
form fitted with a channel, so that it works with
every horse we tried. No tree, but the materials
allow this saddle to stay in place without quite the
balance & strength needed with a bareback pad.
- Great for bottoms like mine that are getting a
little thinner skinned! No tree. Slick to ride. They
do not tighten to hold in place. They only tighten
to "pad your bottom"! Designed to best not
to hold onto with hands while riding. That handle is
to hang it up to dry! I take the stirrups off
if they come with them, and learn to balance with
the horse. I
find stirrups tend to be used too much for balance
in awkward times. EXCEPTION - If your kid is a
great rider, those stirrups will "kick"
the horse into gear rather than the poor child
kicking, batting and crying, while
"Dobbin" eats grass! If weight is
placed in the stirrups they will almost always
twist. Use a mounting block, or your BFF to mount.
Just swing over & off to dismount. Buy one that
has great materials in construction and they will
last for years.
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
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/dryer
than others. Check to see if there is a tighter fit
in this area than on the rest of the saddle fitting
area. Both of too loose and too tight can be a
problem with your ride. It could be just sweat
rolling downward with gravity. If in doubt, ask your
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. Because most saddles are
tightened on the front end girth attachments,
problems often show in the area of muscle
around the withers area. Center Fire rigging can
alleviate too much of the wrong pressures in too
small an area. This is done by pulling on both front
& back rings of your saddle-to-girth
and some pleasure saddles can have a rear flank set
that pulls tight with a tie strap, as opposed to pin
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. (Tacky Too, Tacky Tack, types) If this
combo does not stop the slipping,
you probably need another tree type.
If the top of
area looks previously rubbed, use a cutback pad. If
your saddle gusset is still sitting on the withers
with no clearance, try that built up cutback pad
with more padding just under/behind the gullet area.
or you need
a different, usually more narrow width 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. Can the saddle be converted for center
fire rigging? If so, move the girth rearward a
little. 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.
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