Saddle fitting for the horse in motion

Saddle fitting for the Horse in Motion

Just because a saddle fits a horse that’s standing still doesn’t mean it will still fit when the horse is moving, because saddle fitting for the horse in motion has to take into account how the horse’s back changes. I came across an interesting post on Facebook by Erica Allen, a certified independent saddle fitter in Ontario. I learned a lot from this post. I hope you will, too.

*** Why Tree Shapes Matter….For Your Horse ***

Profile of a 5-year old KWPN
This 5 year old KWPN gelding was having trouble staying soft and round at the canter.

Horses come in all shapes and sizes & are 3 dimensional creatures. Saddle trees also come in all shapes and sizes and are also 3 dimensional objects. Most people seem so fixated on the width of a saddle/tree, which is unfortunately only one very small part of saddle fit as a whole.

Here is an exceptionally interesting and obvious example of just WHY tree shape matters to your horse. Make some tea, pour some wine & have a seat, this is likely to be a bit long.

Horse: 5y/o KWPN gelding owned since a weanling & all training done by his owner. Horse has been doing very light work a couple days a week in “Saddle A” since he was 3.5, with frequent bouts time off as dictated by growth. The rider has been struggling to get him soft and not inverting, especially in the canter for some time now. <— Hence why I was called.

Look how different his back looks when he’s in motion and his back raises.

Photo # 1: his back shape standing still
Photo # 2: his back shape while trotting

I hope everyone can appreciate that these 2 back shapes are entirely different! This lovely boys wither basically disappears when he starts to move. As a fitter, it would be completely useless to everyone involved if I fit a saddle to this horses “standing shape”. No one cares if a saddle fits in the hall way. Well…….ok, maybe that’s wrong……..if there is someone on this earth who just likes to saddle their horse and stare at how pretty they are in the hall way – then fitting the saddle statically would be useful to them. Hahahaha For most people, we actually own a saddle and a horse so that we can ride. So a fitter, it is my duty to ensure the saddle fits while the horse is in motion – so I must fit the flatter profile back of this lovely gelding.

Photo #3, 4: Saddle A on this horses back.

His current saddle looks like it fits. To my eye, it looks a bit like it will pivot a bit on the shoulder, which is what happens. The back lifts up when there is a rider in the saddle.

This saddle, while standing still, really doesn’t look too bad on this horse right?? If you run your hands under it everywhere there is pretty even contact. Essentially it would technically pass the “fit requirements” based on look and feel for the majority of riders and even for some professionals & fitters.

While I don’t have video of this: I can promise you, that while in motion, even with a rider in the saddle, the back of it lifts up, putting the balance of the seat too far forward and the back actually bounces on the horses back, especially in each canter stride. See that drop from the top of the pommel down to the base of the seat? Yeah the entire area is now baring the majority of the weight of the saddle & rider, and actually pushing this boys back DOWN at the base of the withers (lowest point of his back).

There’s enough withers clearance and the panels don’t constrict the shoulder.

Now please go back and review photo # 2 (horse trotting without tack). Can you see the odd muscling over his back that is EXACTLY where the saddle sits?? Yes, that is from this saddle that isn’t allowing those muscles to fire or function properly. This is not from a lack of topline, feed deficiency, or lack of correct work. This is from a saddle IMPEDING the horse from being able to move properly under saddle. The horse cannot lift his back, therefore cannot be soft for his rider, and yup – the canter suffers the most as that gait requires to most back movement.

So what fits this horse?

Photo # 5, 6: Saddle B on this horses back

When standing still, the saddle looks slightly pommel high, which would put the rider slightly behind the motion.

Notice the saddle looks pommel high? I totally agree it does! It also looks like the rider would be seated in the back seat if she rode in that. Notice the saddle doesn’t have a deep seat? Nope it doesn’t. Notice it doesn’t have a very high pommel? It looks pretty darn totten flat! I totally agree! But……refer back to photo # 2 of the horse trotting without tack on; what does his back look like?? Yup, you got it……Flat. So, the tree shape front to back MUST match that of the horse. This tree is also a full tree size wider than Saddle A – and yes it’s the same brand, and they size their trees evenly between makes, so this is a fair representation from a width stand point. Some may ask “well what about the balance point being so far back in the seat?? The rider would feel like she’s driving a car from the back seat & will be in a chair seat!” It absolutely does appear that way. But when that horse moves, the back comes up so much, that the seat levels out and the rider is perfectly balanced right where she needs to be.

Photo # 7: Rider aboard saddle B

When the horse is in motion and there is a rider in the saddle, it fits well and the horse immediately started to move better.

You can see in this last photo that despite the seat being enormously way too big for this tiny bummed rider, she is perfectly seated right where she should be in the saddle, and it no longer appears pommel high/cantle low. Horse was immediately soft and the canter transition was improved and the owner said the canter hasn’t been that good in a long while – no more inverting – Yay!!!

Now this owner was quite the smart cookie 2 years ago when she bought Saddle A custom for a 3y/o. Sounds scary right? Look how much he’s changed shape!! His owner went with a company who accepts trade ins for just such an occasion! So what will happen? Saddle B will be ordered (in a smaller seat size for sure!) Saddle A will be given back to the company (to be resold) and the trade in value of Saddle A, will come directly off the invoice for Saddle B. Sounds amazing right? I won’t lie, it kinda is. Now most Saddle companies don’t offer this exact same thing, they may offer a variance of it, but it doesn’t usually work this smoothly at all. So in that regard, this horse/owner pairing totally hit the jack pot!! They will be well on their way to bigger and better things very soon!

