Saturday, November 7, 2015


So back to saddle fitting . . .

Schleese makes a great point in the beginning of the book about the history of the horse. Prior to the Industrial revolution, horses were how we got around, whether it be pulling a carriage, dragging a cart, or for personal transportation, it was by horse.

Horses were used as cavalry mounts.

 Cattle horses.

 Plow horses

Then the Industrial revolution happened and the horse was replaced by the Model T. Within a very brief span of time, horses migrated from every day use to a hobby. Instead of an owner working with and riding a horse daily, horses became a luxury item used only by those with the time, money and inclination. Horses became sought after less for work than for riding events and plow shares gave way to fancy driving through incredibly complicated courses; military use turned to Eventing; cattle work . . . . well, cattle work is still being done only it happens inside an arena instead of on the open plains. And finally, hours spent in the saddle is now reserved for trail and Endurance riders. Let's face it, horses are hard and expensive and only worth it to those of us driven by an unending passion.

The length of work too has changed. I think it was pretty common in the west at least for riders to be in the saddle for hours on time. Or for those who traveled by horseback on curcuit (judges and doctors). Cow hands spent days in the saddle, using it as a pillow at the end of a long day. Now, the average ride is probably less than an hour, unless you are in training for endurance or a trail rider. But even so, the only people I know with the time to ride daily (5 or 6 times a week) are trainers. That means that instead of working day in and day out, the majority of our horses are working a lot less. As much as I would love to ride 6 days a week, I can't do it. Too much work, too much family time, to many other things pulling me away from the barn. I'm going to be ecstatic to be able to go back to four days a week. Reality is our horses play second fiddle to industrial life, which changes them as much as it changes us.

And then there are the saddles. Schleese points out that saddles from the long ago were handmade to order, specific for the horse, the rider and the work that they were doing. He mourns the loss of a Master Saddler's talent and knowledge to the realities of a global economy, where parts of a saddle might be made in China, other parts in India, and the actual construction in a third country. The outcome has led to a series of saddles that are made for the "average" horse and "average" male rider. Many of them cannot be adjusted, are flocked with foam or (God forbid) plastic and air. There is nothing unique (where unique means made for one horse, or one person) and the one of a kind, hand tooled for a specific person saddles are a thing of a bygone era. (I'm sure they can still be had, but I don't want to guess at the cost.) 

So where does that leave your average ammy rider and their horse? What to do if the only saddle fitter is a rep for a company? How do you find your way through the morass of saddles presented by someone desperate to make a sale and move stock no one has wanted to buy?  Because, let's face it, you are going to end up in that situation sooner or later.

Things to Consider:

English (jumping, dressage, spanish riding saddles) all have billets. The billets come in short and long, which determine the length and type of girth to be used. Short billets work with a jumping style girth that has elastic material the final two or three inches before the buckles. Long billets hang further down the sides of the horse and use a short girth with no elastic at the ends.

Dressage saddles with long billets need to be evaluated as to where the buckles from the girth are going to rest. This style evolved because the buckles don't interfere with the rider's thighs, and allow the girth to be tightened more than with a jumping girth. In saddles with short billets, the rider should try and choose a girth that buckles as far up the side of the horse as possible, to avoid unnecessary pressure on the horse's side where the M. Pectoralis profundus inserts. Several muscle groups converge in that spot and the girth buckles can irritate or aggravate them.

Short billets, in this sense, are better because the buckles are typically buckled much higher on the side of the horse and typically there is a layer of leather between the buckle and the horse that provides some protection. However, because of the elastic ends on both sides of the girth, this style allows for more movement and stretch in the girth, due to changing back, ribs and haunches of the horse as they jump.

It is also important to check the billet position on the saddle to make sure that when the girth is tightened, the saddle is not pulled forward onto the cartilage of the shoulder. If the billets are set too far back on the saddle and the saddle is pulled forward upon girthing, all of that wonderful gullet space you had when the saddle was correctly positioned is now gone and the saddle is set on the muscle over the wither. This is one of the areas to avoid applying pressure, either through changing the billets, adjusting both the width and flare of the gullet piece, or finding a saddle with points on the tree that match your horse's physiology. And remember, these things all change with the type, amount and intensity of work.

