I wrote this in response to a rider with some very specific fit issues, and the comments, slightly modified here, are based on a selection of photos provided by the rider. Some of what’s here probably duplicates what I’ve written previously, but that’s okay, I think, because it also reflects more knowledge and experience.
What makes it diabolically difficult for people to assess the fit of a saddle for a horse is that the part that most affects the fit is the tree shape, and that is visually inaccessible from the outside. Shockingly, those of us in this profession do not always agree amongst ourselves what good saddle fit even means, but for me what it means is that the horse experiences the weight of a rider the way your foot might feel in a really good trail shoe.
What I want from my shoes is an even weight distribution, with enough tolerance in the fit that my foot can change shape in motion (or when it swells at the end of a long day) and have the shoe still be comfortable. At the end of a 2-hour speed-hike over rough terrain, or a 12-hour day standing on a concrete barn floor, I am thrilled if I have had a neutral shoe experience. If when I unlace my shoes at the end of the day my feet haven’t even crossed my mind, I’m happy.
So, what I am shooting for when I fit a horse for a saddle is also “neutral.” I want the saddle not to interfere with the horse’s comfort or movement anywhere throughout the range of motion. If I can get something approaching neutral for the horse, I believe that’s the best it ever gets and he can get on with his job without discomfort from the saddle or, worse, impingement that leads to chronic inflammation and ultimately to breakdown in joint, bone, and soft tissue.
Looked at another way, what happens if we don’t achieve neutral? The distribution of the rider’s weight is uneven for starters; there are spikes in the peak force that the rider’s mass in motion generates and the horse has to absorb; and possible worst of all, the horse is constrained in his ability to use his back in a biomechanically correct way throughout the full range of motion. It is a virtual certainty that this will diminish his capacity for weight-bearing, degrade his back (and probably hock) health, and impair his capacity to maintain optimal performance over a long lifetime.
We are already flying in the face of nature by weighting the back of an animal that nature did not design for weight-bearing. The best shot at keeping our horses’ backs sound (besides breeding for optimal weight-bearing “architecture”) is to allow horses to lift from the strong sling of muscles girding the undercarriage without impingement from the weight-bearing structure of the saddle, which is the tree. Which you can’t see. And that’s a real problem. I don’t know any way to do this except to pick a tree that is made on a mold that looks pretty similar in overall shape to the shape of the back it is going on.
The largest tree manufacturers (and there are only about 6 of them) in the UK typically offer more than 80 tree variations, some upwards of 200. I wouldn’t begin to know how to use 80 trees, but I need at least 20 trees — each in different widths — to have some confidence that I have enough tools to offer two or three possible fit solutions to each horse I encounter.
In a general sort of way, it is not cost-effective for individual brands to offer saddles built on a wide variety of trees. Moreover, many brands have concluded, with some justification, that since riders know next to nothing about how trees fit horses, but they know what they like to ride in, it pays to focus on producing saddles that riders like, whether or not the physics of that particular fit are optimal for all (or any!) of the horses these saddles are being marketed for. (Note: This post was originally directed at a rider with a broad and somewhat tubular back.)
There are some excellent British trees built on molds for broad-backed horses. Generically they are called Highland and Cob (or H&C for short) trees. They come in a pretty wide range of shapes, from what I would call H&C lite for horses that are broad-backed, but not extremely so, to horses with backs like a jeep-mounted fuel tank. In the U.S., it isn’t easy to find English saddles built on these types of trees, though they are among the most popular saddles we sell. The reason they are not common here is because manufacturers a) probably don’t really understand how many horses truly do need these fits, and b) they only really need to sell saddles to riders.
From my conversations with many brand-owners and manufacturers over nearly 15 years, it is clear to me that there is an embedded assumption that it’s far easier to market saddles to riders than it is to provide really good fit solutions to all the different sorts of horses that people actually ride. What I am working up to is that most riders can easily learn to love a saddle that gives their horse an optimal fit experience, regardless of whether or not they believe they have a preference for a particular shape or feel in a saddle. I have seen this happen countless times: when the horse is happy to work “through” and not brace against an uncomfortable saddle, the rider’s brain begins to adapt to an unfamiliar feel, and before long, the rider who might initially have felt the saddle was too…something, or not…something-enough learns to love the feel of the saddle because the horse she is riding loves it. There can be exceptions, especially when it comes to broad-back fits.
When all is said and done, it is a hard truth that riders with particular physical limitations may not be comfortable on every shape of horse. But it has also been my observation that riders with physical limitations often find that a saddle that truly fits their horse becomes a miracle cure for their own hurts, even if they were skeptical of adapting to an unaccustomed feel in a saddle completely different from what they thought they needed.
Anyone who has been around horses long enough is familiar with this fundamental law of the riding universe: For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.
While other sports have forged ahead with science-based research to improve not only athletic performance but the equipment used to enhance that performance, we equestrians mostly rely on some combination of the wisdom of the ages, current fashion trends, and what our trusted trainers or other successful riders are certain is The One True Way, based on — and conclusively proven by — their own personal experience.
Nowhere in the riding universe is this more true than in the wonderful, whacky world of saddle fitting. I have done this for a living for some time now, and it seems to me that many of the “rules” about saddles that riders accept from birth as gospel don’t serve horses very well. Of course, not all experts can even agree what the rules are, as there are many conflicting theories about The One True Way to design and fit saddles.
