Saddle Balance…Perhaps the Most Important and Most Ignored Aspect of Saddle Fitting

I just returned from a barn where I expected to be dropping panels to do some major flocking adjustments. The comments from the riders that led to this barn call were dire. One saddle was sliding forward and the other rider was being launched from her saddle in the canter. I scheduled about two hours to work through these problems because I anticipated extensive work.

Both riders were riding in used English saddles that I had seen before and that worked well for them and their horses with the aid of shimmed correction pads. When I had recently last seen them, we had agreed on how many shims needed to be placed in the prescribed pockets. I left one with an option based on what she felt when she rode. And here is the most important part of this blog!

If you are having difficulty with the posting trot and you feel as if you a falling into a hole, your saddle is probably too low at the cantle. If you feel as if you are being pushed out of your seat in the sitting trot or the canter, your saddle is probably too low at the pommel.

And while I am at it, if you think your saddle fits and your trainer is always telling you to move your feet either forward or back all the time, your saddle is most likely not fitting either you or your horse. It may be as simple as adjusting the balance… but call a saddle fitter before you make that determination because it could also be bad fit for the horse.

Saddle balance is, for some reason, the ugly stepchild of saddle fitting! Western saddle fitters ignore it completely and many English fitters haven’t fully grasped the concept. I do most of my adjustments for the horse and the rider never may feel a change other than in horse movement and performance. Where the rider REALLY notices the difference is when I change the front to back balance for them.  They are amazed and sometimes this is the only change that is needed.

Changing balance of a saddle is not difficult to determine and change for the short term. Get a bath towel and fold it in quarters then drape it under the front half or rear half of the saddle (and over your normal saddle pad), finish tacking up (allowing the girth to accommodate the extra material), and ride. If this begins to solve the problems from the bolded section above, you have a saddle balance problem and need to call a saddle fitter to figure out if it is a problem that is impacting your horse in a negative way too.

The reasons for saddle imbalance are too many to list. Some are very harmful to the horse and can do long term damage. Even if the saddle fits in every way other than balance, this will impact the horse by carrying an unbalanced load that is either behind his movement or too forward. I have countless clients who say that they are not as concerned for their own comfort. Please understand that if you are fighting a saddle, that tension, discomfort, and imbalance is felt by your horse.

The upshot of my long appointment was that shims had been misplaced. The difference of about 1/8th of an inch change with each rider fixed the problem.

My Trainer Says My Saddle Fits…

These are probably the words I hear most… period.  And I will not dispute that your trainer has told you that however…

MY STORY: My trainer said that the beautiful saddle that I bought fit my horse.  For a while, we were all (including my horse) thrilled.  In the course of a few weeks, my horse started to move oddly until the point where he started to move forward like a crab… at about a 45 degree angle.  And after that, I started to notice white hairs on my beautiful chestnut.  This was before I was a saddle fitter or knew they existed.

The best trainers in this region use saddle fitters (and sometimes that is not me!).  What they know is that they have not been trained for my job.  Trainers have a great eye and feel for what you look like in the saddle and how effective you can be in a saddle.  Mostly trainers do not trim your horse’s hooves or diagnose and treat diseases… they train.  Even if they ride in your saddle, it is not necessarily the same experience that you had and the horse may not experience it the same way.

Please, please, please call a saddle fitter when you want to check fit or if you are looking for a new saddle.  Our job is to make you and your trainer look good by getting the saddle out of the way of your horse’s naturally beautiful movement.

If I Buy the Saddle that Champions Ride In, Will I Be a Champion Too?

I have to laugh… just a little.

Internationally famous horse-rider team nails a competition, it is posted on You Tube, and everyone rushes to buy the saddle that sponsors the rider.  Here’s the thing… EVERY saddle company sponsors riders for exactly this response but are you really getting what the sponsored rider has?  Yes, it may say it is the same model and it may even be pretty close to the saddle in that You Tube ride.  Consider however that the sponsored rider receives a level of attention to the existing saddle that mere mortals cannot expect… up to, and including trading out that saddle each time the horse changes.  It may be a change of size and it may be a change of model.  Whatever happens though, that rider is not going to spend a dime.

Also, have you considered that your horse is not the same shape as the Champ? This is a huge, and often ignored consideration.  Many saddle companies make saddles for a narrow range of horse body types.  I cannot think of many companies however who will say that your horse will not fit well with one of their saddles.

