Although English and Western saddles couldn’t look more different, fitting them is relatively the same. Both saddles are constructed on a solid framework called a tree. The tree is what is fitted to the horse’s back. This is tricky, of course, because the tree is buried underneath all of its leather ‘clothing’. Knowing the distinct parts of the tree and how they should relate to the shape of the horse’s back is the key.
Tree points parallel to wither tracing
The one part of a tree that everyone is most familiar with is the tree width for the horse’s withers. The front of the tree consists of the pommel and the tree points. The width and angle of the tree points needs to be compatible in angle to the horse’s wither shape. It doesn’t matter what BREED of horse you have, the tree point and pommel shape needs to match the shape of the horse’s withers. I have included a picture of a bare tree matched to the tracing of one of our client’s horses. The tracing is a concave A shaped wither and the tree points match that shape. Theories about how loose, tight or parallel the tree points should be are quite numerous and will be discussed in a different blog.
Pete Gorrell discussing bare tree fit on a horse's back
There are many independent Western tree and saddlemakers that still follow the traditional way of fitting the tree to the horse’s back before constructing a saddle. Many of the leading English saddlemakers produce their own trees in house according to their own design specifications. Most English saddlemakers get their trees from a tree maker. Historically, tree makers and saddlemakers are two separate craftsman. English trees are mass produced but follow government established guidelines for symmetrical construction and produce designs to fit various equine body types. Most knowledgeable saddle fitters will know what materials the trees are constructed of and how different manufacrurer’s designs will fit what equinbe body types. Most English saddle trees are constructed of traditional wood and metal materials. Other materials used in tree construction include bamboo, leather, fiber glass, and plastic injected molding. Most well made Western trees are still being made by hand out of wood and reinforced with rawhide. A well made Western tree can be a work of art in its own right! A great website to go to for in-depth information about Western tree making is http://www.rodnikkel.com/content/index.php.
Clearance under the fork of the tree, the bars following the angle of the back and balance of the rider’s seat are just a few of the fitting critieria that Western saddles need just like English saddles. No matter if the saddle is English or Western, the tree needs to match the shape of the horse’s back. The panel or skirts will not compensate enough for an ill-fitting tree.
Tags: Saddle Fitting
Balance is a crucial part of your horse’s training and use of body. How your saddle is (or isn’t) balanced directly effects these things. Your saddle is balanced when the deepest or flattest part of the seat is parallel to the ground. Be careful if you use the height of the cantle in relation to the pommel as a balance guide. Some present day dressage saddles sport very high cantles which will always be much higher than the pommel.
The way the tree fits (or doesn’t) and the panel’s construction including the presence or absence of front and/or rear gussets and the material the panel is filled with (foam or wool flocking) will greatly influences the balance of the saddle’s seat. If a tree is too wide, the pommel will sit lower thus tipping the rider forward. With the rider’s weight leaning forward over the horse’s forehand (fork seat), the horse will have the tendency to rush and possibly stumble a lot, pull with the front legs, hollow the back and use the lower muscles of the neck as a counterbalance. The same result could be said of a well fitting tree and panel that is too thin in the front either from the lack of flocking or the absence of front shoulder gussets. A thin panel allows the tree to sit closer to the horse and can sometimes interfere with shoulder movement. Any interference with shoulder movement can result in a choppy, uncomfortable trot and a potential for resistance in the canter. A tree that fits too narrow can cause the balance of the saddle to sit too cantle low thus throwing the majority of the rider’s weight to the back of the saddle (chair seat). This backward distribution of rider weight can also be caused by the lack of rear gussets, gussets that are too shallow or a panel that needs to be flocked. This fitting configuration generally causes the saddle to bridge creating pressure in the front and the rear of the saddle and not utilizing the middle of the panel for weight bearing.
The body type of the horse also needs to be considered in addition to the balance of the saddle. Downhill built horses generally tend to need more lift in the front and less rear panel support. Saddles that are too firm or deep in the rear of the panel for downhill built horses tend to tip the rider forward. Some saddle fitters try to counteract this by making the tree too narrow in the front to correct the balance. This is an incorrect solution for these body types. Uphill built horses may need less front panel support and much more rear panel support. Do not be fooled by the tree that sits too wide and too low to the withers on this body type as the saddle being balanced. In both cases, the tree fit must always be compatible in angle to the shape of the withers.
Only when the saddle is balanced can the rider begin to develop their own self carriage in relation to the horse’s own balance and self carriage. There are many very good correction pads manufactured today that can help in fixing some minor balance and fitting issues. Saddles that are not fitting well at all will not be fixed with padding.
It’s a good idea to have your saddle’s fit checked at least twice a year so you and your horse are always comfortable, stable and secure.
Tags: Saddle Fitting