Before I proceed to attempt a convincing argument that, well, I really do have a pretty good idea who’s right and who’s wrong, I’ll confess upfront that, after fitting thousands of horses over many years, I still don’t know conclusively. I’m not sure that my British-biased views are right, and I’m not positive that the Continental bias in saddle design (for lack of a better term) that Catherine Haddad supports in her recent blog entry is wrong. Quite possibly, these differing approaches might both be wrong; or some horses might do better with saddles that fit as I think they should, and some horses might do better with saddles that are designed to fit as Catherine advocates.
Since fitting saddles is my real-life job, I would really like to get it right for every horse. What I dearly long for is some robust research for guidance in this matter, based on valid science rather than personal experience. But judging from the pathetic dearth of unbiased facts available to us, I fear that my dying gasp will be: “We still need to be more science-based in the way we design and fit saddles for horsezzzz. . . ”
In the meantime, here’s how I see it. Your dressage horse is not a pack horse, no; but he is a horse, which makes the similarities more significant than the differences. Neither your horse’s back nor the pack horse’s back were designed by nature to be weight-bearing. That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and honestly, it’s not as if there is any “right way” to defy Mother Nature and get away with it consistently.
But since all of us who ride are going to keep trying just that, I think we should be looking at individual horses as unique three-dimensional puzzles, with movement thrown in as the fourth dimension. That means looking deeper than the surface in considering the shape characteristics of the bearing structure you are actually sitting astride on the particular horse you are riding.
What structure in the horse’s body is capable of supporting the weight of the rider? That’s the rib cage. But not all horses’ rib cages are alike – far from it. Some are like a pickle barrel on its side; some are as steep and angled as a mansard roof. Many horses with a dollop of Dutch driving blood somewhere in the mix seem to have their fair share of backs shaped something like a pagoda, where the support of a rib cage is nowhere in evidence until it springs out exuberantly about a hand span east and west of the peaky spine.
Some rib cages lie so high in the body at the wither area that there appear to be no withers at all. Many blood horses are at the far-opposite end of the wither spectrum: the vertical drop from the top of the wither to the top of the rib cage is crazy-far. Modern warmbloods can share both characteristics in the same body, rather like horsey Dolly Partons. Their withers look quite slender and Thoroughbredy for a bit, then suddenly, from the base of the withers the back is huge!
So if it seems implausible that there is a best kind of saddle or any One True Way to fit a saddle to every kind of horse…well, duh.
One thing is certain: at the end of the day, some horses stand up to the unnatural stresses of weight bearing better than others, just like some shapes in architecture (Romanesque arches, for example) generally prove sturdier at supporting the mass of a structure in the long run. I have no clear idea at all how this works, but the horse’s body – and the human’s – relies on levers and fulcrums and pulleys of all sorts to function biomechanically. Why, therefore, are we not focusing and funding research on the actual mechanics – and the mechanical stresses — of how horses bear weight most effectively? What are the functional trade-offs in structure that we need to understand to breed and develop horses whose backs will withstand the concussive forces of riding?
And for heaven’s sake, will science never step up to the plate and settle once and for all the fundamental dispute about whether saddles should distribute the rider’s weight as evenly as possible over the broadest bearing area – like a hiking boot — or whether saddles should fit more like high heels, designed to carry most of the rider’s weight in the front half of the saddle, on panels that curl upward in an effort to free up the hind end?
Thousands of horses into this job, I now have some dim awareness – developed by process of trial
and error, frankly – that there are patterns in the structural architecture of individual horses that usually suggest saddle solutions worth a try. This involves an effort to find a saddle built on a tree – which is the bearing structure of the saddle – that is a close match in shape to the bearing structure of that horse.
As far as I am concerned, it all starts with matching tree shape to back shape. If I ruled the world of saddle fitting, all manufacturers would be pressured into revealing the actual trees they are building on, so that consumers could study trees, learn about them, and have some clue what back types these tree shapes are likely to fit. The details of tree shape are hard to discern once the tree is ensconced between seat and panel.
There are certain back types – mostly those at the more extreme ends of the shape spectrum (your pickle barrels and your mansard roofs) – that benefit immensely from trees that are type-specific for their shape. But for many horses, I have grown to love old-fashioned trees that are horse-shaped for a lot of average backs, and not so very shape-specific. And I love, love, love a great big ole wool-stuffed panel, with gussets, cut-in sweats, and a run-in waist that sits the panel flush to the contour of the back and gives me lots of room inside for maneuver.
The panels are cushions that can enhance the fit and comfort of the tree, and – if they have enough volume – can influence the balance of the saddle in a positive way. Again, some panel features work better than others for individual horses.
But just having a big, deep panel by no means ensures that manipulating the wool will correct fit problems with the saddle. No matter how large the panel, it is just a bag of wool; the tree is your bearing structure, and the whole shape of the tree – not just the head – has to be a good match in its whole shape for the back it is going on. I would add that if your wool panels need tweaking every couple of months to keep the saddle well-balanced, even if you are using the saddle on a young horse going through changes, you very likely have a fundamental problem with a tree shape ill-suited to your horse, and no amount of flocking will correct effectively for that.
What I despise are saddles that are primarily designed for rider feel rather than for horse fit. Sadly, that is many if not most of the saddles on the market these days, since riders are understandably confused about what really is best for their horses (as are many of us saddle fitters), and horses don’t have blogs to express their own views about a saddle, nor can they write their own checks.
And while we’re on the subject, just a word about celebrity product endorsements: It is so not true that the saddle that works brilliantly for (fill in the blank with name of much-admired rider and/or horse) is therefore a good choice for you or your horse. Hey, you know what? It might not even be working as well for (famous horse or rider name of your choice) as he or she thinks it is. It is not always the top athletes in this sport who are good test subjects for saddles.
