Schleese Learning Resources
9 Fit Tips For Western Saddles
Guidelines for Optimal Fit to Protect your Horse from Long-term Damage
A Picture is worth a thousand words
Since that is true, moving pictures must be worth a million words! Schleese has simplified the art of "DIY" diagnoses of the most common issues we have encountered over the years with our educational instructional videos that you can watch and follow along with your own horse.
Tip #1 - Balance
The center of the saddle (seat area) should be parallel to the ground while on the horse’s back.
Are you struggling with your position?
Is your horse lacking in its performance?
You may be faced with a Saddle Balance issue.
Balance: Too High in Front
Do you feel you are struggling to get balanced in the saddle and are feeling tipped back?
Are you struggling with getting your horse engaged or is it experiencing back issues?
If your saddle is too high off the horse’s withers or too low in the back, this will cause a lot of excess uneven pressure on the horse’s loins. It will not only put you in the wrong position, but it will be very difficult for your horse to engage as it will be unable to come through with its back and step underneath itself into a correctly engaged frame.
Balance: Too Low in Front
Do you feel tipped forward in the saddle? Is your horse resisting?
If your saddle is too low in front, it will pinch the horse’s shoulder – which is very restrictive for your horse! In this situation, your saddle may be too wide in the front or too high in the back. Not only will this cause discomfort for your horse but you will also be forcing yourself to sit in an unnatural position that may affect your riding or strain the discs in your lower back!
Steps to check Saddle Balance:
- Remove your saddle blanket and stirrups. Place your saddle over the withers and slide it right back behind the shoulder blade. On a western pleasure saddle such as the Devin, the cantle should be the same height as the swell, but this can change depending on what the saddle is made for.
- Take a small round object (like a pencil) that will roll. Place it on the seat of the saddle and observe. If the saddle is balanced the pencil should rest in the center of the seat. If it rolls too far forward – the swell is lower than the cantle. If it rolls too far back, the saddle is lower in the cantle (higher swell). It can be difficult in either of these situations for both horse and rider to balance properly, but again – balance can depend on the type of saddle and its purpose.
The horse will be much more comfortable in a well balanced saddle – whatever that means for whatever discipline in western you are pursuing – because the weight of the rider will be distributed over a larger area. The saddle will not be driven into the shoulder or back on the loin. With correct balance the rider will be able to use the 4 curves in her back as natural ‘shock absorbers’, and she will sit balanced on their seat bones. This good posture means she will be able to lean forward and backward without the lower or upper leg swinging back and forth.
Tip #2 - Wither Clearance
Clearance at the withers should be 2-3 fingers for normal withers, whereas, mutton withers will have more clearance and high withers will have less clearance.
Is your horse reluctant to move forward?
Are mysterious white hairs, strange bumps or soars appearing around the withers?
Although you may have the required 2-3 fingers wither clearance, you may not have enough clearance on all sides, which is vital!
Wither clearance is an often misunderstood concept
All of us are concerned that our saddles have adequate wither clearance and do not pinch our horse’s withers. But few of us truly understand exactly what “wither clearance” means.
Many of us learned that our saddle should have 2-3 fingers clearance on the top of the withers. But we were never taught that there also had to be clearance on the sides of the withers. One of the reasons this is crucial is because when the horse moves, his shoulder blades rotate upwards and backwards. The saddle must have an opening (clearance) on the sides of his withers to accommodate the shoulder rotation at the swell.
To see just how much your own horse’s shoulder blade rotates backwards when he moves, stand on the side of your horse and mark the shoulder blade with a piece of chalk. Then have a friend stretch your horse’s front leg forward and mark the new position of the shoulder blade. You will see how much farther back the shoulder blade is now positioned.
Ideally, we should be able to get 2-3 fingers clearance on both the top and the sides of the withers. To determine adequate clearance on the sides of the withers, we measure from the top of the withers to the bottom of the swell.
If there is no clearance (or space) on the side of the withers, the horse’s movement will be restricted. It will be impossible for him to have free range of movement through his shoulders.
A horse whose saddle pinches his withers may be reluctant to go forward. Other more extreme signs of insufficient wither clearance are patches of white hairs (not scattered individual white hairs) or sores on the top or on one or both sides of the withers.
