In Part 1, we discussed how to correctly fit a rider with a saddle. When checking your horse for saddle fit, you will remove the pad and set the saddle directly on the horse’s back. What you are looking for is an even fit from the withers down the back with even pressure from the gullet down the bars of the saddle. It’s important to avoid uneven pressure, which you can check for by sliding your hand in between the horse and saddle from front to back. You should be able to fit your hand between the horse and saddle with even but not hard pressure—if not, then the saddle is too small.
Saddles that are too tight and narrow for the horse pinch the withers and shoulder area, restricting your horse’s ability to move freely. If the gullet of the saddle is touching the withers, the saddle is too wide. Wide-fitting saddles put unnecessary pressure on the withers and down lower on the shoulders.
Sometimes saddle-fit problems are due to a horse not having correct conformation. One of the most common problems is a drop-off behind the shoulders or withers. These spots cause the saddle to drop into this hole and actually make the saddle run “downhill,” meaning it puts more pressure on the wither and shoulder area than the rest of the back, creating soreness. Bridging is another common issue. This is when the horse’s topline is not level, such as a swayback, and the bars of the saddle are not touching the back. This forces all the weight either down on the front of the saddle or pushes all the weight onto the back. Either way creates soreness.
When fitting your saddle, walk to the rear of your horse and see if the saddle sits level on the horse’s back. A gap of more than an inch indicates something is not right. A saddle that runs downhill needs a pad to fill in the gap and make it sit level. Check for equal bar pressure along the back. Is there a gap or is it too tight? Shim, shoulder correction and bridge pads can address all of these issues, should you find a problem in your fit. Just remember, a saddle pad cannot fix a saddle that’s too narrow or too wide. If the saddle doesn’t fit because of these issues, then a pad is not the answer and you need to look into a different saddle for your horse’s comfort.
While dry spots on your horse’s back after a ride that are painful to the touch indicate problems, dry spots by themselves are not always an issue. Check for soreness on the withers and back to signal a saddle-fit issue. Many times, your first sign of trouble occurs not with soreness but in the horse’s performance. Subtle changes in how a horse works could indicate a problem. A properly fitted saddle makes a big difference in a horse’s stride and turns.
Improper saddle fit inhibits a rider and horse from reaching their full potential. Be sure to take the time to ensure you are riding a saddle that’s best for you and the horse.
I am a firm believer in the importance of saddles to good riding habits. My husband, R.E. Josey, and I implement forward-hung stirrups on Josey saddles to keep the rider’s feet from getting behind. When your horse sets and turns, you need your feet forward to keep your body from being thrown forward. If in the proper position, your turn will be much smoother. Many riders who are out of position lose control of their horse in the turn.
I have several different saddles designed with different types of riders in mind. However, many young, inexperienced and older riders along with people who ride powerful horses love saddles with a deep seat and forward-hung stirrups to keep the rider centered and in the pocket. Ultimately, I believe the most important thing you can do is choose a saddle that fits you, your horse and helps you reach your goals.
By Alissa Burson-Kelly with Martha Josey. This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.