Just as a cyclist likely to win the Tour de France needs a super-human ability to tolerate intense and prolonged suffering, horses don’t reach the top levels of our sport without an innate capacity to stoically soldier on through world class aches and pains. They couldn’t get where they are if they lacked the capacity to get on with it despite discomfort.
My mare? Not so much. If she’s not happy with the fit of her saddle, her pad, or the color of the bling on her brow band for that matter, she staggers around like the back-stabbed Duchess of Malfi in the death scene. Horses vary. Some horses render their opinions of a saddle tout suite, but many, unfortunately, put up with seriously ill-fitting saddles for years without making any sort of a fuss, because that’s who they are.
I have seen event horses compete with astonishing success at four-star level with definitively diagnosed kissing spines, and top-level dressage horses going gamely forward for years with all manner of physical issues that they somehow manage to tune out, at least when it matters.
A horse’s tolerance for the discomfort of a less-than-ideal saddle is not proof that they aren’t paying a long-term price for it. We should ask ourselves whether it isn’t just possible that the strongest, fittest, most determined equine competitors aren’t also the ones most likely to shut up and deal with whatever saddle and other commercial products their rider loves—or occasionally, in a few instances, gets paid to love.
Does this mean a custom saddle for every horse? Far from it. In my experience, the weirder the back, the less likely it is that trying to order truly custom for that back is really going to work.
For horses with backs that challenge the constraints of conventional saddle design technology, I say put ‘em in a fabulously average tree that basically fits like sweatpants, and look to an anti-concussive orthotic solution (aka, the much vilified pad) to fill out the difference where needed.
When it comes to hard-to-fit horses, sometimes horses with dippy backs do better with an inoffensive, average, horse-shaped tree and a good, cushy, anti-concussive pad to smooth over those dips. A highly customized saddle built down into the drops and hollows may create the external appearance of a brilliantly accurate saddle fit without the use of corrective padding, but it can be an illusion, kind of like wearing a whalebone corset. What looks good from the outside may not be all it seems when the horse actually has to move in that saddle.
And before a loud chorus of protest swells that it isn’t all about the horse — that the saddle must work for the rider too — let me just say that the two can nearly always go happily hand-in-hand. When a horse can work comfortably in his saddle, he is more likely to go freely forward and not brace his body defensively against the rider. That kind of horse is easier and vastly more pleasurable to ride. Pretty soon, the saddle that enables this starts to feel pretty good to the rider.
Of course, there are many unfortunate instances in which people are looking for a great deal of help from their saddle in securing – even locking down — their position. A good, secure feel is a legitimate wish up to a point, but sometimes riders are looking for the saddle to solve a serious problem: that they may be trying to ride too much horse for their current level of ability.
As far as particular rider features go: tastes vary, and so do riders’ bodies. A LOT. Not everyone’s femur sits in the hip joint the same way. Not everyone’s hip ligaments are equally strong or equally lax.
As a fitter, I believe above all other things that a great deal of what affects the way a rider sits in a saddle has to do with how the saddle sits on the horse. Beyond that, I am a skeptic when it comes to any One True Way that any particular feature such as knee rolls or seat depth should somehow miraculously work equally well for all riders of all ages, sizes, and body types. There’s just too much variation from one body to the next, so personally I set a lot of store by versatility of fit in rider features. Ideally, a rider should have several saddles to choose from that all fit the horse equally well but may have variations in rider features that allow some freedom of choice.
The world already has sophisticated imaging technology that could shed serious light on these matters and prove my views right or wrong. If there were the funding and the will to back our beliefs about saddles with serious, science-based research, we would be vastly closer to knowing what really is best practice in saddle design and saddle fitting.
In the meantime, we saddle fitters on both sides of the great philosophical divide have nothing to fall back on but our own personal efforts to find and follow The One True Way. That really bites.
Since saddle manufacturers are not currently held to any real standard of proof for their claims, and there is precious little independent research on the subject, I don’t think we can know with certainty what is right or what is wrong for every horse and rider. In the meantime, consumers (for the most part) do want to find the best-fitting saddles for their horses, but they don’t generally have enough specialized knowledge available to them to even know what questions to ask.
In my view, saddle manufacturers specifically – and equine product purveyors in general — too often get a pass for explanations that seem logical but have not been backed by scientifically valid research. Far too much of what is said on this subject has, as Jonathan Swift might put it, more plausibility than truth.
I don’t hold out much hope that the saddle industry will come forward with a significant commitment to unbiased research because I frankly have seen no convincing evidence that the saddle industry is made of that sort of stuff. But I fervently hope that others genuinely interested in advancing the interests of the horse will put some real support toward research into this crucial matter.
In the end, we pay a steep price for accepting what seems reasonable without asking for science-based proof. What’s worse, our horses do too.
I hope you found this informative. And thanks for sticking around to the end.
These observations were made in response to a customer asking about saddle fitting for a horse with high withers.
One of the flaws in the “rules” people use for saddle fitting is the embedded assumption in these rules that all horses are essentially alike in the way that carry weight on their backs. In reality, it is the rib cage that supports the weight of the rider. Without the structural platform that the rib cage provides, the horse’s weight would collapse under the weight of a rider. But there is a lot of variation from one horse to another in the shape and placement of the rib cage.
