Saddles for the Hard to Fit Horse

Here’s how to choose the right saddle for three equine body types that are especially difficult to fit.
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Here’s how to choose the right saddle for three equine body types that are especially difficult to fit.
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Many of us know the sinking feeling that comes when you put your foot in the stirrup and feel your saddle roll sideways. And sometimes saddle slips occur even after you’ve tried every­thing to prevent them: riding in a wide saddle, using a nonslip girth and pulling the cinch as tight as your core strength allows.

On the other side of the equation are those shark-withered Thorough­-bred types who sprout white hairs even under a sky-high gullet. Your saddle stays put, but you’re always on the lookout for signs of damage to your horse’s back and withers.

And finally there are the in-betweens, like my Quarter Horse, Cappy. His front and back conformation don’t seem to belong to the same horse.

Yes, there are all sorts of horses whose shapes make finding the right saddle difficult, and there’s a lot at stake. A saddle that pinches a horse’s shoulders or presses on his withers can have all sorts of negative effects.

“I’ve always compared saddle fit to shoe fit,” says Dawn Anderson, a saddle fitter certified by the Society of Master Saddlers in the United Kingdom. “If you were to go hiking in a pair of shoes that was either too big or too small, you’d be uncomfortable. Chances are, you’d wind up with painful blisters on your feet, and you might end up with a backache. It’s no different for your horse. A saddle that doesn’t fit causes tension, and when his body is tense, every footfall hits the ground with greater force. That kind of repetitive concussion can contribute to soundness issues down the road.”

Likewise, some behavior problems may be traced to discomfort related to saddle fit problems. “It’s easy to assume a horse who walks away from the mounting block, can’t stand still or is excessively spooky is just that kind of horse,” says Anderson. “But sometimes ear pinning, tail swishing, teeth grinding, evasion of the bit, and even difficulty with upward and downward transitions can be linked to discomfort in the horse. And much of that discomfort can be traced to poor saddle fit.”

But, if your horse has a hard-to-fit physique, you might be asking the question---is it even possible to achieve a good fit for him?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” Over the last several years, innovations in saddle making have made it possible. Whether your horse is the full-figured type like a lot of Haflingers and Fjords or angular and athletic like many Thoroughbreds, or even if he’s one of those in-between horses who’s either still growing or has conformation that doesn’t fit the mold of the average horse---there’s a saddle out there to fit him. Here’s how to find one.

Form and function

Saddle fit starts in the tree. If the tree fits the contours of your horse’s back, everything else will fall into place. For that reason, your saddle search begins with a solid under­standing of tree shape and how it relates to saddle fit.

Aside from a little tweaking here and there, the basic design of the saddletree hasn’t changed much in almost 2,000 years. In fact, today’s saddletree looks a lot like the ancient versions---just two strips of wood (or composite) connected by two arches---a pommel or fork at the front and a cantle at the back.

“Think of the tree as the skeleton of your saddle,” says Anderson. Its function is simple---to provide stability and support, both to the saddle and the rider. It must distribute the rider’s weight evenly over the horse’s back, while keeping pressure off his spine. To do its job right, the tree must fit the contours of your horse’s back. Too narrow and it could bridge, creating pressure points. Too wide and it could sit too low on your horse’s spine.

Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of variations in bar spread, flare, width, rock and length that can enable saddletrees to fit the contours of any equine back comfortably. Understanding the following terms can help you make an informed decision.

• Bars (rails on an English saddle) are the two strips that run parallel to your horse’s spine and are connected in front by the fork or pommel and in the back by the cantle.

• Bar spread refers to the distance between the bars. The bar spread determines the width of the saddletree’s channel or gullet.

• Bar angle is comparable to the pitch on your barn’s roof. Some angles are narrow and steep; others are flat. Ideally, the bar angle when viewed from the front of the horse will match the slope of the area just behind the horse’s shoulder known as the “saddle pocket.”

• Bar twist refers to the change in bar angle from front to back as it follows the contours from just behind your horse’s shoulder toward his croup. If the bar angle and the twist are a perfect match for the horse’s back, chances are everything else will fit as well.

• Bar flare refers to the bar tips, usually in front, where they curve up and away from your horse’s shoulders. Some trees offer a little flare in back as well to allow for a croup-high horse.

