Evaluating Saddle Fit: Gullet Width


The gullet of a saddle is the channel that runs down the center of the underside of a saddle, in between the panels. The gullet bridges the horse’s spine so it is an important part of the saddle design. If the gullet is narrow, it can pinch the muscles on either side of the spine which ultimately will make your horse’s back stiff or sore. The horse’s spine is where the nerves of the back are located; to prevent the saddle from impinging on these nerves, the gullet needs to be wide enough to distribute the weight of the rider on the horse’s muscle.

Many people confuse Tree Size with Gullet Width. Tree is a completely different measurement: it refers to the distance between the bottom of the points of the tree. This measurement is either described in centimeters or as medium, medium/wide, etc.  Please note that these excellent descriptive photos are from: How to Measure an English Saddle. The rest of the photos are mine, but these just illustrated the concepts more clearly.

I think that part of the confusion between tree size and gullet width is due to the popularity of the Wintec saddles with interchangeable gullets. The concept promotes the idea that by interchanging the “gullets” you can adjust a saddle from a narrow tree size to an extra wide. And you can. But the Wintec gullets are inserted into the front of the saddle and they change the angle of the tree — and may change the front part of the gullet slightly. If you look at the photo on the left, imagine that the inverted “V” is either narrower or wider. In some saddles, the saddle gullet is wider at the pommel end and narrows over the length of the saddle.

In fact, there are saddles where the gullet becomes very narrow indeed. In the photo below are two saddles: an old Hermes close contact saddle and a recent model County cross country saddle (the Extreme). They are both medium trees, according to their manufacturers, but they are different sizes. The Hermes is a 16.5″ and the County is an 18″.

As you can see, on the Hermes saddle, the gullet narrows significantly as it approaches the back of the saddle. In fact, you can barely fit two fingers in the gullet of the Hermes.

In comparison, the County has a nice wide gullet. In fact, you can comfortably fit three fingers in the gullet. I’ve read that the “three finger” rule is a good starting point for gullet width, although each horse is different.

The implications of this difference comes when you look at the saddle on a horse. The model here is my 17 year old Trakehner gelding, Kronefurst. The first photo shows the Hermes. You can see that the gullet offers barely any clearance over the spine and the panels sit very close to the spine and will not distribute a rider’s weight effectively.

In comparison, look how nicely the County clears Kroni’s spine.  The panels sit very nicely on his back and will distribute a rider’s weight very well. And they should! I have my saddles checked and fitted by a professional saddle fitter at least once a year.

Given that narrow gullets can impinge on a horse’s spine, why do manufacturer’s make them this way? One rational for making the gullet narrow is for rider comfort. Many people like riding in a saddle with a narrow “twist”, and some saddle manufacturers simply bring the panels closer together toward the back of the saddle to accomplish this. However, it’s not nearly so comfortable for your horse!

Can a gullet be too wide? Yes, if it reduces the size of the panels to the point where they can no longer adequately distribute the rider’s weight. This is a fairly unusual; it is more typical for gullets to be too narrow.

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35 responses

  1. Thank you for this informative entry. I’ve been in the industry for sixteen years now, and I cannot say that I have read a better explanation. You did a great job illustrating the difference between tree size and gullet space. Also, the pictures from the rear of the horse emphasize the need for fitting the saddle to the horse not the other way around. Thank you again for this interesting and informative article.

    • I also want to thank you I have been doing some research and I couldn’t find anything on this except the easy change gullet system. I have been searching for something to help me to determine whether my saddle fit both my horses and if I need to get a new saddle. I do have a question how ever so I was wondering if you could help me? I have one horse that is a paint Thoroughbred cross but he is very narrow in his shoulders and down his spine and my saddle seems to fit him good but my other gelding who is also a paint has very wide shoulders with a high whither bone and the saddle is constantly sliding back so I don’t know what I can do to fix it I have tried a breast plate but it still slides back and the breast plate ends up restricting him. So can you please help me any advise is welcome.

      Thanks again

      • Hi Katie, thanks for reading EquineInk. I’m glad the article was helpful. Without seeing a picture of the saddle on your paint/TB cross it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening but it sounds as if the tree is too wide for him. Most of the time when a saddle slips to the extent that you describe, that is the cause. Depending on how much too wide the saddle is, you may be able to help the fit by using a pad that has shims in it to build up the front part of the saddle. Two manufacturers who make them are Mattes and Thinline. Just be careful that you don’t cause different pressure points by adding padding. I’m going to write up a post on the pads soon.

        Liz

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  5. Thanks so much for this great explanation. I just got a new (well, new to me saddle) today and I was looking for information about how to tell if it will fit my horses. Your information is very clear! I appreciate the pictures!

