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Circle Y Saddle Fitting

Saddle Fitting


With more than 60 years of building saddles in our history, Circle Y understands how important it is to ensure that your saddle correctly fits your horse. This page details our recommendations and advice on how best to fit your horse with one of our trees.


Myths and Misconceptions

First, let's address some common myths and misconceptions regarding saddle fit

Circle Y Saddle Fitting

Myth: Gullet Size Determines Fit

Gullet size is commonly used for saddle fit, but 60 years of fitting saddles have shown this is not accurate or reliable. It's only one aspect of saddle fit. The gullet can only be accurately measured on the bare tree of the saddle before the leather is put on, so it won't be the same measurement that you can take on your horse. Most importantly, not every saddle with the same gullet measurement will fit the same. The angle and twist of the bars affect how the saddle will fit, so a regular and extra wide tree can share a gullet measurement while maintaining completely different fits.

Circle Y Saddle Fitting

Misconception: Saddle Fit is Consistent Across Saddle Brands

There is no standardization for tree fit in the Western saddle industry. This means that, while semi-quarter horse (SQHB) and full quarter horse (FQHB) fits may be useful as general guides, your horse may not need the same size in every brand, which is why we developed our own fit terminology of Regular, Wide, and Extra Wide. Keep in mind that saddle trees are designed to fit normal, average horse conformations.

Myth: My Horse is Really Tall, so He Needs a Wide Tree

Actually, the horse’s height has nothing to do with proper tree fit. You’ll want to look at the horse’s conformation starting at his withers – are they well defined or are they rounded? Is his back typical or dropped? Answering these questions first will help your horse enjoy a comfortable saddle fit. More important than height will be the shape of your horse's back and the length of the spine. You're fitting about 9" of your horse's back.

Circle Y Saddle Fitting tree fits explained

Misconception: My Saddle is Pinching, I Need a Wider Tree

Not always. If the bar angle is too wide for the horse, it will pinch at the contact point. If your horse has a narrow “A” shape, the saddle may be too wide. The illustration is a simplified view of the goal of saddle fitting: to achieve bar contact between the tree and the horse. With a good fit, the bar angle matches the angle of the horse for maximum contact, and there is sufficient clearance between the wither of the horse and the swell of the saddle. When there is little bar contact and the pressure is concentrated in a particular place, the result can be pinching, rubbing, or white marks. Note that pinching does not always mean the horse needs a wider fit – in fact, concentrated pinching often means the fit is TOO wide, as seen in the Tree Too Wide illustration.

Myth: My Horse's Breed Needs a __ Tree

We hear this a lot, from Thoroughbreds to drafts to Quarter horses to Tennessee Walkers. Because of the hundreds of horses we fit annually, we discovered that while some breeds may generally share attributes that lead to similar fits, we evaluate each horse as an individual and not a breed type. While most vanners will use wide or extra wide trees with rounded skirts, we've fit them and other draft crosses and even full draft horses in regular trees due to the shape of the individual horse.


Circle Y Saddle Fitting
Where Fit Matters

Fitting the Tree

It's important to think about where the saddle is going to sit on your horse, and critical to remember that the saddle tree is what we're trying to fit. This is only about 8-9 inches on either side of your horse's back, and the length of your horse's back.

The only other consideration here is that if your horse has a short back you'll most likely want to select a saddle with a round skirt, however, this will not impact the fit of the saddle.

Tree Fits

Circle Y Saddle Fitting regular fit
Regular

The average, defined wither will usually fit a Regular tree. This horse will have a more refined body with definition in the withers.

This mare is 15.3 HH with a heavy bone structure but needs a regular tree due to her defined wither.

Circle Y Saddle Fitting wide fit
Wide

A more rounded, mutton wither with a flatter back will usually fit a Wide tree. This horse often has a blocky build and can be considered a foundation build.

This horse requires a wide tree due to his rounded withers and flatter back

Circle Y Saddle Fitting extra wide fit
Extra Wide

Horses with very wide, very flat backs will usually require an Extra Wide tree. This is generally considered a draft tree, however, we've seen the occasional lighter breed use this tree due to their shape.

This horse uses an extra wide due to his stocky build and very flat back and withers.


Circle Y Saddle Fitting ranchers
Before Fitting

Things to Consider

Age and maturity of the horse

A saddle you buy for your two-year-old today may not fit as well when he fills out in another year or two

As a mature horse progresses into its senior years, changes in conformation can alter the fit of your existing saddle

The body condition of the horse you are fitting

Significant weight gain or loss can alter the way a saddle fits

Look at your horse as an individual and not a breed type

Identify if there are any conformation issues to address


Saddle Placement

Great saddle fit is identified when the saddle is level and there is adequate gullet clearance. Make sure your saddle is positioned correctly with the front bars of the tree behind the horse's shoulder blades.



Check Fit on Your Horse

Make sure your saddle is positioned correctly with the bars of the tree behind the horse's shoulder blades.

It's important to do this WITHOUT a saddle pad, as your saddle pad will impact fit

Circle Y Saddle Fitting - Brown saddle on a horse showing poor tree fit, saddle is too wide
Saddle Tilting Forward

Too Wide

If the front of the saddle is resting on your horse's withers or if there is only room for one finger between the withers and the gullet, that's a good sign the saddle is too wide and a narrower tree is needed to distribute the rider’s weight.