No one can guarantee that your horse will not change and that you will be able to use any saddle forever but there are a few things that you should consider when you purchase a saddle.  Is the saddle truly compatible with my horse?  If it is an English saddle, is it wool flocked?  Can the tree be widened or changed out if only the width needs to be altered?

I have probably said it before… If your horse changes within a given range, a wool saddle is easier and less expensive to change.  Foam saddles fit for as long as your horse is the same.  What if your horse muscles up a little?  That is usually our training goal but will your new foam paneled saddle accommodate that change?  Less likely than if it was wool flocked.

The points to walkaway from this post with are: know (or ask an independent saddle fitter) what shape tree your horse needs and which companies offer that tree, and consider that wool flocking will probably take you further than foam.

Arnold

I am always striving to say what is so important for horses about saddle fit in a way that will resonate with people.  Tight shoes analogy is getting a little old and most of our feet change slowly… so that one is going by the wayside.  I have been thinking about Arnold… yes, aaaahhhnald… you know, the big guy.

Now, while I am not promoting any politician these days, his days of a bodybuilder are what I am focusing on.  Imagine Arnold in his early years of becoming Mr. Olympia, Mr. America and Mr. Universe.  Can you picture him staying in the same clothes as he sculpted those body changes?  As we train our horses, striving for higher levels in competition, or change their work levels, our horses’ muscles are changing (and honestly, I have seen some Arnold-worthy changes in some of the horses I work with).  They can change in unexpected directions.  Seemingly small workout changes can produce some nasty saddle problems.   Maybe you just started cross-training… a little more trail riding interspersed with your normal workout.  Almost every muscle change can bring on a potential problem.

And the “clothes” I am talking about are wood, rigid plastic (and iron in some cases).  When saddles don’t fit horses, they are super-uncomfortable.

We are asking our horses to sculpt their bodies to become better athletes but we are not changing the clothes that will allow for the larger muscle or fit the trimmer athlete.  Think of Arnold in rigid clothing… how far do you think he would have gotten?

Who is my client… you or your horse?

Believe it or not, this is one of my hardest questions.  As a client, you have most likely identified a need or a problem with saddles, you have sought me out, and you have called.  “Freckles” has had very little input in this decision or process.

Here is how I approach this conundrum:  I come into each saddle fitting appointment hoping for the best.  I hope to find that your horse is in good condition and that the saddle is appropriate for both the horse and rider.  This is often the case and with a small adjustment to either the saddle or the padding, I can improve the rider’s balance or a minor problem with how the saddle distributes your weight on your horse’s back.  Because I don’t sell saddles, I have no impetus to tell anyone that his or her saddle doesn’t work and that they should purchase a new one.  I get paid the same if I think the saddle fits or doesn’t fit.

When I examine your horse and see warning signs that something is a little out of whack, I have to evaluate whether this is all saddle related, whether there is a problem with both the saddle and another body part (ie. lameness) or rider issue contributing, or whether there is an issue that is so severe that I really should not even pursue a saddle fitting at this time.  A handful of times, a horse has been so compromised, from either saddle problems or unrelated problems, that the pain experienced by continuing the process would be 1) cruel and 2) not fruitful because we would be seeing the current pain show through any solution we try.

If I determine that a saddle does not fit, I am always aware of the ramifications.  The client is faced with shelling out money for a new or used saddle, the process can take time for either ordering a new or finding an appropriate used saddle, a temporary saddle may be needed, and the current saddle may be so unsuited that I will strongly suggest not riding in it… period.  There is a lot that goes into this decision for me.  I consider how much the horse is ridden, whether it is a performance horse and if so, at what level of performance, what the basic shape of the tree is and how it works with the shape of the horse’s back, and finally, can the panel accommodate sufficient change or is there a padding solution that would work.

I always try to keep the client’s objective in mind if they do not want to change saddles but here is when I work for your horse.  I will not compromise if I believe that a horse will be injured by continued use of a saddle.  Does this make me popular?  Only with the riders who understand and make the change.  They are generally pretty darned happy when they change and feel the difference in the horse and often their own riding.

The clients who persist in using an unsuitable saddle do not seem to hear or believe that they will spend far more money by not changing the saddle than finding a well fitting saddle (especially considering the trade-in value of their current saddles!).  I have watched some horses go through extensive bodywork, hock and stifle injections, and back injections because when a horse is experiencing discomfort it will contort its legs and back to escape pain.  It will be subtle to see or feel but will be expensive to fix.