Tip #3 - Gullet Channel Width
The gullet should be wide enough not to interfere with the spinal processes or musculature of the horse’s back (3-5 fingers).
Is your horse reluctant to bend laterally?
Is your horse not able to use its back correctly?
Do you need to call out the equine chiropractor often?
If you are answering “yes” to any of the above questions, you may be faced with a saddle Gullet Channel Width issue.
A saddle with too narrow of a gullet channel can cause permanent damage to your horse’s back!
There is no one gullet channel width that is appropriate for every horse.
There is no such thing as “one size fits all” where the gullet channel of your horse’s saddle is concerned. Instead, the width of each horse’s spine will determine how wide his saddle’s gullet channel must be.
To calculate how wide your horse’s spine is, do the following. Stand on your horse’s left side and place your hands on his spine in the area where his saddle will sit. Then, with the tips of your fingers, gently palpate downward towards the ground. You will first feel bone (the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae), then a slight rigidity (the supraspinal ligament), and finally, an area where there is a bit more give. This is his back or longissimus dorci muscle. Mark the start of this muscle and then do the same thing on your horse’s right side.
Next, take your right hand and make a bridge over your horse’s back from mark to mark. Put your left hand inside that “bridge.” The number of fingers you can get inside your bridged hand will determine how wide the gullet channel of this horse’s saddle must be between the bars.
It is very important that the width of the gullet channel be the same throughout the entire length of the saddle. Too often we see English saddles with gullet channels that are the appropriate width at the front, but then progressively narrow towards the back. The result is a saddle that has a 4-5 finger gullet channel width under the pommel, but only 2-3 fingers at the cantle. If you consider the anatomical structure of the horse’s back, this makes no sense. The horse’s spine and surrounding ligaments do not get narrower over the length of his saddle-support area. As a result, in order to ensure adequate spinal clearance, neither should the gullet channel of his saddle. For most Western saddles, this is usually the case and the gullet channels are generally wide enough.
It is only infrequently that we find a saddle that is too wide through the gullet channel for a particular horse. But such a saddle will have inadequate weight-bearing surface, may start to strip muscle away from the top of the ribs, and the back of the tree may actually rest on the spine.
A much more common problem – especially for English saddles – is a saddle with too narrow of a gullet channel. This saddle will sit on the horse’s spine and/or ligaments. This is especially noticeable when the horse goes around a corner: if the horse is tracking to the left, you will see the saddle shift to the right, so that the left-side panel rests on the horse’s spine/ligaments. This is something we must avoid at all costs, and since most Western saddles are made to accommodate the working horse, this is generally never the case. A saddle that sits on the horse’s spine/ligaments will cause him to tighten his back muscles and hollow his back, producing exactly the opposite of the nice rounded back that we want to see.
In the long-term, a saddle with too narrow of a gullet channel will cause permanent, irreversible, and often career-ending injury or damage to the horse’s back. The most severe forms of such damage are spinal stenosis (compression and narrowing of the spinal canal) and spondylosis (degeneration of the vertebrae).
Tip #4 - Full Bar Contact
The bars should touch the horse’s back evenly from front to back; some panels may be designed off the back end to allow the back to come up during engagement.
Is your horse reluctant to bring his back up?
Are you worried that your saddle is creating pressure points?
Understanding the Importance of Full Bar Contact
Once you’ve established that your saddle’s gullet/channel is the correct width for your horse, with the bars resting on your horse’s longissimus dorsi muscles, and not on his spine or ligaments, you need to ensure that your saddle’s bars make even contact with your horse’s back. We want the saddle to sit on the optimal weight-bearing surface of the horse’s back, and to distribute the rider’s weight over an area that equals approximately 220 square inches.
It is important that the saddle not bridge or rock. When a saddle bridges, the front and rear of the bars make contact with the horse’s back, but the middle does not. (For a visual image, think of an arch bridge.) When the rider’s weight is in the saddle, this results in excessive pressure at the front and back of the saddle.
