White hairs along a horse’s spine, especially around the withers, are usually a sign of one thing: somebody rode that horse in a saddle that didn’t fit properly, and this went on for a long time. The saddle fit poorly enough to cause sores on the horse’s back, usually pulling or rubbing out the hair, which then grows back white. Imagine how uncomfortable you are when your clothes don’t fit, and then imagine doing heavy labor wearing those pants that are much too tight or the shoes that are so loose you slide around in them. A horse trying to work when ridden in a saddle can have many problems, but this can usually be fixed with some research and patience.
Why Saddle Fit is Important
Saddle fit can cause bigger problems than just a little discomfort. A horse that starts out willing and happy in his work can become testy, pick up vices like bucking and kicking or even become lame. Keep the horse happy, and he will work longer and harder for you than if he is in constant pain due to ill-fitting equipment.
There are different reasons a saddle can be a poor fit for a horse. If it is too narrow it will pinch him, cause him a lot of discomfort and restrict his movement. If it is too wide, the saddle will press on the horse’s withers and spine. Although the second problem can often be sufficiently corrected through the use of extra padding, it is better to find a saddle that fits the horse well. There is no cure for a saddle that is too narrow except to completely change the tree.
The horse is not the only one the saddle needs to fit-it needs to fit you, as well. If the saddle does not fit you, you may have to fight with your tack to keep a proper position, which inhibits your ability to ride your horse well. If the saddle is much too small for you, your weight won’t be evenly distributed-too much will be on the cantle, which puts too much pressure on the horse’s back in that one spot. Plus, you might be uncomfortable and off balance, and that’s no fun for anyone.
Choosing the Right Saddle for you and your Horse
The discipline you will be riding has a big influence on the saddle you choose. There are different types of English saddles for different purposes, and there are different styles of western saddles for different types of riding. Although it is best to get the right type of saddle for what you will be doing with your horse so it can help you, some saddles can work for multiple purposes.
Sit in a lot of saddles to find one that fits you. Different types of saddles fit differently, but a good tack store employee should be able to help you with that. Make sure you can adjust the stirrups to the correct length for your leg and that you can easily keep your heels down and under your shoulders. You should also be able to sit comfortably in the correct riding position, with or without stirrups, with little effort.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, try the saddles on your horse. Saddles are made with different tree sizes-usually narrow, medium, wide, and sometimes they have in-between sizes as well. Quarter Horses, Arabians, and draft horses tend to have wide backs, while Thoroughbreds tend to be narrow. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Start by placing the saddle on the horse’s back with no saddle pad so you can check the fit. It should sit flat on the horse’s back without tipping forward or back. It should not press on the horse’s back or withers in any spot. Run your hand between the saddle and the horse’s shoulder to make sure it isn’t too tight, and make sure the gullets (the pads on the underside of the saddle) sit flush on the horse’s back without gapping or pressing harder in some areas than others. On English saddles, you should be able to look all the way down the channel under the saddle, between the gullets. The saddle should fit just as well with a tightened girth.
Next, ride the horse in the saddle with a clean pad until he is sweaty. Afterward, look at the pad: there should be a
fairly even coating of sweat on the pad in the shape of the saddle where it touched the horse. If you see gaps or some areas that are sweatier than others, the saddle does not fit properly. You can also check the horse’s back for soreness after the ride (and also the next day, just to be sure) by pressing on the back with your fingers and feeling for a reaction.
Whenever you are in doubt as to whether your saddle fits your horse, it’s a good idea to consult a professional. They can tell you whether it’s a good fit or not, and they might have some suggestions on saddles that would work better for you. Just remember: saddle fit is important for the long-term health of your horse as well as your own comfort.