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See where you seat! Part 2. Konniy Mir (Horse World), #2-2005

Lidia Nevzorova

Here as I promised we’ll continue our talk about saddling that we started in the previous article. When the magazine with that article was released there were many letters to the editor concerning this material with comments and questions about the correct way of saddling.

Having read the first part of the article many readers came to correct conclusions, and some have already taken measures trying to ease their horses’ sufferings what is definitely a good sign for the magazine creators and staff and me particularly.

...Some felt sad, some decided that all this information is stuff and nonsense. They have been riding like they used to for the whole life and knew no trouble and then someone is trying to urge them to buy a new saddle and moreover, a separate saddle for every particular horse! Some, absurd as it may seem, thought that saddle manufacturers sponsored this article and so they refused to believe that all that is written here is true. Some are complaining of their instructors which make him put saddles directly on the withers to avoid its pressing on the loins as they think it’s the only correct way to saddle a horse. Some think that all this is not their business as they have money enough only to feed their horse and think that a good saddle is just a luxury and that nothing bad will happen if they use an old saddle with a many times repaired saddle-tree. On the whole there are many opinions and quite often they’re diametrically opposite.

However I want to say only one thing: the ice is broken. And smart questions outnumber criticism greatly. Taking into consideration all these questions I’ve corrected a little the second part of the article. So let’s start with it.

Maybe it’s better to ride without a saddle at all?

Bareback riding is not useful for the horse because the weight of the rider is not distributed evenly on the horse’s back but concentrated at one point. It’s quite discomfortable and often painful to the horse. A young horse should be ridden bareback in no circumstances; its back muscles are not yet ready for such a load. You may ride bareback on a horse with the sound back but not longer than for 10-15 minutes. Recently the horse tack shops have begun to sell special pads – “saddles” without panels and tree, sometimes with stirrups. They are used for natural bareback riding which has become quite popular now. However they’re of no use for the horse and using them is almost the same as riding bareback. Tracy Turner, DVM,MS, Dipl.ACVS, in discussing saddle fit, said, "We have some thermography data. Treeless saddles created more pressure on the center line, there may be more pressure and friction than riders think"

What shall I do if I have no chance to buy a good saddle?

Train your horse on the ground, on long reins, on lounge. Play with it, learn Parelli’s system or finally sell your horse if you’re not able to cease riding and can’t provide your horse with the most necessary. Just understand that relationship with the horse does not come to riding!

Those can be excused who injure their dear horse’s back not realizing that the saddle is unfitting. But when they do learn about it they must take necessary measures! I know a dozen of horse owners who used to ride in terrible cheap saddles and when they found out that they damage their horses’ backs they hurried up to order good saddles. And they did the right thing.

Do the rules mentioned in the article apply to every kind of saddle: dressage, jumping, general purpose?

Yes, definitely.

What does the situation with saddles seem to be abroad?

Generally speaking, only professionals buy expensive leather saddles there. The rest usually use inexpensive ones. But inexpensive leather saddles are of poor quality - so they fall apart too quickly. The only way out is a synthetic saddle of good quality, which at the price of 350 US dollars will serve you for 2-10 years depending of the frequency of use. People abroad usually understand well what they need, and in Russia a greenhorn who has been going to a horse club just for two months wants to buy necessarily a leather saddle, wishing to look like as a professional.

It’s a very common practice abroad to rent saddles or to buy second hand saddles. Practically all large shops selling horse equipment have a number of repaired used saddles at a low price. Here one can find a Kieffer saddle that is still in a good condition at the price of 200 US dollars, but there’s almost no chance that it will fit your horse properly.

What saddle manufacturers are considered to be the best?

You shouldn’t put Russian saddles on your horse’s back even under a threat of execution. Their quality is not even worthy of notice – extremely bad.

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The main question is how to find out whether the saddle fits the horse.

Rub a cake of soap thoroughly against the saddle panels and saddle your horse without a pad. Have an exercise as usual. The markings on the back will tell you all about the way the saddle is contacting the back. Sweat or talc powder will show the same picture. If the markings are not symmetrical, there’re dry and clean spots, then the load is distributed unevenly and this saddle is ill-fitting and it’s dangerous to use it as it can damage your horse’s health.


Check the width of the channel between the panels. You should be able to put easily three-four fingers in width at any point of the channel. If you can place only two fingers the saddle must not be used.

