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Saddle Fit Suggestions by Cynthia Cooper

Over the past few years, awareness about saddle fit has increased dramatically as we look to get better performance from our horses, especially in the field of endurance. In any sport where long hours with a saddle and rider on board, a horse's back, movement, expression and willingness will tell you the truth about your saddle fit.

Today there are a many new saddle designs that are catering for the increased size and broadness of the horses we are breeding now. There are a variety of flexible trees, treeless saddles, adjustable gullets and air panel systems that all help to achieve a good fit on most horses, mules and donkey's.
So what do you look for with saddle fit?
Firstly, notice what your horse does when you approach with the saddle - is he/she trying to move away, pinning their ears, head tossing or even trying to nip you as you put the saddle on or girth it up? If so, they are probably trying to tell you that something is very uncomfortable for them.

Put the saddle on with a thin pad and girth it up to where you can get on so you will be able to see how it sits on your horse's back.
Using a thick pad can be useful when your horse's condition is lighter but shouldn't be used to compensate for an ill-fitting saddle. It would be like putting thick socks on with shoes that are already too tight.

Saddle pads were originally designed to keep the underside of the saddle clean, but have now become a complicated choice and is a topic needing its own article.
Looking at the saddle from beside the horse - does it sit evenly? If it's too high at the front then it's probably too narrow and will tend to roll from side to side or slip when you mount no matter how tight the girth. If it sits up at the back, it may be too wide in the gullet and be unstable when you rock it from front to back.
It should also be easy to run your hand freely behind the shoulder as illustrated in the top photo. If you have trouble freely running your hand between the shoulder and the widest point of the gullet (see photo), then its probably too narrow for your horse.

Then view the saddle from the front - does it clear the wither by at least 4 fingers? Even treeless saddles should have good wither clearance like this popular western version below.
Another issue with fit is the placement of the saddle. The design should allow the saddle to fit far enough back from the shoulder to reduce interference when the horse moves. If your saddle does not girth up in the horse's natural girth channel, when positioned back far enough, than it is not the right one.
Some saddle designs have a Y shaped girthing system that allows for the adjustment of the girth positioning.
Now its time to ride your horse so take notice of issues such as high head carriage, reluctance to transition down gaits, reluctance to travel down hill easily, reluctance to stride out freely, a sour expression and raising the head suddenly (even squealing) when you dismount.

Ride until your horse has a good sweat under the cloth and this will tell you even more about fit.
When you remove the saddle, there should be no sign of dry patches as seen above. This idicates that the pressure on the muscle in this area is restricting blood and sweat flow that will lead to muscle damage and dead tissue, eventually growing white hair (as seen below).

There are so many problems that develop from saddle fit that we can remove or reduce by being aware and listening to our horse. Many behavioural and even health issues start with physical discomfort so its up to us to become good detectives and do our research.
With so much information available today, we have no reason to be ignorant and compromise our horse's enjoyment of being ridden.
For more information on saddle fit, visit www.chirovet.com.au where Dr Ian Bidstrup who is one of the principal lecturers at the Aust. Accredited Saddle Fitters Course, has written some in depth articles.

A rider's story
Jacky's history- 4 1/2 year old endurance trained TBxQH with a tender back just in front of hips and dips with pressure from fingers.......
I rode Jacky last night just so I could set the saddle up before I ride on the weekend.
We put pressure on his back before saddling up and he was dropping away so gave it a good rub and warmed the muscles and relaxed them - put pressure on again and he was fine - put the saddle on and away we went.
The first interesting thing was he came 'on the bit' (was in a a halter) for the first time without his usual resistance.
The second thing was I actually got him moving sideways to the right at a walk and trot - haven't done this before either as he always resisted me and I could only get sideways from a stand still.
The third difference was for the first time he was able to bend around my leg on circles instead of feeling like a riding a square that I was being pushed to the outside of.
The fourth difference was we took the saddle off after a lot of circles and sideways and making him trot really slow up the hill to work him and use his back muscles - he was not sore at all!! - no dipping - whereas when I took the old saddle off he would drop away if you put the pressure on until you rubbed his back out again then he would be OK.
So I was pretty happy with that but the 40km in it next week will be the real test.
In conclusion I do think Jacky is cold backed (as in needs muscles warmed up well and kept warm) and gets a little stiff - I do not think he has an injury as such - I think for his shape, the old saddle restricts the the movement and flexion of his spine and that obviously doesnt help the muscles! So will keep riding in it and see how we go.
Also he hasn't done his horrible short choppy trot and is so foward it is unbelievable and his canter has gone from a shove along with each stride to a gliding feeling!
I just wanted to let you know that this wasn't even over a period of time with a different saddle - this was a instant difference!! Never understimate what a saddle is doing or not doing for your horse.

