A Saddle Fitting Adventure with NFR Barrel Racer, Tana Poppino

*For my most recent insights on saddle fit, check out
How to Evaluate, Find and Enhance Saddle Fit for Faster Barrel Racing.

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.

Heather, Pistol and NFR Barrel Racer, Tana Poppino
Heather, Pistol and NFR Barrel Racer, Tana Poppino

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.

Goose's back is full and smooth with no atrophy.
Goose’s back is full and smooth with no atrophy.

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).

Don't allow the pommel to overlap the reach of the scapula
Don’t allow the pommel to overlap the reach of the scapula.

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.

Tana feels for pressure points.
Tana feels for pressure points.

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.

Foam shims, felt shims and a foam strip shim.
Foam shims, felt shims and a foam strip shim.

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.

Current shim arrangement for my husband's gelding, Dot Com.
Current shim arrangement for my husband’s gelding, Dot Com.

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.

Adding the fleece shim allowed the saddle to sit level.
Adding the fleece shim allowed the saddle to sit level (*note that the shim will actually be placed ON the pad).

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 my most recent insights on saddle fit, visit the Pro Member’s video post below:

Read the Comments or Add Yours

  1. Jean says:

    This may be my horses problem. She is VERY broad and I can see some white hairs coming in on her back. She is a bay and only 7 yrs old. Riding her feels like you are going down hill and she at times can be very choppy going around a barrel(short strided and stiff legged) I am going to try what I read in your article.

  2. Mary says:

    My horse was showing pain when I was running her.I thought she just needed some time off.After watching a video Sherry Cervi did regarding her Crown C saddle, I contacted her & she talked to me about saddle fit.My mare is by PC Frenchmans Hayday “Stingray’s sire”,so Sherry knew how Snickers was built.Sherry put me in touch with Brian Peterson & I am forever gratefull to her & Brian.I took Snickers to Martin & had Brian fit her.She is a different mare now.She moves so much better, her atrophy is gone & she works like she has never worked before.I never realized untill now how important saddle fit is for our horse’s.Thank You Sherry, Brian and Martin saddlery for your education & knowledge.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your comment. What a success story! My gelding Pistol is by a full brother to “Dinero.” I have worked with Brian as well and like you, am eternally grateful, the difference in our horses is amazing. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Karen Maguire says:

      Where is martin saddlery? And how can I get n touch with Brian? Can u email me at thanks

      • Hi Karen, Martin Saddlery is in Greenville, TX. I don’t have his direct contact info. handy but if you did a search for Martin Saddlery I’m sure you could track down the phone number! 🙂

  3. […] Saddle Fit Adventures with NFR Barrel Racer Tana Poppino Got this article emailed to me today. I think it's worth the read, and it a good example as to why saddle fit is so important. A Saddle Fitting Adventure with NFR Barrel Racer, Tana Poppino | […]

  4. Holly says:

    How did you begin your experimentation with shims? As in–where did you buy the first ones? How thick are they? etc.

    • Hi Holly, the quickest and cheapest way to start experimenting is by folding a hand or dish towell and draping it across your pad. You can also get a piece of fleece from your tack shop. The tapered foam “strip shim” in the photo was something provided to me by Martin Saddlery. Here’s a link to the site where I purchased the other foam and felt shims. The white foam shims are the thickest at 5/8″, the felt shims come in 1/2″ and 1/4″ thicknesses, you can use more than one set of shims if needed. You can also buy felt and cut out your own pattern. The only draw back to the felt shims is that they aren’t tapered at the edges. If you google “saddle shims” you may come up with some other options as well. Hope that helps! Here is another site that is a great resource. They also have shims available but I haven’t tried that kind yet. If I didn’t already have a selection, these might be my first choice.

      • Karen says:

        Barrel racing tips do you have a email address that I can directly email you ??

  5. Jeana says:

    I love this article on saddle fit. I am starting this process myself(finding a new saddle) because of some saddle fit issues I’ve been having with my horse.I’m telling you, this can be so frustrating!
    I really get the Martin concept-but I’m a little hesitant on the use of shims-knowing enough on changing them when needed, etc. Also, I want what’s best for my horses back, but the idea of replacing a saddle if his back changes in a few months is unrealistic for me. And, knowing where to start on proper gullet size-do I get a little bigger size to begin with and shim it, then take the shims out as he develops? I’m also quite limited on qualified people where I live (saddle companys, etc.) to help. Does Martin have demo saddles to try? I think someone should do a saddle fitting day with every saddlemaker, size, fit etc. so we can get qualified help and figure this out!!!!

