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Saddle Fit

Poor Fit can cause Hoof Problems

     Saddle fit is a very important part of your horses' health and upkeep. If your saddle doesn't fit, your horses may develop not only a sour attitude, but chronic lameness can develop over time. A poor fitting saddle may pinch the shoulders and cause those tell tale white spots on the withers. In times past that was considered a mark of a well-broke horse, as it took many miles to acquire those spots and more miles meant more training. The white spots occur from the hair follicles being damaged and they stop producing pigment. So really, a gentle horse with saddle marks isn't necessarily a better trained horse, except, perhaps trained to take the pain in silence.
   At best, pinching saddles may only cause a less enjoyable time being ride, but it could also lead to a nasty attitude when you tack up. Does your horse bite when you tighten the cinch or walk off when you try to mount? Look into possible pain before you blame his attitude, especially if your horse has gained or lost weight recently. Changes in fitness and weight can change the shape of his back and how your saddle fits.
    It's not just the narrow saddles, but the too wide ones, as well. They can put more pressure on the withers or backbone directly, and cause spinal issues. Adding an extra pad may not fix it and can make the saddle less stable on his back and could even be a safety hazard for you both. Though if I had to pick, I'd take a saddle that's a little wide over too narrow as long as it doesn't press on the spine.
   Over time, a poorly fitted saddle can cause chronic lameness, like navicular syndrome. Not directly, of course, but rather the way the horse tries to compensate for back pain. If done enough, (a horse in pain elsewhere in his body may start to  hollow his back and "tippy toe") over time this can lead to thrush, contrated heels and eventually navicular syndrome. All that for just not checking if your saddle is pinching.
   So, just how do you know if your saddle pinches or is too wide?  A saddle maker once told me a good way is to get an old wire coat hanger, cut off the hook and just have the thing straightened out. Then, go up to your horse, and fold it over his back, just touching along his side, over his back, about where the pommel will set on him. ( or just above where the cinch will be under his belly). Then, carefully, remove the wire without warping it, and lay it on a big piece of paper or cardboard. Trace the inside of the curve onto the paper. or carefully carry the wire to your saddle, flip the saddle over and place the wire into the saddle, just like the wire is your horse's back, and place where it would line up on the horse with the saddle. If there are any gaps, or you have to bend the wire to "make" it fit (double check on that paper you traced on, to see if you altered the width any.  Then repeat measuring process in a couple of other places along the back, as well.
  Other ways to check are to look down the gullet (the inside, apex of the opening for the horse back to fit into) and see if the pommel or any part of the tree appears to be setting directly on the withers or spine. Try to put your hand in there. If you can't get a finger or two in there, your saddle is pressing on his spine.
   Also, after a good brisk ride, if your horse is sweaty, look for dry spots or ruffled hair when you remove the saddle. These can indicate where a saddle in pinching. Then check for heat or swelling  or tenderness in the back muscles during grooming. Last season one of my horses started developing a hi-low situation with his front hooves where one foot was becoming more clubbed. Turns out, my saddle's tree had a twist to it that was causing me to sit crooked and my horse was moving to counter balance all that mess and his feet were the first symptom! I no longer have that saddle and his hooves are once again matching angles.
    Some saddle fit issues can be fixed with a pad; swayback horses just need a little more to fill the gap from front to back,if the saddle fits width-wise,  and others require a new saddle, or new horse. In a pinch, pun not intended, you may be able to cut a section out of the pad where the pressure is greatest, to offer some relief, if it's a very small area that is pinched. Adding more pads will not fix it, it will make it worse! And finally, if your saddle tips toward the front, or seems low on the shoulders, a built up pad can help (usually young, immature horses in a growth spurt can have a downhill build, and will grow out of it) or an older horse that's lost some muscle tone. If the saddle is just poorly balanced, though, a pad won't fix it, and it will continue pinch or rub. If in doubt, talk to a saddle maker in your area.
   One last thing, worth mentioning. Properly placing and securing the saddle is vital. You shouldn't have to overtighten the cinch, nor should you leave it too loose. Loose cinches could allow the saddle to slip under his belly or just rub a nasty gall.

Ridiculously small saddle on full size horse

 Proper Placement of the Saddle

 A breast collar and flank cinch, if compatible with your saddle, will help hold your saddle on. The breast collar prevents slippage, even on flat ground. Horses with uphill builds and mutton withers really benefit, as you won't have to over-tighten your cinch to hold it in place.
     The saddle should be placed on the back a little forward, initially, of where you really want it. Then slide it back into place to smooth down the hair and prevent a sore. NEVER drag the pad or saddle forward on the back, lift it off and start over if it's too far back. Some saddles fit more over the shoulder blades, but many sit just behind. The pad should be pulled up into the gullet of the saddle (western saddles) before cinching down. The cinch should not be up in the armpits of the horse, but just behind, to allow free movement. The cinch rings, on a western saddle, should come just above the elbows, evenly on both sides, and below the point where it would interfere with leg contact. For most kinds of riding, a hand should be able to slip between horse and cinch, but sometimes going tighter is necessary.
   The breast collar should ride above the point of the shoulder to prevent chaffing or restricting the shoulder movement, and the tie down (goes between the front legs) should keep it from riding up on the windpipe. You should be able to get a hand between the collar and the horse. If your saddle lacks D rings  for breast collars and you have to attach to the girth D's, the breast collar may ride a little low on the shoulder. To remedy this, a strap can be buckled over the top of the horse's neck to either side of the breastcollar, on the same D's the billet straps attach to to carry it higher on the shoulder. Just let out the billets a little more so it can go higher, and attach as usual.
   A flank cinch is very helpful, if used right. If not, it can be a safety hazard. Loose, hanging flank cinches are HAZARDS and can provoke bucking or trap a hind foot when a horse kicks a fly. Not only that, but it's useless when it's dangling more than an inch from the belly. A flank cinch should just touch, or be snug, on the belly. The connector strap should connect to the front cinch and you should not be able to push the flank cinch back to the actual flank of the horse.  The strap should be even on both sides of the belly. When on correctly, the flank cinch provides a little stability to the back of the saddle. It keeps it from flipping up when the horse tucks his loins (sliding stops, roping or even bucking) and keeps the saddle more secure laterally when the horse bends (think hard turns or lots of figure eights). It can help share the load of securing the saddle on the horse and distributing the same amount of pressure over two straps and is less fatiguing than a single strap holding the same load.  
  Making sure your saddle fits in the first place is one of those little details often overlooked, but it can have huge impact on your horse's life and usability. If it doesn't fit you, you can ride poorly, and hurt his back, as well. It's worth every penny to invest in a quality saddle that fits you and your horse.