To determine if your saddle bridges, place your saddle on your horse’s back without a saddle blanket. Stand on your horse’s left side and place your left hand on the swell and the finger tips of your right hand between the bars and your horse’s back. Move your right hand slowly toward the back of the saddle, feeling for any areas where the panel does not make contact with your horse’s back. Then do the same on your horse’s right side. Or, rather than using your hand, some people find it easier to test for even contact by sliding a pen or pencil in between the bars and their horse’s back. Use whichever method works best for you.
When a saddle rocks, the bars at the front and/or back of the saddle do not make even contact with the horse’s back. Think of the motion of a rocking horse. In this case, there is excessive pressure in the middle of the saddle, and the rider’s entire weight is concentrated in this one area. To determine if your saddle rocks, place the saddle on your horse’s back without a saddle blanket. Push down on the swell. If the cantle lifts up off the horse’s back, your saddle rocks.
Note that sometimes your saddle may be made with bars that deliberately flare up at the very back, so the last inch or so of the bars don’t make contact with your horse’s back. This is done in specialized cases: for instance, when there is a need to accommodate a tall or large rider on a horse with a short saddle-support area. If fitted correctly, this saddle will not rock.
Sometimes we hear that a saddle that bridges slightly is actually a good thing, because when the horse lifts his back as he is being ridden, his back will come up into and fill in the space left by the bridge. While this may seem logical at first, in reality, it doesn’t work. The reasoning here is faulty.
To demonstrate this, the next time your Saddle Fit technician or Saddle Fit Representative fits your saddle, ask her/him to put the Arc device or Saddletech (the metal tool used to measure the curvature and width of your horse’s back) on your horse with the middle two wings lifted so that they do not make contact with your horse’s back. This will simulate a saddle that bridges. Then scratch your horse’s stomach along his midline, so that he raises his back. You will see that the middle 2 wings of the Arc device still do not make contact with your horse’s back. This shows that even when your horse lifts his back while being ridden, his saddle will still bridge.
Tip #5 - Billet or Latigo Alignment
The billets or latigo should hang perpendicular to the ground so that the girth is positioned properly and not angled either forwards or backwards.
Does your saddle slide forward no matter what kind of cinch or saddle pad you use?
If you answered “yes” to the above question, you may be faced with a saddle Billet or Latigo Alignment issue.
Watch this informative video and learn how to determine if your billets or latigo are correctly or incorrectly aligned and the possible solutions to correct the alignment and prevent your saddle from perhaps sliding up onto your horse’s shoulder.
Understanding the Importance of Correct Billet and Latigo Alignment
Have you ever had to stop in the middle of your ride and reset your saddle because it has moved forward onto your horse’s shoulders?
This is a common problem, and it is often caused by improper billet or latigo alignment. Unless the billets or latigo on your saddle are positioned correctly, your saddle will not stay in its proper place on your horse’s back. And no matter how many times you stop and reset the saddle, or what kind of saddle blanket you use, or what type of cinch you use, your saddle will continue to slide forward.
How do you know if the billets and latigo on your saddle are aligned properly for your horse? Place your saddle on your horse’s back, making sure that it is correctly situated behind his shoulder. The billets/latigo should hang perpendicular to the ground, and also should hang in the cinching area. If they hang too far back, gravity will pull them forward into the cinching area, which will pull the entire saddle forward.
The cinch will always find its position at the narrowest point of the rib cage behind your horse’s elbow, and the unfortunate result is that the saddle either gets driven forward into your horse’s shoulders, or is driven clear on top of his shoulders.
Why is this unfortunate? The horse’s shoulder blade (scapula) consists of both bone and cartilage. At the least, a saddle that is pulled forward onto his shoulders acts like a straitjacket: your horse will be unable to move freely through his shoulders and his movement will be compromised, sometimes severely.
At worst, a saddle that constantly drives into your horse’s shoulders first will produce a buildup of scar tissue on his scapula. If the problem persists over the long-term, the tree points of the saddle will begin to actually chip away the bone and cartilage. Horses with this kind of irreversible damage often have telltale “holes,” particularly on their left shoulder blade, and frequently have had to be retired due to persistent unsoundness.