    • Hi Jeana,
      I totally understand your frustration, because I felt the same way for quite a while. I didn’t have a real baseline for feeling under saddles, which equaled a lot of head scratching! A good place to start would be to get a copy of this – The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book.
      There are a lot more people out there needing to swap saddles, and so used ones are often available on, etc. When or if you need to change will depend on what you start with, the current condition of your horse’s back and how much he develops over time. Most of the people sponsored by Martin are trained in saddle fitting, so if there are pro rodeos in your area, that might be a good place to catch up with someone who could help you in person!

  6. Ronda Lunsford says:

    I ride in Bob Marshall Original sports saddles. The problem I noticed on one of my horses was I used a 1 1/8″ thick all wool pad and she developed white hairs in a “V” shape on the bottom of the high point of the topline at the withers and where the “D” ring’s rode on both sides. I have switched to a 3/4″ gel pad and so far better. How would you determine if a treeless is good for your horse?

    • Hi Ronda,
      I’m trying to visualize what you explained, but it sounds like it was kind of an individual thing that occurred between your specific horse and saddle, and it’s great that you’re confident a pad change has resolve it. I think of white hairs as a major red flag, but my nine year old gelding, whose saddle didn’t fit correctly for many years, has never had any.
      I like the idea of something that conforms and allows more freedom of movement, but I don’t feel as though treeless saddles distribute pressure like a treed saddle. I think of a saddle with a tree as offering more protection to the back, when it fits correctly and is not too far forward, it’s a great combo that results in comfortable freedom of movement! 🙂

  7. Cheryl S says:

    I have a wide topped mare and have been riding her in a Bob Marshall treeless for 9 months… in the spring we were clocking and now we are not… do you have any input on the treeless saddles? Thank you!

    • I have to admit, I LOVE the idea of saddle that conforms to the horse’s back and allows more freedom of movement. However the benefit of a solid tree is that is dissipates the pressure of the rider more evenly. So the reason I have chosen not to go with a treeless saddle, is similar to why I wouldn’t want to ride bareback all the time. No matter how great of a rider I was, there would still be a repetitive pressure point from my weight. My equine bodyworker who has worked on many horse’s backs and who has a very firm understanding of saddle fit, has told me that she doesn’t see any fewer saddle fit problems with treeless saddles vs. those with trees.

  8. Ashlyn says:

    I’m going through some saddle fit issues with one of my mares. I’m looking into shims as it sits slightly downhill as she’s a bit higher at the hip. I was wondering though, after using the dish cloth and what not to find where it’s level, how do you know what size shims to buy? Thanks!

    • Hi Ashlyn,
      Good question! If I were you, I’d try to measure/visualize approximately how deep the “dips” are in your horses back. For example are they 1/4″ lower than the surrounding area or more? Also, take a look at how much further the front of your saddle sits lower than the back? That can also give you an idea. Try to estimate how much lower it sits, and that will be approximately the thickness of your shim. The felt shims don’t compress too terribly much. That should give you somewhat of a guideline. 🙂

  9. Bailey says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you could maybe post some pictures of the “dips” I think my mare may have them but want to be sure before I go to far. Thanks

    • Sure thing, Bailey. This is a photo that was included in with my weekly email tips that introduced this article. It’s a photo of one of our horses who came to us with damage from poor saddle fit. You can see that the top of his scapula/shoulder bulges out and behind that is the “dip.” You may or may not have a bulging shoulder but could still have the atrophy behind the withers/shoulders. Hope that helps give you a visual!
      Bulging shoulder and atrophy behind it.

      • Amanda says:

        Thank you so much for this picture!! I have a gelding that I recentely purchased and he has the same buldging and atrophy as well as a more prominent wither then your guy. I have wondered about the fit of my saddle and recently been on the hunt for a new saddle and just started experimenting with shims as well. Love the article, I found it very helpful..