Saddlefit 4 Life® shares the expertise of top trainers, physiotherapists, veterinarians, chiropractors, massage therapists, farriers, and saddle fitters.
It has good videos on saddle fit info and basics.

Alternative Choices by Cynthia Cooper

If you are having trouble finding a saddle to fit your horse or need to use something while you are waiting for your saddle to arrive, or want something to start your young horse in while his back is changing shape, consider a Bareback Pad.
Most Bareback pads are ideal for any shaped horse as they have no rigid structures to put pressure on the horse. They can (and should be) girthed up looser than a saddle so are more comfortable for the horse.
They are ideal for the rider to improve their independant seat as a bareback pad should not have stirrups. Using stirrups on a bareback pad can put a lot of pressure directly on the spine as most bareback pads do not provide any support for a stirrup system to alleviate spinal pressure.
They also offer fantastic grip if they are made from suede leather and are light, so easily carried to the horse.
A bareback pad offers ideal padding for the horse's back when riding for longer periods bareback, and they keep the rider clean!
It is much quicker to throw on a bareback pad than to saddle up and most of all, horses love them. They can also be used to re-habilitate horses who have suffered soreness from saddles and who try to bite or kick while being saddled.
The Best Bareback Pad
This pad was designed by Cynthia Cooper and features:
  • Shaped back seam is curved for a higher wither.
  • Girth w ill not tighten directly onto the backbone.
  • Changeable english or western girthing system (girth not incl.)
  • D rings front and back to tie on your coat, lead rope, water bottle etc.
  • Made from quality 16mm felt covered with black or brown suede.
Best of all, they have a 12 month warranty.
Now available in Horse, Pony and Mini size.

To purchase The Best Bareback Pad Visit the Natural Horse World Store

Treeless Saddles - What to look for:
by Cynthia Cooper

I rode in my first treeless saddle back in 2003 at a hoof trimming clinic - it was a beautiful black leather Tuend Saddle - the original Italian Treeless.
From that day on, I was determined to look further into this new type of saddle and its benefits for horses.

Manny with the Tuend Treeless Saddle on.

After hundreds of hours of research and design, I made my own protoypes for a saddle (which is yet to be manufactured) because I could see some design improvements that could be made on the many types of treeless saddles I'd tried out. I have been testing and riding in these saddles for 2 years now and am very happy with their performance so now all I need is to find someone to make me more prototypes for other riders to test.

In the process of my research I tried and tested many of the available treeless saddles and found a huge variety of designs ranging from those that were not much more than glorified bareback pads with stirrups (dangerous to use as they slip around the horse too easily and more importantly, put far too much pressure on the backbone) to beautifully made quality leather saddles that hardly looked different to regular english or western models.

The main thing to look for in any treeless design is that the stirrup attatchment which goes over the back, is broad enough to spread the weight so it doesn't concentrate too much on one part of the backbone. The same goes for the girth attatchment.
The second thing is to always use a saddle pad that has a channel down the centre - they commonly have high density foam inserts either side of the backbone to give some relief for the backbone. These pads vary in thickness, according to the musculature of the horse's back. They also help the saddle stay in place for mounting, although most treeless saddles will cope with mounting from the ground, they can slide if you have a very round or wide horse so mounting from a block is preferable.

The third thing to be aware of is that treeless saddles are mostly designed for close contact with the horse and therefore you do tend to sit a bit wider than on a regular saddle. This can be uncomfortable for people with hip or back problems after a while. Also, the stirrup attatchments are usually solid rings on the saddle so safety stirrups or toe cages must be used.

And finally, most treeless saddles can only cope with a rider weight of less than 80kg as above this, the weight compacts the saddle pad and saddle materials, putting pressure on the backbone of the horse. Also the pressure compounds when a heavier rider stands in the stirrups.

Treeless saddles are getting easier to find which is good for the consumer and hard to fit horses. They once were only available through agents or the saddle designers (and many still are) but now brands like Commanche are available from saddlery stores like Horseland. Prices range from $495 unmounted for the Commanche treeless to upwards of $1,000 for various other models such as the Barefoot.
The Saddle pads that go with them range from $80- $200 and short anatomical girths (like a dressage girth) start from $80 as well.

