Evaluating the horse
When you start to evaluate the horse, make sure you are on a level surface with all four feet on the ground and weight dispersed evenly. Take a thorough look at the horse; taking note of any conformation irregularities that might exist. Run your hands down the horse’s back, starting at the withers and working down the spine to check for tenderness, lumps or scars. Look for rub marks anywhere the saddle may come into contact, particularly on the withers. We recommend trying all saddles without saddle pads for the most effective evaluation.
While evaluating the horse in cross ties is very important, it is also vital that the horse be ridden for further evaluation under saddle. A properly balanced weight load is necessary for best results. Watching the horse in motion can be very influential in finding the proper tree width and panel design for an optimal saddle fit.
Be sure the saddle is sitting behind the shoulder blade (scapula). The points of the tree must remain behind the shoulder blade and should NEVER be over or on the shoulder. This can cause problems in the shoulder and the back area below the cantle.
If the saddle is placed too far back, it may rest on the lumbar vertebrae, which are weaker than the thoracic vertebrae, and will cause the back to become tender. You can find the eighteenth Thoracic vertebrae, which corresponds with the last rib, by running your fingers over the rib cage. Once you find the last rib, run your fingers upwards toward the spine. The saddle panels should not rest beyond this point. The only time this is usually an issue is when a saddle with a long seat is put on a short-coupled horse. The easiest way to accomplish proper placement is to place the saddle on the horse’s back (on the withers) and gently press down on the pommel until the saddle comes to rest just behind the horse’s scapula. If you use this method a few times, you will learn to get the feel for what is the most natural position on each horse.
Although many horses are fairly easy to fit with basic tree sizes, some are much more suited to more specific tree and panel designs. For instance, a saddle with a very flat tree will not be suitable for an older horse with a prominent wither and sway back. In this example, we would generally recommend starting with a tree that has a deep and more arched design to better accommodate the horse’s conformation. On the contrary, if your horse has a very flat back, a tree with more depth and arch will generally not provide a correct fit.
The angle of the tree at the points must be parallel to the back at the withers. The tree points fit into the pockets on the panel. If the tree is too narrow, the angle of the point will be too straight and the points will tend to stab into the muscles. If it is too wide, the saddle points will tend to drop down around the shoulder and cause the gullet of the saddle to be too close to the withers. This aspect of fitting a saddle is really the basis of insuring a proper fit. If the tree is not the correct size for the particular horse, there is only so much of a correction that can be done. Some padding can be added or some can be removed but if the tree fit is too far off, we recommend a different tree size.
Another aspect of proper tree fit is the width of the gullet opening, especially in the pommel area. The saddle panel must leave a clearance wide enough so as not to interfere with the horse’s spine or connective tissue. Check for clearance by observing the saddle gullet width down the spine, both mounted and unmounted. Make sure it does not rest on or pinch the horse’s backbone.
The panels will tend to compact under the rider’s weight, so it is important to be sure that the panel does not fill in the gullet space as it compacts. Some trees have narrower gullets and are generally more suitable for thoroughbred type horses. If you try to use this type of tree on a broad warmblood or quarter horse type, it can pinch the spine behind the wither area and cause discomfort for the horse. The opposite situation would come into play if you were trying a saddle with a wide gullet on the narrow thoroughbred type horse. It will sit too far down on the withers and can create pressure, sores and even spinal damage.
Every saddle we sell at Beval comes in various tree widths. However, not only do you have to look at the tree width in the pommel, you also have to consider the opening of the gullet area.
With the saddle sitting on the horse’s back in the proper position, press down on the saddle with one hand and run the other hand between the panel and the horse. Check for good contact and uniform pressure throughout the entire panel. If the panel is too tight in spots, this could indicate too narrow a tree. If the saddle rests on the withers or rocks front to back, chances are that the tree is too wide.
Also look for how flat the panel lies on the horse’s back. Often there is too steep an angle from the outside of the panel to the inside towards the gullet. This causes more pressure towards the outside edge of the panel and little or no contact toward the gullet area. This can often be remedied by a saddler, to a certain extent. Ideally, the panel should fit the horse uniformly from front to back as well as from side to side so that the pressure of the rider’s weight is evenly distributed.
The two most common type of panels used today are “foam style,” which are generally a foam and felt material construction and “flocked style,” which is stuffed with either natural wool or synthetic flocking. While the flocked style is more easily adjustable, foam offers thinner panels for closer contact. We find that if the saddle fits the horse properly, the type of panel used is not as important. We can make adjustments on all styles and types of panels including hybrid panels, which incorporate both wool flocked and foam construction.
It is important to keep in mind that the more evenly the panels rest on the horse’s back, the more stable the saddle will be. A secure fit allows for optimal performance and limited movement when the horse is being worked. While some movement is to be expected, what you need to avoid is the saddle rocking from side to side or having the cantle tip forward, moving all pressure to the withers.
Bridging is also a problem you may encounter when checking panel contact and pressure. This is where the saddle is making contact at the wither/shoulder area and at the cantle. The panel is then gapping in the middle under the seat and there is little or no contact with the horse’s back in that area. This is most likely caused by the saddle not fitting around the withers properly. Possible causes include a tree that is too narrow or ill-fitting panels.
The correction for this situation could be trying a different tree width. Sometimes it is simply a matter of adding additional foam or wool flocking to the panel. If the saddle is bridging, the pressure of the rider’s weight on the horse’s back is limited to the front and back of the panels. This can cause major soreness issues.
Here is a basic guideline for making sure that a saddle is sitting level. With the saddle on the horse, visualize a level line from the pommel to the cantle. This line should run from the top of the pommel to approximately one inch below the cantle on a typical close contact saddle and one to two inches below the cantle on a deeper seated saddle. If the cantle drops below this level line, then the saddle is not fitting the horse properly. It will cause the rider to sit too far back and have difficulty keeping their leg in the proper place on the flap. If the saddle sits lower in front, chances are that it is resting on the withers. In addition to causing pain for the horse, it will also cause the rider to be pushed too far forward to maintain a correct position. Because there are so many different types of saddles on the market today, remember that this is just a guideline and some styles will create exceptions to this rule.
There should be 3 fingers between the gullet and the withers without any rider’s weight in the saddle. When mounted the saddle should not drop more than 1 finger, leaving 2 fingers worth of space. If the saddle measurement is less than 3 fingers, the tree is too wide for the horse. If there is space for more than 3 fingers, the tree is undoubtedly too narrow. Adding or subtracting thickness in the panel can correct the saddle fit at the withers, but a proper tree size is the best bet.
Once you have determined that a saddle appears to fit the horse, tack the horse up and have the rider mount up. Have them walk, trot on both diagonals, and canter on both leads. Watch for any signs of horse discomfort, such as ears pinning, bobbing head, short strides or unusually high head carriage. Over the years, we have tried many different methods of testing panel pressure. However, the horse generally tells the story the best by moving forward smoothly in a relaxed and comfortable manner. You can discuss the rider’s comfort and balance while they are working the horse. If they do not like the feel of the saddle or complain that it feels unbalanced, you should then move on to the next trial saddle. Try to take two or more saddles that you think will suit the horse and rider. This saves on time and frustration.