Friday, October 30, 2009

10 Points of Saddle Fitting


Fitting saddles is like fitting a child's shoe, it needs to be done correctly to allow for movement without pinching or pain. If you are noticing discomfort or changes in your horse's attitude or behavior under saddle then it may be time for a professional assessment of how your saddle is fitting.

All the following steps need to be done with your horse standing squarely on level ground with his head and neck straight ahead, so an assistant may be necessary. Perform all the steps on both sides of your horse (most horses are asymmetrical) and with the saddle in direct contact with your horse's back, no pad.

1. Position of the Saddle
Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers. Next, press down on the pommel and slide the saddle rearward until it stops at the resting-place, which is dictated by each horse's conformation. Repeat this procedure several times until you feel the saddle stop in the same spot repeatedly, well behind the shoulder blade. Resist the temptation to place the saddle too far forward on the withers. This is a very common fitting mistake and can interfere with your horse's soundness and movement.

2. Point Angle
To find the points, lift the flap of the saddle and look for a little leather pocket into which the wooden processes of the pommel are fitted. This is the point pocket and there is one on both sides of the pommel of the saddle just under the stirrup bars. These points should lie parallel to the withers. If the angles are too narrow, the points will dig into the musculature, also causing the middle of the saddle to be in uneven contact with the horse's back. If they are too wide the saddle will sit down in front putting pressure on top of the withers. To assess the point angles, stand looking from the front with the flap lifted; the points should be parallel with the musculature within 10 degrees of the heaviest side. Some points are concealed making it difficult to determine their angles. If this is the case, you will have to rely more on the panel pressure procedure to determine if the point angles are correct.
3. Panel Pressure
(Note: The panels are the wool stuffed underside of the saddle, which rest on the horse's back.)

Place one hand in the center of the saddle and press down to secure the saddle in place as you test for panel pressure. Run your other hand between the front of the panels and your horse's musculature and feel for any uneven pressure under the points. The front panel should not pinch the withers in any area. While maintaining pressure on the top of the saddle, run your hand, palm up, under the entire panel along the back feeling for even pressure. You may also raise the sweat flap to ensure that the panels fit snugly and evenly on both sides of the withers and along the back to check for bridging. Bridging is a space near the center of the where the panels do not make good contact with the horse's back. Wool stuffed panels are almost universally considered superior to foam for the following reasons: assuming correctly designed panels, wool conforms to the many shapes of the horses back and can be adjusted if necessary to correct for a multitude of fitting problems. You cannot, however, correct for a poorly designed or incorrectly fitted tree.

4. Pommel to Cantle Relationship
Visualize a straight line parallel to the ground from the pommel to the cantle. In saddles with deep or moderately deep seats, the cantle should be between 2 to 3 inches higher than the pommel. In shallower seats, such as close contact jumping saddles, the cantle may only be approximately 1 to 2 inches higher than the pommel. In almost any saddle, if the cantle is level with or below the pommel, the saddle is not properly fitted.

5. Level Seat
Visualize the same straight line parallel to the ground and look this time at the deepest part of the seat. This area should be level in order to put the rider squarely on their seat bones and in balance.

6. Wither Clearance
There should be adequate clearance between the pommel and the top of the horse's withers, approximately two to three fingers. More than three fingers’ clearance may mean the pommel is too high, i.e. the tree is too narrow. A saddle with less than 2-3 fingers may mean that the saddle is too wide. With wool stuffed panels, make allowance for the saddle to settle a half inch or so. There is an exception to this indicator: horses with flat, round withers may have more clearance than usual under the pommel. In these situations you may need to rely more on the balance of the seat and pommel to cantle relationship. On horses with high, narrow withers maintaining proper clearance is something that has to be monitored and maintained.

7. Channel Clearance/Gullet Width
There should also be adequate clearance over the spine and connective tissue throughout the channel of the saddle. A channel that is too narrow will impede the horse’s movement dramatically and may even cause the spine to be observably sore. Feel the width of the spine and connective tissue with your fingers and estimate its width. The channel of the saddle should completely clear this width, resting on the long back muscle of the back called the longissimus dorsi.

