Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Saddle Fit

Defining the Problem

Saddle fit is one of those re-occurring questions that just won't ever go away because so many horse owners have issues with it and look for answers to solve them and, of course, there is the snake oil marketing aspect of selling saddles based on some notion of a miracle cure. As Abe Lincoln once said, you can fool some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time. With saddle fit, it’s pretty much the same principle. With so much BS being spread around, the waters of understanding about saddle fit stay pretty well muddied.

Much has been written about saddle fit on the Internet and in various periodicals, enough to fill a good sized book, and I'm sure this blog post will not be entirely comprehensive or solve the issue once and for all. But hopefully the bit of insight I have gained building saddles will at least add some reinforcement to those previously stated opinions and/or explain it in such a way as to be more clearly understood, accepted and applied or just make it easier to accept the realities of the issue.

With the broad issue of saddle fit the problem is essentially that of attempting to hit a moving target, because we are first dealing with a variety of living animals, none of which are exactly the same, often asymmetrical and do not remain constant throughout time or range of movement. Conversely, the saddle tree, which is the foundation upon which the saddle is built, determines how the saddle will fit and is for the most part a rigid, unchanging structural form. It is in the best of circumstances a compromise between various and sometimes conflicting design requirements, i.e. weight, strength, load distribution and flexibility. The flexible tree design attempts to bridge this gap with a compromise that unfortunately falls seriously short of satisfying the most basic requirement of weight distribution and strength.

Within the parameters of conventional, proven design elements, however, one could conceivably build a tree that would fit one horse perfectly at one point in it’s life for a limited range of movement or tasks, but it would not be very practical to try in most situations. The problem with that limited strategy is that by the time the saddle is built on that tree, the horse may have changed enough that it no longer is a perfect fit. More importantly, if the horse is too far out of the norm, the saddle will not fit any other horse very well. So, when the horse is either sold or buried, it’s going to be a package deal unless the saddle is put in a museum as a tribute to a bad idea.

It would, therefore, be tempting to say that it is an impossible goal to achieve the perfect saddle fit but that would make for a very short, uninteresting and unhelpful article. While it may indeed be impossible to achieve absolute saddle fit perfection, it is certainly not impossible to achieve an acceptable level of perfection with most horses of a general size and conformation for a given purpose.

Saddle Tree Design Considerations

While absolute perfection in saddle fit may be out of the question as a matter of practicality, the acceptable level is within reach if one recognizes and accepts the fact that, like all intelligent design, there is some degree of compromise between fit and function. A perfect fit may not function perfectly for the given purpose. If one agrees that the first function of the tree is to spread the weight of the rider across the widest area of the horse’s back without interference with the horse’s movement, then other requirements must be secondary to that purpose. However, if saddle weight is the primary concern, then some compromise must be made with the first function of weight distribution. Shorter, thinner and narrower bars might make the tree lighter in weight but would not spread the weight of the rider as well, even if perfectly fitting the shape of the horse’s back.

Therefore, even at the outset, there must be some compromise. The general consensus among tree makers and saddle makers is that the bars must have enough flare or roundness to them as to avoid the worst of circumstances where the edges or points would dig into the horse at some point. Likewise, the amount of curvature lengthwise, or rocker, must strike a happy medium so as not to cause the tree to either be too flat or too concave throughout the full range of movement. The end result of such design considerations produces a bar-to-horse contact which is somewhat less than maximal but within an acceptable amount. It is better to have a little too much rocker than to be a little too flat as this produces bridging and a wide gap in the middle where there is little or no support.

The next consideration in saddle fit is the angle of the bars and the amount of twist as it transitions from the rear toward the front or withers. The rear of the bars rests upon the lower back of the horse which, compared to the withers, is more horizontal and a much larger radius. The bars in the rear are wider and flatter but are not made to conform perfectly to the radius of the horse’s back, which would make them concave. There is surprisingly less variation between horses in this area except for that determined by the condition of the horse and therefore, fewer problems other than length of the bars. The amount of leather and padding under the bars is a major factor in actually spreading the weight.

The major fit problems seem to center around the front of the horse at the withers. This is due to the much larger variations between horses and the interaction with the shoulder blade. The most obvious visual sign of a saddle fit problem occurs in this area with white hairs and tenderness due generally to pressure. Since the tree bars are intentionally made fairly rounded to avoid digging into the horse at the edges, particularly in the front, and the fact that there is almost no flat surface on the horse to make total contact with, there is obviously going to be a certain amount of concentration of pressure somewhere at some point. The goal naturally is to make this area of pressure as large as possible and therefore lower the amount of pressure per square inch of horse. At best, however, it is still somewhat small, which increases the importance of proper weight distribution along the entire bar and the proper gullet width and angle. All these factors taken together will tend to produce the least amount of pressure applied to the withers area, or pocket.

The next consideration in saddle fit is the width of the gullet, or the spacing between the bars. The width between the bars determines how far down on the withers the saddle will sit and therefore where the tree bar pads will rest. The ideal position is to have the pads in the pocket formed directly behind the point of the shoulder blade, generally found about 2 fingers width behind it. With this requirement as a starting point, the height of the gullet can then be established to allow for sufficient clearance over the withers.

With all that being said, the reader is probably still left wondering what, if anything can be done if their saddle doesn’t fit. The standard answer is padding and the last resort is sell the horse. The best answer, and my personal favorite, is have a custom saddle made to fit the horse, keeping in mind that no saddle will fit every horse perfectly and no horse lives forever. If you have a horse that seems to be impossible to fit properly, the answer just might not be in the saddle. It might just be in your expectations of fit or that the horse was not made to be ridden with a saddle, any saddle. There’s an old adage that says, if you want to race horses, don’t buy a camel. They might be able to keep up but they’ll never fit in the starting gate.