Were we to select the perfect withers for our mounts with the idea of arranging the best possible fit for the saddle, we would probably settle on well-placed, prominent withers that blended nicely into the slope of the shoulder and the back. However, the shape of a horse’s withers with regard to saddle fit is complex. “Your average horse’s withers will involve the fourth through 10th thoracic vertebrae,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS. Yet in some horses, this bony ridge will be longer, while others are shorter.
Nevertheless, it is the individual conformation differences in the neck, back, and shoulder areas of each horse that gives rise–or possibly no rise–to the shape of his withers. And because of the various sizes and shapes withers can take, they have always been one of the biggest challenges in fitting the saddle to the horse.
“A major complicating factor in saddle fit is that horses can and do change shape in the saddle-bearing area countless times over a lifetime, especially across the withers,” says Harman. For instance, the shape of your horse’s back and withers was narrower in his youth. Now in his prime, he exhibits a wider back with more fully developed muscles along the withers and into the shoulder. By the time he’s 15 years old, his back will start to sway a little and the muscles around the withers will atrophy to some degree, creating longer, narrower withers.
As a result of your horse’s aging, the saddle that fit perfectly on the 3-year-old you started four years ago probably won’t fit that same horse quite as well now that he’s seven.
Changes in the character of the withers can develop rapidly, too. Horses that are put into serious competition or work might start out heavier and wider while they are out of condition, but by mid-season they will have lost some fat in the topline and added muscle in the shoulder area. In a long competitive season, the horse will probably get thinner and narrower across the back and withers due to the workload.
By the same token, horses that aren’t used heavily can change across the withers from season to season. Consider the common seasonal changes in body condition of the pastured horse. Depending on the availability of foodstuffs, the horse’s withers will round out or thin to some extent as he gains or loses weight.
“One of the most common mistakes made in saddling the horse is placing the saddle too far forward over the withers,” says Harman. When placed in this location, the saddle will impinge on the movement of the shoulder.
To properly position the saddle on the horse’s back, place it slightly forward over the withers, then slide the saddle back until it seems to stop in a natural resting spot. In this position, the saddle bars or panels should rest 2 1/2-3 inches behind the horse’s shoulder blades.
During the saddling process, clearance between the saddle and withers should be monitored. You’ll want ample room above the withers as well as sufficient room on each side so that when the saddle is cinched, its gullet clears the top of the withers and the sides of the withers are not burdened. Check the clearance again after mounting, then once again a few minutes into the ride to be sure the saddle has not settled against the withers. Remember that once you add your weight, the saddle will settle lower.
“The amount of clearance can vary,” says Harman. “You may have room enough for three or more finger widths on a flat-withered horse compared to only one finger width on a high-withered horse. The key here is to maintain that clearance once mounted with weight in the stirrups.”
In addition, always pull the blanket or pad up into the gullet of the saddle during saddling so that it doesn’t pull tight across the horse’s withers, creating pressure that causes bruising and soreness.
All withers are not created equal. They come in various heights and widths. However, it is the extreme stature of the withers at either end of the range that will give rise to most of your saddle-fit frustrations. To make matters worse, the length of the withers will also have to be taken into account.
High Withers–These are common in Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses, but can be found in any breed. In fitting a saddle to a high-withered horse, you will need to lift the saddle away from the withers. This can be accomplished by using a saddle whose panels or bars match the slope of the horse’s back muscles, then raising the saddle up off of the withers using pads or a saddle with thick panels.
During the saddling process, even when a saddle pad or blanket is pulled up into the gullet, it frequently works down across the withers again, causing bruising and pressure sores over the withers. However, by using a pad contoured or shaped for the withers rather than a pad of the flat square style, you can avoid this problem. Another choice is the cut-back pad. These come with a slot cut in them to circumvent pressure across the withers. When using these pads, be sure that the edges of the slot do not cause soreness along either side of the withers.
If you ride English, you might want to purchase a cut-back saddle designed to protect high withers. In spite of this, if the horse has average to long withers, the tree of the cut-back saddle can still contact the withers. When considering such a saddle, check at least four inches or more behind the pommel to determine if the saddle actually clears the withers.
Long withers–It’s not always the rise of the withers that creates a saddle fitting problem. Often encountered in Thoroughbreds, Tennessee Walkers, and Saddlebreds, long withers can lead to hidden pressure points that require an actual hand search to locate. You need to reach down through the gullet as far as you can to check that the saddle gullet clears the base of the withers. If you can’t reach far enough back with your hand, use a riding crop. There should be enough room to move the crop around easily.
You can also check saddle fit at the withers by reading the saddle pad as well as the horse’s hide. If there is contact between the saddle and withers, there will be dark or worn spots near the midline of the pad. Physical indications of a current problem are damaged hairs or a hairless spot on the withers. White hairs or a scarred area reveals a past injury from an ill-fitting saddle.
The solution here is to boost the gullet of the saddle up off of the withers and spine. You can do this by either using a saddle with thick panels so that the gullet can clear the base of the withers, or using a thick pad that is thin in the middle or is made with its own gullet.
Wide-muscled withers–Wide-muscled withers can be found in any breed and in any back shape. Although the withers might be of adequate height, saddle fit becomes a problem when the spinalis thoracis muscle (which lies under the trapezius muscle) is appreciably large. The saddle’s gullet, if not wide enough, will not put the panel or bars far enough apart at the front of the saddle, resulting in pressure over this muscle. As continued pressure sores the muscles, the horse becomes reluctant to turn in tight circles and will be unwilling to lift his back, notes Harman. You might notice after a ride that the horse’s back has dropped or swayed a little. In the course of time, the horse’s back sways even more.