8. Saddle Stability
The saddle should remain stable and not shift excessively from side to side or from front to back. Keep in mind that such shifting may be a function of your horse's symmetry and not the saddle. A certified saddle fitter should be able to make suggestions to minimize or eliminate the problem.

9. Seat Length
The saddle should never go behind the 18th thoracic vertebra, which is the vertebra corresponding with the last rib. Behind this vertebra are the lumbar vertebrae, which is the weakest, non-weight bearing area of the back.

Repeat Steps 6 & 7 with the rider in the saddle, checking for adequate clearance over the withers and spine.

10. Horse Response
Throughout the whole saddle fitting process, monitor your horse's response. Watch his ears and body language. Does he try to step away from the saddle or flinch when it is placed on his back? Or is the opposite true; is he more accepting of the saddle? How does he move when he is ridden? Does he seem freer or more restricted? The horse is the most honest indicator we have when fitting a saddle so pay attention to it and note any changes.

About Alice

For those of you who know me, this may be old news but for those of you who don’t, I’ll make it short and sweet. I began riding in New York around the age of nine, when I discovered the local Shetland pony farm. I was perfectly happy to go around and around and around, often falling asleep on these little fuzzy creatures while dreaming of galloping my trusty steed over the meadows and through the trees with their manes and tails whipped by the wind and the joy of pure freedom running through my blood. Soon after, I started hunt seat lessons at Secor Farms Riding Club in White Plains, New York, where I never missed a weekly or bi-weekly lesson with Frank and Wayne Carroll, learning how to “keep my heels down, my thumbs up and look where I was going.”

Fast forward – In 1999, after years in the computer, oil and gas, and the restaurant industries (among others), I became a saddle fitter. The reason? Every time I put my saddle on my horse in those days I would apologize to him because I knew that it didn’t fit and I didn’t know how to make it fit. I just prepared myself for discomfort; for him and for me. Yes, I did learn how to ride the bucks and push him through the short striding but I also knew that as most horse owners eventually figure out, that there was a serious knowledge gap in my horsemanship. Eventually, light dawned and I knew I had found my calling.

Thanks to the Master Saddlers Association and County Saddlery, since 1999 I have been proud to be a member of an elite group of horsemen who strive to start with the horse. If the horse isn’t comfortable under saddle, then I can help with the saddle and make him more comfortable, thus making the rider more comfortable so they can both have more fun. After working with thousands of horses, I’ve discovered that fixing both the obvious and the not-so-obvious things can make huge differences: from the design of the saddle tree and panels to the length of the browband to the tightness of the noseband.

I will be posting more on my “News from Alice and Justin” blog in the near future. There will be lots of current news from my clients, saddle fitting tips plus other interesting tips that I've come across on my saddle fitting adventures. Keep in touch with me and we’ll share our journeys together -- I love learning from my two-legged and four-legged friends!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Introduction to Justin...

About Justin

Justin, Stats: 1990 TB Gelding, Dark Bay or Brown, show name: “Just Ask Me”, registered name: “Fox Man Red” (See for his details) 16-3 hands, 1450 lbs (true!) and the biggest set of equine lips known to man.

Periodically, I’m going to share some stories about my horse, commonly known as “The Boy,” “J-Man,” “GoofBall,” “Ol’ Fox Man”, “My Bud” and other not-so-flattering names.

He’s my guy. He’s my bud. He pushes my buttons and makes me laugh. I go home from the barn relaxed and happy, frustrated and puzzled, and often, just plain delighted.

I purchased him from Bob Lucas, a wonderful friend and Kansas breeder who had him at Arapahoe Race Track in Aurora, Colorado in 1993. He was U-G-L-Y but wondrous. He had bad feet, a huge head, good legs and the most interesting personality I’ve ever seen in a horse. Always thinking. We were mildly successful in the hunter ring, not so successful in the dressage ring and then, thanks to Laura Backus, finally discovered our true calling: eventing. He loves galloping and cross country jumping but some soundness issues forced us away from the fences so now we simply do our best in the arena and try to have some fun. He developed Cushings (PPID) in 2007 so there will be lots of updates on that situation as well on these pages.

I’ll be posting some funny (and not so funny) stories about “The Boy” on this blog. Check back for his latest adventures!