Is your horse trying to tell you something? Here are some clues to back soreness:
- White hairs or hair loss on withers or under the saddle.
- Cold-backed, sinks when mounted.
- Cringes or guards when brushing the back.
- Shies often, rushes fences, refuses fences.
- Cinchy, fusses when saddle appears; won’t stand for mounting.
- Short strided. Stumbles or trips often.
- Always speeding up, won’t go calmly, uncomfortable down hills.
- Head tossing, travels with the head held high.
- Bucking, running away.
- Hollows back, not rounding or engaging the hind end.
- Not performing as well as usual.
Points of Saddle Fit
Stand your horse squarely on level ground. Place the saddle on your horse without a pad or rider.
The saddle should be placed on the withers and slid back until it finds its place so that the front points of the tree are behind the shoulder blades. This will allow freedom of movement of the front limbs and prevent pinching or pressure points. The bars of the tree of a western saddle begin just under the front conchas. Put your fingers under this point and have someone walk your horse a few strides. If your fingers feel pinched, the saddle does not fit.
Tree Size and Balance
The center of the saddle (the deepest part of the seat) should be parallel to the ground. If the saddle appears to slope back, even slightly, it is too narrow. You should fit 2 to 3 fingers between the pommel and withers. More than this and the saddle is too narrow; less than this and it is too wide. A cut-away pommel does not eliminate this requirement.
Looking from behind, the saddle should sit evenly on both sides, not tilting or twisting to one side or the other. Unevenness can result from a horse’s asymmetrical conformation or from a twisted saddle tree.
Correct Gullet Width
The space between the bars of the tree, or panels, which run roughly parallel to the spine, should be wide enough so that the panels don’t interfere with or put pressure on the spine. Wider panels provide more support.
Full Panel Contact
Feel under the length of the panels. They should contact the horse’s back evenly. The front of the panel should be parallel with the angle of the withers and should not exert excessive pressure on the withers. Push and pull alternately on the pommel and cantle. An English saddle should not rock. The back of the western saddle should not lift more than 1 inch. The angle that the panels contact the back is critical as well.
The panels of an English saddle can be relatively straight as is often suitable for warmbloods, or have a slight banana shape which fits a horse whose back dips slightly after the withers and slopes back up to the croup like that of many thoroughbreds. Look at the shape of your horse’s back. If you put a flat paneled saddle on a curved-backed horse, it will contact him in only two places. This causes excessive pressure at these points instead of distributing the rider’s weight along the length of the saddle. The result is dry spots, white hairs and pain.
The bars of a Western saddle are often too long and too straight. If the bars are not curved to fit your horse’s back, they contact your horse in only 2 spots: at the withers & under the cantle. This causes excessive pressure at these points instead of distributing the rider’s weight along the length of the saddle. This will cause white hairs and pain.
With the girth cinched reexamine all of the above points. Repeat again when mounted. You should still be able to fit 1-2 fingers between the withers and the bottom of the pommel or fork. Check for pressure points between the saddle and the horse. Try without a pad, and then with the saddle pad you intend to use most. After riding, there should be even, symmetrical sweat marks on both sides of your horse and saddle pad - no dry spots.
Adding pads to a too narrow saddle makes it more narrow. Adding pads to a too wide saddle may well not eliminate the pressure on the withers and spine. English saddles can sometimes be re-stuffed by a good saddler to better fit your horse. Pads can sometimes be used as an interim measure to redistribute saddle pressure while you are looking for a saddle or waiting for your horse’s back to heal, or his body to develop.
Do not buy a saddle that needs extra pads to make it fit. The use of "keyhole," "lolly-pop," or "bump" pads will create bridging or place direct pressure on the spine. If the cantle of your saddle needs to be raised, the saddle is probably too narrow, or your horse’s conformation is difficult to fit (i.e., sway back). If it is necessary as an interim measure, use a wedge or riser pad that gradually increases in thickness from the front of the saddle to the back.