Be Aware of your horse's Asymmetry:
All horses are asymmetrical. I know Ashke is. However, I have yet to hear a saddle fitter address the fact that his left shoulder is so much less muscled than his right. Or make suggestions on how to compensate for that shoulder. Luckily for me, the Alta has a very high gullet and I stuck my fingers between the side of the gullet and his withers to make sure there were no pinch spots when we first started riding in it. In the past year and a half, he has developed more muscle in his left wither as we have gotten much better about using our body the right way. The rock and tip (subtle but there) of the saddle toward  his left shoulder that I experienced in the Alta when we first started riding has completely disappeared. I may map his back again to see if there have been measurable differences.

Most horses are left handed and therefor weaker/less developed to the right. Ashke is the opposite, but we think that is due to the injury to his right hamstring. It is important to evaluate any saddle tried on your horse on the straight away, on the circle, in both directions and at the trot. Again, this issue came up for me because of Ashke's asymmetry and how the saddle fits very well on one side of his back and not as well on the other.

 Asymmetry in the withers. Although it is so much better than when I first got him.

Find the Last Rib
The saddle support area, the muscles that support the saddle on either side of the spine, end at the last rib or the 18th vertebra. An English saddle should not extend back of this spot. Some Western saddles do, but they float over the back in that area, not really expanding the saddle support area. This area is very sensitive to weight and is known as the bucking spot for horses. The saddle you choose should center your center of gravity over the withers, with 30% of your weight at the base of the withers, 40% in the center of the saddle and the back third carrying 30%. 

According to Schleese, in order to ensure loose, harmonious movement, the saddle should rock slightly front to back. If it rocks too much it can smack the rider (the Aussie saddles we tried had way too much rock) in the lower back. If the saddle doesn't move at all and has close contact all the way from the pommel to the cantle, it can cause constant pressure on the horse's back which can lead to atrophy. Ensuring a saddle that can move this way will increase the swing in the horse's back and allow for more dynamic movement. This can be checked by looking at the sweat patterns on your horse's back after a ride. Dry spots actually indicate areas where the saddle is not moving. 

Buy a Saddle That can Be Adjusted
When I first bought my Aussie saddle I was told by the woman helping me that the width of the tree would not change. It didn't matter how he was built or how skinny he was, that the skeleton is what determines the width of the gullet. This is completely false. The horse's back will change with the amount of work, the style of riding, the length of riding and the complexity of riding. Unless you want to do this little song and dance every time life speeds up or slows down or it's show season or you have a baby. I don't. I love my saddle and I want to be able to adjust it to fit Ashke's back well for a very long time. According to the SaddleFit4Life website, even a saddle with a static gullet (as compared to the Wintec system, where the saddles are designed with different gullets) a good saddle fitter should be able to change the width and flair of the gullet to accommodate changes in the horse's back.

Make sure the saddle is flockable. Changes to the flocking can accommodate a lot of changes in the horse's musculature and if the wool gets packed down, a saddle fitter should be able to either 1) floof it up again and add extra to give the saddle back it's cushy support, or 2) take out all of the old wool and replace it with new. With foam you are locked into making adjustments with a pad or paying to have the foam removed and replaced with wool. DO NOT buy the air panels by Wintec. They are a nightmare, have straight plastic edges that can pinch, and in my opinion, are not as adjustable as advertised. (And Ashke seriously tried to throw me the first and only time I rode in that saddle.) 

Know Your Horse
If you have a good relationship with your horse and ride often enough that you can tell when something is wrong, you are going to be the best authority on what is going on with your animal. I know that there is an issue with a slight bridge on Ashke's left side, but I think it is slight enough that typically it does not bother him, even when we are riding distances. However, it was bothering him when we visited Dr D, mostly because of the riding we had done the prior weekend. Ashke is not hesitant to tell me when he hurts, and I would have know if it was bothering him prior. Does that mean I'm not interested in fixing the issue now that it is brought to my attention? No. That's why I got the half-pad and am trying to learn enough about saddle fitting to fix the issue with my saddle myself.

