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Saddle Woes

“If only my horse could talk to me” 

we have all said, so many times...

Strada saddles were created out of necessity, not long after the ‘one-millionth’ saddle fitter had come to visit and said “oh no, that’s fine, your always going to find it hard to fit a saddle to this horse”. 

Well, that was it - this wasn’t good enough! Professional fitters couldn’t answer or solve what seemed to be simple saddle questions. So that meant we had to look at saddles - what happens when you put in a wider gullet, or a smaller gullet? Why do panels have flocking? I’ve been told my horse has a high wither, but I’ve now heard of muscle wastage, why have I not been told this before?

We can de-mystify some typical saddle woes that become the bane of our riding lives... 


What traditional tree’s are made of...  

Tree’s have remained, pretty much unchanged for the last 80 years or so. Most common are the english spring tree made from wood and reinforced with metal:

metal tree image.jpg

As you can see, it is quite a brutal frame, metal has been riveted onto the wooden tree. In the early 1900’s ‘innovations’ of the tree included the forward seat with a change to a crouching jumping position by the rider and around the same time the “recessed stirrup bar” was designed to remove the bulk from under the riders thigh - but this also meant pushing it towards the horses back. The ‘spring’ in the tree referred to the metal strips which were inserted through the seat of the tree. The spring tree was designed to provide greater comfort to the rider by allowing the pressure exerted through the seat bones to be transmitted to the horse.

The more modern saddles appear with ‘bucket’ seats, ‘narrow waist’ or ‘narrow twist’, a ‘high-head’ which is an extended pommel, plus many other features. These features all change the shape of the tree, which is now excessively curved. These curved trees then require gusseted panels to correct the balance of the saddle and ‘V’ shaped girth systems to hold it steadier on the horses back. Obviously, the ability of the tree to now distribute the pressure of the riders weight evenly over the horses back, is greatly compromised. These modern saddles are developing away from their main purpose and becoming a secure structure to aid in holding a riders position. It is the rider who should decide where to sit in the saddle, not the saddler.


Panels - why wool and air aren’t ideal, but they ‘make do’...

Wool flocking has been used for decades to provide padding in the panels between the tree and horse, but wool is prone to flattening and requires on-going maintenance for the lifetime of the saddle. It is virtually an impossible task to expect perfectly symmetrical panels to be achieved by poking wool through a few wholes. Panels can be over-flocked, which is painful for the horse. 

Air bounces - example: we have air in our car tyres and shock absorbers to stop the car bouncing. I’m sure most of us have slept on an air-bed at least once in your lives, or used an air cushion - either too soft or too hard, it is seldom just right. But most importantly, we wouldn’t dream of sleeping full-time on an air bed - our bodies, especially our backs, would be a wreck. What makes us think that our horses don’t feel the same about their air-panel saddles?


Gullets - do they really work?..

The gullet, the metal arch at the front, dictates the width to clear the wither and shoulder area, holding the points of the tree out, so as not to dig into the horses back.  Having a changeable gullet as a thought, seems logical - but since the tree has metal on it and metal holds tension - this is what happens:

When you force the points of the tree wider - with a wider gullet, tension runs through the rails to the cantle which pushes inwards (pushing the front outwards, makes the other end push inwards). It does the opposite when the gullet is made narrower, the cantle wants to push outwards. We see this - by cutting the solid section out of the middle of the cantle and changing the gullet size: 

gullet smaller & wider.jpg
•  Making the gullet wider
•  Making the gullet smaller

Since we know the cantle in a saddle is solid - what then happens if the tension can’t move the cantle? With a simplified line sketch below, depicting the gullet/head, rails and cantle - in an exaggerated example - we can show you what happens, which in a real-case scenario is usually undetectable by the eye, but has the effecting outcome. When there is a build up of tension, it will go wherever else it can, and since the cantle can’t ‘give’, then the rails do instead:

rails curving.jpg
•  Making the gullet wider

By making the gullet wider, the closing pressure through the cantle can’t happen, then tension pushes down through the rails. Widening a gullet is usually in aid of fitting a saddle to a wider horse. The front needs a wider gullet to lower the front of the saddle, but in turn, curves the rails, which then ‘bows’ the saddle, causing the back of the saddle to rock on the curved rails, lift or flap at the back.


PHOTOS: The same horse and saddle - one season apart - the gullet was widened for a better fit - though now visually balanced, the saddle then ‘flapped’ or pivoted during the action of jumping, due to the tension within the altered tree - this horse suffered from back pain within the year, where the owner purchased a massage machine for the horse.

