Proper saddle fitting is important, involves many aspects of horse anatomy
Douglas – All horses are not created equal, and all saddles do not fit every horse, noted certified saddle fitter, Julie Broer.
Broer explained the importance of saddle fitting and how it can impact the health and longevity of a horse at the Big Wyoming Horse Expo, which was held at the Pepsi Equine Center in Douglas on April 25-27.
“We need to make sure that we address a horse’s saddle needs at every stage of their life,” stated Broer.
Trace a back
Broer mentioned that the first step in determining the proper fit of a saddle is to trace a horse’s back to see how symmetrical the back is from side to side, the height of their hips and the location of their girth line, as well as any areas lacking in muscle along the horse’s back.
“I’ve seen a lot of horses come in during the spring that have a bit of a dip in their backs and loss of topline because they are not in condition yet,” noted Broer. “Usually by the end of the summer, as the horse builds up their back muscles and uses their belly muscles correctly to carry their rider, their topline comes back.”
“When there are a lot of pressure marks on a horse, they are not necessarily at the top of the withers where the saddle would be hitting them,” stated Broer. “The pressure marks generally appear farther behind the withers where the front of the saddle sits, called the gullet.”
She continued, “It’s not just the width of a saddle that affects a horse’s back. Any pressure bearing surface from the saddle can affect them.”
Horses can actually stop sweating from too much pressure endured from a saddle, explained Broer, and it is important for a rider to look for dry spots on their saddle pads after riding to determine if a horse is being pinched or experiencing too much pressure from a saddle.
“With continual pinching and pressure from a saddle, a horse’s muscle can actually be destroyed,” commented Broer. “When a rider sees white hairs on their horse, this is signaling pressure to the point of actually killing off the hair follicle.”
Broer explained there are many different styles and varieties of saddletrees to fit any body type or need a horse may have. Saddletrees are usually made out of wood and can be covered with rawhide or a plastic coating that has a lot of resin.
However, western saddletrees cannot be altered to fit differently shaped horses, and Broer sternly expressed the importance of having the basic shape of a saddletree to correctly fit the horse.
“Sometimes a rider can pad thin or pad thick, and this will create a little bit of support, but it is essential the basic shape of the saddle is correct for the horse,” warned Broer.
She added, “It’s tempting for riders to keep going to the tack shop to get another saddle, but the rider may be buying the same saddle over and over again. It just looks different on the top.”
Center of horse
“The center of a saddle should be placed in the center of the horse,” stated Broer. “This spot is where the rider is actually the most affective and safe.”
To find the center of a horse, Broer suggested to place a little level, about two inches long, on the horse's back and find the most level spot.
“When a saddle is placed very much past the center of the horse, it’s the same as if we put a 50 pound pack of rocks on a person and made that load ride right between their lower ribcage and hips,” described Broer, “all that is there to support the load is muscles, it’s the same for horses.”
“As long as riders stay on a horse's ribcage, they can carry us. They are able to use their belly muscles to round up and are then able to bring their backend under them to lift their back and front ends,” stated Broer.
“If a rider is not sure where their saddle should sit on a horse, they should place it on the horse and walk the horse around to see where the saddle ends up,” suggested Broer.
If the saddle ends up on the horse’s last ribs, then it’s probably too narrow because their shoulders keep shoving the saddle back. The saddle will also have the appearance of looking “uphill” and be lifted at the front of the saddle.
When the saddle is too wide for a horse, it will move towards the horse’s neck. This will cause the rider to be positioned too far forward on the horse’s back and make them lean forward. The saddle will also have the appearance of being “downhill.”
“If the basic shape of the saddle is not there, I don’t care how much padding is under it, the saddle won’t fit comfortably,” stated Broer. “Sometimes when a saddle is too big, a thick pad will work if the shape of the saddle is close to fitting the horse. If the saddle is too small, adding more padding is not the answer.”
Poor saddle fitting
A poor-fitting saddle can lead to horses becoming lame, acquiring depressions in their muscles and misalignment of their back, stated certified saddle fitter Julie Broer.
“The best way a horse can carry us is if we distribute our weight across the biggest area possible,” said Broer, who added that smaller distribution area and increased pressure points can create bad scenarios for horses.
Part of poor saddle fitting can lead to wither pockets, which are depressions in the muscle behind a horse’s shoulder blade. Broer mentioned that, to help the muscle rebuild itself in this area, place a padding shim between the horse and the saddle.
“Wither pockets are important to know about because some horses are just built that way, but a lot of times, when we see those pockets, they are due to excess pressure from a saddle,” said Broer. “When there is a lot of pressure in this area, the muscle can’t grow and build itself up.”
“Another consequence of poor saddle fitting is when a horse ‘boards their back.’ This is when a horse is anticipating pain and used to getting pinched by the saddle, so they brace their back to reduce any movement to it,” explained Broer.
“Young horses change a lot as they get older. I tell people to get a saddle that fits their young horse, or at least close to fitting their horse, but not an expensive saddle,” stated certified saddle fitter Julie Broer.
“A lot of behavioral training issues start with situations where we throw on a saddle that we don’t care if it gets broke, and then we have an uncomfortable baby who’s trying to learn their job,” commented Broer.
She continued, “Maybe the trainer can handle the uncomfortable horse with a poorly fitted saddle, but when we go to get on them, the horse already has the perception the ride is going to be nasty, and they get spooked.”
Broer noted horses will tell their riders whether a saddle fits or not by their reaction while being saddled and with other mannerisms, such as bobbing their head up and down, being fidgety and carrying their tail to the side.
“All of these signs show the horse is anticipating discomfort,” explained Broer. “Sometimes people may mark this up as training issues, and they might be, but I would start by taking the horse to a vet to see if anything is wrong with the horse. Then, producers should look at how the saddle fits the horse and how the rider rides the horse.”
Riders should periodically check the integrity of their saddles. This can be done by looking at the middle of the saddle while pushing down to make sure the tree isn’t moving. If the tree moves under pressure, the integrity of the tree has been compromised.
Also, check the tree by placing the saddle on its side and place knees on it to see if the tree has any give that way. Then riders should check the sides of the saddle for any rough spots or sharp objects that could affect the horse.
“When buying a used saddle, it is very important to check the integrity of a saddle,” advised Broer.