Treeless saddle designs range from the softer style padded saddles like the Barefoot, to more dressage style models such as the Ansur. Then there are western styles such as the Bob Marshall treeless (shown here) or the Barefoot Nevada.

If you would like more information on Treeless saddles here are some web sites I found useful.

The Alternative Horse - Saddles page

History of Saddles

Treeless Saddle Fitting

Flexible Tree Saddles - by Cynthia Cooper

Flexible saddle trees are becoming increasingly popular, reflecting the growing awareness and concern of today's riders for their horses' well-being. Why a flexible tree ?
As with many consumer products in general, technology has evolved products throughout the years. We watch flat screen color tv's and no longer 10" black and white tv's - we drive technically advanced cars, the same goes for the saddle tree - it has evolved into a new, advanced generation of saddle tree that is quite different from conventional trees being used for centuries made out of wood and covered with hide or fiberglass.
Riders, trainers, and constructors of equipment developed the flexible tree saddle after becoming dissatisfied with traditional saddles. They kept encountering poor performance saddles that caused sore muscles, white hairs, muscle wastage or a "deadened" communication between horse and rider.
Building a saddle with a flexible tree that can adjust to the conformation of the horse significantly widens the range of horses that the saddle will fit. Perhaps an even greater benefit to a flexible tree is the fact that the tree will move with the horse instead of against it. When a horse turns or bends his body the tree will "get out of the way" of the horse's shoulders and hips. Close contact, lightweight and relief from pressure points to the horse's back are primary benefits to the flex tree, achieved by using materials that result in a thinner, lighter tree bar.
Do I need a saddle with a flexible tree ?
Of course if you use a western saddle for heavy duty ranch work or steer roping a felxible tree is not for you, but most other horse sports such as reining, dressage, jumping and even endurance are based on 'feel' and being felt by your horse.
Bridging and pressure points are virtually eliminated by the saddle's ability to conform to the horse's back as compared to a 'rigid' piece of wood placed on a horse's back.
Borderline fitting problems can be solved by the ability of the bars of the tree to conform and 'give' just enough to avoid pinching and bridging.

One of the commonly used saddle trees for flexible western style saddles is the Equi-Fit. Equi-Fit saddle trees are made up of separate components. They retain a traditional rigid fork and cantle in order to avoid wither pinching and spine irritation caused by tree spread or flattening. The traditional rigid bars, however, are replaced by bars molded of a specially developed elastomer, a material similar to a rubber-like work boot sole.
Equi-Fit Flexible bars are molded to shape, not cut from a flat sheet.
The flexibility 'enhances' an already proper fit, it doesn't attempt to create it.

Another USA made flexible tree has been designed by Boz Saddlery who have a range of western style saddles and bareback pads. They are also available in Europe and the web site (below) hass a long list of design features apparently not available in any other saddle.
In Australia the Mackinder Flex Ride saddle is used by many endurance riders and is built on a flexible foam tree, allowing both medial and lateral flexing.

In the UK the Wow saddle features a laterally flexing tree by the use of a "Y" bar made from rigid Carbon Fibre that is as strong as steel embedded in the body of the tree so the head of the tree swings from side to side as the alternate shoulders rotate back under the tree.

There are also several brands of saddles that have flexible bars rather than felxible trees that aim to give a better fit, especially for wider horses. Orthoflex, Amera-Flex and Reactor Panel saddles are some examples made in the USA who all have a variety of designs to accommodate most equestrian sports. If you search on these names you will spend hours reading and drooling over saddle designs, wondering if you can afford them and how to get them shipped to you when you live in another country!

From many hours of reading rider testimonials on these web sites it seems their horses definately prefer a flexible tree that accommodates movement but also supports the rider, girthing and stirrup systems. Most flexible treed saddles are not limited to lightweight riders (unlike many treeless saddles) so it seems this is where the future of saddle making is heading - comfort for the horse and support for the rider.
Now if I can just find a way to manufacture my flexible tree saddle in synthetics, this will give riders even more choice. I'll keep you posted on my progress with this project.

The Freeform Saddle is made with a molded base so falls into the category of flexible trees despite the fact that is has no traditional tree as such.

To buy a treeless saddle in Australia, go to Horse Connection





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Disclaimer: The information contained within this website is soley the expressed views and opinions of the author, unless otherwise stated, and the author accepts no responsability for the way this information is used by viewers. The information is provided to help PREVENT problems, not to replace veterinary advice.


Cynthia Cooper -
Natural Horse World

46 Wattle Lea Lane, Golden Valley. Tasmania, 7304. Australia.

Ph. 0419 372279

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