In reading some of the thread on trail riding, I have noted a desire to better train and prepare horses for the trail. Thought I might add a little knowledge that may help. This will probably be a long post, so I'll break it up and add to the thread from time to time.
We often see horses trained for reigning, western pleasure, and other disciplines in the show ring, doing moves like spins, sliding stops, roll-backs, etc. While these are beautiful to watch, when done well, for trail riders they seem to have little application to anything in the real world. Well, not so fast! Let's take a look at some things.
Have you ever been out on a narrow, steep trail and run into a wash-out with three horses behind you? Wouldn't it be great if the horses behind you, as well as your horse, could perform a pivot around the hind quarters or do a roll-back move to turn around? If they could, they could turn around and go back the way they came in as little as one foot width of the trail. How many times have we seen folks on the trail who had to ride clear off the trail to turn a horse around?
How about this? Last week I walked a horse over a large log (training him to walk over logs, rather than jump). After crossing the log, I found we were heading right into a large briar patch. Briars hurt horses, just like us. Couldn't go forward, couldn't back up over the log. No room for a roll-back. I had him pivot around the fore (move his back end around with his front staying put) and was able to walk forward back over the log.
How about a side-pass? Cool move! Ever try to open a gate from a horse? That's where it came from. Cowboys didn't want to get off the horse to open gates, so they sidled the horse up to the gate, reached down to undo the latch, then side-passed to open the gate. They then either backed or moved the horse forward around the gate to the other side (ever wonder why you have to back an L-shape in Trail Class?) and side-pass again to shut the gate. How about getting your horse to move sideways up to a stump or rock to help you on or off?
And those great sliding stops! Ever wonder how they teach a horse to do that? Simple, from a walk, give the command to stop (Ho!), firmly. Within one-half second, sit firmly in the seat and put pressure in your stirrups as if bracing against the stop. Sitting firmly in the seat and bracing for the stop causes you to lean back a little. That is about all the rein pull you should need. If the horse takes one more step, continue to pull on the reins and increase firm pressure until the horse takes one step backwards, then immediately release all pressure and sit normally. Then praise the horse with a good neck rub. He/she will soon learn that if he/she takes one more step after the command is given, he/she will have to back up a step. This progresses to a faster stop. As the horse stops taking that extra step, immediate release of all pressure and a good neck rub is the reward. When you are satisfied, move to practicing from a trot. When you are satisfied, move to a canter. You will soon find the horse pulling his/her rump under themself and sliding to a stop. Remember to sit firmly and brace in your stirrups or you'll go over the handlebars!
So, you are riding along and you get your shirt hung on a branch. Well, you see where I'm going. One more step might have you off in the dirt.
Good training results in good, safe horses on the trail or anywhere.
I have been handling horses for more than 40 years. Much of my joy in life comes from horse packing and trail riding. I have often come across a couple simple mistakes many folks make with regard to saddling a horse for the trail.
Let me just make a narrative out of this. Firstly, a saddle should fit a horse as well as the rider. Some folks want you to believe there is a whole science dedicated to the fit of saddle to horse. When it comes to English saddles and Aussie saddles, there is something to fitting, but with Western saddles, which most of us use on the trail, things are pretty simple.
In general, when it comes to saddles, horses come in three sizes, small, medium, and large. That is normally expressed in gullet width. You have full-quarter horse bars, regular quarter horse bars, and semi-quarter bars. This generally means that the bars of the saddle are at about 92-93, 90-91, and 88-89 degrees, or thereabouts, from each other, respectively, depending on the tree manufacturer. I tell you that, so you know what they are talking about. For practical application, though, it is as simple as this: Without a blanket or pad, does the saddle sit pretty level on the horse's back? When you look under the gullet, is there about 2" of space between the horse's withers and the underside of the gullet (that's the part under the horn)? Are the rear of the skirts digging into the horse's flank? If the answers are "YES, YES, NO" the saddle fits. If the saddle is within one inch of the gullet hitting the withers, it will likely be very uncomfortable on the horse after more than a short ride. He/she needs a narrower saddle. If the gullet sits more than 2 inches above the withers, the saddle is pinching and will be uncomfortable on a long ride. Needs a wider saddle. If the skirts are hitting the horse's hip bone, the skirts are too long. Arabs and Arab crosses have short backs, as do some Paso Finos. They need shorter saddles. Of course there are individual horses that fall outside these general rules, due to injury or some unusual conformation, but for 99% of the animals out there, that's all there is to it.
You will sometimes hear of saddles for gaited horses. That normally means they have a semi-quarter bars and might have bars that are slightly twisted to accommodate a flatter back than the average QH. For the most part, though it's mostly a selling point and isn't a real issue. Contrary to popular belief, nobody makes a saddle tree to fit an individual horse. Even if you send in measurements or a back casting of the horse, the tree maker will just use those measurements to tell them which of their stock trees will best fit that particular horse. I guarantee that anybody who tells you differently is selling a very expensive tree.
Now for saddle pads. I often see folks with these thick, plush, fuzzy, pillow-like saddle pads. They think that since the rider certainly likes a soft chair, they are doing the horse a favor. Those type of saddle pads are like fishing lures. They catch more fishermen than fish. The best type of saddle pad is a simple 3/4 inch thick mohair pad, or wool pad, with a canvas or indian blanket top cover. The top cover protects and preserves the pad, not the horse. Thicker pads tend to make good-fitting saddles fit poorly and cause more problems than they cure. They also require the saddle to be cinched up too tightly, so as to keep the saddle from sliding around. Some folks who have been riding the range for years use nothing more than a wool blanket folded double. Forget the gimmick pads and save your money for a nice saddle. Keep the horse-side of your saddle pad clean. A horse can feel any little piece of grass or dirt against his/her hide.
Lastly, for this post, I often see folks cinching up way too tight. Strangely, the worst offenders seem to be women. I think maybe they are concerned about their weakness, but don't realize how that double turn of the latigo through the rigging and cinch ring multiplies their strength, like a block-and-tackle. Now this advice depends a lot on what you are going to be doing on your ride, but keep reading. If you have a decent saddle pad, as I described above, your cinch is tight enough when it is snug and you can easily slide two fingers, perpendicular to the cinch (not flat against the horse), between the cinch and the horse's ribs. Once you are mounted and have ridden a bit, you will probably find the cinch has loosened a bit. As long as the saddle is staying in place, no worries!
Here's how to properly saddle your mount. Always brush the horse first, to remove any debris or dirt where the saddle and cinch go. Lay the pad into place. Pat the pad and feel with your hand where the pocket in the horse's shoulder is, below and aft of the withers. Make sure you pad is far enough forward to allow about 2 inches in front of the front of the saddle's bars. Lift the saddle into place a little forward on the withers (not ahead of the pad) and give it a couple or three good shakes side to side. That will settle it right into place where it should be. Now check that the pad and saddle are centered sid-to-side on the horse and check the cinch again for dirt and debris (you should have checked it once before lifting the saddle into place) and pass it under the horse. While leaving the cinch loose, pass the latigo through the cinch ring, back up through the saddle rigging, and back down through the cinch ring.
Again, do this while leaving the cinch loose. If the horse is going to react to the cinch, he will normaly do so when it first starts to tighten on his belly. If you don't have those double wraps through the cinch ring, the saddle will go flying and your horse learns a new trick. