Avoidable Problems, Chapter 1
Whether you adopt a horse or buy one, you’ll eventually encounter a stumbling block; some issue or problem that your horse didn’t come with, but develops over time. It goes without saying that horses are living, breathing, learning animals. They learn from their rider and handler; the people they interact with most are constantly “training” – whether intentional or not.
This is an ongoing topic with many subtopics, but today, we’re going to talk about equipment, because what you choose to use ON your horse can have a significant impact on the way your horse acts toward you.
People often decide that they’re going to buy a cheap saddle “just to get by” or because maybe they don’t ride that often. Then they buy a cheap saddle pad, because why pay $60 when you can get something for $15? The bottom line is, a poorly fitting saddle can cause so many issues for a horse – that reflect in how he acts when ridden – this is one place you simply don’t want to “get by.”
Buy the best quality saddle you can afford – that fits your horse. You want good quality leather that doesn’t fold up like cardboard when it gets wet. You want a saddle to sit evenly from front to back. Sitting too low in front can potentially sit on the withers; you want to be able to fit 3-4 fingers between the pommel and the horse. Sitting too high can pinch the shoulders. So, can you imagine with a rider’s weight added, the amount of pain you might inflict on your horse?
Is it any wonder he might buck or rear in this situation?
In the English world, some saddles are made with a “changeable gullet system” so that the rider can easily adjust the width of the saddle to the horse. Cool hack I’ve found is that a western rider can take these gullets, fit their horse using them, go shop for a western saddle, and match up the gullet to a saddle that will fit when they get it home. Some western saddles are now made with a ‘flex tree’ that allows for a greater range of fit.
In general, it’s best to avoid the “new package deal” type saddles you find on eBay. These are built of cheap materials that break down over time and generally don’t fit a horse well. Look for a reputable brand that holds value. Many have a “guarantee” on their tree and workmanship. You can often find good deals on good saddles either at a tack shop or through someone who may be switching disciplines and selling their used tack. Many times, they’ll even let you try before you buy so you can be sure of the fit.
Other saddle fit considerations include the length of your horse’s back and your seat size – since you need a saddle that fits you both! There are any number of videos and articles online on the way to measure your horse for a saddle, including this one for western and this one for English.
Especially if you’re riding western, you want to pair your saddle with a good saddle pad. A thin blanket is not meant to be ridden in alone; you want something that is wool, wool felt, memory foam, or similar, that will absorb shock, pull heat away from the horse’s back, and help the saddle distribute the weight of the rider.
Sometimes, even a good saddle will not fit a particular horse.
Pay attention to sweat patterns like the one in the photo; the top of the back is dry due to the cut of the saddle pad, but the area circled in red is dry due to a saddle that is not making proper contact with the horse’s back. This is actually a case of “bridging” that use of a “bridge pad” could correct; or simply a narrower saddle (for reference, this is Liberty, a 13’1 hand pony; she’s rather wide, but not wide enough for a saddle that fits an average quarter horse!) Today was her first and last ride in this particular saddle.
In these cases, it is necessary to make adjustments and change out tack for the horse’s long term well being. One short ride in a poor fitting saddle may not cause a problem, but repeated work or long rides in tack that doesn’t fit well certainly will – and poor behavior is likely to escalate the more sore the horse gets and the more he tries to communicate his discomfort to you.