Another way to think about high withers is to think of it instead as low rib cage. The crux of the problem you are having is that there is a substantial drop without a platform of support from the top of the wither bones to the top of the rib cage behind the shoulder. Sometimes even when you put on a saddle that seems fine in the cross ties ends up crushing the withers after a few minutes of being loaded with a rider.
There are two approaches you can take to address this problem. The first is to ensure that your tree does not have stubby tree points and is overall an appropriate shape for this shape of back. People fixate (wrongly in my opinion) on width, but a more useful way to think of a horse like this is that he is steep in shape where the head of the saddle needs to lie. First you need the right shape of tree to accommodate this, and second you think about the width.
In addition, you need some sort of buffer between the tree and the trapezius that lies above the level of the rib cage. It is not unlike pulling up a boat next to a dock and dropping a bumper between them to keep the boat from crashing into the dock. The like the wave force of the water causing the boat to bump against the dock, the rider’s dynamic body mass creates force that can jam the tree into the horse — especially this more angular shape of horse — and you need a buffer to make sure that the tree stays separated by enough distance from the body that it doesn’t become a vise.
For this, a large bearing area in the front panels, as well as sufficient depth in the panel to support dynamic mass without crushing down is very important for this type of horse. I personally would add some insurance in the way of a pad that absorbs shock. The wool in the panel can help maintain an appropriate buffer between the tree and the flesh, but it isn’t very shock absorbent. Running shoe material works best, and I would recommend the Prolite pad for this purpose.
By design, some saddles have soft foam in the seats and soft leather on the seats. The leather is also not very tightly blocked, which is why the seats feel immediately soft when you sit in them. But the leather can also stretch out a little bit, and this particularly happens with riders who have a bony butt.
This can happen with almost any saddle, and as manufacturers are going for softer foam and blocking the seat leather less tightly and for riders' immediate comfort, it is happening more often.
The softer the foam, the softer the leather, and the more loosely the leather is blocked across the foam, the softer the seat will feel. But this also means the rider’s seat bones can stretch the leather down words into the foam, and this is what will create the looseness in the seat that is perceived as a wrinkle. This has absolutely nothing to do with the integrity of the tree itself.
In contrast, saddles with firmer seats use a very firm foam and a stiff leather extremely tightly blocked over the foam like a kettle drum. You could bounce pennies off of it, and it will not stretch down into the foam no matter how pointy and unpadded your seat bones. They're hard and durable as hell, because when you sit in them your seat bones don't stretch down into the tightly blocked leather over the very hard foam. They will last forever, but they will never be soft and comfortable no matter what.
So, this is the trade-off - saddles with very soft seats that people get in and say "oooooo," and firmer seats that are very tightly blocked and will never feel squishy, but they will survive nuclear winter.
Understanding how the price of a saddle relates to its value is one of the challenges in the saddle fitting and saddle buying process. Elsewhere on this site we describe some of the variations in the design, construction and the materials that determine the cost of producing saddles. There are many elements in the matrix of trade-offs: cost, availability, custom fit features, quality of construction, how well a saddle hold its value over time, access to expert guidance. Figuring out the relative value to you of these factors is the key to long-term satisfaction with your saddle choice, whatever your budget.
Ultimately the most expensive saddle that money can buy is one that disappoints. We hope that the Advanced Saddle Fit guide to the cost of equipment will shed some light on what your money might buy at a range of price points.
On this budget, you can expect a saddle built on a wood spring tree with high-quality, pure wool flocking. It should be constructed by a highly-skilled bench saddler, possibly formally accredited by Britain's Society of Master Saddlers, which is the industry gold standard worldwide.
Your saddle will probably have been chosen in consultation with a highly experienced, independent saddle fitter, likely also accredited in the UK by the SMS. The fitter who guides you through the process should have many years of experience and a deep grounding in the technical aspects of saddle design technology.
In this price range, all custom options to enhance the functionality of a saddle should be available to you if needed.
Many horses do not require custom fit features if the range of saddles on offer is very well designed in the first place, but there are exceptions, and technical modifications are available to address particular conformational challenges of horse or rider. A range of luxury leathers and custom trim details are usually on offer.
$3,000 - $4,500
In this price range, you can expect a demo saddle, or lightly used saddle. Saddles in this range are bench-made to a high standard of craftsmanship, and are often made in materials that are very durable but possibly plainer. The range of custom features, if available, is smaller, but a good used saddle or demo saddle can be an excellent option if you have the time or the good fortune to source the right one.
$2,000 - $3,000
Saddles in this price range generally are in good used condition and are less than five years old. Provided you have the right tree for a particular back shape, these saddles can often be flocked to provide an acceptable fit.
$1,200 - $2,000
Saddles in this range fall into two main categories: They would be high quality used saddles over five years old, which are showing some wear, or saddles that are new, but built on a synthetic tree. Some horses and riders are comfortable in a synthetic tree, and there are situations where they are appropriate. Most saddles that are marketed as "adjustable" are built on injection molded trees that are one solid piece, with the components glued and stapled to the top and bottom surfaces. Durability is less assured.
$800 - $1,200
Saddles in this range are often over ten years old and are in fair condition. In this price range, riders are generally working on their own, hoping to get a reasonable fit by trial and error. Usually a saddle’s full history is not known, so it could have sustained damage to the tree or rivets that isn’t visible, or it may have had the head plate stretched or narrowed in a vise in an attempt to make the saddle fit better. It is best to avoid a saddle that has been adjusted in this way unless you are able to have it opened and examined on a special gauge to ensure that the tree remains symmetrical.