The girth or cinch should lie at least one inch up to 4 inches (hand’s width) behind the elbow. It should lie across the center of the sternum (breastbone). If the front of the saddle is placed properly behind the shoulder blade, and the girth does not fall into this area, the saddle does not fit.
Common Pressure Points
- Under the stirrup bars.
- Squared off front panels.
- Squared off gusset panels.
- Watch placement of seams.
- Base of the tree, approximately where the fork is attached to the bars.
- The front of the bars often dig into the shoulder blades.
Beware of one size fits all marketing and claims of designs that eliminate saddle fit concerns. Saddle trees that are designed to widen under the weight of a rider to fit any horse will create pressure points.
Re-Evaluate Twice Yearly
With exercise, training, and conditioning your horse’s back may change shape. Weight gains and losses will affect how your saddle fits. Chiropractic work will often initiate a change in a horse’s body shape. Even trimming and shoeing changes can affect the shape of a horse’s back. The saddle itself should be evaluated periodically. Always mounting from the same side, or mounting from the ground without a mounting block can eventually cause the tree to twist to one side. If the rider is heavier in one stirrup or seat-bone, the saddle may twist to that side. Flocking can get redistributed in the panels creating flat spots and lumps and bumps. If your saddle is involved in an accident, or the horse rolls while saddled, the tree may be broken.
A saddle that appears to fit your horse still has to pass the test of time. Occasionally an apparently well-fitting saddle can start to cause back soreness after it has been ridden in extensively. As a saddle breaks in it can change shape and may no longer fit. There can be subtle areas of pressure that do not cause a problem unless the saddle is ridden in extensively. There can also be flaws in the construction of the saddle that are not readily detectable.
Buying a Saddle that Fits
- Make a wire mold of the shape of your horse’s back. Use a wire heavy enough to hold its shape and about 18" long. Mold the wire over your horse’s withers just behind the shoulder blades where the front panels of the saddle sit. Trace this on a piece of heavy cardboard, cut it out, mark the right & left sides, and take it to the store with you. Use this cardboard to place under the front of the saddle in question, leaving 2-3 finger widths clearance under the pommel, and check the fit. A wire tracing can be made every 4-6 inches to represent the entire back.
- There are other methods of measuring a horse’s back. A number of saddle makers have specialized measuring tools. Some makers will send several of their trees to let you determine which one fits best. You can also have a Veterinarian make a fiberglass cast of your horse’s back.
- The widths of English saddle trees vary by manufacturer. Some label them by centimeter, others come in narrow, medium and wide. There seems to be no consistency between manufacturers. Even with the same maker, size and shape can vary from saddle to saddle. If you order a saddle based on a demo saddle or a friend’s saddle, be sure to check the fit carefully before finalizing the purchase.
- Western saddles also come in different widths. The tree widths of commonly made saddles are; Regular (about 5½ inches), Semi-Quarter Horse (about 6 inches), Quarter Horse (about 6½ inches), and Arabian or Morgan (about 63/4 inches).
- The Gullet space is measured on your horse as the distance spanning the spine and the narrow muscles immediately adjacent to the spine. The gullet space is designed to protect the spine from direct pressure. The panels or bars should rest on the larger soft muscles further away from the spine. A wider panel will provide more support, but will narrow the gullet space. You may need help from your Veterinarian to measure this accurately.
- When buying a western saddle, the length of the skirt is also important. The skirt should not touch the point of the hip. Saddles come with different styles of skirts. The Arabian saddle has a skirt which is suitable to many of that breed because they have a relatively short back.
- As your horse changes, i.e., gets older, gains or loses weight, or gets in better condition, your saddle’s fit may also change. Remember to reevaluate how your saddle fits often.
- Try the saddle before committing to buy it. Check for fit on your horse. You can hire a professional to evaluate the saddle fit. Also have a professional evaluate how the saddle fits you. If you’re uncomfortable, your horse will be too!
- Check for a broken or twisted tree, and check the symmetry of every aspect of the saddle. Even a new saddle may have asymmetries and defects.