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Donn Discusses Saddle Fit

For your horse’s comfort and your safety

I feel that the one thing a person in the horse business must learn is proper saddle fit. If the truth be known, most horse people don't give proper fit much attention, until the horse reacts and an incident occurs.

When a saddle doesn't fit and has been hurting a horse, there are signals given by the horse to the rider. All too often the rider doesn't connect these signals with a horse that has a sore back. Some of these signs include: moving away when being saddled, tail swishing, head turning to try to nip the rider, or raising a rear foot.

It is a good practice after a few days of riding to palpate a horse's back where the saddle bars rest. Simply use a couple of your fingers and apply pressure up and down the spine and other areas where the tree presses on the horse's muscles. The first thing you must learn is your horse's normal response to pressure. Once you learn that, you should be able to tell when the horse is really hurting.

The goal of a saddle tree is to spread the total weight of the rider out in an even manner. The tree that first hits in the front and back will really hurt a horse when the rider's weight is put in the middle. The tree that fits in this manner is said to be "bridging." The tree bars should fit just a couple of inches behind the horse's scapula (shoulder blade). When a horse moves, the scapula will rotate to the rear a few inches and you don't want the bar to ride upon the scapula.

The saddle tree bar has to match in length and shape with the type of horse that you are riding. Bigger and stronger horses will support a bar length of 23 to 23½ inches. A shorter backed horse, of course, will require a bar that is a little shorter. Also, one should be aware of the total length of the leather skirt on a saddle. A measurement of 28 inches will work on a 16-hand horse; however, an Arab type horse will require a skirt of approximately 26 inches.

When the horse is saddled and the cinch is as tight as needed, the gullet of the saddle (the part directly under the saddle horn) should be a couple of fingers above the backbone. All too often, the tree is too narrow and the saddle will sit too high and become unsteady, which will also cause a sore back. If the saddle gullet hits or rubs the backbone, the saddle is too low and should not be used on that horse.

How your saddle is rigged will determine how your saddle fits your horse. Rigging position refers to where the center of the rigging ring is in relation to the center of the swell on the saddle. The ring that lies directly below the center of the swell is said to be "full rigged." If the center of the ring is back an inch or so, the saddle is a 7/8 rigged saddle. If the center of the ring is back even further, it is a 3/4 rigged saddle. For most pleasure and trail saddles, I like the 7/8 position. For roping saddles, I prefer the full position.

The saddles of yesteryear, which had the ring in the center of the saddle, seldom will work on our heavier horses of today. Also, the saddles of that period are usually very narrow in the front and will seldom work today. These saddles are very appealing to people because of their appearance and character, but usually they should be for looking at only and not for use on today's horses.

Finding a saddle that fits your horse and you is never done by accident. It will take some knowledge on the rider's part and some riding to be sure.

In closing, a horse with a sore back resulting from a poor fitting saddle is a danger to be on top of.

Donn Frederick is an experienced saddle maker and freelance writer from Chatfield, Minnesota. He can be reached for questions or comments on this article at (507) 867-4868 or by email, donnsleather@aol.com.

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