You can see in this example that the saddle is tilting forward, with the front resting on the horse and the back of the saddle not making contact.

Circle Y Saddle Fitting gullet perching
Saddle Perching

Too Narrow

If the front of the saddle is perched up on the horse's withers that's a good indicator that the saddle is too narrow and a wider tree may be needed.

In this example, the saddle is perched on the horse's wither, and a side view would show that the saddle is tipped back.

Circle Y Saddle Fitting sweat marks
Check the Pattern

Sweat Marks

Sweat patterns can give an indication of how the saddle fits. Ideally, the sweat pattern will be even, without dry areas that indicate pressure points, areas where the hair has been rubbed off, ruffled hair, or swirl marks than indicate excessive movement. Keep in mind that damage from past saddle fit issues can cause areas of dry spots or white marks. Ask yourself: has this horse ever sweated there before? Is my brand-new wool pad doing its job and soaking up the sweat?

This photo shows sweat patterns from a bridging saddle. The saddle bars put pressure at the front and rear only and not down the middle creating pressure points against the horse. Serious damage and soreness will occur. A bridge pad is needed to fill the gap between the horse’s back and tree bars to distribute the rider’s weight.

All saddle trees are built to fit the average build. If your horse's conformation is outside of average, he'll need a pad solution to create a better saddle fit.

See more on corrective padding

Common Mistakes

Front Cinch

Do not over-tighten the cinch because it will create more pressure before you sit in the saddle. Especially, do not over tighten the cinch to compensate for a saddle that rolls. Make sure the saddle correctly fits the horse. Try a different saddle pad (make sure you aren’t over-padding), or use a wider cinch, neoprene cinch, or flank cinch to help secure the saddle. The front cinch should be about as tight as your belt - if it’s comfortable for you, it should be comfortable for your horse. This rule of thumb applies to general trail riding, not extreme trail riding. Use discretion and consult a trainer if necessary.

Flank Cinch

Most people use the flank (rear) cinch incorrectly. It provides stability to the saddle and should be snug (not tight) against the horse. A rule of thumb is to be able to slip two fingers between the flank and the horse at the apex of the belly. It should not be loose or hang below the horse’s belly-a loose flank cinch is a danger to the horse and rider. Always use the connecting strap between the front and rear cinches to position the flank cinch properly and prevent it from becoming a “bucking strap”. If the back of your saddle is moving side to side or up and down at the walk, trot, or canter, the movement can cause a scrubbing action, irritating the skin, over time these can scar and become white spots. We recommend that you use a flank cinch.

Padding

Don’t over-pad your horse. The more pads you use, the wider it makes your horse, and the higher your saddle will sit on the horse’s back (the saddle will roll easier, more leverage being higher). Excess padding will not allow you to feel the horse’s movement as well. If you are riding for extended periods, you need a pad to absorb sweat and dissipate heat.

Natural fiber pads and blankets are more breathable and comfortable for your horse. Wool is an ideal example of natural moisture-wicking and shock-absorbing properties. Neoprene is a shock-absorbing material and is great for performance horses that will not have a pad on all day, but we don't recommend them for long trail rides. Neoprene doesn’t breathe or absorb moisture, and white spots, rubbing, and pulling of the hair follicles can occur.

Cleaning and Storage

Keep your horse’s back clean, taking special care where the saddle, pad, girth, and other gear will sit as dirt is abrasive. The movement of the horse and the rider creates movement of the saddle. The abrasiveness of dirt combined with movement can cause skin irritation. Your horse’s back should be cleaned, brushed, vacuumed, or washed and dry before and after riding to remove sweat and dirt. Keep your blankets, pad, and cinch clean.

Rider Balance

Consider how you sit in the saddle. For the tree to function, you must sit balanced. If you sit in the saddle like a recliner with your legs out in front, you exert twice as much force on the back of the bars and dig the bars into the horse’s loins. The rider must sit in a balanced position, vertically with your legs under you. This position allows the bars of the tree to function properly and spread pressure equally front to back. Heavy riders require the tree to distribute more pounds per square inch on the horse. For this reason, proper saddle fit and equitation are critical with a heavy rider.

Conditioning

A horse is no different from a human athlete; horses get sore muscles when they are not in shape. Long trail rides, once-a-month barrel races, or competitions when a horse is not in the proper condition will make a horse’s back sore. When pressure is applied to an unconditioned horse’s back, swelling will occur which will accentuate or create saddle fit issues. If you feel heat or swelling after long or strenuous use of your horse, let his back rest and heal.

Do not jump to the conclusion that your saddle does not fit if you find your horse's back is sore due to being in poor condition. A horse’s back will drop when it is not in condition or is overweight. When this happens, bridging of the saddle tree can occur. Strong abdominal muscles support and straighten the back of both the horse and the rider. Daily riding and conditioning will keep your horse’s back tough and strong.


Still not sure on saddle fit? Send measurements to our experts for help

Looking for advice on fitting the saddle to the rider? Check out our guide here.