Plastic saddle-tree of a brand saddle.

Leather anatomic and elastic girths.

If you bought a saddle with a changeable gullet you may change the size of the front arch in minutes.

Good gel shock-absorber.

Pad with pockets for gel inserts is used for:

  • saddle balance correction;
  • for horses with asymmetrical back that need different protection on different sides;
  • for horses that lost weight, with the changed topline;
  • for using with saddles that do not require additional stuffing;
  • for using one saddle on different horses.

This pad does not replace a correctly fit saddle and can provide only a temporary protection for the horse’s back until a new saddle is bought.

Pad with gel parts that lie on the most vulnerable parts of the horse’s back.
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Byelorussian saddles... Here we meet another problem: Byelorussian saddle manufacturers do not know that all horses’ backs are different. The quality leaves much to be desired. However somehow Byelorussian manufacturers managed to convince the bigger part of Russian horse owners to buy their production.

Many Russian riders say that they can afford only a Byelorussian saddle, however English saddles are not necessarily all made of leather and very expensive. There’re synthetic saddles of good quality at the price of the Byelorussian ones - Norton or Wintec, for example. Russian people are not used to buy them. However they are eminently suitable for beginners, who haven’t yet decided whether they’re ready to dedicate their life to horses, for children, for growing horses and for public riding schools that have no wish to buy saddles for two thousand dollars.

Wintec saddles in general are ones of the best economy saddles. Their main advantage is the changeable gullet system, so it takes you just several minutes to change the size of your saddle tree in accordance with the horse’s back just changing the gullet. Another advantage is the airbag system, there’re strong, thin sealed airbags in the panels what eliminates uneven distribution of the rider’s weight and gives the horse’s back all necessary comfort. In my opinion they’re the best saddles among all inexpensive ones that are on the market today.

As a matter of fact all saddle manufacturers do their best to invent something new and useful. There’re excellent trail saddles. Here I am not speaking about our Russian trail saddles that were used quite often at our stables at one time. The saddles I speak about, endurance saddles, look like ordinary English ones, but distribute the load in a better way due to wider panels. They also sell saddles with special plastic easy-fit inserts to alter the saddle-tree size (Thorowgood saddles). There’re treeless saddles, elastic-tree saddles etc.

The worst saddles are ones that look most elegant and nice, with thin, stiff panels. The leader of “bad saddles of good quality” manufacturers was traditionally the Stubben company. Its saddles usually have a banana-like shape of the tree, the channel is too narrow and the panels are too thin and stiff, all this cannot provide a sufficient bearing area on the horse’s back. My advice to those who use saddles like this is that you should call a vet to check your horse’s back. However just recently Stubben has begun to produce saddles with a larger bearing area, probably taking into consideration their previous mistakes.

And don’t think that it’s easy to find a good saddle abroad. They have a lot of their own Byelorussian-like producers there. However there‘s a number of small reputable companies that rank high and enjoy wide popularity and that no one in Russia has heard of.

Some well-known companies that sell good saddles are Wintec, Gidden, Zaldi; there’re excellent saddles made by Bates. Bates produces saddles together with Wintec, so their saddles usually have changeable gullets. More expensive saddles are produced by such companies as Kieffer, Passier, Barnsby, Amerigo, Hermes, Otto Schumacher, Windsor, Arthur Kottas, Prestige and, of course, County. "The CAIR panel system worked better for some horses (with fewer pressure points) than their custom-fit saddles", Dr Turner reported.Generally speaking, the best saddle producers are those that don’t sell saddles at shops but make them to order, individually for every particular horse taking the measurements. Such companies have quite a good reputation and, certainly, their saddles are quite expensive, but this will be recompensated by the absence of need to pay a vet.

I do not recommend buying Jorge Canaves and Genry de River saddles.

We use County saddles for our horses.

And note that all horses are different. Only Kieffer saddle may fit one horse and only Stubben saddle will fit another. So don’t contact only one company when looking for a saddle.

Isn’t western saddle harmful to the horse?

Western saddles, as well as Spanish, Portuguese and Cavalry saddles are much less harmful for the horse’s back in spite of their weight but only if they’re of a proper size and fit the horse. Their construction was designed to allow a horse to work under saddle for hours. The more the bearing area is, the better it is for muscles as the rider’s weight is distributed over a larger surface. The horse should be ridden under an English saddle for no more than two hours a day, and even better – for only one hour.