Less than $800
High-quality, well constructed saddles on wood spring trees can, if lovingly cared for, retain value for well over a decade, and there are oldies-but-goodies out there for the lucky and the patient. Saddles that are traditionally bench-made by hand on webbed wood trees may lead longer useful lives than saddles built on synthetic trees, where the leather might become stressed along the edges at a younger age.
Perhaps you don't need a new saddle right now
If you are looking to improve your horse’s comfort in his current saddle, there are a few great pads that can be very helpful, provided the tree is fundamentally the right shape for the horse – not too narrow, and not too curvy.
We at Advanced Saddle Fit have vast experience with a number of pads that have helped many riders on a budget increase their horse’s comfort. Questions? E-mail us.
Finding a saddle that is right for both horse and rider can be a baffling experience that sometimes results in an expensive disappointment -- or worse, a series of them. The array of saddles on the market today is vast, if not particularly deep, and even an exceptionally determined shopper will be hard-pressed to try them all. So what can riders do to reduce the randomness of this process?
Several years ago, a horse owner presented me with a meticulous spreadsheet of 28 saddles she had tried without finding a single one that worked for her horse. She was sure that she wanted a dressage saddle with a deep, secure seat, a narrow twist, and a flap that would help her maintain a perfect leg position. She had tried every saddle of this type that she could identify in a wide or extra-wide width for her thick-backed young warmblood. But the saddles rocked, they rolled, they slipped, they pinched, they bounced, they pitched, they yawed, they tottered, they wobbled, they cost a fortune to ship back and forth, and in every case, they shut this sensitive young horse right down.
Unbeknownst to this data-driven buyer, about 26 of the 28 saddles detailed on this epic document were, from the horse’s standpoint, essentially the same saddle wrapped up in 26 different skins. The owner was frustrated, and wondered at this point whether there were any options other than a fully custom saddle, though frankly, if this were an ironclad solution, internet bulletin boards would not be wallpapered with cautionary tales about dashed hopes in that department.
The crux of the problem was that this saddle shopper had begun by filtering her choices through a set of parameters based almost wholly on rider preference. This lead her to return again and again, unwittingly, to a specific shape of tree -- a shape of tree that is fairly curvy with closely-spaced, steep, vertical rails. Were she riding that shape of horse -- angular, slab-sided, high-withered, and scoopy-backed, this might not have presented a big problem. In reality, her horse had a short, broad back, with low, dome-shaped withers, more closely resembling a propane tank than a peeked roof.
Had she been able to see the actual bearing structure inside the saddles she was trying, and to compare the shape of these trees to the actual shape of her horse, she would immediately have realized that getting these saddles to be stable on that back would be like trying to clip a clothespin to a billiard ball.
All of these saddles were at least a wide, and some were extra-wide -- but that didn’t help. All 28 of the deep, curvy, steep, narrow-twisted saddles that data-lady tried were built on trees far more suitable in shape for ovoid, steep-withered, roof-shaped horses. The thick-backed warmblood horse she actually owned was more akin to your better class of Thelwell.
Riders commonly presume that a wide horse necessarily needs a wide tree; what he may need is a flat tree, with widely spaced rails set at a flat angle, and short tree points on a head with a lot of diameter in the arch. Shape isn’t such a hard concept to get hold of, but it isn’t the way we are used to describing trees, which is unfortunate since tree shape is so critical to a successful saddle fit? A Thoroughbred-type tree shape in an extra-extra wide (which, let me assure you, is guaranteed to be a very peculiar tree indeed) will not fit a wide, flat back as well as a Cob tree in a medium-wide. A better plan is to identify some saddles built on a likely shape of tree for a particular horse, and then determine what width is optimal.
If saddle buyers were well-positioned to approach this problem with at least some understanding of what actually distinguishes one saddle from another -- on a technical, reality-based level rather than what is dimly seen through the gauzy mists of marketing -- it would be easier to reduce the randomness of the process.
In defining their dream saddle, riders may assume that all the features that the human wants in a saddle are somehow completely distinct from the specifications that affect horse fit, and on the whole, the saddle industry does little or nothing to discourage this misconception. Saddle companies are, after all, in the business of selling saddles to riders, not to horses, and most of what they have to say about the superiority of their products in their advertising is quite vague on exactly how it is possible for a given saddle to put every rider in a perfect position on whatever shape of horse they ride.
I have yet to see a saddle ad that highlights the very real constraints of geometry in tree engineering, or the tradeoffs that might sometimes have to be made for technical reasons when trying to fit a single bearing structure to both human and horse. Saddle marketing -- and for that matter the “rules” in common use for fitting saddles -- are pretty slack in their handling of hard subjects like gravity, force, tree geometry, and those pesky laws of physics that can be so awkward in the saddle biz.
There are many challenges in making a single piece of equipment fit and function perfectly for two individuals of completely different species. A very basic one is that our vocabulary for describing saddles – and horses too, for that matter – is inexact to say the least. The term “wide” is so vague that it’s essentially meaningless, and the more exact-sounding “36 centimeters” is no better at describing tree fit, since this numerical measurement describes only the distance spanning the bottom end of the tree points, not the diameter of the head, not the length of the tree points, not the angle at which the rails are set on the fore arch, not the spacing between the rails, not the diameter of the seat, nor any of the other varied and complex dimensions of a tree that determine it’s overall shape and fit.
In reality, tree shapes are immensely variable front to back, side to side, over and under. It is futile to put a nominally wide but steep and curvy tree on a stocky horse with a nearly flat back, because nominal width as a tree measurement is pertinent only to a specific tree, and each shape of tree has a distinct geometry.
