Few things related to riding performance are as important as how comfortably the saddle fits on the horse's back, but it's one of the least-understood aspects of care and training. Even many saddle-company representatives aren?t as thoroughly trained as they?d like you to think, say both the saddle maker and the saddle fitter we interviewed.
?Too often the people that riders are calling about their saddles don't know what they?re doing. They don't know the relationship between the tree, the panels and the billets,? said Gary Severson, of Scranton, Pa., who?s traveled around the country fitting all kinds of saddles for the last 16 years.
To Severson, the key to fitting a saddle comfortably on a horse's back is the panels, the padded underside of the saddle, between the tree and the horse. ?I think the panels are the thing that really makes the horse comfortable, because almost every saddle has a spring tree, so it's matter of making sure the panels are flocked correctly to evenly distribute the weight of the rider,? he said. ?They'll all tell you their tree is better than anyone else?s. . . . The tree has become a marketing tool.?
But to Mehrdad Baghai, of Sebastopol, Calif., the tree is the key. Baghai has made his JRD saddles since 1987, and he also makes components for four other saddle brands and repairs many more.
?Every saddle starts with a tree,? insists Baghai. He makes his own trees, in 21 different shapes and widths, with eight layers of laminated wood, re-enforced with steel on the underside.
?If your tree fits the horse, everything else is just fluff. And if the tree doesn't fit the horse, nothing else matters,? said Baghai. ?The billets keep the saddle on, and stuffing padding in is just a Band-Aid.?
Comfort And The Tree.
Their points of view on equine-back comfort is largely shaped by which element of the saddle they can adjust. Baghai can select one from the wide range of trees he makes to fit almost any horse comfortably. But Severson can't change the tree without tearing the saddle apart ? and doing that isn?t worth the cost. But he can easily add or subtract wool from the panels to mold to the horse's shape.
?The saddle is a tool you ride the horse with, so it must be comfortable for the horse. But many people sell it as only a comfortable seat for the rider,? said Baghai. ?The comfort for the horse depends on the tree, and it should be the most important.?
The tree has three important elements, Baghai said. The first is the waist, commonly known as the twist. It should put the rider just above the horse's center of gravity. The waist lies above the trapezius muscle of the back, and if the tree is too wide or too narrow at the waist, it will pinch and constrict that important muscle, making the horse sore.
To stay in balance with the horse, the rider must sit at the waist, feeling his or her seat bones there, with legs comfortably dangling at the side and no discomfort. ?The waist is where the pelvis meets the tree, and if you're not sitting there, you're not in balance. If you're sitting behind the waist, then you're always riding behind the motion,? Baghai said.
The second element is the points, the two front edges of the tree, on each side of the horse's back. ?The points are the key to comfort from the horse's point of view,? said Baghai. Points can poke the shoulder of wide-shouldered horses.
The third element is the curvature of the tree. The amount of curvature depends on how curved, or flat, the horse's back is.
To make a saddle that fits a horse comfortably, Baghai begins by measuring the length, width and curvature of the horse's back, and then he makes a tracing of the back. Then he usually watches the horse move. Finally, he measures the rider.
it's All About The Panels.
OK, so you?ve got your horse and your saddle. How do you tell if your saddle fits your horse reasonably well and whether you can do anything about it if it doesn't'
?The whole crux of saddle fitting is that, if you're satisfied that the tree size is correct, then the panels should lie evenly on the horse's back,? said Severson. He said that's harder than it sounds, because many horses he sees are asymmetrical or sore.
Severson always starts by palpating the horse's back, looking for soreness. ?My hands can tell me where any soreness is and whether it's saddle-related or not,? he said.
One of the most common problems he sees is people who put the saddle too far forward on the horse's back, so the points are pressing on the horse's scapula (shoulder). The saddle should always sit on the horse behind the scapula.
?I go out of my mind when I see show hunters or show jumpers with the saddle perched on their scapula. Several things will happen as a result: First, it's harder for the horse to bring up his shoulders for the jump. Second, the rider is about 4 inches ahead of the horse's center of gravity, which also makes it harder for him to jump. Third, now the pommel is the highest point, so what do they do' They put more pads underneath the cantle to try to balance the rider,? said Severson. ?I was thrown out of a barn once for trying to explain that. They said I didn't know what I was talking about.?
