The Hard To Fit Horse

July 8, 2010
large bump on withers caused by a too-wide saddle
The Big Bump
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We hear it every day -- the owner has a “hard to fit horse.” Mostly it is not true! Every horse can be fitted with a saddle if (a) the saddle can be adjusted physically and (b) the person doing the adjusting has the knowledge and experience to do this correctly.

Surprisingly, most people’s idea of fitting a saddle to a horse is buying them repeatedly and returning them until they find one that just happens to fit! That is exhausting, expensive and time-consuming. Success this way depends on luck.

In over three decades of fitting saddles to horses, I have yet to meet a horse I cannot fit. I can’t say the same for fitting some owners, trainers, vets, farriers, horse dentists, well-meaning best friends, etc. They all have opinions. The horse has only one opinion: does this saddle hurt or not hurt. And horses NEVER lie. You never have to convince a horse the saddle fits or doesn’t fit. He knows. He’ll tell you. All you have to do is “read” him. I am always shocked at how many “experts” never consult the horse!!

At the Australian Stock Saddle Company we like wither tracings, and pictures. Luck is not involved here in a successful fit. Experience is the key. An orangutan could do it if he fit as many horses as I have fitted.

This said, I recently met a horse that stopped me in my tracks. He truly is a “hard to fit horse”. A Tennessee Walker and right at the base of his withers is a calcified lump the size of a fist --- the result of a Western saddle that was too wide.

Somehow, I had to fit a saddle and a pad in such a way that it did not touch that bump, yet spread bearing surface below the bump and into the center of the back and on to the rear of the saddle.

After much experimenting, I came up with a solution. First, I altered the fleece-lined Australian saddle by building up either side of the gullet a full inch, with high density pure wool felt, and then grinding this off to zero in the center of the saddle.

I then lined up the new underside of the saddle with a gauge used to measure the back of the horse. All angles checked, but still the saddle barely cleared the bump.

So I fashioned a sheepskin pad, lined with a half inch of felt and cut a “V” in such a way the pad went around the base of the bump. Then on either side of the V, I built up the pad another inch, skiving that off down the sides and, again, back into the where the center of the saddle would be sitting.

Now, to keep the pad in place, and stop the cut-out spreading while under the saddle, I sewed a strip of webbing high across the front of the “V” opening.

And then, to keep the pad from falling to where the webbing would wear on the horse, I fitted a buckle to either side of the opening, and then fashioned an attachment strap to go from the off-side buckle, wrap around the horn, and then secured it to the near side buckle.

To hedge my bet, I “center fired” the tackaberry rigging, engaging both the front girth ring, and the back cinch ring. This pulled down the whole saddle evenly.

The owner rode the horse for an hour. We pulled off the saddle and the blanket and there it was – a perfect sweat pattern. And one happy horse!

This was an extreme case that required an extreme solution. The owner had paid a lot of money for the horse. Mostly fitting saddles is routine, although I do learn something new occasionally. And I learned something new on this day!

One of the biggest problems with fitting saddles is convincing people that a saddle they think is too narrow is, mostly, too wide. Because they cannot put their fingers under the leading edge of the saddle, they think it is “pinching”. Almost always, the reverse is true. The saddle is too wide. The solution invariably is to LIFT the gullet of the saddle, because the more you lift it, the more narrow the withers become – and the wider grows the gullet!

Lifting a saddle causes the weight to go back to the center and toward the back. Weight runs down hill. Think of balancing weight in a boat, or setting a ball on a teeter-totter. When the ball stays in the center (where a rider should be) the load is level.

If the saddle is too wide, the front falls down, and the weight goes to the withers and is not spread evenly along the back. Saddles must sit level -- and you should not be able to get you fingers under the front, the center, or the back! The saddle must bear equally along its entire length –while clearing the withers and the spine. If you can get your fingers under any of those three areas, there is a problem.

An even sweat pattern indicates even pressure, but “dry spots” alone are not necessarily a problem. Dry simply means there is enough pressure in that area to cut off the sweat glands, but often this pressure is not enough to cause a problem.

Again, ASK THE HORSE. Palpate the dry area and if the horse does not drop his back, he is not sore and the dry area is not a problem. The definition of a good fitting saddle is no sore back! In fact, it is the ONLY definition. If he drops his back, you have a saddle problem that needs immediate attention.

A good habit is to brush the horse’s back after every ride – not because the back needs brushing, but more because if there is a problem with a saddle, that is when it will be revealed!

Editor’s note: Colin Dangaard owns The Australian Stock Saddle Company, of Malibu, California. He states he has fitted over 80,000 horses in his lifetime.

The Australian Stock Saddle Company
PO Box 987
Malibu, CA 90265-0987
(818) 889 6988