Imagine mathematics with a comparably primitive lexicon, in which the definition of a triangle is “three lines joined by pointy ends,” and equations are “numbers separated by symbols that tell you how to get the answer.” Does this sound far-fetched? Then consider the sentence that people who are looking for a saddle frequently use to describe a horse: “He always measures wide.” Always. Measures. Wide. The only real information conveyed in that sentence is that the horse is male.
Let's start with Always: If we really could measure horses always, it would involve measuring them while they are loaded with a rider and working through a full range of motion. There is no dearth of interesting tools and devices in use by saddle fitters to measure a stationary horse's back with such precision that this contour can apparently be replicated back in the factory in order to produce a saddle perfectly suited to the shape of the horse. The problem is that the horse's back changes shape when weighted with a rider, and it changes shape throughout the range of motion. So measurements taken in the crossties are of limited use in understanding what happens to the shape of a horse's back when it's loaded with weight and in motion under saddle.
We don’t know all that much yet about how horses’ backs change shape when carrying a rider through a full range of motion, but we do know that the shape of a dressage horse’s back is different in piaffe than in free walk or extended trot. In a jumper’s back, the changes in shape are even more extreme between the approach to the jump, the bascule, and the landing. Therefore, it seems to me, the back that is being so assiduously measured for a precise custom-fit can never really replicate the shape of the horse’s back when it is carrying a rider in movement.
Measures: Unreliable! Whether a horse is being measured with a bent coat hanger or an antique sextant with magical properties, what is being evaluated is the external contour. This can sometimes be deceptive, since it reveals nothing about what lies underneath the surface of that contour, whether it’s flabby or hard; whether there’s a high platform of bony support from the rib cage, or a great, long plunge from the peak of tall wither bones to the rib cage far below.
Wide: Many saddles are sold as wides, though some go by a numerical measurement like 36 centimeters, without regard to the shape and dimensions of the arch or the overall fit from front to back. This conveys about no more useful information about the vital characteristics of the weight-bearing structure or the fit of the saddle than saying, “It’s brown.”
In saddles, as with trousers, the best fit for unhampered performance through a full range of motion is not necessarily the most precise fit; it’s a fit with enough tolerance to allow the horse’s back to change shape in motion without being trapped between the rails of the tree at the base of the withers, or blocked by an encounter with too much curvature in the structure of the tree when the well-engaged back wants to rise up round. And no matter how precisely the tree and panels conform to the shape of the static horse, the fit cannot be equally precise under all conditions of use.
The key to a tolerant fit seems to be to find a blessedly happy medium for a given shape of back: a tree that is spectacularly average for a particular shape of horse; a tree that isn’t “too anything” for the back it’s sitting on: not too steep, not too flat, not too curvy, not too wide and not too narrow, like a marvelous pair of hiking boots that support and protect your feet without either crowding your toes or letting your heels slosh around. Do any such trees exist? Oddly, yes, and many of them are old-style trees, dating back to a time when wood trees were made on forms that somewhat resembled horses’ backs, as opposed to many of the trees in wide use these days that are -- let’s be real -- largely driven by rider preferences.
Once you strip a saddle down to its foundation, it becomes apparent that what keeps a saddle stable throughout the full range of motion starts with a good match in shape between the bearing structure in the saddle, which is the tree, and the shape of the back that tree is going to be used on. It is futile to put a nominally wide but steep and curvy tree on a stocky horse with a nearly flat back, though this is a shockingly common practice.
In the best of all possible worlds (as determined by me, of course), data-lady of Part 1 should first have narrowed her universe of choice for this tubular, flat-backed youngster to saddles built on trees of a suitable shape for a wider, flatter back. Some of these trees are generically known as Highland and Cob trees (H&C), or these days are sometimes called hoop trees (though this term is execrable -- please don't use it). There is a fantastic new-ish tree in the Détente Bossa Nova monoflap dressage saddle that is probably the single best tree I have ever used -- in the sense of being most neutral -- for today's flatter-backed warmbloods. That tree doesn't fit neatly into any named category, but it is more like sweatpants for many modern dressage horses than any other single tree I have come to know over the past 15 years.
The takeaway is that rather than being fixated on either rider feel or tree width or panel features that can be evaluated externally, the real foundation of saddle fit is tree shape. If you are able to make an educated guess about what basic tree shape will probably give the horse enough tolerance in fit to move his back through its full range of motion, you can then move on to determining the best width, panel configuration, etc. Once you have a selection of saddles that are likely candidates for your horse, you can address rider preferences, confident hat riders almost always DO learn to like – even love -- a saddle that really and truly fits their horse.
I wrote this in response to a rider who was asking about the saddle fit of a particular saddle. As I thought about it, I realized that the response was not really all that saddle- or tree-specific, which lead me to more general comments regarding trees. So, here goes. Again.
Tree design and engineering is a special interest of mine, so I’ll try not to run on and on about why you will need more information to find the right tree for your horse. Because trees are complex, three-dimensional shapes, a single number doesn’t convey enough about shape to be able to know what your horse would need. The largest tree manufacturer in the UK have molds for hundreds of trees. Some saddle makers buy exclusively from one tree maker; some buy from a mix. Others, relatively few in number, build their own.
Each beechwood tree (synthetic trees are a totally different ball of wax) is made on a mold that looks something like a horse’s back, and, generally speaking, each tree only fits optimally within a relatively narrow width band around its original width. So, for example, if your horse were wider than a wide in a certain tree, you might need to go to a medium wide in a different tree that has more horizontal diameter built into the head, flatter rails, and more generous spacing between the rails. In other words, if this were the issue, you might need a tree built on a mold that is more like a broadback horse than an angular roofy-backed horse.