If the billets or latigo hang too far forward into your horse’s elbow area, they may make him sore in the elbows. And once again, gravity will drag them (and the cinch and saddle along with them) back into the cinching area. You might think that this is not a problem because at least your horse’s shoulders are free.
However, there will be too much pressure on the bars at the rear of the saddle. Too much of the rider’s weight will be on the horse’s lumbar and kidney area. In the case of a mare, there will be excessive pressure on her ovaries. This is especially problematic when the mare is in season, and during these times she may show extreme discomfort or resistance when being saddled and ridden.
What causes improper billet or latigo alignment? Frequently, the problem is that either the width or the angle, or both the width and the angle, of your saddle’s tree is not the correct size for your horse. Look for our discussion of tree width and tree angle in future Saddle Fit Tips.
Tip #6 - Saddle Length
The shoulder and loin areas should not carry any weight of the saddle and rider. Rider weight should be on the saddle support area only.
Ask yourself… Does your horse have a “4-beat” canter?
Does your horse have tense back muscles with impaired movement?
If you answered “yes” to the above question, you may be faced with a Saddle Length issue.
Watch this informative video for some saddle fit tips on “Saddle Length” and learn how improper saddle length may be the cause!
Learn the importance of Correct Saddle Length for your horse
Many of us are familiar with the term “short-backed” to describe a horse, but few of us are aware that a horse with a back that appears to be of normal length may actually have a very short saddle-support area. The length of the saddle-support area (the area where the saddle must sit) is what saddle makers and saddle fitters are concerned with, since this will determine how long the bars of this particular horse’s saddle must be.
Breeds that commonly have a short saddle-support area can include Quarter horses, Arabians, and frequently, “modern-type” Warmbloods. One common saddle fitting issue faced by these breeds is that the bars on Western saddles often are too long for their backs. In order that these horses may develop to their fullest potential, and work willingly, happily and without pain, it is crucial that they have a saddle with bars that are the correct length for them.
In order to identify your horse’s saddle-support area – the area where the saddle must sit – do the following:
- With a piece of chalk, outline the edge of your horse’s shoulder blade (pictures #4 and #5)
- Locate your horse’s last floating rib (picture #3). To do this, find where his hairlines come together in the area of his flank and draw a line straight up to his spine.
The above pictures help demonstrate some of the important aspects of saddle length:
- A skeletal diagram showing the proper saddle support area with respect to a horse’s rib cage.
- Jochen points to the last supporting rib on a horse with a saddle that fits properly within the boundaries of the saddle support area for this particular horse.
- The red lines represent the changing directional pattern of hair on the horse’s body relative to the last supportive vertebra (notice the panel of the saddle does not extend past this point).
- The first chalk line represents the front of the scapula (shoulder blade) whereas the second chalk line again represents the last supportive vertebrae.
- Jochen’s left hand it pointing to just behind the shoulder blade where the saddle ideally should be placed and not extend past the last vertebrae outlined.
- Jochen is drawing “pain lines” from pinched nerves that appear on some horses when they have an ill-fitting saddle.
First, the saddle must sit behind the shoulder. But, and particularly at the lope, a saddle that is too long often will get driven forward into the shoulder. As we learned in Tip 5 – Billet and Latigo Alignment, this can produce a buildup of scar tissue on the scapula, and over time, the scapula may actually be chipped away by the tree points of the saddle.
Second, the saddle cannot extend past the last floating rib. If a saddle is too long for a particular horse, the rear of the bars will extend past the horse’s saddle support area. This is extremely uncomfortable for the horse, as it puts pressure on his lumbar region. A horse ridden in a saddle that is too long will often tighten his lower back muscles; in some cases, you can actually see the horse hollow and drop his back in an attempt to get away from the pressure of the saddle.
For an example of this, watch the video “How to Tell if Your Saddle Hurts Your Horse” on the Schleese Saddlery Service Educational YouTube Channel. He may buck in an effort to get the weight off his lumbar area. Finally, he may have difficulty moving forward into the lope, or may simply be persistently “off” for no readily apparent reason.
Tip #7 - Saddle Straightness
The saddle should not fall off to one side when viewed from back or front. The tree points should be behind both scapulae (shoulder blades).
Do you often have to step into one stirrup while riding in order to center your saddle on your horse’s back?