• Bar rock or sweep refers to the amount of curve in the bars from front to back. A horse with a flat topline for instance, will need a tree with very little rock or sweep while a swaybacked horse or one with a dip will need a tree with significant rock to it. “Curvature of the tree is important to the fit of the saddle,” says Anderson. “You would never want to put a flat tree on a horse with a bit of a sway in its back or vice versa. I’ve seen a few very curved trees on flat-backed horses, and they rock considerably. That doesn’t make for a happy horse.”

Now let’s take a look at three of the most challenging equine physiques and saddle suggestions to fit them. 

Challenge 1: The mutton-withered, broad-backed horse

You know them---Fjords, Haflingers, most Mountain and Moorland breeds---
just about any horse who has huggable but hard-to-fit conformation. Hoop-shaped trees, shaped like an upside-down U instead of the traditional V-shape, fit these burly types well.

But some broad-backed horses aren’t built like your typical Thelwell pony. Sometimes that broad back crops up in other types, like Baroque horses or gaited breeds. “There are, of course, certain breeds that are consistently wide, like Fjords and Haflingers,” says Nancy Temple, of Duett Saddles, a Massachusetts-based saddle distributor of saddles to fit wide horses. “But I’ve sold wide hoop-tree saddles for just about every breed there is---even Thoroughbreds.”

A broad-backed horse will probably take a wide saddle, but be aware that those with very wide twists can be uncomfortable for the rider, so be sure to look for saddle designs that fit you, too. “Some of my saddles, like the Fidelio dressage model, offer a more sloping pommel shape,” says Temple. “You can be in a very wide Fidelio and be amazed at how comfortable it is.” Other ideas include suspending the tree slightly over the horse, but that can mean a loss of contact.

In a Western saddle, look for a wide bar spread throughout, a substantial bar width (to offer better weight distribution) and a flatter bar angle. If you’re unsure what tree is in the saddle, ask the retailer or manufacturer. Most saddle makers are happy to talk saddle fit with you.

Note that many round-barreled horses are also short in the back so consider round-skirted Western saddles over square skirts if that’s the case for yours. Here are a few suggestions for saddles that might fit the mutton-withered, broad-backed horse:

• Duett offers a variety of saddles---dressage, close contact, jumping, Icelandic/gaited and trail---built on wide, rounded trees. “Duett saddles are designed for difficult-to-fit horses,” says Temple, “especially those with wide backs.” Sizes range from a medium
32 cm wide to a super-sized 42 cm. Even wider trees can be special ordered. Depending on model and customization, prices range from $950 to $1,729. Visit www.duettsaddles.com.

• The Thorowgood T4 Cob GP (Broadback) is an all-purpose synthetic English saddle built on a broad tree designed to fit the flatter contours of low-withered, wide-backed horses. To ensure a good fit the saddle features a changeable gullet system, movable blocks at the knee and calf, and four girthing options. The saddle is made in the United Kingdom but is available through U.S. dealers, priced around $695. For more information or to find a retailer, go to www.thorowgood.com.

• The Big Horn Haflinger Saddle, now made by American Saddlery, comes in leather and synthetic Western models, with 15 ½-inch and 16-inch seats. All are built on a tree designed to fit Haflingers and other wide-backed horses. The leather models
feature short, rounded skirts for the short-backed horse. The saddles are made in the U.S.A., priced from the $500s to $1,000. Go to www.americansaddlery.com.

• Allegany Mountain Trail Saddles offers a fully customized fit, starting at around $1,350. The company sends out nine saddle forms, and the customer photographs and videos the horse wearing the forms, both standing and in motion. Then a saddle will be built around the Steele tree that fits best. Models available include Western trail, Cascade Wade, renegade endurance and plantation trail, with different design choices including leather color, skirting style, rigging options and tooling. Visit www.trailridingsaddles.com. 

Challenge 2: The high-withered horse

Many Thoroughbreds and their crosses, Appendix Quarter Horses and other athletic riding types sport high, sharp---“shark”---withers that make saddle fitting tough. Take one look at those withers and you might think narrow saddle. But that’s an all-too-common mistake. Many of these horses have withers that taper into a broad, athletic back with a well-sprung rib cage. A narrow saddle on this kind of horse will probably cause pain.

For these horses, you’re probably going to be looking for a V-shaped tree, especially if your horse is angular, but don’t rule out the hoop-shaped tree if he’s broad in his back. Opinions vary in the saddle-fitting community over whether it’s advisable to buy an extra-wide saddle and add padding at the withers to make it fit. “The idea
that it’s OK to fit a saddle too wide and then pad it up is erroneous. It’s just as uncomfortable on the horse as a saddle that’s too narrow,” warns Anderson.