  10. Katie says:

    Where did you purchase the shims?
    Also, I am so thankful that you posted this! This article is so important and is really going to help my horse. I’ve only had my saddle for a month and I see this problem occurring before my eyes. Thank you! 🙂

    • Hi Katie,
      Wow, glad you’re noticing the problem starting before it gets too bad! Here’s a link to a site where I have purchased shims. Hope that helps! Thanks for your question! 🙂

  11. Priscilla Baldwin says:

    After having many saddle fitting issues I purchased a Sheri Cervi Crown C. I just received it last week. I am really having a problem with the fit. To me it seems to big for for my mare. I bought a 8 inch gullet on a wide tree. My mare is very wide and any saddle I have had for her has been to narrow. Last year I bought a treeless saddle thinking I was doing the correct thing. Well that was the biggest mistake I ever made. I have had nothing but trouble with her back since June. Now I have my Crown C and need help. After reading this post I think I just might need to shim it.Do you know what the difference between a reg tree and a wide tree are? I am wondering if I should have gotten a reg tree. please help. Thank you

    • Hi Priscilla! Don’t panic! When I first received my Martin Crown C I was concerned too. It seemed to me to sit too low behind my horses withers, while the back of the skirt tipped up. Part of the problem was that I was just so used to seeing saddles “perched” on horses backs, rather than “hugging” them. I did use shims for quite a while, which balanced the saddle out and eventually our horses backs have filled out enough that they don’t really need them. My best advice would be to call Martin and ask to speak with Brian Pederson. You can send photos of your horse’s back and they will help you with fit, shims, etc. for your individual horse. They even sent some foam shims with my saddle. Hope that helps! 🙂

  12. Casey says:

    Where can I get one of those black foam shim provided to you by Martin? I have emailed Martin dealers and searched the web, and I cannot find any place to get one.

    I really feel that my horse needs a wider saddle with shims up front. One scapula is more developed than the other (muscle wise), she has the dips and she is always sore on either side of her withers.



    • Hi Casey,
      I’d suggest calling Martin Saddlery directly rather than go through a dealer. Bryan is the main gentleman I worked with at Martin and their team is very helpful and can provide guidance when it comes to fitting your individual horse. I don’t believe the shims they offer are available to purchase, in fact they may even be something they custom make and just include with their saddles.
      In the comments above I’ve also included a few other options for shims.

  13. cassie healey says:

    I got my mare about 6 months ago and have been unable to find a barrel saddle that fits! They are tight up front and popping up in the back. She is too powerful for me to be sitting forward! She’s smaller in front and wide in the back and after watching your video should I buy a wide gullet saddle and shim if needed or is this the wrong way to go? I also noticed she is also starting to dip behind the withers but wasn’t a concern until I read this article. Also when you say there are different angles in saddles where do i begin to know what angle she would need?

    • Hi Cassie,
      If your saddle is already popping up in the back and she is narrow in the front, it may already be too wide. You might try some shims first to see if you can balance the saddle and help fill in the atrophy behind her shoulders. Your best bet would be to contact the team at Marin Saddlery and their professionals should be able to help you out!

  14. Marilyne Eltonovna says:


    Does it matter whether we use a western saddle or an aussie saddle that has a horn? Or is it depending on the the rules?

  15. reta howard says:

    Thanks! I learned allot from your vidoe. I’m just getting back into the world of gaming after 36 years and loving it! I never had any form of training and with a new green horse your vidoe will come in really handy for fitting a saddle to him so I can do good things with him.

  16. Shelby says:

    Hi, I was wondering how do I know if my barrel saddle fits me. I’ve ridden English for over 10 years and did barrels part time. Everytime I ride I would use a friends saddle. Now that I’m doing nothing but barrels I need help on how to know if it fits me. Thank you f

    • Hi Shelby, if you’re looking for guidance to make sure the saddle fits YOU, then your main decision will be regarding seat size.
      I am 5’9″, 120 lbs. and ride a 13.5″ seat. The most common seat size is 14″ but many barrel racers have a seat that is a little too big for them.
      I like to have a least a hand width of space between my crotch and the seat when I stand in the stirrups (if not more). I prefer mine a little shorter than most as it puts a rider in a much more balanced, athletic position, also making it easier to use your legs to communicate with your horse.
      Hope that helps! 😉