  6. I’ve been through heaps of webites, seeking the answere to the great mystery of saddle fitting!!! Simply wanting to measure my gullet and it seemed like the hardest question to get a answere for. Thank goodness I found your website, you explained everything perfectly and now i can confidently ensure my saddles fit my horses, even though i will still get inn a saddle fitter to double check. Thanks so much :-)

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  8. Very informative and educational article!! I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and I’ve never read something so clear and understanding!!! Great pictures for viewing. You should do demos at the Horse World Expo here in Harrisburg, PA when they are here in February every year. Thank you so much,
    Kelly and Doug

  9. Hi there thank you so much for your entry, I still have more questions though. I have just bought a new gelding, he is quite narrow in the shoulders and my saddle appears to fit him, good clearance, daylight etc. I sought a few opinions and everyone said it was a good fit, however once I have been riding him for a length of time the pommel ends up almost sitting on his wither, only a few fingers clearance. Originally I thought it might be a due to the gullet size, which is adjustable, however after reading this I wonder if it is perhaps the tree size and in that case I need a new saddle!?? Please help if you can. I would get it professionally fitted if I could but there is no one close by who can do so and in the interim I am too scared to ride him in case I do damage!

    • Is there any chance you could send some photos (side view). Is the saddle actually slipping forward? Or is it just closer to the withers after you ride? If there is still clearance, it may be enough (the three fingers isn’t a hard and fast rule) but if the saddle is slipping forward it may be the wrong size. For small adjustments, if the saddle is too wide you can use a saddle pad with inserts but just need to be careful that you aren’t raising the front (or back) in a way that causes new pressure points.

      • Hi, thanks for the prompt reply.. feeling a lot better after reading your response. I haven’t had a chance to take photos but will do so tomorrow. The saddle doesn’t appear to slip forward at all, in fact it slips back, but only slightly, not super close to the loins at all. It kind of tilts downward so that the back of saddle is not sitting firm and in regards to the clearance it is next to none. I will take a few photos and send them to you tomorrow. This may sound like a silly questions, but alongside my lack of saddle fitting skills, I also don’t know how to post the photos!! Thanks ever so much for your help, it is truly appreciated.

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  11. Hi! I am concerned that the saddle I have used on my thoroughbred has a gullet channel that is too narrow. It’s a 2 finger width from front to back. I believe over time that the narrowness has caused ligament damage/stress in his back. Knowing more today about saddle fit than I did when I bought the saddle, I have measured his back where the panels should sit clear of the ligaments on either side of the backbone. And it looks like he would need a saddle gullet channel of about 3 fingers width or slightly more. My question is whether it is possible to have the gullet channel widened by a saddle fitter. I use a Spanish dressage saddle called a Zaldi. Or I did until I determined it was too narrow! I also use a Wintec Pro Dressage saddle for riding in bad weather. The Wintec has the 3 finger width channel although it does narrow very slightly towards the back. I am riding in that right now as he seems more comfortable in the Wintec. The other question I have is that I have noticed with both saddles that the horse’s hair is being significantly rubbed under the saddle on both sides where the back of the panels sits on him (under the cantle). I use a fairly thick pad and a Mattes sheepskin halfpad, but that does not seem to make a difference. What do you think is causing that? Thanks for any light you can shed on these two questions!

    • Hi Debbie,

      Good for you for working to make your horse as comfortable as possible. Sometimes that can be a frustrating
      I do not think that a gullet can be widened, however I believe that the Zaldi saddles have wool panels and it’s possible that having it reflocked to better fit the shape of your horse might help with overall fit. If your horse is getting rubbed under the cantle of the saddle it indicates that your saddle is moving too much. If the saddle is on the narrow side, adding the extra padding will only exacerbate the problem.

      When you have the saddle on your horse without a pad, does the saddle sit levelly on his back? The cantle should be even or very slightly higher than the pommel. If you try to rock the saddle by pressing on the cantle, does it move or stay still? A saddle that rocks will cause the irritation you described. Sometimes even if the tree is the right width, the shape of the tree and the panels is wrong for the horse’s back. Some saddles are built with a curvy tree; others with a tree that is flatter. I guess that’s a topic for another post!

      • Liz,
        Thank you for such a quick reply! I will test both saddles for rocking. I know that the Zaldi’s cantle is slightly higher than the pommel. But the Wintec has a cantle that is slightly lower than the pommel. I shimmed up the Wintec cantle a couple of days ago (two felt shims under each side) until the cantle was even with the pommel, and for me, the rider, it was perfect. I sat right over my feet very easily. But I’m concerned about the panels fitting along the entire length of the saddle once the shims are in place. And about making sure there is no added pressure on the withers. The Wintec is an older model so doesn’t have the Cair panels, which I’m not a fan of anyway. The older model’s panels are not as rounded and seem to touch more surface area on the horse. Will have my saddle fitter look at the possibility of reflocking the Zaldi to allow for more room around the gullet channel. In the meantime, do you think I am on the right track with the adjustments to the Wintec?

        Again, many thanks for your help!