So, hopefully this helps everyone see, that tree shape……..MATTERS………a lot!

6 thoughts on “Saddle fitting for the horse in motion

  1. Well, that’s interesting. I note that Saddle A: the photo taken from the shoulder looking down the gullet, shows a LOT of wear on the edges of the panel and the gullet itself. I attitribute it, possibly, from the owner putting the saddle on end on concrete. I hope not, but then, what would cause such wear? Other than she’s put a ton of miles on it. Woops, kilometers, as it appears she’s in Canada. Either way this is an interesting article and an informative one. I tried my hand at saddle fitting and reflocking and can tell you it is witchcraft…you have to have a special knack and an extremely solid base in how the horse moves under a rider to be a good fitter. This is an aspect of fitting I’d never, ever considered and is exceptionally informative. Thanks, Liz!

  2. I worked with the same saddle fitter or 20 years. He was a miracle worker and my horses stayed happy. He died last year and I’ve still not found another like him. I’ve been watching this saddle fitting group on Facebook and it’s fascinating because of how many ways a saddle doesn’t fit! Honestly, for people who have no access to a saddle fitter, they should all buy a good treeless saddle and pad because so many saddles look like they are causing their horses pain.

    The person I worked with also fitted saddles for the USET and he just had a great understanding of how a saddle should fit. He also did a lot of body work (he started each session understanding where your horse might be sore) and went from there.

    I miss Gary.

  3. During my years as an (part never did pay the bills) equine massage therapist, I can tell you, the vast majority of my clients (horses) had back pain, and most of the time it was due to poor saddle fit.

    It wasn’t always neglect…as you noted earlier, horses change as they fitten (sic) or fatten up-or lose weight, or whatever.

    I was and still am (I’m not boasting) a very good massage therapist. There are former clients who tell me the next time I’m in their state, to come and work on their horses. And I’ve been ‘retired’ for about ten years.

    I tried my hand at saddle fitting because I got so concerned with how many sore backed horses I was seeing, I wanted to help. I found that, while I could easily detect back pain and successfully enable the horse to heal itself, I couldn’t change the saddle itself, nor the minds of the saddle’s owner. I can’t tell you how often I was asked to fit a saddle to the horse and would tell the owner, this saddle won’t fit your horse no matter HOW it’s flocked…and she would look at me and say, “I paid five thousand dollars for that saddle, I don’t want to hear ‘it’s not right.” and expect me to fix it. No. There is no way, and it’s not right to fit the horse to the saddle. Flocking is witchcraft, even more so than saddle fitting (and I say that not as a perjorative but as a term of, well, respect…you have to have a certain gestalt to figure out saddle fitting). But even flocking has it’s limits.

    I have the utmost respect and admiration for a good saddle fitter. I never bitched at the price they asked when I had one out to fit my horse..because they earned it.

    As for my clients? They knew nothing of massage, which I was grateful for, because all I required of them, after the initial examination, was to hold the lead rope and PLEASE be quiet..I need to listen to my hands.

    But they all knew all about saddles, it seems.
    The pissing match would start with her remark, “what do you mean, the saddle isn’t right for my horse?”

    I got so tired of hearing, well, how about if I add padding? If your shoes don’t fit, you don’t put on a second pair of socks…you get a pair that fits. But the people referred to above didn’t get the analogy. They had the kind of money that , they believed, entitled them to abuse a professional, and the accompanying mind set that insisted I was being stubborn, rather than right.
    I walked off several times without having made a retrospect I should have insisted on being paid for my time BEFORE I started trying to fit…but the thing that hurt me the most was that I knew, as I walked off the property, that she’d throw another pad under the saddle and think she knew better. And the horse would still be hurting.
    Thus…I quit trying to fit saddles, and just worked on the horses themselves.

    1. My saddle fitter also did body work. I think the two go hand in hand because if you have a sore horse, you need to fix that too. I learned so much from him over the years! I still give my horses a massage. Not a professional quality one, but I like to feel their bodies and learn where they are sensitive and I enjoy watching them release the tension. Freedom is tricky because he’s so sensitive to touch, but Zelda loves to be pampered.

  4. What is the best way to find a good saddle fitter? I live in Texas, south of Dallas a bit, I trail ride mostly, rudearide WesternhWestern and have overaover 1000 miles in trail competition. I have heard nightmare stories of people ordering custom made saddles that still don’t fit!

  5. Ummmmm, if there’s a tack shop in your area, ask them for a reference. Or, look up a local dressage barn and ask who does their saddle fitting.
    The thing about western saddles is that they can’t really be adjusted to fit, like a dressage saddle can. It’s because the design of a western saddle hasn’t changed in over a two hundred years, and there’s no way to ‘flock’ one.
    There’s a town called New Braunfels in Texas, I believe it’s about two hours south of Ft. Hood. There used to be a factory there that made the saddle trees for every western saddle brand you can think. The trees were all cut to the exact same design. They had one ‘master’ tree that served as the master, and a pantograph set up that cut wood planks as a copy. The master tree was based on the measurements made of a horse in 1955. Yes. Now we all know that horses, especially QH’s have changed over the years. QH’s are wider now, have sloping backs, etc. So the saddles come out of the factory based on 70 year old measurements. Has it been updated? I dunno, but right off the bat, knowing this, I see that problems arise fitting western saddles. I can also say that I never learned the intricacies of fitting a western saddle, just dressage and english. So other than the above information, I can’t tell you how to fit a western saddle. Again, give the local dressage barn a call and they should be able to steer you right.

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