There is no substitute for your own knowledge when it comes to something as important as saddle fit. Look at the information in this lesson, get a good book like this one of Joyce Harmon’s AND follow your good feelings and use your Not Quite Rights for change. If you can’t afford a new saddle, ride in a bareback pad with a good pad underneath until you can – they are as cheap as chips these days and quite comfortable to ride on.
It is difficult, if not impossible to ride with beauty together as one being, if you or your horse is in pain from the saddle. And since that poetry of riding together is what we are getting with this Program, then saddle fit gets pretty important.
Saddle fit has the potential to be a seriously big cause of upset between horse and human. A badly fitting saddle is probably the most noxious thing for your horse. It’s no wonder they get cranky about being saddled when you see in the lesson photos all the variations of painful results from an ill fitting saddle.
Thanks very much to Sandra Hagan for the photos and information here. We’ll go through a number of steps and considerations in assessing the fit of a saddle.
Gullet Size – the first step
The first step in fitting a saddle to your horse correctly is to have the right gullet width and these photos will show you why some horses are so called cold backed, girthy and generally cranky about their saddles.
In these photos, imagine that the big black gullet gauge is your saddle and the black line is the outline of your horse’s skeleton.
Sandra used the examples of medium, then narrow and extra wide gullet sizes, so you could more clearly see the effects of an ill fitting saddle. However, even if your horse is a medium and you have a medium narrow saddle or a medium wide saddle, the effect will still be the same, just not quite so painful.
A Gullet that Fits
This saddle gullet is the correct fit. Note that the weight bearing surface is parallel to the horse – so there are no pressure points.
The photo above shows the impression of the correctly fitted gullet girthed up. Notice the pressure is evenly distributed down the horse’s back and there is plenty of room for the wither – even when the rider’s weight goes in the saddle.
A Gullet that is Too Narrow
This gullet in the photo above, is too narrow. See how the saddle is going to dig into the horse lower down?
Now the saddle is girthed up on this gullet that is too narrow for this horse. Notice lower down, the points are digging into the horse now and when the rider gets in the saddle it will dig in even more. There is not much clearance around the sides of the wither either – it could really pinch when the rider’s weight goes in the saddle or when the horse is trying to turn.
Now, what do these simple words “pinch” and “dig in” mean to your horse. It means that these parts of the saddle are digging into their bones and then our weight goes on that saddle. And “pinch” could mean anything from a slight discomfort from shoes just a little too tight, to the agony of the wither bones having a saddle grinding on them when the human gets on.
A Gullet that is Too Wide
Photo above: This gullet is too wide. Notice the point of pressure on the side of where the withers would be and see how the saddle will probably come down on the wither when the rider gets on?
Photo above: Here is a simulation of the too wide gullet girthed up. Notice where the saddle is digging in to the horse about half way down and the horse’s withers are already in pain just in the girthing up process. When the riders weight goes into the saddle, the horse’s withers will be in excruciating pain and he probably won’t notice the other pain of the sides of the gullet grinding into his ribs.
Well THAT sure puts a different perspective on gullet widths doesn’t it?
Bonnie Henderson was the master saddler who taught Sandra saddle fit and told her the story of a really fat pony that wasn’t going well in saddle with a wide gullet and through the layers of fat, she found it really needed a medium gullet. Once the gullet size was changed the pony went well. Because of the layers of fat on this pony, the gullet couldn’t really be measured from the outside. In this case Bonnie felt what the pony needed because of her years of experience. Even without Bonnie’s years of experience, YOU could use your connection with your horse to get the same result.
Note: Saddle manufactureres have NOT got their act together as a group and they do NOT necessarily use the same words to describe a measurement – so you cannot rely on a gullet measurement as you swap between brands. For example, a medium in a Pessoa, may be medium/narrow in a Bates saddle. So you need to actually check the measurements.
Just like people, some horses are more stoic about pain than others – but even discomfort – hmmm… it’s pretty hard to be singing with happiness with a human when it hurts even a little bit… So it is probably needless to say this now, but for your horses comfort AND for their performance, it is necessary to get this as right as possible.
More about the saddle fitting to the horses skeleton, not their fat or muscles.
Here is a comment straight from Bonnie as I got her to check my lesson here.
