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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
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
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