How a saddle fits in the shoulder area of a horse can dramatically change their way of going. Our very last horse of the day in Alabama was a great example of that and we decided to share it here! His owner is unsure of his lineage but there is potentially some Dutch Warmblood and we personally think a healthy dose of Morgan. She kindly gave us permission to use him to illustrate some saddle fit points. Please stay tuned for the before and after video at the end of this post!
When we evaluated his regular saddle, the first and most crucial point that stood out right away was the angle of the tree being too wide, while the tree width across the wither was far too narrow. Tree angle being too wide is actually one of the most common issues that we see while saddle fitting. Conventional saddles have no true consistent method of sizing across brands, models, etc. Spacing, angle, shape and length of tree points all come into play. We are fitting a fairly static piece of equipment to an organic, dynamic creature after all!
The miscorrelation between tree width and tree angle is an easy mistake to make, often leading riders to go wider and wider in the tree angle in an effort to accommodate the shoulder. The opposite of the desired effect is achieved, actually dropping and increasing the firmest point of contact in the front of the saddle.. This makes the saddle sit lower and tighter on the wither, restricting muscles, pinching sensitive areas and preventing comfortable scapular rotation.
Video: Tree Angle Explained
In the before videos there are four things I would like to make note of. One: The horse repeatedly opens and closes his mouth which is a telltale sign of tension. Two: The dip present in front of his wither, leading up to the neck. Three: The very short stride. Four: There is very little suspension or impulsion in the gaits, which is especially visible in the trot.
All of these are practical indicators of poor saddle fit. Horses don’t have a collarbone and therefore the ribcage attaches to the shoulders by muscles and ligaments, forming a muscular structure comparable to a sling. What this means is that if the saddle compresses and pinches the wither the horse will place extra weight on the forehand, avoiding lift through the shoulder and limiting extension of the forelegs. This causes the ribcage to drop more toward the ground. The back is then hollow and the head and neck come up in the air. The dip in front of the wither is a good secondary visual indicator of this bracing. When this is a chronic issue for the horse we start to see them develop what is commonly called a ewe neck. In these cases, the under neck muscles become more developed and the muscles over the top of the neck leading down into the shoulders and back are less developed. When the horse is inverted and tight through the back it is impossible for the legs to swing freely, and so we see this short and choppy movement versus a fluid motion.
Video: Fitting for the Shoulder
Also worth noting is that this horse’s saddle had a point billet. Point billets can be extremely helpful for horses whose girth groove is very far forward, are mutton withered, or their shoulders are very flush with their rib cage. This is the exact opposite of the case with this gelding. He has enormous shoulders and where the point billet helps to hold the saddle in place for these other conformation types it actually severely restricts the shoulder in a horse like this.
In the course of his fitting we put him in a wider tree with a narrower angle that allowed his shoulder to roll through and under the saddle, relieving the pressure that was compressing his wither muscles. The other major change we made was removing the point billet and moving the attachment point further back into the saddle. The other things we did were to put him in a shorter panel with a wider gullet to accommodate his rather thick and slightly raised spine. These were two issues that needed to be solved but were interfering on a much smaller scale than the pressure on his wither, which was causing restriction to his sizeable shoulders
In the after videos there is only so much immediate change that we see. However, on the four points listed above there is a marked difference. The back is clearly holding less tension. The dip in front of the wither is not as evident and the movement appears much easier, with a more swinging, fluid motion. He is more consistent in his head carriage and much more off the leg. He covers more ground with fewer steps. Look for more impulsion (push off the hindquarters) and more suspension (bounce) in the trot.
This was a very good example of how saddle fit can affect a horse’s way of going and how a saddle fitting can make immediate improvements for the horse! After being fitted in a different saddle which is adjustable in width and angle to suit to the shape of his shoulders and withers, we expect to see big changes in this horse’s physical development and way of going in the coming months.
Article and video collaboration by Kristen Vlietstra (Saddlery Solutions) and Patricia Cooper (Fine Used Saddles)