On the other hand, says Temple, “Many in the natural horsemanship community, as well as other fitters and veterinarians, feel that fitting a horse with a too-wide saddle and using shims to lift the front is actually advantageous. The use of front shims to lift the saddle balances the rider, while the extra width in the tree gives the horse great comfort and freedom of movement.”

If your horse is more angular, consider other options. “A more angular horse with hollows behind the shoulder does better in a tree with a longer point,” says Anderson. “Shoulder gussets and a dropped panel are a must to fill in the area behind the shoulder and lift the saddle enough in front to clear those withers.”

Here are a few suggestions for high-withered horses:

• Black Country Saddles specializes in custom-built saddles for a number of English disciplines, including dressage, endurance, jumping, polo and hunters as well as Icelandic and general purpose. High-withered horses will benefit from models with thicker gussets and trapezius or K panels, which fill in hollow areas behind the shoulders. These saddles are made in Walsall, England. Prices start around $2,300. Go to www.blackcountrysaddles.com.

• Collegiate Saddles offers hand-crafted leather saddles for a variety of English disciplines---including dressage, eventing and jumping---all with the Easy-Change Gullet System, which allows you to select a gullet bar that best fits your horse. The bar can be changed, as necessary, if your horse changes in size. Prices range from $670 to $1,500. Go to www.collegiate-saddles.com.

• Barrel racing or gaited saddles, available from many makers, tend to offer ample clearance at the withers. “The key to high withers is finding a saddle with sufficient clearance,” says Anderson. “The two- to three-finger rule isn’t an accurate measure.” Instead, Anderson suggests riding in the saddle for about 20 minutes. Then check that the saddle is not resting on top of the withers, both at the gullet area and toward the stirrup attachment or bar. Some horses have shark withers that drop off sharply. Others have withers that taper off like a mountain range. No matter which type your horse has, be sure there’s no pressure there either before or after you ride.

Challenge 3: The in-between or immature horses

Horses of just about any breed, age or gender can be found in this category. My own gelding, Cappy, certainly does. He looks like a bulldog from the front, with a concave pocket behind his shoulders and a fairly average back. Getting a saddle to fit him was tough. Your horse might be young and still growing or getting back into condition, like Cappy. Either way, his back could change.

For these physiques consider an adjustable tree. “I’m a big fan of adjustable saddles,” says Anderson. “One never knows what one’s horse is going to do over the years, and having a saddle that can be converted to adapt to changing shapes, or even fit a different horse down the road, is a wonderful thing.”

Bar crowns that fill in gaps or hollow pockets, bar flares for beefy shoulders or high croups, and a substantial sweep or rock for the dippy-backed horse work well. There is so much variation in this group that you’ll want to consult a certified saddle fitter or speak with a few manufacturer representatives to be sure.

• Bates Saddles offers high-quality leather dressage, jumping, stock, Icelandic and all-purpose saddles outfitted with both the Easy-Change Gullet System, with interchangeable metal gullets, and the Easy-Change Riser System, which allows you to switch the pads in the saddle panel as needed to adjust the fit as the horse’s conformation changes. “All riders know that their horse changes shape due to changes in diet, work program and maturity, and naturally they get frustrated when they discover their saddle no longer fits their horse perfectly,” says Ron Bates. “Now, for the first time riders can monitor these changes and even do something about them.” Prices range from $1,220 to $2,999. Go to www.batessaddles.com.

• Wintec, a subsidiary of Bates Saddles, has a range of lightweight synthetic saddles in several styles, including endurance, Western, Icelandic, stock and trail as well as for dressage and jumping. All also feature the Easy-Change gullets and the Easy-Change Riser System. Prices range from $430 to $1,450. Go to www.wintec.net.au. 

• The Cashel Trail Saddle, made by Martin Saddlery, is built on the Axis saddletree, which features bars that curve away from the horse’s shoulder to avoid interference and stirrup leather cutouts along the bars to allow for even pressure along the back. The Western-style trail saddle weighs just 24.5 pounds and has a soft, double-padded seat for rider comfort; it sells for $1,695. Go to www.cashelcompany.com/catalog.

Although we all know the basic types of equine conformation, horses are as individual as we are. And often traits that seem to go together naturally---tall and narrow, round and short, and the like---don’t when it comes to equine withers and backs. But if you take the time to analyze how your horse is put together and what a “good fit” means for him, you’re more likely to choose a saddle that will make you both happy. All horses appreciate a good fit. A better understanding of how to achieve a perfect fit will pay off in a quiet and focused ride.