Beverly Whittington explains the structure of the western saddle and what to look for when fitting a gaited horse. One difficulty gaited horse fans face is finding and fitting tack. The gaited horse physique is not the same as that of its non-gaited brethren and many issues can arise by assuming tack will work for both types of horses. It would take a book to cover all the details in fitting tack to a gaited horse but I will cover some of the main points here.
Basic tack consists of headgear, bit, saddle and saddle pad. Saddle fit is a hot topic and crucial for the gaited rider, especially the heavier rider and their mount. Below I will explain the structural elements that affect saddle fit and the considerations that must be made when fitting to a gaited horse.
Saddles are built upon a frame called a saddle tree. The shape of the tree determines the way the saddle conforms to the horse’s back. It will also impact comfort for the rider. Each tree has two bars that straddle either side of the horse’s spine and rest on the longissimus dorsi muscles. These bars must mirror the shape of the horse’s back (with the weight of the rider placed upon them) through the saddle seat.
Gullet and spread
Most western saddles come in Quarter Horse bars. That alone should tell you they were not designed with the gaited horse in mind. Semi Quarter Horse bars fit higher withered horses and these saddles typically have a 6 inch gullet to a 12 inch bar spread. Full Quarter Horse bars have a 7-8 inch gullet and a 13-14 inch bar spread - this fits a more flat or mutton withered horse
Gaited Horse saddles
Gaited horses tend to be much narrower than Quarter Horses and their bar angles are very different. Narrow western trees are hard to come by and rarely offered, except by custom manufacturers. into this market, the gaited horse saddle has emerged. Not all gaited horses require a special saddle and gaited horse saddles will not fit all gaited horses. You need to take into consideration the shape, size and condition of your horses back to get the correct fit.
Gaited horses are prone to short ‘functional’ backs with more curvature to the spine from the withers to the lumbosacral joint. This results in less area for the saddle to distribute weight, it also means that they require a bit of ‘rocker’ to the bars to mirror the horse’s shape or the saddle will bridge. Where traditional stock horse saddles will bridge and pinch, a saddle with the correct degree of rocker will follow the contours of the gaited horse back. Most modern western saddles are manufactured for wide shouldered Quarter Horses with extended bar length in the front to function safely in roping events. The bar shape is incorrect and too long for most gaited horses. The longer bar length usually causes the rider’s weight to be too far to the rear. Since this puts the rider behind the point of balance they compensate by leaning forward placing their weight on the front of the bars, which results in impeded shoulder movement.
Flair and twist
Flair and twist affect the ability of the horse to use its shoulders and loin correctly. On a gaited horse tree the bar edges usually gently taper away from the horse with the front of the bars having a bit more bend so the muscle can move freely under the edge of the tree.
Rigging keeps the saddle from turning over on the horse’s back while allowing as free a movement as possible under it. ‘Hanging Dee’ rigging is very durable because the ‘dee’ hangs and both ends of leather are fastened directly to the tree. It can be adjusted to prevent interfering with the horse’s ability to bend and turn.
Check your fit
To see if your saddle fits your horse, first be sure you are placing it in the proper spot. The tree should sit immediately behind the horse’s scapula (not over it) although it is fine if the leather part of the saddle extends over it. To find the scapula, walk beside your horse with your hand on the shoulder as someone leads him. As the horse moves, the scapula rotates about its axis and you should be able to feel and see it.
Place your saddle just behind the scapula and girth it sufficiently to hold it securely in place. Too tight a girth can make your horse uncomfortable. Too loose, makes the saddle unstable, allowing it to shift. Many gaited horse riders tend to place the saddle too far back on the horse, in the tradition of saddle seat equitation. Wisdom holds that placing the weight behind the centre of gravity forces the horse to pull his hind legs under himself and to ventroflex (head up, back lowered) his body. In actuality, this more often hinders the natural gait of the horse and places undue strain on the back and kidneys. Multiply this by a heavier rider and the horse may well suffer needless pain and damage.
It is easier to fit a horse properly in summer coat. Rest the saddle on the horse’s back without padding and look at it from all angles. Avoid those with gaps around the withers or spine. If the tree is not close in fit, padding will not correct a poor fit. Do not try to fill in or build up with padding where you see shrinkage (atrophy) in the horse’s muscles. If you are conditioning a horse, then these muscles will develop under the saddle as the horse’s fitness level improves. Otherwise, realise that trying to level the saddle with padding is like buying a pair of size 12 boots, when you wear nines and compensating by wearing four pairs of socks! Most saddle fit problems involve the withers and points that encounter the bars of the saddle. This is often belied by white hairs growing in the affected areas. Problems such as early fatigue, unexplained body soreness, crankiness, tail wringing, refusals, uneven leads, weak hindquarters, loss of lateral flexibility and more, can all be caused by the muscle fatigue and strain of a poorly fitted saddle.
A properly designed saddle affects not only the rider’s comfort but also balance. The stirrup bar of the saddle must allow the stirrup leathers to hang approximately 6 or 7 inches forward of the deepest part of the seat. This corresponds roughly to the measurement from the ball of the foot to the heel. The twist of the saddle is the narrowest portion of the seat, located just behind the pommel or cantle. Generally, saddles have either a narrow twist or a broad twist, with great variation possible. The twist you need depends on the shape of your pelvis, the way the femur is attached and the shape of the inner thigh muscle. Because of the shallower/wider shape of their pelvis, women tend to be more comfortable in a broad twist, whereas most men prefer a more moderate twist.