So I guess this is a long way of saying I work for you until what you want will not work for your horse, then Freckles is my client.

 

Tree vs. Treeless Saddles and Rider Pressure: Objective Study Performed at Michigan State University

 

Comparison of pressure distribution under a conventional saddle and a treeless saddle at sitting trot
B. Belock, L.J. Kaiser, M. Lavagnino, H.M. Clayton

a b s t r a c t
It can be a challenge to find a conventional saddle that is a good fit for both horse and rider. An increasing number of riders are purchasing treeless saddles because they are thought to fit a wider range of equine back shapes, but there is only limited research to support this theory. The objective of this study was to compare the total force and pressure distribution patterns on the horse’s back with conventional and treeless saddles. The experimental hypotheses were that the conventional saddle would distribute the force over a larger area with lower mean and maximal pressures than the treeless saddle. Eight horses were ridden by a single rider at sitting trot with conventional and treeless saddles. An electronic pressure mat measured total force, area of saddle contact, maximal pressure and area with mean pressure >11 kPa for 10 strides with each saddle. Univariate ANOVA (P < 0.05) was used to detect differences between saddles.
Compared with the treeless saddle, the conventional saddle distributed the rider’s bodyweight over a larger area, had lower mean and maximal pressures and fewer sensors recording mean pressure >11 kPa.  These findings suggested that the saddle tree was effective in distributing the weight of the saddle and rider over a larger area and in avoiding localized areas of force concentration.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

 

Please note that the above is unedited by Ellen.  This is the scientific study abstract commissioned by, and published in, a British veterinary journal.  This study was performed at the McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University in 2011.

A Company Changing the English Saddle Biz

I will state my disclaimer here at the beginning. I am friends with Karen Borne, owner of Borne Saddlery and Andy Sankey, Master Saddler and owner of Sankey Saddlery. To qualify this remark, the basis of our friendship relies on their understanding and care for the horses they work with. The level of care and concern may also be said of owners and saddlers for other companies so I will explain what sets Borne and Sankey apart from other saddle companies I respect…

A woman from Texas and a man in Scotland met and began a collaboration. What this collaboration resulted in is slowly changing the English saddle market. The change is based on fitting horses with a tree chosen from a wide range of differing trees before they fit the rider. Another difference is that they can show you the tree and how it conforms to your horse’s shape.

This is quite different from many English saddle companies as most have only a few style trees and make changes in only the panels to conform to your horse. While wool panels are great because they can be changed to accommodate different aspects of your horse’s current shape, the wood tree will determine basic limitations of what the wool can do to protect the horse and enhance the fit. This is an ongoing industry debate so you will find saddle sellers and makers who believe that the panel is all you must worry about. I have come down firmly on the side of the tree defining the best and most comfortable fit for the horse.

In the past few months, I have pointed out to three horse owners that their high quality, English-made saddles no longer worked for their horses. One rider was able to change to a saddle whose tree was suited to her horse. Even though she had never noticed any problems, she immediately noticed an improvement in behavior and movement in Prix St Georges level dressage competition and in everyday hacks… especially when walking down hills.

The two other riders were unwilling to believe that their saddles were impeding their horse’s movement. Luckily both rode in a recent clinic with a world-class trainer who heard the stories, observed the behavior, and saw what the saddles were doing. An immediate change of saddle changed the behavior and movement of both horses. Both these riders were working with trainers but most trainers have not studied how to evaluate all aspects of a saddle.

All three saddles were made by the same English saddle company and two of the three were different models. Unfortunately, changing models within this company would not alter the outcome. This expensive, highly regarded saddle line offers saddles with similar trees made mostly to accommodate the rider’s comfort. If we are going to ask our horses to perform, the saddles must allow their performance muscles to develop.

Does this mean that the Borne/Sankey lines ignore rider comfort? Absolutely not. It just means that this collaboration is supporting both athletes by allowing the human to choose and giving the silent partner the best tools possible.

What’s in a Twist?

We have all thrown around the T word since we became cognizant of saddles. Mostly we talk about whether we like a narrow or wide twist. Hmmmmm… have we ever considered the horse we are riding in this conversation? Not very often.