Then he puts the saddle on the horse's back, without any saddle pads, looking for pressure points and balance. First he looks to see if the saddle rocks up and down when he presses on the pommel. If it does, that indicates the saddle doesn't fit and is creating a pressure point underneath the stirrup bars.
Next, Severson looks to see how much space there is between the pommel and the withers and where the rider?s crotch meets the saddle?s waist. Severson said that point should be ?dead level,? neither tipping forward nor back. He said that often riders cite the maxim that there should be a three-finger width between the withers and the pommel. ?My response is that three fingers is lovely, as long as the low point is level,? he said. ?When the rider is working the horse, the underside of the pommel should never touch the spine. The space you see doesn't matter much ? it all depends on how the balance relates to the rest of the saddle.?
He usually doesn't mind if a saddle ?bridges? on a horse's back, meaning it barely touches the back near the waist when the girth isn?t attached. That's because every saddle brand he knows but one (the Tad Coffin saddles) are made with a spring tree, which gives flexibility to allow the billets to pull the tree closer to the back. The bridging that results from this flexibility allows the horse's back to move up and down as he moves under saddle. If it doesn't, the horse will move with an inverted back, especially when you first start riding him.
?Once He's inverted, until his muscles warm up
and relax, He's going to move in a hollow fashion ? short strides, head up, butt out behind him,? said Severson.
?I tell people that it takes at least 20 minutes to warm up, so if the saddle doesn't fit, it's going to make him sore in the back and probably make his hocks sore too,? he said.
Severson addresses most saddle-fitting issues by re-stuffing the wool in the panels, allowing the panels to conform to the horse's back. it's an adjustment that can be made again and again, as the horse's back changes with fitness and muscling, or with age.
Wool vs. Foam.
The ability to add or to extract wool padding from the panels is why Severson (and Baghai, too) don't recommend saddles made with foam padding in the panels. Foam isn?t as durable or conformable as wool, he says, and foam prevents them from adjusting the saddle?s fit.
?Dressage and event horses especially shouldn?t have foam panels, because they change so much as they get fitter and stronger,? said Severson, who charges $250 to remove the foam and replace it with wool. ?That sure beats the cost of buying a new saddle.?
Ideally, said both the saddle maker and the saddle fitter, every horse should have his own saddle. But they recognize that isn?t possible in the real world. Severson recommends Mattes pads or Fleeceworks pads to help one saddle (or a few saddles) fit multiple horses. He likes the Mattes pads because they come with several shims that can be added to the half-pad that fits on top of a regular saddle pad. He likes the Fleeceworks pads because their softness and washability allow them to be the only saddle pad.
Severson also likes the adjustable trees available in several models of Bates saddles. ?I've had to change the gullet two or three times on some horses, and they work. I love 'em,? said Severson.
He cautions, though, that changing the gullets from one width to another isn?t as easy as the manufacturer suggests. We have three Bates saddles with adjustable gullets, and we?ve found that the process requires 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the age of the saddle and your expertise. You can't just change the gullet size between horses with the snap of a finger.
Severson abhors the common practice of using two or three cotton or synthetic pads to try to fix a saddle that doesn't fit. ?Pads don't change the fit of the saddle at all. Usually all they do is cause pinching or pressure points,? he said.
Finding a saddle that fits your horse and puts you in balance with him is essential to your horse's comfort and your performance. Finding the perfect saddle can often be time-consuming, frustrating, and expensive.
The worst mistake you can make is to insist on a specific brand of saddle, especially if the reason you want that brand is that your friends or your idol ride in it. Find the brand and tree width that fits your horse and fits you, and if that saddle is too expensive, shop around. Sometimes you can find the same saddle slightly used for a $1,000 or more less. And often you can find essentially the same saddle under a different brand name for half the price if you shop carefully. Like car manufacturers, many saddle manufacturers increase the price with options and a ritzier brand name.
?I like to tell people, especially my dressage people, to ride in as many brands as possible. One will feel like home. That's the brand to buy,? said Severson. ?Purchase the correct size for the horse, and you should be in business.?
John Strassburger Performance Editor