Several times I recommended the owners of horses with sore backs using Western saddles. But as many of them think not about the horse’s health and only about how they look like and what people say about them, no one followed my advice.
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The correct position of the saddle on the horse’s back. Note that the saddle lies behind the scapula. 

The saddle rests on trapezius and longissimus dorsi muscles. It must not be placed too far forward on the withers, on the loins, where the muscles and the spinal column cannot bear the rider’s weight. 

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What does it mean when there’re dry spots on the wet skin under the saddle after the horse is unsaddled?

Dry spots with the clear contour appear as a result of peripheral nerves traumas due to uneven pressure of the saddle.

Is it enough to fit the saddle once and for all? Or it should be checked regularly?

Yes, it’s necessary to check how the saddle is fitting your horse at least once a month, even if it seems to be all right. The horse has a tendency to change its shape – they begin to put on weight by winter, to loose weight during competitions, they grow thin under stress, while being trailered, they’re growing, getting old, develop the muscle bulk and etc. If you found out that the saddle is unfit then you should buy another one, or change its gullet in case of Wintec saddle, for example. Expensive saddles manufacturers are skeptical about saddles with the changeable gullet. For example, Gene Freze, County Saddlery owner, blames them for “instability”. I won’t argue, he knows better, but believe me, a Wintec saddle with this “instable” gullet will harm your horse much less than a Byelorussian-like one.

Check the form of the saddle, its tree: whether it has changed its shape, is the saddle twisted or not. Examine carefully the panels: look, whether it needs restuffing and whether you can feel any stiff lumps inside. The panels shouldn’t be too soft or too stiff. They as well should not be stuffed too toughly as in this case they won’t contact the horses back properly with all their surface and thus will create pressure points.

Check whether the saddle tree is intact and sound in two ways. Pull the flaps towards one another in the area of the pommel: the gullet shouldn’t become too narrow. Then press the cantle against your body and pull the pommel towards you. A good tree will not be deformed and will just spring slightly. Never use saddles with the broken tree!

Concerning saddle pads.

I have already said that pads should be used in accordance with the saddle size. If the saddle is too narrow or fits the horse – you must not put a thick foam-rubber or especially a fleece pad under it! Pads that are made of synthetic materials and do not repeat the contour of the horse’s back should be considered bad.

Fleece pads actually are quite good but they occupy too much space under the saddle and in spite of their “ecological compatibility” often hurt the back much. They can be used only when the saddle is too big for the horse, and not because it’s so fashionable. Such a use may be compared to wearing thick socks with a pair of fitting shoes. It will be too tight.

There’s a great number of gel shock absorbing pads in the market today however opinions divide on using them. Many vets and horsemen think that flat, non-contour gels may create discomfort to the horse as they’re placed upon an ordinary pad the seam of which then lies exactly on the spine. This shouldn’t be done. There’re pads with special pockets for gel, but even if they don’t have the seam that lies on the spine they can anyway create discomfort as they rest upon the spinal column. Expensive saddles manufacturers are also against the gel pads. Other vets insist on using gels even with good saddles, as gels absorb shock of the rider’s weight.

A correctly chosen and placed gel pad may definitely give some relief to the horse if the saddle fits precisely. A gel pad under an ill-fitting saddle won’t solve the problem: gel pads just get dented at the places of the pressure points and stuff excessively the space where the saddle has poor contact with the back. Moreover gels interfere with the heat exchange under the saddle, the skin steams out and pores catch infection easily – small solid knobs may show up on the back under the saddle and different dermatologic diseases develop. Besides many horses feel discomfort simply because their back itches.

Protective contour pads are the best ones in the market. They may be made of polypropylene or gel, with water or air filled bags, with changeable inserts and etc. Such pads may really alter the fit of a saddle; improve the balance and compensate the defects of horse’s constitution. They help to cure different injuries, to restore and develop the muscle bulk. They repeat the contour of the back and have a necessary clearance or rise in the middle, so that the pad would never touch the spine.

A wonderful pad was invented by Pat Parelli. It has four sections that are filled with water. Thus the water is displaced where it is necessary, and you may adjust the form and balance of the saddle pouring the water in or out. Unfortunately I have never seen such pads in Russian horse tack shops, and this is precisely the thing that our horsemen lack.

