Understanding the Importance of Full Panel Contact
Once you’ve established that your saddle’s gullet/channel is the correct width for your horse, with the panels resting on your horse’s longissimus dorci muscles, and not on his spine or ligaments, you need to ensure that your saddle’s panels 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 panels 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 pad. Stand on your horse’s left side and place your left hand on the pommel and the finger tips of your right hand between the panel and your horse’s back, under the area where the stirrup bar is. 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 panel and their horse’s back. Use whichever method works best for you.
When a saddle rocks, the panels 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 pad. Push down on the pommel. If the cantle lifts up off the horse’s back, your saddle rocks.
Note that sometimes your saddle may be made with panels that deliberately flare up at the very back, so the last inch or so of the panels 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.