Saddle Fit by Doug McRae
Please allow me to start by stating that poor fitting saddles, especially in the barrel racing world today, has become an epidemic. It is difficult to imagine such a large selection of ill fitting products to the masses as not being a federal crime. Let me explain... As the largest piece of equipment that you will place on your horse, your saddle must fit your horse's back and function properly. The main purpose of your saddle is to distribute the weight of the rider evenly down each side of the horse's back, while keeping pressure off of the spine itself. Please remember; the most important ingredient is not how pretty the saddle is tooled or whether the blinging crystals match the rider's belt, or if the saddle seat colors match your new truck. The key ingredient is the twist of the bars under the saddle tree and how well the twist follows the horses back, which determines how well the finished saddle will fit and how comfortable the horse will be, especially while competing at speed. Since traditional saddles use a solid wood bar, it is even more imperative that the twist is correct. Just think if you wore wooden shoes and they were made flat and straight without an arch. No matter how much you widened or narrowed the toe area, they would still be uncomfortable. And no matter how fancy nor how much rubber is in your new socks, it still would not fit well. An excellent way for you to become better at understanding and recognizing proper saddle fit is to look around and analyze each saddle on every horse. I do this all of the time and what I see are three primary types of saddle fit.
The first type is the narrow front end saddles that are pinching into the horses withers. Normally, these saddles sit up quite high with lots of space in the gullet area from top to bottom while having a fairly narrow gullet width (usually 6 1/2" or less). Most of today's experts will call this a three quarter Quarter Horse bar saddle tree. The more proper fitting saddles that you see the better your eye will get for recognizing this fit as a detrimental problem to a horse as it places extreme pressure on the sides of the horses withers causing soreness and white hairs over time as the pressure kills the sweat glands in that area.
The second type is the saddle that appears to sit down well, close to the withers at the front, but when you view the back of the saddle it is sticking up off the horse's back. Most of today's experts will call this a full quarter Quarter Horse bar saddle tree (usually a gullet width of 7" or more). This saddle is headed down hill, which throws the riders weight forward and places pressure primarily on the horse's front end. Since 65% of a horse's weight is from his elbows forward, and most unsoundness is in their front limbs, a forward leaning saddle is hazardous. Here's a little history; our industry has come to use a fairly flat "universal fit" bar that bridges over the horse's middle back and then they adjust the so-called fit through the gullet width. A big short cut that is not advantageous for our performance horses well being.
The third type is easy to spot as you study saddle fit more because it fits a horse's back so well it is obvious. Becoming more and more rare in this world today, but still obvious as you study proper saddle fit. It sits level on the horses back when viewing from the side. It sits down, close to the withers in the front and has nice, even pressure throughout the saddle skirt. Around back it sits down snug without gapping off of the horse's back. This saddle fit allows the rider to ride more properly without sitting too high off the horses back (first type) or being propelled forward (second type). A properly fitting saddle allows the horse to perform to his maximum potential while helping the rider to ride well and not interfere with the horse.
Well, we have the basics of saddle fit to your horses so let's discuss how your saddle must fit you. Most of the horse owners that I see today ride in a seat that is too large. If the distance between swells and the cantle is excessive, you will shift around on your horses back too much, hindering your horse from working to his maximum ability by throwing him off balance. A horse can run and turn much more successfully without you on their back, so make this experience as easy as possible by sitting still, not leaning and by being well balanced in your saddle. This is accomplished much easier when your saddle seat is helping to hold you in. Another key point is a saddle seat that is too big will not have your stirrups hanging properly underneath you. This is much of the blame for a riders legs going behind them and their toes pointing down in the turns and then their legs and feet to swing too far forward when accelerating. Again, throwing their horses stride off balance and not allowing the rider to use their legs correctly.
Here's how to measure for the proper saddle seat size: When sitting comfortably in your saddle, with your feet in the stirrups and the stirrups adjusted properly, you should have half of an inch between the front of your thigh and the saddle swells.
Beware of the gimmick syndrome that has become so prevalent in our world, and especially in barrel racing. And that is the claims that a certain saddle pad can cure the world's saddle fitting problems. Have you had a pair of shoes that hurt your feet? Do you believe that a pair of $200 socks will fix the problem?
Have you ever had someone stick their hands up under your saddle to check for fit? Once their hand is stuck under there the fit changes. Think about someone sticking their hands down into your boots to check for fit. You went from a pair of fairly comfortable boots that now fit tight because of the bulge of someone's hands stuck in them. It is comical the more you think about it. The best way to try a saddle for fit is to find someone who already has the specific saddle you are interested in and ask to ride in it. If possible, make a run or two in the saddle and go through the steps outlined here to check the saddle for proper fit. Use the saddle pad that the saddle was designed to be ridden with. A well designed saddle will be made around a certain type and thickness of saddle pad that maximizes the saddles fit to every horse. Take your time and make a good decision. Remember to breath slowly, think logically and completely aspire to do what is best for your horses in all circumstances.
Additional Notes: At their ranch in the Texas Hill Country, Doug and Marlene McRae saddle and ride many different horses every day giving them the opportunity to truly test and perfect products. They are extremely dedicated to using only the best for their horses and it shows in their success. The Marlene's Special Effx Saddles are truly a testimonial to this dedication for perfection by taking the negatives out of the traditional saddle and replacing them with new, innovating positives that allow the saddle to conform to each horse's back. And to continue to conform as the horse moves and performs without resistance. This is accomplished by replacing the traditional solid, wood saddle tree bars with light weight, closer contact conforming bars made of an advanced polyethylene. Doug explains it as the difference between an old, wooden shoe and a performance running shoe. The top portion of the saddle tree remains rigid so it keeps the riders body from directly contacting the horse's back, protecting the horse from undo trauma and eventual soreness. The Marlene's Special Effx Saddles maintained the original bar twist that was originally designed with the legendary saddle maker, Howard Council, in 1984. The fit has lasted through the test of time.