Just what IS a twist? The twist is actually supposed to accommodate the horse’s shape, not the rider’s. It is the area in the saddle tree that actually twists the wood or plastic tree angle from the withers to the angle of the back. That the twist is in an area that determines our comfort is just a coincidence. One more thing that makes this discussion important is that the twist area is hidden from an untrained observer. This area of fit, if incorrect, can silently kill a horse’s ability to perform.

Why is this important? Most of us have been purchasing saddles with twists we like and we have not been taking the horse’s shape into consideration. If the twist is too narrow for your horse, whether in an English, Western, or Australian saddle, it will pinch the primary muscle in the horse that needs to develop. Not only will the longissimus dorsi muscles not develop, they will atrophy in many cases because the pinched area also becomes a pivot point where all the rider’s weight focuses when the horse tries to utilize this muscle (ie. it flexes this muscle and lifts the narrowed area instead of having the room to flex into). The longissimus dorsi is part of the longissimus group of muscles that needs to develop in a healthy manner both to support the rider and improve performance.

If the twist is too wide for a horse it can cut into this same muscle right at the top and dig into the spine. In this case the tree will essentially hang on either sides of your horses’s long wither spinous processes.

Hold your bicep tightly and flex it. Try to imagine building up your bicep with the knowledge that every time you use it, you will experience pain. You would compensate somehow. Horses do too and that may be one reason why so many hocks and stifles are being injected.

When you purchase a saddle, use a saddle fitter who can talk you through whether your horse requires a wide, medium, or narrow twist. So what about your comfort? Let’s just say I hope you are comfortable with the build of the horse you purchased, because his or her shape should be the first consideration when you purchase a saddle… after all, your weight is on their back, not vice versa.

Saddle Recommendations

As a professional saddle fitter, I have found that some companies’ saddles work better than others. Is this to say that I won’t work with others? Not at all! I often see and work with saddles that fit a particular horse really well but they are saddles that have a very limited range of horses that they will fit that well.

I know and tend to recommend saddle companies who offer saddles that fit… better… than other companies’ saddles. This may sound strange to some of you, but some saddles, English, Western, and Australian style, have more tolerance for changes in your horse’s body. Most independent saddle fitters I know have favorite brands because they know that horses with similar bodies will be comfortable in that saddle.

Are these saddles more expensive? Generally, yes and here’s the trade-off:

Your horse will most likely be more comfortable from the day you purchase it
You will most likely be more comfortable in a higher quality saddle
Your horse’s behavior and compliance level will be better
Resale value is higher
More perspective resale prospects because of higher tolerance of fit and comfort
This saddle will remain more comfortable to your horse for longer

Do I equate price with quality? NO. The saddles that I generally recommend are not at the highest end of the new and used markets. They are expensive and they are expensive because they are designed well, built well, and utilize quality materials.

The other key component to these saddles is that they are mostly sold through representatives or tack stores who use time honored saddle fitting concepts. When I recommend that a client purchase a new saddle, I usually know who will be fitting that saddle for my client and I trust the representative to make you and your horse comfortable. If you are purchasing through the used saddle market, I will strongly encourage you to make sure that I see it before you own it. If I am unsure of the saddle seller, I also encourage you to have me or an independent saddle fitter evaluate the fit. There are saddle sellers and there are saddle fitters. I would like to say that saddle sellers always have the clients’ (both horse and rider) well being at heart, but this isn’t always the case. When you employ a saddle fitter who is not compensated by saddle companies, you know your money spent is for your benefit.

Post Show Season Saddle Evaluations

Most of us in the states with winters start thinking about saddle fit in early Spring. Not a bad thought… the saddle probably needs a little tune-up and the weather is tugging at us to start thinking about Summer! Here’s food for thought though. At least once in your horse’s show career, think about having your saddle evaluated at the end of show season. Why?

At the end of a show season, your horse is usually in the best shape of the year. You have been training and showing for a few months and you are both probably pretty buff. If you purchased this saddle when the horse was not quite at peak performance, you may want to ensure that this saddle still fits well and has room for the muscles that have developed. A quick tweak of the wool or perhaps a different padding system might be discussed so that there is no discomfort. As the colder season approaches and you begin riding a little less you can fill in with a thicker pad when your horses muscles begin to settle into winter.

Have the confidence that your saddle, at your horse’s peak condition, is appropriate by having it checked just after the shows end.