Bucking saddle-fit myths
Being knowledgeable about tack is part of our journey as horseman. Yet when it comes to saddle fit, confusion and misinformation abounds, said Ed Odgers, a saddle-maker from Arena, Wisconsin. “Horses’ backs are complex shapes and a lot of factors need to come together to achieve a good fit,” he said. ”Furthermore, horses can’t talk so it’s up to our observations to evaluate saddle fit. This is a difficult task since the critical saddle tree is concealed from view by sheepskin and leather. To cloud the matter further, the tack industry lacks clear and consistent standards to communicate the dimensions and shapes of saddle trees.” Odgers responds to common myths he often encounters concerning saddle fit.
Myth: I need a saddle made uniquely for my horse to assure a perfect, comfortable fit.
“Don’t expect to find and maintain a perfect fit, but avoid a bad one,” Odgers said. Horses’ backs change with age and conditioning, leading most saddle and tree makers to advise to fit a body type, not an individual horse.
“About 60 percent of horses have good backs and will get along with the commonly available, average tree,” Odgers said. “Another 30 percent may have some special need that can be accommodated, such as a wider gullet angle and/or width. The remaining 10 percent have extreme or unusual backs and can’t be fitted with a reasonable saddle tree. Don’t buy those horses and don’t breed them.”
Horsemen or cowboys that spend hours in the saddle aboard a variety of horses can suit the 90 percent by owning a few saddles with varying trees.
Myth: My horse is so big he must need a wide saddle.
“This might be true for draft-cross horses but the opposite is more common. Many big saddle horses carry a lot of Thoroughbred blood and have prominent withers and a narrow back profile,” Odgers said. “A medium to narrow gullet width and a 90 degree bar angle will usually fit these horses.”
On the other hand, it is more common for smaller horses bred for cutting and reining to have less prominent withers and rounder back profiles that may benefit from a wider angle and/or gullet width. It is possible to learn to judge a horse’s back, categorize them into two or three body types, then fit them with a corresponding tree.
Myth: Wade saddles (or Bowman or Sid Special or Association, etc.) fit the best.
“The names attributed to saddle styles such as Wade, designate the general shape of the fork and have no direct bearing on how the saddle will fit either the horse or rider,” he said. “The original Wade saddle and early copies made by Hamley Saddle Company in the 1940s had a distinctive tree bar style but modern day copies vary considerably.”
Odgers added that many production manufacturers simply install a Wade-like fork on the same tree bars they use for other saddle styles.
Myth: Rigging location and type will determine saddle position.
When a saddle tree fits, it fits in one place on the back, like a couple of spoons nested together, Odgers said. “A good back will have an hour-glass shape called rocker, where the bars rest, and well-defined wither pockets behind the shoulders.” A tree that matches that shape will resist movement.
It is commonly thought that the cinch needs to be perfectly vertical or it will pull the saddle forward. Consider the physics, Odgers suggests: a cinch that is angled forward by 1.5 inches–the typical setback of a 7/8 rigged saddle–has about 94 percent of the cinch’s pull acting vertically and only 6 percent horizontally. Thus, if the cinch is tightened to 40 lbs., only 2.5 lbs. will be acting to pull the saddle forward.
“Such a minor force will not counteract the fit of the tree. While there are other good reasons to select a rig location and style, the math and experience of tree and saddle makers confirms that the commonly used rigging positions (full, 7/8, 3/4) will not influence the saddle’s location on the horse’s back.”
If the saddle tends to shift and not settle into a consistent location, it is probably not a good fit, the rider may be over padding, or the horse may lack the shape to hold that saddle well.
Myth: Thicker padding is more comfortable for the horse.
The functions of saddle pads and blankets can be compared to socks, providing cushion, dissipating heat, and absorbing moisture, thereby protecting the saddle leather.
“Cushioning can minimize minor fit problems but just like wearing three heavy pairs of socks, too much padding can ruin a good fit and reduce stability. Pads that are a half-inch to 1-inch thick are usually adequate.”
Heavier padding can help if the saddle tree is too wide, but a too-narrow fit will only get worse.
Myth: This high tech pad will fix my fit problem.
“Saddle fit problems, real or imagined, have sold a lot of pads, but most pads can only fine-tune a saddle’s fit,” Odgers said. “If the shape of the horse’s back doesn’t correspond to the shape of the tree bars, there will be pressure points. Padding materials can spread that pressure out slightly but none will fully correct the problem.”
Be cautious using pads that are not uniform in thickness, are wedged or built-up, Odgers warns. They will alter how a tree fits and may cause serious harm. One example he offered is when using a pad with the front built-up or wedged to level the saddle on a down-hill horse. In this situation, the back of the tree bars will be tipped and potentially gouge into the vulnerable lower back.
It may be necessary to customize pad thickness to compensate for asymmetrical, atrophied or otherwise extreme back shapes but do this carefully with the help of a competent saddle maker.
Myth: That saddle looks too big to fit my horse.
Saddle fit refers to the tree buried under layers of leather and sheepskin. ”Don’t confuse the saddle skirts with the weight-bearing tree bars within. Feel the underside of the saddle to determine the location of the tree bars and how they fit your horse,” he said. “The skirts of a properly made saddle should be molded to flare away slightly from the horse and shouldn’t contribute any significant pressure.”
Myth: I ride Quarter Horses so I must need Quarter Horse bars.”
Semi-quarter horse, quarter horse, and full-quarter horse bars are general terms used by some tree makers to describe the width between and angle of their bars. Semi-quarter horse bars refers to a medium-narrow gullet width of about 6.25 inches measured at the front of the fork and 90 degree angle. This is the most common configuration, Odgers said, fitting a majority of horses. Quarter horse bars contain a wider gullet width of approximately 6.5 inches and 90 degrees. Full quarter horse bars describes an extra-wide gullet width of 6.75 inches to 7 inches and often a wider gullet angle.
“These descriptions are most useful for comparing saddles by the same maker. They are not an industry standard and actual measurements and fit will vary. Most custom tree makers do not use this system, rather they specify gullet width and angle measurements,” he said. “They also use a more accurate gullet width measurement at the back of the fork called hand-hole width.”
Common dimensions are a 4 inch hand-hole width, 90 degree bar angle and 7.5 inch gullet height. “Custom tree makers usually offer bar angles ranging from 90 to 96 degrees along with various bar styles, bar twist, and rocker variations to fit many types of horse and mules,” Odgers said.
Myth: Treeless saddles are more comfortable for the horse.
The bars of a properly fitting western saddle distribute the rider’s weight and the pull of the cinch over a large area. This results in less pressure (pounds per square inch) than an English saddle, treeless saddle or a bareback rider. “Especially for long rides and heavier riders, a good fitting tree will benefit the horse,” he said.