Prolite specializes in special pads production (see photo) – this company is an innovator in this sphere and the leading firm in the market. County Saddlery purposing the same aim, created a corrective pad with four pockets for inserts. Wintec produces cheap but effective anatomic adjustable rear or front risers for saddle balance correction. I hope such pads will be soon sold at our shops. They can really correct the saddle defects.

All these pads are on sale in England and our sellers usually have German suppliers and bring to Russia flat rubber pads of extremely bad quality.

Concerning girths

Do you know that 5% of newly-born foals have broken ribs and 20% have serious injuries of the rib cage? Such traumas and fractures are healed quite quickly and there would be no problems at all if horses lived in wild nature. However they often feel extremely strong pain and discomfort under saddle. Girths cause a lot of problems.

We’ll discuss this issue in one of the next numbers. Now I will say only one thing: the higher the quality and the price of a girth are, the better it is for the horse. There’s no doubt that wide leather, gel, anatomic girths are much better than Russian ones made of cloth. You should choose the girth as thoroughly as you choose the saddle – and individually for every particular horse.

Nowadays it’s quite popular to use girths with elastic ends. They were designed to ease girth adjustment and to give horse’s body comfort as they’re less interfering with breathing and blood circulation. However quite often they’re used in a wrong way. It’s a mistake to stretch them as much as possible when you’re tightening the girth. Elastic ends are made for the horse’s comfortable breathing and moving at exercise and when you stretch elastic ends in advance they can no longer perform their function. Finally we have the girth which is extremely tightened – the tissues re pressed much more and the blood supply is disturbed greatly. Besides, in spite of the fact that the horse breaths with its belly, the area of the thorax widens as well during an inspiration.

Another trouble is caused by pinching of tissues when tightening the girth and too strong tightening in general. You have probably seen wrinkles in the horse’s stomach when you’re tightening the girth. Then you must smooth them with your hand before mounting. Otherwise the skin at these places will be chafed and will hurt and the blood supply will be disturbed. The girth should be tightened evenly from both sides, gradually and carefully, in two-three stages before the warming-up and after it. And finally you must be able to slide the flat of your hand under the flap of the saddle. But you cannot as well ride with a loose girth. It may injure the horse (the saddle will shift from side to side or up and down) and may be dangerous for the rider.

Walk the horse after exercising with a loosened girth. When dismounting loosen it by another hole or two, and only in some minutes take the saddle off.

I hope there’s no need to remind you of importance to clean and wash your pads and girths regularly.

Mount your horse carefully. And be not ashamed of getting on it from some pedestal; just make it easier for your horse.

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Put the saddle upon the withers and move it backward till it takes the correct position behind the shoulderblade. 

It’s highly important to define the position of the shoulderblade. You may do it by palpating the shoulderblade as it is shown in the photo. 

Find out where the metal saddle-tree arch is situated. Get a small button on the saddle as a mark, as a rule it is situated at that place. 

Put the saddle in the correct position on the horse’s back, run your hand under the panels (do not fasten the girth at this stage), and find out whether the pressure is distributed evenly. 

Check thoroughly the pressure under the panels, running your flat hand under the panels with a loosened girth and holding the saddle at the place where the rider usually seats.

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What shall I do if the nearest horse tack shop is in a 500 km distance? How to choose a saddle without fitting?

It’s almost impossible to do.

For fitting and ordering a saddle you should, certainly, call for a professional. But considering that by no means everyone can afford this due to different reasons and that there’s only one professional saddle-fitter in our country (I do not mean myself) I’ll try to explain what you can do yourself.

I could tell you how to take measurements of the horse’s back, but this is a separate profession and I wouldn’t like to advise you something if I’m not sure that you do it right. However I can really tell you about one way.

Abroad people buy for this purpose special sets with a material similar to plaster. You need to put a piece of cloth on the horse’s back, then polyethylene and this wet plaster-like material in the size of a saddle pad. This material is kept on the back of a standing horse for about twenty minutes, and when it solidifies you take it off and now you have your horse’s back cast which you take to the shop and fit saddles on it. The material may be used many times; you just soak it before use. It’s quite difficult to find this set and it costs about one hundred and fifty US dollars. But necessity is the mother of invention - so demonstrate some savvy and contrive something! Make a cast using papier-mâché or bandages and wet plaster, for example. If you really want to find a way out, you’ll find it! A cast or a template will improve your chances choose a well-fitting saddle up to 80 per cent.

