Saddles and Sore
While you may not understand
the root cause of some behavioral issues in your horse, many of them can be
attributed to the pain or discomfort caused by ill-fitting tack. Quite often
this is one of the last places people look because they have "been using that
saddle for a long time.”
Problems associated with
ill-fitting tack can result in any of the following: balking while going up and
down hills, failure to pick up a certain lead, shying, rearing, bucking, not
wanting to be caught, nipping during saddling, sore muscles, walking away while
you mount, resistance to crossing certain objects, avoiding jumps, and a host of
other unpleasant behaviors.
Here is how it often works:
You previously owned a
horse and still have the saddle you used.
Perhaps you owned nice horse five/ten/fifteen
years ago and want to get back into riding. You may have owned a
Thoroughbred, and because you liked the breed, you may have purchased another
one. You assume since the saddle fit the old horse it will fit the new horse
because it’s the same type of horse. Unfortunately, while you are not alone
in this assumption, you would be quite wrong. Each horse’s back is different,
and even though they can be similar, there are enough differences within a
breed to clearly say that it’s possible your saddle will not fit the new
You purchased a horse,
and the seller "threw in” the saddle that they used as part of the deal.
The horse has been ridden in that saddle by the previous owner, but perhaps
they didn't ride under the same conditions as you do. They may have ridden
him far less and only in an arena or only outside, or perhaps only at a walk.
Perhaps they were children and very light, and you are an adult. Maybe they
only rode once a week. If that was the case, then the horse could be ridden
in an apple crate and still recover by the time you went back to him a week or
two later. If he was ridden for short rides, the same thing applies. Then
along comes his new owner and starts out slowly to get a feel for the horse
and then three weeks later takes him on a long trail ride and by the end of it
the horse is not very happy. Perhaps trying to "jig" and head for the trailer
far faster than when he went out. Perhaps what he is trying to say is, "Hey,
this thing hurts after four hours.”
You purchased a horse and
bought a new or used saddle or were given a used saddle by a friend.
After buying the horse, you talked to your friends, and they helped you decide
on the make and style of saddle they thought would work for you. Maybe you
went to the tack store and told the salesperson that you had a Quarter Horse
that was pretty stout, and so they recommended a wide "Quarter Horse" saddle,
or convinced you that you needed an Arabian treed saddle for that new Arab you
just bought. You sat in the saddle at the store, and it felt pretty good for
you, so you purchased it and brought it home. The first few rides went well,
and you were comfortable trying it out around the barn. Weeks later your
horse is misbehaving as a result of discomfort, and you have forgotten that
the saddle may be part of the issue because you have been riding him in it for
You already own a saddle
that you are comfortable in. You
may use it on the horse with no problems until one day in the arena or at the
show your horse starts acting up. Of course, you think it can't be the
saddle, it is your favorite and you have used it on many horses, and none has
ever acted like this before.
You owe it to the horse to get
the best possible fitting saddle that you can afford. The best way is to have a
saddle made for the horse if you are going to keep him for a long time. The
second best way is to have your horse professionally fitted for a saddle and
then look for a used saddle in that same make and size.
So how do you tell if a saddle
fits? Let’s first define some saddle fitting terms:
Bridging: The saddle carries
most of the weight on the front and back, and there is a bridge-like arch over
the center of the horse’s back.
Knifing: Only the very edge
of the tree is carrying your weight causing a knife-like edge to be in contact
with the horse’s back.
Pinching: The wither area
is too tight and looks and feels like it pinches the horse there.
Digging in: Usually at the
back of the saddle, if there is not enough upsweep in the bars, and the tail
end of the saddle digs into the horse’s loins.
Floating: The saddle is too
wide and seems to float all over his back or rock from side to side and you
have to cinch him up way too tight to maintain stability.
Here are a number of
techniques that may help you check the fit of a saddle on your horse:
Place the saddle on the
horse and run your hands around the edges, especially near the shoulders and
the withers. If it seems very hard to get your hand between the saddle and
the horse, then it is too tight. You can check around the back this way, too,
and even under the sides. I have seen saddles bridge so badly in the seat
area that I could slide my hand under the edge of the saddle clear to the
middle of the horse’s back. Also, check the clearance of the saddle over the
withers by placing your hand under the gullet and see if you can reach into
the center of the saddle. This is possible on some saddles but not all. If
your hand can reach into this area, you can often see if the saddle fits by
rotating your fingers to the right and left to see if the saddle sits down
onto the horse’s back and does not bridge. If your hand cannot fit, at least
look down through the gullet, perhaps shining a light, and check to see if
there is any daylight between the saddle and your horse’s back. This is
simply a preliminary step – more thorough evaluation should follow.
Sprinkle a light dusting of
flour on your horse’s back before saddling. Place the saddle on the horse for
a moment and then remove it. Examine both the marks left on the horse’s back
and the underside of the saddle to see where it did and didn’t made contact.
The biggest draw back to this approach is that it could make contact in an
area and look good, but it could cause too much pressure in that contact area
with the added weight of a rider. This method is really best for telling
where the saddle DOESN’T touch. But at least it’s a start.
Saddle up, using the pad you
intend to ride with, and ride your horse for a while. Dismount, remove the
saddle, and look at the sweat mark on the horse’s back. Be advised that if
you ride too long the horse is going to sweat everywhere anyway. “How long is
long enough?” depends on how easily your horse sweats. If you see dry spots
when you unsaddle your horse, they can be caused by two things; not enough
pressure, and too much pressure. A complete lack of contact will not provide
the heat necessary for the horse to sweat in that spot. Too much contact will
prohibit the horse from sweating. You can usually tell that there has been
too much contact as the skin is likely to be wrinkled or the hair will be
twisted slightly. This method is reasonably accurate in predicting proper
fit. However, if the horse is worked too long, there may be too much sweat
and it will be difficult to draw conclusions. If the horse is not worked long
enough, the lack of sweat may also result in false assumptions about saddle
You can not cure most ill
fitting saddles with padding. Too much padding is often worse than not enough,
as it causes the saddle to rock back and forth by lifting it off of the horse’s
back. Half-padding does not work either, as this invariably causes a shelf
between where the extra padding ends and the full pad continues. Neoprene
promotes too much heat on the back, causing excessive sweating and perhaps
chafing. Foam can react this way, as well, Some gel pads may provide minimal
comfort; however, those that are not designed to breath effectively can cause
overheating as with the neoprene noted previously. While some of these
products may be acceptable in the show ring or for short rides, they can cause
heat-related problems when used for extended periods of time.
A good wool felt pad or some
of the specialty pads can help, but saddle fit is most important. Think of it
like your shoe: too many socks don't help the fit; too warm a sock (neoprene)
doesn't help; an extra half-sock only bunches up… I think you get the idea.
Put a lot of thought into
proper saddle fitting before you buy, and ask someone who knows. A comfortable
horse is a cooperative horse and, in the long run, a much healthier horse
If you are interested in ordering a custom western saddle, please
contact Sandy Siegrist at 425-830-6260.
visit our saddle maker at: