Saddle Variables - One Size Does Not Fit All!
What if shoes were designed as “one size fits all”? That doesn’t seem possible, does it? Alright, so let’s say that they were designed in three sizes small, medium and large? Well, if that were true you’d still have more choices than most horse owners who want to buy saddles. Saddles come in all different tree sizes and widths, but there is no standard of measurement between brands. Some brands have a range of sizes, while others have only one size. As in a shoe fit, some saddles tend to run wide while other brands with the same width on the label run narrow.
Basic, practical knowledge of a proper saddle fit is uncommon in many tack shops. How can you buy a saddle without it being fitted to the horse? People do not buy shoes without trying them on first. Why should riders buy saddles without the opportunity to fit them to their horse? Remember, your horse does not have the choice to select its own equipment, you do.
The “one size fits all” mentality is simply not sufficient when it comes to breed and the size of the back. They are not all the same. Quarter horses can be narrow, though they are normally medium-wide to wide. Thoroughbreds tend to be narrow, but can also be as wide as quarter horses.
Remember, a saddle should be ridden in before it’s purchased. It must suit the rider as well as the horse. If purchasers and tack shops allowed marks to be made on the saddles a better fit could be determined. The problem is that the saddle then is not considered “new”. It is possible to wrap the stirrup leathers in vet-wrap or a similar product to protect the leather on the flaps.
If you decided to embark on a rigorous exercise regime designed for any athletic competition, do you think your body shape would change after training and dietary changes? Do you gain weight in the winter due to dietary changes from eating heartier meals and a decrease in daily activity? Absolutely! Believe it or not, horses are the same. Horses in hard competition change shape basically three times throughout the competitive season. They start out heavy and wider when they are unfit, lose weight and become average in mid-season, and can get thinner and narrower late in a hard season. This is when saddle fit becomes a very complicated issue. Even though an adjustable-tree saddle can be made to address the problem, only some of those presently on the market fit horses very well, and others are generally not very durable.
Posture changes can affect the shape of the back. As horses progress through training and learn to move differently, they carry their backs in different positions and saddles will fit differently. Shoeing changes can also affect the posture and therefore the fit of the saddle. Acupuncture and chiropractic work will generally change the shape of the back, so if you are having acupuncture performed, be careful about purchasing a new saddle after the first treatment; the saddle may not fit two months later.
The horse’s conformation can create problems at times. Wasp-waisted or slab-sided horses may have difficulty keeping a saddle forward in the correct position without a breastplate and in many cases breastplates do not do an effective job of keeping saddles in place without putting undue pressure on the horse’s chest and shoulder. Horses with a forward girth spot may have difficulty keeping the saddle from sliding forward and will need a girth placed near the front of the saddle. Very high or long withers make it difficult to find a saddle that fits without touching the withers, especially those with long withers. Often the saddle looks acceptable until you feel inside the gullet towards the back of the withers. The saddle may contact the withers well out of sight of a normal exam.
Sally Swift, a talented rider, teacher and author of the book Centered Riding, teaches grounding, centering, and breathing techniques to help improve connectivity with riders and their horses. If a horse can sense a rattle snake on a trail, or react to lightening, it can and will react to a tense, perhaps uptight mood of a rider? A horse can tell if a rider is rigid, tense, upset or at ease. Not only can it sense a rider’s body language, but their mood as well. A rider and a horse that are in sync can more successfully maneuver through complex movements. When a rider is seated on top of the horse there is a direct energetic connection between them both. Most riders have some degree of back pain and stiffness and many riders sit off to one side or the other due to skill problems or body pain. Over time uneven pressure is created on the horse’s back and can mimic a saddle problem. Many times the rider's style of riding and/or the saddle's design creates pain in the rider, especially with saddles that put the rider in a chair-seat position. Discomfort occurs because the rider is not moving with the horse. The position of the saddle forces the rider to brace some part of their body creating pressure and stress just to stay in the position.
Sally Swift has clearly demonstrated that if a part of the rider is stiff, such as the back or right shoulder, that stiffness will be directly reflected in the horse and show up as being stiff in its back and right shoulder. Have you ever heard of a husband getting morning sickness while his wife was pregnant? The same principal applies to the bond between animals and humans. Breathe, relax, and pay close attention to the signs and signals from your horse. This awareness can lead to a better understanding of yourself as a rider and to the needs of your horse.