  17. Part 1: Western Saddle Fit Photos Videos & Photos from Pinterest lead to great Saddle Fit Articles | says:

    […] Western saddles, how fit effects performance From Barrel Racing and article: A Saddle Fitting Adventure with NFR Barrel Racer, Tana Poppino “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.” […]

  18. Jessica Hurd says:

    I’ve only been recently introduced to the idea of saddle fittinge and it’s kind of overwhelming. My 3 year old has looked to be increasingly high withered which I wonder if is due to poor saddle fit. My trouble is, I simply don’t have any money for a new saddle nor do I know how to go about getting one. I think her saddle is very close… but maybe is a little tight behind the withers, right at the pommel?. I can slide my hand under it, but it still feels tighter than other parts. Is there anything I can do?

    • Hi Jessica,
      It’s hard to say without seeing your horse and saddle in person. You might contact Martin Saddlery and ask if they have any saddle fitting experts in your area that would be able to give you a hand. They may be able to help adjust your current saddle with the right kind of pad/shim to get by until you can get a new saddle. They can help you determine what size saddle you’ll most likely need and then you can always look for a used one. is a great place to shop for used saddles. Hope that helps!

  19. Connie Hoge says:

    My saddle has caused this problem on my mare as we rode 1,500 miles of trail last year. Now I’m trying a pad that allows shims – but the tree just seems too wide & the hair on her loins has been sheered off from lack of contact. Until I can meet with a saddle maker – I’m shimming the front up similar to the video & hoping that it helps!

    • Hi Connie,
      Sounds like you’re making some good observations. Although I would think that seeing hair loss on the loins would be from too much contact.
      Sometimes, it’s just the size/length of the pad and how it meets the curve of your horse’s hindquarters that create a tendency to rub, but there can be other reasons of course.
      I have been experimenting with saddle fit and shimming and have a feeling that I’ll have much more to share soon – stay tuned! 🙂

  20. rreeve says:

    Im currently looking at getting a sherry cervi crown c. How do you know what gullet size to get?

    • Your best bet is to get in touch with Martin Saddlery and see if they can connect you with a saddle fitting expert in your area, or even send them a description and photos of your horse.

  21. Deanna says:

    I bought a Britney Pozzi Double J and orginally had a lot of space in the back of the saddle with a regular pad. I tried a build up pad (built up in the front,) and that seemed to help. I didn’t know about the saddle shims at the time. Do you think a saddle shim would be too much with the built up pad? I have a cow bred horse that has the typical round body style without the high withers.

    • Hi Deanna,

      That is a good question, the only reason too add shims would be if the built up pad wasn’t enough quite achieving what you’re after. If you slip your hand under the saddle from front to back, you’ll be able to feel where/if there are areas of greater pressure. If it’s pretty even, no need to make a change to what you have.

      Hope that helps, thanks for asking!

  22. Courtney says:

    Hi I am trying out a black rhino and it fits on top of the shoulder yet still allows free shoulder movement. My mare has high withers , would you agree black rhino would be a good idea?

    • Hard for me to say for sure Courtney, but if you’re able to get your hand up under the pad and feel even pressure from front to back, it’s likely to work. From what you describe it sounds like a good choice!?

  23. Julie says:

    Watching Miss Cervi’s video and read this article, has nailed it for me. This is the exact problem I am having. Trouble is in northern Michigan saddle fitters are not available. I’m trying a 7.5 pro rider which is much better but I’m still seeing some ruffled hair on the right shoulder even with the saddle back. I think a least an 8 inch would be the way to go and love the Martin saddles. So you see I’m stuck trying to fix this. Any suggestions?

    Thank you, Juie

    • Hi Julie, you might see if you can get a hold of Brian at Martin Saddlery, he should be able to help guide you on getting the right fit.