•  Making the gullet smaller

In the next simple line sketch of making the gullet narrower, the widening pressure through the solid cantle cannot happen, so the tension pulls the rails upwards. Usually this is in aid of fitting a saddle to a narrower horse, the front needs a narrower gullet to raise the arch of the saddle, or give the wither more clearance, but in turn, pulls the rails upwards, which then turns the back of the saddle downwards. With the saddle rails now lifted, the spring is reduced in the saddle, and the points and back of saddle will be likely to bear more weight, forming pressure points front and back & possibly even bridging in the middle. It is important that a narrow gullet is truly the shape of the horse, and not fitting a narrow saddle to a ‘muscle wasted’ back in aid of clearing the wither, which will just cause further, painful damage.

PHOTOS - see the difference of this horse’s wither 1 year apart.

back of the saddle lifting.jpg

It comes down to pressure...

Pressure from saddles that are too tight, most commonly through the head/gullet of the tree, cause muscle to crush and waste. With horses appearing to have a high wither, can mistakingly be in fact, the lack of muscle and hollows either side of the wither and behind the scapular (top of the shoulder blade) - this is muscle wastage. 

How does muscle waste? With an example, this is how:  If you are sitting on a wooden bench, and your bum was starting to go sore or numb from the pressure, then you move your position to relieve this pressure - this pain, caused by constant pressure, is because blood isn’t able to flow through a muscle. By shifting your position to release this pressure, it can take a little while for feeling to become fully restored to normal or can often cause pins-and-needles in this area, why, because the blood has rushed back into the muscle that had pressure stopping the natural blood flow.  Starving a muscle of blood flow for just 10 min can cause a muscle to waste - it damages it.  The unfortunate thing for the horse is, it can’t get away from the pressure when a saddle is strapped to it’s back with a girth. Which is why behavioral problems, so commonly labeled as ‘issues’ that the horse has, and requires ‘working through’ in training - are actually pain related & most likely the saddle. If the behavior is ingrained, it can take a long time to reprogram the body & mind.


The sad reality of muscle wastage - commonly seen, but not yet common knowledge:

muscle wastage.jpg

The good thing about muscles is they can build and restore. Through correct work one can rebuild damaged muscle tissue, but if you are using the same saddle, it will never happen. A saddle that appears to be o.k, can still have a few pressure points. If you have wastage, the saddle will be stopping sufficient blood flow in these areas and eventually hollows will form from these pressure points. Muscle wastage can start occurring with just one 15 minute ride with a tightly fitting saddle.  The shape of the tree inside the saddle is very important, as this is designed to distribute pressure, over a larger area of the back. Another example: For ladies - wearing high heels v’s flat shoes - we understand that putting pressure over a larger bearing surface is beneficial as well as more comfortable. For guys - wearing long sprigged, mud going rugby boots on a hard, field - the pressure is placed on specific points, which become sore quickly and bruise flesh, even bone if subjected to it constantly.


Here are some examples to visually show pressure in saddles:

barrel rib cage graphics.jpg

Most saddle manufacturers don’t make the trees they use in their saddle.  Varying brands of saddles, use different brands & shapes of trees, which is why fitting your horse with a saddle ‘that fits’ is generally a mission - referred to as the ‘saddle saga’ - trying all sorts of different brands until you finally find one that sits balanced, is the correct width and is comfortable for the horse and rider.  If you have found the brand of saddle that fits your horse - you are one of the lucky ones. A saddle that ‘fits’ does this:  distributes evenly the pressure of the rider - with no pressure points - and allows the muscles of the back to have sufficient blood flow & movement to build & not waste, and for the horse to have freedom and move unrestricted as it would without gear. Your horse has a well rounded back, shoulder and wither area, like it’s neck and hindquarters - no hollows, bulges or definition around the wither or spine where the saddle normally sits. Your horse won’t show any mood change when approached with the saddle, when girthed-up, when mounting, or show any tendency to rear, buck, rush, show tense/choppy/restricted movement, would not tail swish and wouldn’t be fidgety or inconsistent in it’s contact or head carriage, when being ridden.

If this is not the case - then you can almost guarantee that your saddle is probably a contributing factor to one or more of your horses behaviors...  NO horses choose to be grumpy, disobedient, stiff, and so on... it’s for a reason.  If your horse doesn’t do in the paddock or when handled what they do with you when being ridden, then they are saying something is wrong. If you absolutely know it’s not your saddle or gear - then this could indicate an injury, lacking in specific minerals, an incorrect schooling method or something else? Overall, an unhappy horse is in need of attention and one must find the original cause & then solve it. 

The saddle is just one factor, to all the components that make up the overall outcome, especially when it comes to performance. There is the bit, the saddle, the feeding, fitness, training technique, teeth, shoeing, horses ability, conformation, breed, temperament, riders ability, riders position and riding technique, etc, etc. At least if we can try and get most of these correct, then it makes performance, progress and success, that much easier.

We owe it to our horses to learn more about trees, saddles and fitting... 

It is all pretty much common sense stuff - and as their owner and/or rider, you know your horse best.

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