        Debbie

  12. Hello Liz,
    Finally, a site that I can understand! Thank you so much for this info and such clear photos. Very well done. Can a wide tree size become smaller due to the panels being generously stuffed? Would I use the panels as part of the calculation in determining the tree size? My mare has dry ovals behind and on either side of the withers on the sweaty saddle pad. Thank you !
    Resa

    • Hi Resa,

      Sorry about the delay in responding. Yes, you can “adjust” the fit of a tree that is too wide by flocking the saddle, but only up to a point. In my experience I’ve been able to bring a saddle down about half a size, say from a wide to a medium wide. You can also use pads with shims. However, you don’t want to run into a situation where you have so many pads between your horse and your saddle that you loose stability.

  13. Hi, your info was very helpful to me. I have a Paint who is wide and has high withers. Do you know of a western saddle that could fit him? I’ve looked, and looked, but I really don’t have any $$$ for custom saddle. Anything will be helpful to me. Thanks! :)

    • Hi Emma,

      Thanks for your question. I am hoping that a reader will chime in here as I have no experience in fitting Western Saddles. However, you might try contacting some tack stores in your area and asking their advice. I would imagine that saddles made for Arabians and other traditionally round backed horses might be a good starting point. Good luck!

  14. Great explanation on gullet fitting – thanks so much! I thought I’d let everyone know another excellent video on saddle fitting. It’s easy to find on YouTube and is called “Saddle Fitting in 9 Steps” by Schleese. This is an excellent series to watch and I would highly recommend it to anyone that cares about their horses health and wellbeing. It’s so sad that so many people think a horse has behavioral problems, when if fact, they are just trying to let us know that something is wrong! We purchased a so called “problem” horse from a lady that said he was a brat and hard to handle. He was kept in a dry lot 24/7, with very little attention because the lady didn’t like him. he would pin his ears back and didn’t want to have anything to do with humans. We weaned him on to pasture, feed him high quality orchard grass hay, give him good quality grain, beet pulp and vitamins everyday, and made sure he had a proper fitting saddle with a mattes pad (we swear by mattes pads!). We also believe in showering our horses with love and affection and talk to them like they’re human. Well, after about four months, he is the best horse we’ve ever had, why – because he’s happy and is pain free! We give him lots of love and attention, make sure he’s allowed to graze everyday and he has a comfortable fitting saddle. Literally anyone can ride him and he is the biggest love you’d ever meet. He is the first one to come up and say hi and will follow you around in the pasture like a puppy-dog! It’s so sad that many people don’t get to the bottom of the real reason our horses act out and just label them as unruley. I’ve seen some cowboys do damage mentally and physically to a horse that was acting out because they were either scared out of their mind, or something was hurting or bothering them. It’s just so sad that instead of getting to the root of what is causing a negative behavior, they are cast aside as a bad horse. I wish more people would read articles like yours and watch videos like Schleese’s saddle fitting and have a quality equine vet check out their horse before they decide to give up on them. Because 99% of the time, they really are just trying to tell us something!

  15. I ride a fat Foxtrotter. I got a Wintec Pro Stock saddle this summer, with the wide gullet inserted. I thought it was fine till his winter coat came in. He has a strip of white hairs on either side of his spine, probably an inch out. The gullet of the saddle is wide, so what can be amiss here?

    • Two things spring to mind: First, the tree shape might not be right for your horse. The white hairs indicate that there is pressure alongside his spine. Second, the tree might still not be wide enough. While the Wintec interchangeable gullets do give you more width in the angle of the tree at the front of the saddle, they do not change the width of the gullet down the length of the saddle. It’s probably worth having a saddle fitter come and take a look. Good luck!

  16. Hi, I’ve been looking for a site to refer someone to in explaining the measurements of an English saddle. I though yours was great, except for one point, In showing how to properly measure the saddle “tree” you neglected to tell your readers what measurements in cm or inches makes a narrow, standard, medium, or wide tree. I would think that would be very important in determining if a saddle might fit a particular horse if you are purchasing the saddle “on-line” etc. Thanks.

    • Hi Lynn,
      You raise an interesting point. Unfortunately, since saddle makers all measure the width of their trees differently (they typically measure from the bottom of the tree points) it’s almost impossible to make generalizations. A 32 cm tree in a Stubben, for example, fits wider than a 32 cm tree in a Prestige (ask me how I know that!). Even when staying with a brand, the manufacturer may use different trees for their dressage saddles and/or jumping saddles, which does change the fit. The best way to figure out if a saddle will fit your horse when buying online is to do a wither and back tracing, or be familiar with the way certain brands/models fit. After that you have to take into consideration whether a saddle is made to fit a flat back or a curvy one! Trying a specific model saddle on your horse can be very helpful. When I bought my Roosli dressage saddle, I was able to try one on my horse and determine that he needed a wide tree — I never would have thought to order one because in other brands he was a medium wide.

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