  24. Coral Balogh says:

    For years I have always been so concerned about the fit of my full sized tree saddles on my horses and always discussed my concern with my other horse riding friends. My concerns have been answered. My daughter has purchased 2 new saddles for her horses, one being a 9 and a half and one being a 10 and a half inch gullet. The difference in her horses backs just after a month is just beautiful. The whole horses body has seemed to have loved it and has just filled out. My daughter let me try her saddles out for fit. The 10 and a half with shims was great. So happy to find this out. To think I was riding my horses and changing the shape of their backs through ill fitting saddles, would have been like putting a corset on my poor animals backs to change their shape to accomodate the saddle. All my western saddles are going. Im buying a 10 and a half inch gullet and probably a bigger size for later. So pleased with your saddle fitting tips. Thankyou!!!! There isnt any saddles available in Australia like these yet but hopefully this will change sooner than later.

  25. Layne says:

    I recently purchased my first martin Crown C after having a ton of saddle fit issues with my mare. She’s very tiny, more pony like than horse like. I went to a saddle shop and tried about 10 different saddles, from double j to charmayne james, and this saddle just wrapped her back like a glove. I purchased a standard 7 inch gullet. BUT, after riding in it, it leaves dry spots behind her withers. When I place it on her back, it does almost sit downhill, but shimming and putting even MORE pressure on that spot doesn’t seem logical to me. I do not have many resources around here and it’s been impossible to try anything wider than a 7. How do I know what gullet size i need? I can’t possibly afford to keep doing trial and error with 2500 dollar saddles. I also ride a wide variety of horses, and am having a hard time fitting my other mare with standard saddles, as she is very very wide. I’m just getting super frustrated and feel awful everytime I ride my horses, knowing that my saddles just aren’t fitting. I LOVE my martin and how it wraps the horses, but I’m frustrated in knowing what my horses need. ND is a long way from Texas!

  26. Allison Murphy says:

    My gelding I bought in the summer of 2013 already had the beginning of dips behind his shoulders and high withers. He now has much more prominent withers and dips behind his shoulders. I am now using a EquiBrand biofit correctional pad. I have even had my current saddle checked for saddle fit, the man said my saddle fit well. My current saddle doesn’t seem to fit him anymore. It creates alot of pressure throughout his shoulders and withers. He also has issues with his back. I have recently been on the hunt for a smaller size saddle for me. My 15 inch just isn’t holding me in around the barrel turns, as I wish it would. After trying on a new saddle today, I determined that it didn’t fit. I have attended saddle fitting clinics before. Nothing to in detail because it was just for 4-H. The new saddle (I haven’t purchased it yet, I am just trying it out) is very tight and putting a lot of pressure in the front, and not a lot of pressure in the back. After I realized this saddle didn’t fit, I went and put my current saddle on him to check the fit if that one. I then realized I needed to not only buy a saddle that fit me, but more importantly buy a saddle that fit him! I am not having trouble finding a saddle in my size and something that will fit him. I have no idea where to start. He has high withers, and prominent shoulder dips. But both saddles are putting a bunch of pressure in the front, near the bottom corner. (Sorry I don’t really no how to describe it) His back is wide. (I believe) I also have no idea what gullet size to get him or what bars. I really want to get a crown c but my mom is refusing to get me a new saddle, or yet spend over $500. Maybe after getting advice she will change her mind. I am determined to help my horse with his soreness and help him get to his highest potential. I also have pictures of his back, shoulders, and both sides. Thank you!

    • Hi Allison, a quality saddle is certainly an investment, but the way I see it we’re saving a lot of expense, time and discomfort for our horses when we get a properly fitted saddle. And a high dollar one doesn’t guarantee a good fit. Here’s a great educational video by the maker of my latest saddle that I think will be helpful – Episode 501 of The Horse Show.

  27. Jen says:

    My horse has a shorter back and is very round barreled. Also- his right shoulder muscle is just a tad bigger than the left. Have consulted with vet and farrier and we all agree that it is the way he is built, not a result of improper conditioning or injury. It is very difficult to fit a saddle to a horse that is asymmetrical in the shoulder because if the gullet/bars fit one side it is off on the other. I’m on my 3rd saddle and it still doesn’t fit perfectly. I even when to the saddle smith and had a fitting. My horse is not sore in the back…yet. I’m considering trying a treeless, but I’m not sure. I tried a Marlene McRae Cactus with the flex tree and didn’t like it. I’m open to any opinions or suggestions to getting a good fit for my horse.