The gullet measurement is in relation to the horses skeleton, which doesn’t change – it is just the packing of the saddle that needs changing as your horse changes shape.
From birth to maturity (usually at 6years old) significant changes occur as the horse grows and develops. However a very accurate gullet estimation can be made as early as 2 years and for the bulk of the horses working life there will be no changes to the skeletal frame.
As aging sets in the back begins to deepen, making it hard to fit western and half breed saddles. (Me: Bonnie hasn’t saddle fitted aged horses who are in this Program. I suspect that her expression of the horse’s back “deepening” is a horse who is NOT lifting their back as much as a happy horse does in their Comfort Zone. My Bobby’s back at 20 years old is getting stronger… We will have to wait and see if my theory is true for everyone!)
Location of Girth Points
This is another saddle fitting consideration – the location of the girth points.
The front two straps are on the girth rigging points for this saddle now and in a good position to keep the saddle in place correctly. The third strap, on the right in the photo, shows where this saddle used to girth up. Sandra says “When it was used on the single girthing point, the saddle would ride forward up on to the neck in faster work or stopping and was quite dangerous when it ended up sitting up on her neck. Luckily she is quiet! This was despite being done up as tight as possible which normally I would never do.”
When the correct positioning of the saddle has the girth too far back, then the saddle WILL work its way forward, with the girth then being loose because of that new position and then you have a saddle moving all over the place, sometimes dangerously.
One of my English saddles has three girth points and in my case, I can use the front two points to attach my two buckle girth, in order to influence the positioning of the girth and have the saddle in a better position.
Position of the Saddle
Where the saddle sits on the horse’s back is another big saddle fitting issue.
The tree inside the saddle should at no time interfere with the shoulder movement of your horse.
And my goodness I have agonised over the right words to describe how to check this and have decided that Bonnie’s coming video footage will show this part much better! In the photo above, if Sandra picked up her horse’s leg and moved it as far back as it would comfortably go, then the tree would not interfere with that shoulder movement – and that is as it should be.
The Saddle needs to fit the Rider Too!
There are two important considerations for fitting the saddle for the rider:
1. The location of the mounts for your stirrup irons – there is a fashion in some modern saddles to have them too far back, forcing your leg into an unnatural position that puts tremendous strain on your lower back and pelvis. Only the very young, very flexible pelvis gets away with those saddles. And it puts them out of a good riding seat, so I think they’re not useful for anyone young or not.
2. The second important consideration for the rider is the balance of the saddle on the horse – the saddle either tipped forward or tipped back will have you struggling for a good seat.
Of course we also have the “does my butt fit in this saddle” question (much more important than “does my butt look big in these jeans?”) 🙂
A good saddle blanket is a good saddle blanket, but is no substitute for a properly fitting saddle. Having said that, you can get away with minor adjustments of saddle fit with a good saddle pad, but that is about it.
When we were preparing this lesson, Sandra commented that she likes wool next to the horse’s skin and uses soft Kersey wool cloth. Sheepskin is also nice for the horse.
Stay away from gel pads if you ride for longer than errr… maybe 1/2 an hour at a time. They build up heat on the horse’s skin and have been known to blister with the heat generated by them if you are riding for long enough – so trail riders and endurance riders should stay away from them. Shudder at the thought of blistering a horse’s back.
Cotton saddle blankets can go hard and bunch up. Funny that – you would think being a natural, breathing fibre that it would make a good saddle blanket – but not so.
My personal favourite is the Rydair saddle pad. I can feel the difference under my butt, so I can only imagine how much more comfortable my horse feels. It doesn’t heat up underneath like some synthetic materials, it allows air circulation on the horse’s back, it is seriously “cushiony” (another new word), and you just hose off the sweat.
Click here to have a look at Charlie Evans’s Rydair saddle pad. You can email Charlie firstname.lastname@example.org or even talk on 0427 068 268 – he just loves to talk about his wonderful product which is available right now.
They aren’t called Ryd…air for nothing. They are like riding on air.
Tell Charlie that I sent you – he is going to make a donation to our scholarhip fund every now and again with the referrals.
In your next lesson, we do a Quiet Mind designed for us to understand any “problem” that comes up when we ride them – see you in Lesson 62!