Some trees size up well from the original width of the mold, and some size down better, but my experience has been that most trees only do perform optimally up to a half tree-width — maybe in some cases a full tree width — in either direction before you ought to consider an alternative tree that is more like the back you are trying to use it on. Rarely do consumers realize (nor do many fitters without specialized training in tree technology) that as you force a head open, you are straining the rails of the tree, which causes the back to start flipping upwards. This is almost always opposite to the overall effect you are trying for in widening the tree in the first place. Conversely, if the horse has a significant drop from top of wither to top of rib cage behind the shoulder, a short-armed tree could be a disaster. There is just no structural bone to hold the head up, and the thing ends up both sitting on the withers and pinching the horse like a vise between the stirrup bars.
An additional reason that you need more information to assess a tree beyond the distance between the tree points: If you took a tree made on a particular mold and cut its tree points shorter, it would then have a nominal measurement across the bottom of the arms (tree points) that would be less, but the actual fit would be wider at the head because the arms were shorter. This is one of the problems with the tree (in your saddle): Short arms paired with its narrowness at the neck of the tree — not a good combination of shape features in my opinion, as horses tend to be built in the converse way, steeper at the withers and flatter at the base of withers.
In response to a Facebook post some time back of a Detente saddle designed for wide-backed horses, a rider asked about saddles for narrower off-the-track Thoroughbreds.
I have three Thoroughbreds, one of whom is the classic high-withered type, so I have a certain amount of personal experience with the challenges of fitting this type of horse. In effect, you need to think about Thoroughbred body types in terms of how the back’s bearing structure carries weight. It is essentially the rib cage that supports the weight of the rider rather than the soft tissue, so the key to getting a good fit is to assess whether the saddle’s bearing structure — which is the tree — is a decent match in overall shape for the bearing structure of the horse it is going on. The tricky part with Thoroughbred types is that the withers are not weight-bearing bones, and the rib cage, which is what carries the rider’s weight, lies a good vertical drop down from the top of the withers.
Leaving aside every other aspect of tree shape, the length of the tree points makes a difference with these horses. The standard close contact tree has relatively short tree points, so it is almost impossible to keep the front up once the saddle is loaded with a rider’s weight. Of course, it would help a great deal if you actually got to see the shape of the tree, and I wish that this were something riders were more insistent about, since the tree is crucial to getting an even weight distribution.
Good panels can enhance the fit of a good tree but can never adequately compensate for a tree that is a fundamental mismatch for the horse in shape. Here I will go out on a limb and say that almost any horse with a long vertical drop from top of wither bones to top of rib cage beneath them will benefit from having more anti-concussive padding than the wool in the panel can provide on its own.
Bottom line: We have several good options for this body type. One that is affordable to a wide range of rides and has many excellent fit features is the Kent and Masters in the high-wither fit.
The Sweatpants Theory of Saddle Fitting
People tend to evaluate saddle fit by what they can see from the outside, often fixating on the panels of the saddle because they are visually accessible. But what carries the rider’s weight and transmits force is the bearing structure inside that you can’t see, which is the tree.
To be fair to the horse, you need to think about the horse’s experience of weight-bearing when force (rider mass multiplied by velocity in motion) is being transmitted through the wood and steel structure of the tree. The panel essentially floats the tree, providing some degree of cushioning, and helps fill the negative space where the shape of the body differs from the shape of the tree. But the tree, not the panel, is the foundation of good fit. The panel can enhance or detract from tree fit, but nothing you can do with the wool in a panel will compensate for a tree problem.
Neutral means that the saddle doesn’t impede the horse in using his back in a biomechanically efficient way, and that the muscles supporting the rider’s weight receive sufficient blood effusion to function optimally under the weight and impact of a rider in motion.
The mere act of carrying a rider alters the shape and relative position of the spinal skeleton. Blame the pesky trio of space, mass and gravity.
To counteract the effect of the weight of a rider on the back, the horse must support the spine from below by engaging the massive sling of core muscle. This is crucial to engagement, throughness, working over the back, self-carriage – all of the things we supposedly strive for in our riding. It should be the bedrock of our training objectives, even though it’s highly questionable whether it means anything these days in competitive dressage. But most importantly, the ability to engage the core and lift/support the spine to counteract the mass of a rider is critical to long-term soundness in a ridden horse.
When the core engages, the back gets wide and flatter, and this is a good thing. But it also complicates the physics of saddle fit in the sense that you have a rigid structure – the tree – distributing weight over a living surface that is changing shape throughout the horse’s range of motion. Flexible trees? An appalling idea; think about why. (Hint: Dispersion of impact.)
A neutral saddle does not convey unintended signals to the horse (as opposed to intentional seat aides from the rider). The most common saddle fit issues – and possibly the worst in terms of long-term, body-wide consequences for the horse – are related to trees with insufficient space between the stirrup bars, or rails that are too steep between the stirrup bars for the horse to be able to lift and widen the back.
Many, many saddles on the market are built on trees that are too steep and too curvy, constantly conveying this message to the horse: “The more you engage your back in throughness, the tighter you will get squeezed between the stirrup bars.” Many horses compensate by restricting their range of motion, flattening the back, resisting the contact, and not lightening the forehand or moving the hind legs vertically with no forward reach. In other words, however much they may actually want to be back movers, horses adapt to the constant feedback of a stingy, marginal saddle fit by morphing into leg movers.