    • Hi Jen, one thing to keep in mind is that we’re ALL asymmetrical… and that there can be a lot of reasons, some very subtle and imperceptable to us that a horse over time becomes even more unbalanced. Even the way they are ridden can impact that, if we ride with even a little more weight in one stirrup (which we all do to a at least a small degree) or ride with one hand more than the other, etc. it all plays a part. So although he doesn’t appear to have suffered an injury or isn’t obviously being conditioned improperly, there will still be subtle ways you’ll want to look even closer at to help purposely develop him and move more balanced. Keep in mind that posture and conformation are often confused and when we change a horse’s posture it can give them a completely different look and balance to their body… he may always have a slightly lopsided shoulder, but with a keen eye for detail and understanding of anatomy, physiology and balanced equine biomechanics, you can certainly do things that will help. Plenty of horses have high/low hips and shoulders that are often addressed through bodywork and chiropractic as well, as I’m sure you know. As you go forward, I’m kind of leaning toward you trying a treeless, I don’t have any experience with them personally, but if you’re really having trouble, based on his build I think that seems like the next logical saddle option to explore – hope that helps! 🙂

  28. Debbie says:

    I just found this article. I am having a terrible time finding a saddle to fit my short back/barrel shaped mare. Everything rolls on her, her back stays sore. Are there any qualified saddle fitters in the middle TN area?

  29. Olivia Tacy says:

    THANK YOU for this info!! It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for because I never put too much thought into how my saddle fit or did any research on it, and after years on the same horse he started having back issues. And I have been noticing that the saddle I use (which is a Martin barrel saddle) seems to slide back and dip forward on his scapula. He has a dipped, (and now I know atrophied) top line which I never noticed until now the difference btw an atrophied back and a non (like on my beefy 4 year old). So thank you! Hes a big, long legged Appendix gelding I use in barrels and poles, and although he’s naturally a little more narrow than an average quarter horse, his back should be more filled out, so I’m afraid the gullet on my saddle is too narrow. I am going to get a shim to raise the saddle up in the front, but that’s all I can do because I certainly can’t afford a new saddle :/ …

  30. kayla quick says:

    I am so glad I stumbled upon this article. I bought a saddle for my new horse because my old saddle was rubbing her whithers raw! so, I got the new saddle that was a little more narrow and IT WAS WORSE! I was so upset. I never even thought to use shims. thank you so much! first thing tomorrow I’m putting my old saddle back on her to see if shims will help out!

    • Keep tweaking and tuning Kayla, and you’ll figure it out… I encourage you to get your hands up under a lot of saddles to really look for and gain some perspective on areas of uneven pressure.

  31. Mandisa G says:

    Hello my mom bought me a saddle when i was in my teens and im about to get back into barrel racing again… I need to know what size is so i can began riding again.

  32. Karen Maguire says:

    I bought a Martin. Drove there and had my horse saddle fitted. I’m having problems with the front of skirt tilting downhill and I use 2 shims. Can you give advice???

    • FIRST I have to compliment you on the gorgeous Appy in the picture! 🙂

      Next, I would say your best bet is to follow up with Martin Saddlery and see what they think about how it appears to fit and what suggestions they have for you. I see a little downhill angle, but it doesn’t look TOO bad… looks fairly close to being balanced.

      I experienced the same “downhill” tilt at first, probably even more so because my gelding stands a little higher at the hip. The Martin was a huge step forward for us and now we’re in a Natural Horseman barrel saddle that seems to offer more freedom for the horse’s the shoulders.

      Here is a Pro Members post with my latest finding on saddle fit. -> How to Evaluate, Find and Enhance Saddle Fit for Faster Barrel Racing

      The team at Martin may be able to offer you a couple suggestions for tweaks to the shimming that might make just the difference for you.

  33. Georgia Dorsey says:

    What are the differences between tha Marin FX3 and the Crown C? I have a mare that is mutton withered and I am having a hard time fitting her.

  34. Tanya Paley says:

    Thank you for spreading your findings. I have a high withered horse I did a total change over on saddles last year. Changed from a Lynn Mackenzie special to a Martin with 8″ gullet. I bought a cactus barrel shim pad with padding at withers to fill in the atrophie spots at withers but the different saddle with wider gullet still needs to be lifted up first before I pull saddle off as it sticks to his withers. As well as still has small dry spots on my horses.

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