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A good fit: a happy horse

Imagine you’ve just spent a day wearing shoes that don’t fit. Whether your shoes were too tight or too loose, you probably have blisters, your feet hurt, and all you want to do is kick those shoes off and soak your feet in warm water.If you are riding your horse in a saddle that doesn’t fit, he is equally uncomfortable, grouchy and possibly in pain. You can’t expect him to perform willingly and energetically, and he may suffer permanent harm.At a recent workshop at Latigo Trails, Penny Lloyd, DVM, demonstrated how to evaluate the fit of a saddle. After years of working with a computerized system that maps pressure points on a horse’s back, Lloyd has developed a feel for judging saddle fit and was able to show us the basics.Properly fitting a saddle to a horse is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe in words. I’ll give the basics here, but if you want to be sure your saddle fits your horse, and especially if you’re competing or are in the saddle for hours each day, you should consult a professional saddle fitter.A saddle that fits right allows your horse freedom of movement down the length of the spine and in the shoulder area. It provides even distribution of pressure from front to back. A well-fitting saddle also fits the rider, placing him or her in the correct position on the horse’s back and allowing the rider to balance correctly.What are the signs that your saddle doesn’t fit your horse? “They might dip their back or pull away from you when you’re brushing them,” says Lloyd. “When you put the saddle on them, they might pin their ears or swish their tail.”A common sign of poor saddle fit is your horse bucking while you’re riding. “Usually it will happen when you ask him to canter,” Lloyd says, “because the faster you go, the more pressure builds up.”The basic structure of the saddle is determined by the saddle tree, which gives the saddle its shape. Saddle trees are usually made of wood, fiberglass or a combination of wood and steel. Trees come in various widths to accommodate the different shapes of horses’ backs.Saddle trees can break with excessive wear and age. If you buy a used saddle, first make sure the tree is not broken. Put the back (cantle) of the saddle on your hip and pull the front (pommel) toward you with both hands. “A broken tree can be patched, but it probably isn’t worth it,” Lloyd says.To judge the fit of your saddle, put the saddle on your horse without a pad with the horse standing square on level ground. Lay the saddle slightly forward on the withers and then push it down and back to find the position where it locks in. “The saddle should fit like a glove,” she says. “If it rocks from side to side or from front to back, then it’s not a good fit.”The most common saddle-fit problems involve a saddle that rests on the withers, constricting movement in the shoulders, and a saddle that puts too much pressure on the spine. “You want to have a channel right along the spine, with no pressure from the withers on back,” Lloyd says. A saddle that is too tight will constrict the shoulders; whereas, a saddle that is too loose will put pressure on the spine.The saddle should clear the withers by at least an inch. You should be able to place two or three fingers between the front of the saddle and the withers.Look at the seat to make sure it’s level from front to back. If it slopes either forward or backward, the weight of the rider will put excess pressure on the horse’s back.Proper fit depends on what kind of saddle you use. “Your fit is more critical in an English saddle,” Lloyd says. “The surface area on the tree of an English saddle is much less than on a Western saddle, so you’re going to have more pounds per square inch. Fit becomes critical if you’re a heavier rider, if you’re going faster and if you’re riding for longer.”Can you correct the fit of a saddle by using a certain saddle pad? “If your saddle fits, then the type of pad you use is not that important,” she says. While using the computerized pressure mapping system, she found that no matter what kind of pad was used, the pressure still came through.An old but accurate method of judging saddle fit is to examine sweat patterns on your horse’s back after a long ride. Dry spots on your horse’s back indicate that you either have too much pressure or no contact at all. “Too much pressure can shut down circulation and the sweat glands,” Lloyd says. This method is less reliable for a new (or new to you) English saddle because the flocking (stuffing) needs time to adjust to the shape of your horse’s back.If you have any doubt about your saddle fit or if your horse shows signs of being uncomfortable when you tack up, it’s best to consult a professional saddle-fitter. A well-fitted saddle will improve your horse’s mood and his performance.

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