Tack & Gear

Horse Shape and Saddle Fit

Keith Seidel testing the saddle fit of a saddle

Saddlemaker Keith Seidel talks correct saddle fit.

The fit of a saddle can make or break a horse’s back. Saddlemaker Keith Seidel says it took years of trial and error fitting saddles so they didn’t sore a horse’s back. He now builds saddles from his shop in Cody, Wyoming, with a money-back guarantee that ensures his saddles will fit customer’s horses.

First, Seidel considers a horse’s body shape. A horse is either single-backed with a defined backbone and ribs that curve off the backbone; or it’s double-backed with a recessed backbone, with muscular structure that is raised on each side of the spine, and ribs that angle straight out of the backbone.

Dennis Lane equine back profile system to fit a saddle to horse's back
Keith Seidel demonstrates how Dennis Lane’s equine back profile system works with a series of numbered and lettered cards.

Next, he looks at the proportions of the wither to the rump. For instance, the popular stallion Doc Bar played a role in changing Quarter Horse confirmation enough to affect how the typical saddle fit.

“Doc Bar had a well-defined muscle in the wither area,” Seidel explains. “He also was built downhill. His bloodlines create a horse that is 15.1 to 15.3 [hands tall] at the rump and 4 to 6 inches shorter at the wither.”

He says this downhill slide can cause the rider’s weight to push down on the tree at the front of the saddle, which thrusts it into the wither. To accommodate this, the saddletree must have a flatter crown under the front bar pad.

For many customers, Seidel utilizes Australian saddle and treemaker Dennis Lane’s equine back profile system to classify their horse’s shape by width, angle, rock and crown needed to fill the contours of a horse’s back, and twist of the bar from the saddle pocket behind the scapula to the hip. After these measurements, Seidel selects a saddletree that provides space between the tree and the horse for the leather, sheepskin and saddle pad.

Fit for Motion

Seidel says saddles must accommodate flexing muscles.

“We don’t ride horses standing still. We ride them at a walk, trot, canter,” he says. “We jump them over ditches or fences, we do rollbacks and back up, we rope and drag cattle. Horses’ backs go through a tremendous range of motion.”

Horses need room to contract and relax their muscles under the saddle without binding on the tree, he says. Most saddletrees are shaped with too much rock, meaning the middle of the tree bar rounds down more than the bar ends. This doesn’t provide space for a horse to lift its back with the weight of the rider in addition to the strain of the cinch.

“To relieve the pressure point in the middle of the tree when the horse is collected,” Seidel explains, “the rider’s weight should mainly be carried on the back and front of the bar pad of the tree when the horse is at rest.”     

how to measure back of horse for saddle
Keith Seidel utilizes Dennis Lane’s equine back profile system to classify and measure the backs of customers’ horses.

A tree that carries weight on each end of the bar pad and leaves open space in the middle is often referred to as “bridging the horse’s back.” Seidel considers bridging to be the most misunderstood concept in the saddle industry.

“When my saddles are placed on horses, you will see some bridging when they’re standing relaxed,” Seidel says. “But when they round their backs in collection, the entire bar will contact the horse and evenly carry rider’s weight. Bridging is only a problem when the front and rear ends of the bar hold all the weight when the horse is in collection.”

Seidel says the ultimate test for his saddles is when his customers take them home, saddle up their horses and ride. At home, he recommends his customers evaluate fit by reading the sweat pattern under the saddle pad, but it has to be done correctly, says Seidel.

“When gauging saddle fit by the sweat pattern,” Seidel advises, “you want to move the horse to a sweat quickly. After 10 or 15 minutes of strenuous exercise, strip that saddle and look at the sweat pattern. Dry spots will show where the pressure points are located. If you don’t check soon after the horse breaks a sweat, the sweat blends and doesn’t show the pressure points.”

Fit for Performance and Health

Young horses are shaped differently than mature horses, but a rider often uses the same saddle and saddle pad to ride horses of all ages. Most of the resistance that colts exhibit in training and performance is related to the saddle tree hurting them.

“If you sore horses when they’re young, they carry that into their adult years,” Seidel observes. “Horses have a wide tolerance range, so why are we outside of that range so often?”

“I’ve cowboyed a lot,” he continues. “You don’t use several saddles, you take your saddle and you pad it to whatever horse you’re riding. I’ve learned there are two styles of my tree bars— a narrow, steep 90 degree [tree] and wide, flat 93 degree [tree]. With one of those with a mix of different pads, you can ride just about anything that’s in rideable condition.”

fitting a saddle tree to horse's back
Keith shows how a saddle tree is shaped to fit a horse’s back.

In the United States, society has shifted horses from livestock classification to the pet department with dogs and cats. Seidel doesn’t agree with this, but acknowledges it will most likely remain this way.

“If society continues to consider horses as pets,” he cautions, “then a saddle that hurts a horse will be unacceptable. I fully expect to see government regulations about horse welfare and saddles, because of the stupid things we’re doing in our industry. But it’s unnecessary, because fitting horses is not hard, riders just need to know how to do it.”

Pad to Fit

Seidel believes that a rider should be able to have one saddle that fits a wide range of horses with saddle pad adjustments to customize fit for individual horses. To help saddle fit, he recommends saddle pads with pockets for shim inserts.

For example, shim pads can help saddles with too much rock because removing the center shims give the tree as much as a half an inch of relief space. This balances the rider’s weight across the entire bar, instead of centering the pressure in the middle of the horse’s back and causing the saddle to rock.  Shims can only adjust the rock. They cannot compensate for side-to-side movement.

“I think people have taken saddle fit to the extreme and want a tree to exactly fit an individual horse,” Seidel says. “It’s not necessary. Instead, make padding adjustments from horse to horse. I make padding adjustments on my horse from spring to fall. Because they’re fat on new grass in the spring, and by fall I’ve ridden them into fighting shape.”

Flexible Saddle Trees

Some saddles are built on flexible trees or are treeless. Seidel cautions that these are fine for limited use or low-stress riding.

“Flex trees and treeless saddles are designed for the pleasure rider, the backyard horseman who rides an hour a month,” Seidel explains. “But if you ride horses in a working scenario, those saddles don’t work. They don’t spread the weight of the rider over a broad enough square inch surface on the horse’s back.

“It’s similar to how you wouldn’t take a long hike in the mountains for many days with a frameless backpack. You want a full-frame backpack that fits the curves of your body.”

Saddle Shopping

It’s mind-boggling to walk into a tack store, eye the rows of used and new saddles, and figure out which ones are sized to fit your horse. Seidel wishes saddlemakers would standardize a measurement process, like Dennis Lane’s equine back profile system, and mark it on the skirt of the saddle to help buyers.

“The best thing to check saddle fit at the tack store is to measure your horse with a flexible wire,” Seidel advises. “Shape the wire over the withers 3-to-4 inches behind the scapula, which is where the fit needs to be most correct. Then trace the wire’s shape onto a piece of cardboard and cut it out to mimic the shape of the horse.

“You can then take the cardboard to the tack store and stick it up underneath the saddle at the back of the gullet (the handhold area of the saddle) to see if the saddle will fit your horse’s shape.”

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