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Old-fashioned static saddle fit differs from fit for the moving horse.
Many saddle fitters can fit an English saddle to a horse standing still in the crossties. Traditional points of reference for static fit include but are not limited to
- wither clearance
- panel touching evenly all the way down
- angle of the tree points over the wither
- balance front to back
- billet alignment
Where it becomes interesting, and where it becomes difficult beyond the ability of many saddle fitters, not to mention the capability of the saddle construction itself, is fitting the saddle so that it works when the horse begins to move.
The most common long-term damage to horses’ backs has been proven to result from incorrectly fit gullet plates -- the plate that fits across the head or pommel of a saddle. Fiberoptic cameras, MRIs, thermography, laser sensors, 3-D animation, and computerized saddle pads have made it very clear that the Inverted “V”-Frame withers of the static horse becomes an Inverted “U”-Frame in motion (illustrated in Diagram at left with the broken green line representing the wither shape in motion). Symptomatic white hairs frequently appear at the top of the side of the withers, where the gullet plate generally pinches if it doesn’t fit properly.
We believe that the gullet plate shape and size have to be set to accommodate the moving horse.
The saddle sits on many different muscle groups on the horse’s back. To begin explaining the importance of gullet plate fit, we start at the front of the saddle under the pommel. The gullet plate needs to align with the angle and the width of the shoulder. The shoulder moves upward and backward 4-8” under the tree points during motion. The tree angle is often incorrectly fitted to the muscle angle without considering the shoulder angle. This can result in cartilage and nerve damage during this restriction of movement in the horse. The gullet plate sits over two opposing muscle groups; the top will contract (pulling the shoulder upward and getting bigger) while the bottom expands or elongates (gets ‘thinner’) during motion. This is how the “V” becomes a “U” over the withers.
We need two to three fingers clearance at the withers – all around the withers, not just on top. Under the front of your saddle we find the trapezius, a muscle that extends all the way up into the neck. A tight V-shaped gullet plate results in pinched muscles, tight neck, and tight back. A gullet plate that too closely follows the shape of the static wither can also cause this problem ( Diagram at right ).
A stallion bites a mare’s withers during mating to immobilize her; same effect with a pinching gullet plate, which some veterinarians refer to as the ‘vise grip’ of the saddle. If you pinch a horse on either side of the withers, in most horses the back will tighten and drop, and the head will come up. This is not what we want to occur when riding – and is another reason why we want the U-shaped gullet plate fit to the moving horse, and not the static V shape.
How a naked tree sits on the standing horse’s withers is not necessarily indicative of how it actually fits when the panel and stuffing are added. Without the panel, the tree would crush the withers and the tree points would dig into the horse’s back ( Diagram at left ). With the panel on, the stuffing clears the horse’s withers and lifts the tree higher. It will actually protect the withers and the tree points rest in an area where the sides of the withers become narrow – behind the shoulder.
You can see that there are just as many, if not more, points of reference when considering dynamic fit; some of these are a little more subtle to determine and require more extensive training of a saddle fitter. Some of these are actually counter-intuitive to ‘conventional’ saddle fitting, but with a little reflection you will understand the logic behind them.
Schleese Saddlery Service is a Proud Partner in the Global Network of Saddlefit 4 Life® Equine Professionals dedicated to protecting your horse. www.saddlefit4life.com
"If horses could speak" by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, DVM, featuring an interview with Jochen Schleese, is now available on DVD. New Saddlefit 4 Life demonstration videos have been posted on www.schleese.com