Performing belly lifts can increase abdominal muscle tone and stretch the horse’s back muscles, advises Harman. When a belly lift is executed, you’ll notice that the horse’s back will rise and the withers flatten, thus improving saddle fit. In her book The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle Fit Book, Harman explains that with a regular exercise program using belly lifts, you can re-establish muscle tone in the horse’s abdomen and alleviate this problem. For more information on the belly lift, see “Belly Lift Exercises for Horses” on page 89.
Other ways to contend with the problem are to replace the saddle with one of a better fit. However, it might take a lengthy search. Look for a saddle with plenty of flare at the front of the bars to avoid contact by the leading point of the bar. You might be able to find a saddle with an extra-wide gullet in the front two-thirds of the saddle that will clear the muscle.
Flat withers–A vast, round back often accompanies the minimally withered horse’s conformation. Quarter Horses, Morgans, and pony breeds are commonly seen with this build, as well as Friesians, draft crosses, and mules. However, overweight horses of any breed can develop enough fat across the back and withers to exhibit this trait.
Tracking down a saddle to fit this type of conformation can be a real challenge since the saddle’s tree must be wide in addition to flaring out at the withers. It is easier to find a Western saddle with a wide tree than an English saddle made thusly. The good news is some of the lower-priced brands of saddles tend to stock a better selection of the wider models.
As you would expect, the wide-backed, flat-withered body type allows the saddle to slip to one side or the other if the rider’s weight isn’t distributed evenly at all times. Furthermore, mounting can be especially difficult. Some riders attempt to prevent the saddle from slipping by over-tightening the girth, although this only accomplishes discomfort for the horse and does not improve stability. If you will be riding in steep country, accustom your horse to a breast collar to keep the saddle from sliding back, and a breeching or crupper to keep the saddle from sliding forward up over the shoulder. A breast collar and breeching will also keep the saddle from slipping too far to one side or the other should your weight become unbalanced in the stirrups.
The mounting problem can be lessened by using a mounting block, having someone weight the off stirrup while you mount, or by the use of a Saddle Stabilizer. The Stabilizer is a strap that is attached to the saddle and anchors around the horse’s off front leg. However, you must remove the Saddle Stabilizer while riding.
Avoid using thick pads on these horses since they will in effect narrow the tree fit, creating pressure on the withers and reducing saddle stability. To improve stability, use a thin natural wool fleece or wool felt pad. If used exclusively on one horse, wool felt has the added advantage of molding to the horse’s back, which in turn further improves the stability of the saddle.
Single-thickness synthetic fleece pads won’t interfere with saddle fit and are durable. However they won’t grip as well as natural wool. Your local tack shop might have other light pads made of non-slip material that will equally improve saddle stability.
If the Saddle Fits
Pay attention to your horse’s behavior. The first hint that you have achieved the correct saddle fit might be a happier horse that no longer shows objection to being saddled. After you’ve climbed aboard, you will notice a more relaxed and willing mount beneath you.
However, once you are satisfied with the fit of your saddle, your duty doesn’t end there. Bear in mind that saddle fit is a never-ending task, and you must continue to check the fit of the saddle.
Even with careful attention to correct saddle fit, your horse can experience discomfort. Have you ever hiked into the forest or foothills with a pack on your back? You might have experienced sore muscles as well as blisters and chafing until your skin toughened and your muscles became fit. Likewise, if your horse hasn’t been ridden regularly, allow some time for your horse’s back to become saddle fit.
Sellnow, Les. The Right Saddle for the Job. The Horse, April 2003, 45-53. www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=4285.
Sellnow, Les. Saddle Fit. The Horse, May 1998, 29-36. www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=492.
Thomas, Heather Smith. Saddle Sore Spots. The Horse, April 2004, 109-116. www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=5107.
West, Christy. AAEP Convention 2004: Evaluating Saddle Fit. The Horse AAEP Wrap-Up, March 2005, 46-48. www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=5393.
BELLY LIFT EXERCISES FOR HORSES: Horse Sit-Ups
Belly lifts are great for increasing abdominal muscle tone and stretching back muscles in the horse, and they are much like a person doing sit-ups.
When a horse is properly doing a belly lift, “His stomach muscles will contract, his back muscles will relax and soften, his back will rise, and his neck will drop and stretch forward,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS. “Look at the area right behind the withers for the most obvious change in his topline.” This area can raise as much as one to three inches, depending on how strong your horse’s back muscles are.
To get your horse to do a belly lift, “tickle” your horse at the ventral sternum (near where the girth lies) on the midline. Apply firm pressure with your fingertips or fingernails, or scratch lightly back and forth until the horse elevates his withers, says Kevin Haussler, DVM, PhD, DC. Hold the position for five to 10 seconds. For a second belly lift, stand to the side of your horse’s back leg or thigh. Scratch with both hands in the muscular groove about four inches to the side of the tail. Apply pressure with your fingers until the back lifts. Hold pressure for 20 to 30 seconds.
If your horse kicks, bites, swishes his tail, or stomps his foot when asked to do a belly lift, Harman says he could be in pain and might need veterinary treatment.
If your horse is pain-free, but disagreeable, Harman suggests offering him a treat every time he does a belly lift. If your horse accepts the workout, make it a regular part of his routine by doing a few belly lifts every day.–Marcella M. Reca