If you really want to see my head explode, say, “I have a wide warmblood who’s a big mover and I can’t ride him properly unless I’m sitting in a deep seat with a narrow twist.” Tragically, many riders unwittingly shut their horses’ backs down completely, to the point where horses attempt to immobilize an SI joint that has been put under tremendous postural strain, stiffening the muscles of the lower back like a splint around the sacrum.
This occurs shockingly often even at the very highest level of the sport. And it’s not just the horse’s back that suffers skeletal and muscular stress. If the horse cannot engage the back in a proper posture to move through a healthy range of motion, then she can’t load the hind joints levelly. This is why watching the range of motion of the ridden horse, and focusing on the range and articulation of the limbs, is such an important clue about the horse’s experience of a saddle.
And while I’m on the subject: I effing refuse to accept that upper level dressage horses need every joint in their bodies injected every six months to stay sound. The point of dressage should be to build strength and grace. To see (if you’re really lucky, to feel) a horse at any age or level of training moving freely forward without tension or stiffness, and all gears meshing smoothly is absolutely awesome. But no matter how good the horse’s saddle, and the pit crew she has to keep her parts smoothly, forcing a back mover to become a leg mover is going to result sooner or later in a broken horse. Sad.
If you take one thing away from today it should be this: If the tree doesn’t allow the back to engage and get wider and flatter without punishing the horse for lifting his back, then the saddle doesn’t fit. And if the rider finds the power of the lifted back too daunting, she really should be riding a different horse.
The tree is the bearing structure, and its geometry is strict because all dimensional aspects of the tree are interrelated. You can’t adjust related distances willy-nilly in a bearing structure and expect the structure to distribute weight evenly any more than you can plug numbers into an equation randomly and expect a correct solution.
BTW, no tree is fully adjustable in the beneficial ways that the marketing suggests, though there’s plenty of scope for adjusting trees in ways that can do the horse great harm.
The shape of the horse’s back changes as soon as it is loaded with the mass of a rider, and it changes shape throughout its range of motion. So how useful is it to use a device to take 85 measurements of a horse’s back with the intention of making a custom saddle to fit? I wouldn’t bother unless the saddle is only going to be used on the horse in the cross ties with no rider aboard.
The terms often used to describe a horse’s width or a saddle’s width (medium, wide, etc.) have no quantifiable meaning so we should really banish the “w” word from the language of saddle fitting. It is much more useful conceptually to think about where horses are steep and where they are flat.
The grade of steepness or flatness of the horse’s back is only somewhat quantifiable but still somewhat useful in matching an inert bearing structure to a live surface and structure; the nomenclature of tree shape and back shape are certainly tricky, but important; but all the terms we use to describe horses and saddles using “width” are rubbish.
We need to think about saddles as fitting within a tolerance, without too much shape specificity. Think about what it would be like to do yoga class or go rock climbing in your skinny jeans, no matter how perfectly they fit.
Just as you want shoes that will still fit you after your feet are swollen from a 10-hour flight, you want a saddle to fit with a tolerance for the horse’s back to change shape throughout the range of motion, for the muscles to grow dimensionally during exercise through healthy effusion of blood, and for the top line to become well developed over time without necessarily needing frequent changes to your saddle. So think sweatpants, not skinny jeans.
You may not be able to get two saddle fitters in the same room to agree what day of the week it is, let alone see eye-to-eye about what good saddle fit even means, but to me it will always mean that the horse can move comfortably through a full range of motion with as little distraction as possible from the saddle. And to confirm this, the fit must be evaluated with the saddle loaded and the horse in motion.
Some horses are much more complicated to fit than others. In the face of weird body proportions, think sweatpants, not skinny jeans. Think generic horse- shape and please put the notion of “custom” way out of your mind.
A plain, flat, straight-forward tree is usually going to be a much better friend to a horse’s back than a complicated “custom” fit, especially one that comes out of a mold as a one-size-can-be-magically-adjusted-to-all synthetic tree. Have you ever wondered what “custom” even means in a saddle?
The trees in English riding saddles come in two basic types: laminated wood trees and injection-molded synthetics. These are far more different from one another than most people realize. Saddles built on one of these tree types should be far cheaper than saddles built on the other type, but that’s often not the case.
Some trees are just born more horse-shaped than others. Many of the old British blocks – the solid molds that the laminated layers of wood are formed around – are kind of brilliant in their utter average-ness. This is not to suggest that there is any one tree or type of tree that fits every horse, but in a general way, some of the old trees are surprisingly versatile to fit to horses, while many of the newer trees that are in wide use these days are designed primarily for rider appeal.
As a general rule of thumb, I would rather err on the side of too wide, and always on the side of too flat. Those are spatial issues that have work-arounds, but there’s no fix for too steep (often identified as too narrow) or too curvy. The last thing you want is for a horse who is trying to lift his back to hit up against an uncomfortable curvature in the tree or stricture between the bars that signals, “The more you lift your back, the worse this is going to be!”
Padding is often used inappropriately, but that doesn’t mean that there are no appropriate uses for it. There is plenty of evidence (albeit not much in the public domain) that shock absorbent padding can enhance blood effusion and help correct balance problems in the saddle in some instances.
It doesn’t make sense spatially to build a structure down into “negative” space. Horses with atrophy or undeveloped top lines may have hollow areas that don’t conform to the contours of the tree, but as long as the tree is flat enough and a decent match in shape for the back, you can often use anti-concussive padding to level the balance and fill the horse out to the shape of the tree.