If you answered “yes” to the above question, you may be faced with a Saddle Straightness issue.
Understanding the Importance of Saddle Straightness
One of the things we see often – even in professional pictures in various magazines – is that the rider is not actually sitting straight on the horse (this is especially obvious when you see the rider from behind!).
Once you have determined that your saddle has adequate wither clearance, a gullet/ channel that is the appropriate width for your horse, properly aligned billets or latigo, and is the correct length for your horse, you need to make sure that it sits straight on your horse’s back.
Straightness means that the center of the saddle is in alignment with your horse’s spine. Sometimes, a saddle that appears straight when the horse is standing in the crossties will shift to the right or left when the horse is being ridden. A saddle that falls or twists to one side can lead to problems with your horse’s SI (sacroiliac) joint; if the saddle shifts to such a degree that the panels rest on the horse’s spine, this can lead to the kind of irreversible long-term damage we discussed in Saddle Fit Tip # 3 – Gullet/Channel Width.
The best way to determine if your saddle falls or twists to one side while your horse is being ridden is to do a dust pattern ride and analysis. Without brushing your horse’s back, tack him up and ride him on a 20-meter circle in each direction at the walk, trot, and lope. Then, carefully lift the saddle off of his back, so as to not disturb the telltale outline left by the saddle’s panels. Put your horse in crossties if available; if not, have a friend hold your horse on even ground. Square up your horse. Put a mounting block or something on which you can safely stand behind your horse.
The goal is to have a clear view of the top of his back. Stand on the mounting block and look at the dust pattern. Did your saddle sit nice and straight on your horse’s back? Or did it fall to the right or to the left? If you are uncertain, take a tape measure and measure the distance from the center of your horse’s spine to the outside of the rear panel on each side. If the saddle falls to the right, which is most common, the measurement from the center of your horse’s spine to the outside of the right-hand panel will be bigger than the measurement from the center of his spine to the outside of the left-hand panel.
Need a western saddle pic from behind here!
These pictures help demonstrate two ways in which Jochen Schleese will check for Saddle Straightness.
What causes a saddle to fall to one side of a horse’s back? Horses are by nature uneven. The overwhelming majority of horses are not built symmetrically through their shoulders. 70% of horses have a left shoulder that is larger and more developed than their right shoulder; 20% have a right shoulder that is larger and more developed than their left shoulder; and 10% are even through the shoulders.
Whether a horse is left- or right-side dominant can result from several things: the way it was positioned in utero, which leg is forward when the horse grazes, and/ or the way the horse has been trained. Sometimes a saddle falls to one side because the gullet/channel is too narrow and/or the tree width or tree angle (to be discussed in Saddle Tips #8 and #9) is not correctly adjusted for the horse. So the larger shoulder kicks the saddle over to the other side.
Alternatively, a rider who sits unevenly on a saddle can drag it over to that side. Perhaps the rider has an imbalance such as is caused by scoliosis, or one hip is lower than the other, or s/he weights one stirrup more than the other. If you have determined that your saddle does not sit straight on your horse’s back, it is important to determine the cause and resolve the issue in order to avoid causing long-term damage to your horse.
Tip #8 - Saddle Tree Angle
The bar should be parallel to the shoulder angle to position saddle properly.
Did you know…Saddle Trees come in either: Narrow, Medium or Wide?
Did you know that those designations refer both to the width of the tree and the angle of the tree?
Whether you answered yes or no, Schleese is offering you further information on the importance of the proper tree angle to prevent long-term damage to your horse.
Learn the importance of a Saddle’s Tree Angle
Many of us are aware that trees come in narrow, medium, or wide, but how many of us know that those designations refer both to the width of the tree (more about that in Saddle Fit Tip #9) and to the angle of the tree?
In previous Saddle Fit Tips, we learned why it is so important that the saddle stay behind the horse’s shoulder. If it does not, and constantly moves forward, the tree points of the saddle will drive into the horse’s shoulders, first producing a buildup of scar tissue on his scapula, and then chipping away cartilage and bone.
This is irreversible long-term damage, and can lead to persistent unsoundness and the premature retirement of the horse.