Remember your responsibility to your horse rules your acquiescence to the authority of a saddle fitter, especially one that might have a not-so-hidden agenda of selling you another saddle. Be aware of what the horse is telling you. I have seen a lot of riders purchase a saddle they have been sold as a perfect fit and then have to sell that $3k saddle three months later because it really didn't fit.

Make Sure the Saddle Fits You
Rider balance is as important as saddle fit. Your horse can't perform the way you are expecting if you aren't in balance with him. The horse's center of balance is it's shoulder. With training and practice, the horse's center of balance should shift back to merge with your own, just behind the withers. The rider should be centered over the seat of the saddle, with the shoulder, hip and heel in line with one another. If the saddle puts the rider in a chair seat, it's not just bad eq, it's out of balance. If the saddle makes you feel insecure, unsettled or uncomfortable it is not a good fit.

The point of the saddle is to be a bridge between the rider and the horse. One cannot be neglected over the other. The rider who refuses to have their saddle replaced despite two saddle fitters and three trainers and a friend tell them the saddle is causing back issues because the saddle fits the rider soooo very well, is just as bad as a rider who decides to fit the horse at the expense of their comfort. The only way the bridge works as it should is if it works for both the rider and the horse.

Some things to evaluate - when you hang your leg down without the use of stirrups, is it loose and comfortable? Are your inner thighs comfortable or do you feel like your crotch is being spread apart by a too wide twist? Do your hips hurt? Can you feel your seat bones? With your feet in the stirrups are you in the proper position of shoulder, hip to heel? Do you feel like you struggle to keep your heels in line? Do your knees fit the saddle comfortable or are they forced outward away from the horse? Can you rock forward and back (pelvic thrust or pelvic tilt) without creating pain in your crotch? This is especially important for women, since we have three points of contact: seat bones and pubic symphysis. Too much pressure on the pubic symphysis can cause irritation, pain, bruising and UTIs to the lady bits, none of which needs to be a product of riding your horse. How do the knee rolls feel? Do they support your leg or are they in the way? Can you post comfortably? How does your lower leg feel? Is the top of your boot interfering with the saddle flap?Are you in balance with the horse at the walk? Are there any seams, lumps or bumps that will cause pain?

Gullet Channel
We all know about gullet width and making sure the saddle is neither too wide nor too narrow. Along with width, the gullet has flair, which is how the ends of the gullet piece flair outward from the shoulder. The other part of the saddle that is important to check is the gullet channel. There should be 2 to 3 fingers worth of space between the top of the withers and the bottom of the pommel after the saddle is girthed and the rider is aboard. It is not enough that the space be there when the saddle is set on the horse's back; it should remain once the saddle is being used.

The channel needs to maintain open space from the front of the saddle to the rear without impacting the spine. The saddle needs to maintain that space without narrowing from front to back. (Tucker saddles have a known issue with narrowing above the kidneys of the horse). But not too wide, since the panels need to rest on the weight bearing muscle that runs alongside the spine. Minimum safe distance is 2.5 inches and maximum should never be wider than 4". There are spinal processes, the dorsal ligament system and nerve ends that will be impacted if the gullet channel is too narrow. The channel acts as the separator for the panels, ensuring they sit on either side of the spine properly, supporting the weight of the rider along the long muscles on either side of the spine.

I hope that I have given you some tools to use in diagnosing your saddle fit woes and some knowledge to help you  through the process of fitting a saddle to you and your horse. Someday, perhaps, it will be possible to have your horse's back mapped with a laser and a tree 3-D printed, then outfitted with the optimal panels, seat, rolls, pommel, cantle and twist in a matter of hours. Covered with the finest leather in the perfect color and handed back over to you the same day for a mere pittance. Until then, good luck.

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