When it comes to saddle fit, the journey that led me to the level of understanding (and my horse’s level of comfort) that we currently enjoy started nearly two years ago. In this article, I’ll be sharing what I learned so that you and your horses can benefit as well.
For many years, I had been riding in a high quality and comfortable (for me) barrel saddle. I bought it slightly used and remember when I first swung it on my horses back without a pad – it fit like a glove. A match made in heaven, or so it seemed.
Slowly over time, I noticed that the area behind my horse’s withers started to atrophy. You’ve probably also noticed these “dips” that occur in the area behind the shoulders. However, because it’s so common, you (like me) probably thought nothing of it. Tana Poppino didn’t think much about her grey gelding, Goose’s prominent withers either, until she joined forces with Martin Saddlery.
This slow change in my horse’s topline, combined with some insight from my amazing equine bodyworker, suggested that there could be a saddle fit issue. She often found subtle but repetitive tenderness and “stuck” areas while working on my gelding.
Once I realized there was an issue, it sparked some intense study on the subject of saddle fit which also resulted in numerous consultations with a variety of professionals. During this time, I stumbled upon research done by Martin Saddlery – it was clear they’d been doing their homework. Connecting with Martin led my gelding and I to personally consult with NFR barrel racer Tana Poppino. With her help and many months of trial, error and insight, I came to some interesting conclusions. Conclusions that have not only helped me SEE, but FEEL a difference in my horses, and ensure they can compete to their fullest potential – without discomfort, pain and restricted movement.
First and foremost, I’d like to point out that atrophy behind the withers or shoulders is NOT normal! Barrel racers might mistakenly think these “dips” behind the shoulders exist because their horses are race bred, have high withers, or are super fit athletes without especially full, round toplines. Although these things may contribute slightly, it’s important to realize that atrophy in this area develops slowly over time when a horse is inadvertently trained or forced (due to discomfort) to use their body in an unnatural position. The photo below shows Goose’s back – after moving to a well fitted Martin saddle, the musculature in his back has developed, filled in and made his withers appear much less prominent.
A poor fitting saddle prevents a horse from fully utilizing their body, and if there’s any equine discipline that requires comfortable freedom of movement – it’s barrel racing! When a horse experiences enough repeated discomfort when reaching forward to lengthen their stride (which brings their scapula/shoulder blade back), or rounding their topline and lifting their spine (necessary for collection) – they stop doing it. Over time this causes the shoulders to drop or rotate forward, making the withers appear higher. Some (not all) horses that “stand higher at the hip” actually do so from years of dropping away from the discomfort that poor fitting saddles cause!
Building a full, round, strong topline in barrel horses IS possible, but doing so also has a lot to do with nutrition, the ability of the rider and the horse’s education. Even with the best care, riding and training, however, a horse that experiences pain when using their body will struggle to reach their fullest potential in the performance arena.
The key takeaway here is that when you see atrophy behind the withers or in more severe cases, shoulders that have rotated forward, dropped down, and might even bulge with scar tissue – that it’s NOT a conformational issue. They way these horses appear, and even how they use their bodies – is not how they started out OR what nature intended. It’s a manmade, yet avoidable problem that interferes with a horse’s ability to use their body athletically.
One of the first things I did to resolve my gelding’s saddle fit issue was to move my saddle further back. However, doing so seemed to put the front of the saddle right in the “dips” behind his shoulders/withers so I experimented for months with different shim arrangements so that the saddle would sit level (allowing the saddle to dip down in the front would have only created more pressure and made the problem worse).
I thought that moving the saddle back, so as not to interfere with free movement of the shoulders, then lifting it with shims would do the trick (and not require that I buy a new saddle), but over time, the atrophy remained, and he continued to show soreness. My saddle didn’t seem to create any severe pressure points, but I concluded that it was just too narrow for my stout gelding.
In an ocean of saddles that create discomfort for horses, Martin Saddlery was one of the first companies to deliver trees with wider gullets. I learned that gullet width isn’t the only thing to be concerned about, however. If the angle of the bars isn’t correct, or if the saddle “bridges,” (creates pressure at the front and back with a gap in the center) there can still be problems. It’s also possible for a saddle to be too wide, which can create it’s own set of problems. Once a horse is outfitted in a saddle that truly fits, without pressure points, pinching or inhibiting movement, their backs will actually stop atrophying and start developing. In fact many riders that try saddles with wider gullets end up moving into a wider size in time, because the horse’s topline fills in and expands so much.
It was a cold day last February that Tana and I met up at a pro rodeo, which is why she’s sporting such a stylish hat in the photos, and my gelding looks more like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street than a barrel horse (he goes au naturale in the winter). The reason I’m just sharing what I’ve learned throughout this journey now, is that I knew there would be more months of experimentation and results to receive and record before I was ready to share my findings with the world. Tana’s sponsorship from Martin Saddlery means she has a firm understanding of saddle fit. That day she not only shared her wisdom and insight with me but I also tried her saddle on my gelding and took it for a spin – an opportunity Pistol and I are both grateful for!
If the Saddle Fits
So you might be wondering exactly how to determine whether a saddle fits, and if you’re certain your saddle doesn’t, you may wonder exactly how to make sure the next saddle you get, does?
First off, it’s important to recognize the various signs of poor saddle fit – if your horse has a poorly developed topline, dry spots in the sweat pattern or ruffled hairs after a ride, atrophied “dips” behind the shoulders, or moves in an inverted fashion with a short choppy stride, or experiences repetitive areas of soreness, you may have a saddle fit issue.
