As horse enthusiasts and riders, we do all we can for our horses. We research feeds and supplements, analyze hay samples, agonize over training methods and try to choose the best living situation for our trusty steeds. Stall or pasture board? Shoes or barefoot? Is it too hot or cold to ride? Is the footing OK? Will this saddle fit my horse? Some of us have even purchased custom-made saddles, or had a saddle fitter adjust a saddle for a specific horse.
All of our meticulous research and well-meaning tack purchases may still cause problems, however. An improperly placed saddle can be very uncomfortable for the horse. The saddle tree is designed to distribute the rider’s weight over a large area of the horse’s back. The tree of the saddle – the hard framework that gives the saddle structure – should always rest behind the shoulder blade. Because of the weight applied to the saddle’s tree, the tree must not impede the movement of the horse’s shoulder.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of “treeless” saddles available to riders. While these may seem like the perfect solution for that hard-to-fit horse, the lack of a tree reduces the saddle’s weight distribution area and can also decrease stability. Many treeless saddles are made with a rigid pommel and cantle, a padded seat in between and a normal English or western rigging. For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on the placement and potential problems of regular “treed” saddles.
Since appearances can be deceiving, your hands are your best tools for checking the placement of your saddle. Many western saddles have leather “skirts” or “jockeys” that extend past the front of the saddle’s tree, and some jumping saddles have flaps and knee rolls that extend onto the shoulder. These parts of the saddle are not weight bearing and will not put pressure on the shoulder. The easiest way to check tree position is to slide the fingers of one hand, palm side to the horse, under the saddle pad and over the edge of the shoulder blade after placing the saddle on the horse. If using an English saddle, the tree points at the very front of the saddle should be behind your fingertips. On a western saddle, the front edge of the tree is usually marked with a concho, rosette or screw at the base of the fork. This “marker” should be placed behind the end of your fingertips.
Even the best-fitting saddle can cause pain and damage to the horse’s withers, back and shoulder if it is placed too far forward. Often, this positioning will cause the saddle to “bridge” on the horse’s back. Bridging occurs when all of the pressure from the saddle is placed at the very front and rear of the saddle, instead of distributing the rider’s weight along the entire length of the saddle bars or panels.
A saddle that is placed too far forward not only impedes the movement of the shoulder, but can also lead to muscle atrophy and pain. As the muscle atrophies, the saddle can fit even more poorly, which can lead to additional muscle problems, pain, lameness and training issues. If your horse begins exhibiting behaviors such as refusing jumps, bucking, trouble picking up a canter lead or “girthiness”, it could be a saddle fit or placement problem.
Occasionally, the saddle is placed on the horse correctly, yet seems to creep to an incorrect position on the back – a symptom that the saddle may not be the best fit for this particular horse. The tree could be either too wide or too narrow or the billets/rigging are not aligned with the horse’s natural girth line. Any saddle, no matter how well it fits the horse’s back, is going to move on the back until the girth or cinch is perpendicular to the ground. Most of the time, the billets or rigging are forward of the horse’s natural girth line, which will cause the saddle to be pulled forward onto the horse’s shoulder. There are English girths available that have offset buckles to allow the girth to rest in the horse’s natural girth line and still line up with the saddle’s billet position. Some Western saddles have multiple rigging options which allow the rider to customize the cinch’s location to the natural girth line of their horse. There are also many saddle pads available that help with saddle slippage. Be cautious, though, that your slipping saddle is not trying to tell you something about the saddle fit or placement on your horse.
There are many factors that affect saddle fit. Your best option, should you have questions or concerns about your horse’s saddle, is to seek input from a saddle fitter. Most major saddle makers have a fitter or representative in your area specially trained to evaluate fit and function of their saddles. Often, these reps are available to help evaluate other saddle makes. You can always ask your veterinarian, trainer, instructor, equine massage therapist or acupuncturist for the name of someone that they trust. English or western, competitive rider or pleasure and trail rider, your saddle fit and placement are important to your horse’s comfort and soundness.
Red Horse Saddlery, LLC
Cindy is a lifelong horse lover. She graduated from Kansas State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science, and is the owner of Red Horse Saddlery and an authorized representative and fitter for Custom Saddlery. She resides in Elizabeth, CO, with her husband, three horses and one dog.