Well, I think that’s all concerning the frequently asked questions. So let’s continue or talk about the correct saddling.

What is the correct position of the saddle on the horse’s back

Thus every horse should have its own thoroughly chosen saddle.
Remember that in the process of saddle checking:

  • the horse must stand on firm level ground;
  • the saddle should be placed on the back without any pads and saddle cloths;
  • always follow these steps when checking the saddle fitting: first, without the girth, just putting the saddle on the back. If you think that it is fitting, then check it with the girth tightened. Then on a standing horse with the rider in the saddle and finally when the horse is walking: somebody should walk the horse on firm level ground so that you could see it well from behind and from the side. Then the horse should be lounged without the rider on the ground it is usually worked on, and finally there with the rider.
  • if you’ve noticed that the saddle is poorly fitting at the first step without the girth, you shouldn’t continue your examination!

How to saddle

To get the saddle in the correct position you should have a basic understanding of the horse’s anatomy. Then learn the following rules. Breaking only one of them will affect your horse’s health greatly.

Put the saddle upon the withers and slide it back till it takes the correct position behind the shoulderblade.

  • The points of the saddle-tree should be about three fingers behind the scapula of the standing horse. I mean precisely the metal points of the saddle-tree and not the saddle flaps that can lie over the scapula (for example, in jumping saddles).
  • You must see “the light at the end of the tunnel” if you look through the gullet channel of the saddle from the front and from behind either when the girth is not fastened or with the rider in the saddle. Look at the saddle – if it’s contacting the vertebral column and you don’t see the clearance – take that saddle off immediately and never use it again for that horse. The saddle must not touch the spinal column at any place.
  • The gullet channel should be wide enough to give the spinal column sufficient clearance. The width is chosen individually but anyway you should be able to get at least four fingers in the channel at any place from the front to the back. The saddle should rest only on the back muscles. Put your hand under the cantle and find the row of the spinous processes of the vertebra. Check whether the panels are contacting them at any place.
  • The width of the saddle-tree must coincide with the size of the horse. Never use a saddle if it is too narrow. If it’s too big you may try to use a gel pad or a fleece pad with it. When the girth is tightened there should be adequate clearance between the pommel and the top horse's withers, approximately two to three fingers. If the clearance is too big then the saddle is most likely too narrow and if it is too small – the saddle is too wide.
  • The saddle must be well-balanced; it shouldn’t be too narrow or too wide at the withers. If the saddle is too narrow at the withers - it will be too high at the pommel. The pommel will be much higher than the cantle. If the saddle size is too big it will be too low on the horse’s withers and the cantle will go up.
  • Make sure that the lowest part of the saddle seat is parallel to the ground and is in the middle of the saddle. Put the saddle on the horse then step away and look at it exactly from the side. The cantle shouldn’t be higher than the pommel for more than four fingers, however there’re dressage saddles with cantles that are specially raised a little bit more and this is normal.
  • The saddle shouldn’t shift from side to side or up and down. If the girth is tightened and you could raise the cantle the saddle may be considered a badly fitting one.
  • Place the saddle on the horse’s back. Run your hand slowly between the horse’s back and the panels on both sides with the girth unfastened feeling for even pressure at all places. If you feel that the pressure is uneven or the panels don’t contact the back at some places then the saddle-tree does not conform to the back shape (see pictures in the first part of the article).
  • Take the saddle by the pommel and cantle and try to rock it. If the saddle have poor contact with the back in its front and back parts it will be rocking, so you must not use it.

These are the basic rules that every horseman should know.

Here’s a piece of advice. Have a practice lesson at your stable. Print this article and take it with you to your stable, bring all the saddles you have and try them all on backs of different horses. Let everyone tell his or her carefully reasoned analysis of each saddling. Thus it will be easier to get experience in this complicated matter.  I know that when some horsemen find out that their saddle is ill-fitting, they place it too far forward on the withers thinking that it will then get the correct position itself. Unfortunately this won’t happen. A correctly fitting saddle shifts nowhere.

There are many nuances and probably you won’t understand where the problem is without the help of a professional. But if you’ve read this article and then hurried to your stable to check your saddle – you’re on the right track!



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