To get started, you’ll want to make sure the saddle is placed far enough back so that it doesn’t interfere with stride extension. To do so, ask a friend to lift up and extend your horse’s front leg and see how far back the scapula comes (click here for a visual anatomy refresher). Mark this spot with your fingernail and “draw” a long line in your horse’s hair straight down from that point so you can refer to that line when putting the saddle on (this is also handy for marking shim placement if they are needed, which is explained below). You might also draw these lines with chalk so they’re easier to see. Remember – you’re fitting a saddle to a horse who will be in motion, not standing still, so it’s great to have an idea how far back the shoulder blade extends.
Next, analyze the fit of your current saddle by placing it on your horse’s back without a pad, and without cinching up. Keep in mind that the screw below the pommel of your saddle should not overlap the scapula when it’s extended back. Place your hand up under the bars at the front, middle and rear of the saddle. How easily does your hand slip underneath? Is the pressure relatively equal? Or is there more pressure in certain areas? Try not to judge fit by how your saddle “looks” like it fits on your horse’s back without a pad. Remember, we want the saddle to fit the horse with a pad, in motion. So even if a saddle seems to follow the contours of your horses back perfectly, a saddle that “looks” like it fits like a glove without a pad, may be too narrow with a pad.
Place your pad under the saddle and check again (without cinching up – as this will always create more pressure under the pommel area). Try some other saddles on your horse to compare. The goal is for the pressure to be equal from front to back. If you find there is much more pressure at the front of the saddle, or that it’s hard to even get your hand underneath the bars, then a wider saddle may be in order. Although dry spots after a ride can signify pressure points, what you “feel” under the saddle is actually a more accurate way to judge saddle fit.
One thing you do want to look for is if your saddle sits level horizontally. Hold a stick across from the pommel to the cantle, or from the screw below the pommel to the screw below the cantle – does it create a straight line? If not, shims may be necessary. Shims may also be needed if your horse has significant dips behind the shoulder/withers area.
Shims come in a wide variation of thicknesses and styles. The purpose of a shim is to help fill in the gap behind the withers during the rehabilitation stage, and also lift the front of the saddle so that it’s sitting level and not putting too much pressure on the area that actually needs to build and fill in. With the correct fit and shim arrangement, a horse will develop muscles where they were once atrophied, and as time goes by they may need fewer or thinner shims. Eventually a horse may no longer need a shim at all. A horse that conformationally stands higher at the hip than the wither (and has a downward sloping back) may always need a shim to level the saddle. Do know that shims can work wonders, but they will not make a saddle fit that is already too narrow.
Most shims I found on the market are designed to fit inside a certain pad developed with special pockets. The best kind of shims are tapered so they are smooth under the saddle. I have some made from foam, and some from felt and have actually used all of them at different times depending on what my horse needed.
I opted to get a new, good quality felt pad and then use Velcro on the back of the shims to stick them into position right on the pad (no Velcro needed on the pad – the little hooks attach right to the felt). This allowed me plenty of flexibility to move the shims. Depending on how much gap I had to fill and how much lift the front of the saddle needed, I sometimes also use a tapered foam strip provided to me by Martin Saddlery (from who I ended up custom ordering a new Crown C barrel saddle). A strip of fleece or even a dish towel draped across the pad just under the front of the saddle works too. The day we met, a strip of folded fleece was Tana’s shim of choice to help balance the saddle on her horse’s back.
If your horse doesn’t have significant atrophy, then a strip shim laid perpendicular across the pad and under the front of the saddle may only be necessesary, and if your saddle sits level already, then no shim may be needed. If you feel shims are in order, to determine the arrangement, first place them in the “holes” or “dips” in your horses back, right where it seems most logical that they are needed to fill any gaps that exist, then move them back just slightly a bit to accommodate the change in your horse’s back that occurs when they are moving (have a friend lift a front leg up if you need a reminder). Then, “draw” lines straight down in your horses hair with your fingernail or chalk. Put your saddle pad on and line up the shims with your lines, and position them on the pad. Chalk can be used to mark the shim placement on the pad as well.
When I have a shim arrangement that causes the saddle to sit level, again I put my hand underneath and check for any pressure points. I repeat this process at least once a week to make sure what fit at one time – still fits. This brings me to another key point – just because a saddle fits now, doesn’t mean it will in two months. A new saddle can cause a horse’s body to change and develop in new ways. Muscle development from training and exercise can change the shape of a horses back, and even gaining or losing weight can create a need for a different saddle. So it’s especially important to check fit often, to make sure what used to fit – still fits!
When you have found a fit that is “just right” you’ll usually find that your horse will instantly feel much freer and willing to extend their stride. Over time, you’ll see their toplines become more round as those dips fill in as their backs return to what is normal and natural – smooth and full.
Not only did Tana notice a big difference with Goose, but said the difference in her super horse Amigo, was amazing! I asked her, “What was the biggest difference you noticed?” and she exclaimed – “He went from not clockin’ – to clockin!” She also mentioned that many years going down rodeo road had left Amigo looking like a shriveled up old man. With a properly fitted saddle from Martin Saddlery, his body condition and topline blossomed.
Results you can see and feel, and that show up on the clock – you can’t beat that!
Below we’ve included a video with NFR barrel racer Sherry Cervi explaining saddle fit.
Now I’d love to hear from you. What did you learn from this article? Have you experienced a saddle fit issue? If so, what was the main symptom, and what did you find was most helpful for resolving the problem?
Leave your feedback in the comments below!
For additional, basic saddle fitting advice check out Measuring and Fitting Western Saddles at Horse.com.