What does the tree angle have to do with all of this? In order to avoid this kind of damage, it is crucial that the angle of the tree be adjusted to match the angle of the horse’s shoulder.
Think of two sliding doors. If they are properly aligned, one will slide freely past the other. But if they are not, one will jam into the other. It is the same with your horse’s shoulders and the angle of his saddle’s tree. As the horse moves, his shoulder rotates upward and backwards, as we learned in Saddle Fit Tip #2. If your saddle’s tree angle does not match the angle of your horse’s shoulder, his shoulders will be unable to rotate freely under the saddle, compromising his movement, sometimes severely. At the very least, a saddle with a tree angle that is not correctly adjusted is extremely uncomfortable for your horse. At worst, it can lead to irreversible long-term damage.
How do saddle fitters determine if the tree angle of your horse’s saddle matches the angle of his shoulder? They use the Sprenger gauge to measure the horse’s shoulder angle. They put the Sprenger behind the shoulder blade, and set it so that the upper arm of the device is parallel to the angle of the horse’s scapula. Then they adjust the tree of the saddle so that the tree angle matches that of the horse’s shoulder.
How can you tell if the tree angle on your saddle is correct for your horse? Put your saddle on your horse without a saddle blanket. Then check if the angle of the piping on the saddle matches the angle of your horse’s shoulder. If it does, the angle of your saddle’s tree is correctly adjusted for your horse (assuming you have an adjustable saddle tree).
If you’re still uncertain if the angle of your saddle’s tree is correct for your horse, observe his behaviour under saddle. If the tree angle is too wide, there may be clearance on the top of your horse’s withers, but the saddle will pinch the sides of his withers. It will also hit the reflex point (cranial nerve 11) that restricts movement in his shoulders and makes him unwilling or unable to move freely forward. The horse will raise his head or hollow his back, or exhibit other forms of resistance until the reflex point/nerve becomes numb.
If your horse behaves in this manner, it may be because the tree angle of your saddle is incorrect for him. It is important to understand that your horse doesn’t want to be bad, but if the saddle keeps hitting that reflex point, he almost has no choice: he cannot engage the muscles you’re asking him to engage. He cannot do what you’re asking him to do, and this can lead to unnecessary fights between horse and rider.
Put the saddle on your horse without a saddle blanket. Then check if the angle of the bars matches the angle of your horse’s shoulder. If it does, the angle of your saddle’s tree is correctly adjusted for your horse.
Tip #9 - Saddle Tree Width
The tree width should be wide enough for saddle to fit during the dynamic movement of the horse.
Did you know… Saddle Trees come in either: Narrow, Medium or Wide widths?
But what do these terms actually mean? And what will a saddle with a tree that is an incorrect width for your horse actually do when your horse is in motion?
Learn the importance of a Saddle’s Tree Width
The tree width must be wide enough for the horse’s shoulders to rotate freely under the tree. But too often we see a saddle with a tree width that is too narrow for a particular horse.
Not only can your horse’s shoulders not move freely under such a saddle, but the saddle can be driven forward on top of his shoulders as he is being ridden. This will result in all of the problems we’ve already discussed in previous saddle fit tips.
If the tree width is too wide, while the horse is being ridden, the entire saddle may rock from side to side, or the back half of the saddle may twist to one side or the other.
Why do saddle makers and saddle fitters consider both tree width and tree angle when fitting a saddle to a particular horse? Tree width and tree angle need to be adjusted together. If the width of your saddle’s tree is correct for your horse, but the angle is incorrect, the saddle will not fit your horse. At times both the width and angle of the saddle’s tree are incorrect for a particular horse. As we discussed in Saddle Fit Tip # 8 – Tree Angle, this can cause permanent, long-term damage to your horse.
A properly fitted saddle will have a tree that is wide enough and an angle that is correctly adjusted so as to avoid hitting the spinalis muscle. This is also a reflex point that inhibits or completely stops forward movement. When a stallion breeds a mare, he bites her on this reflex point so that she stands still, hollows her back, and rotates her pelvis open. In order to locate your horse’s spinalis muscle, draw a line 4” down from the base of your horse’s withers, and then draw a horizontal line back. The saddle must stay off of that triangle.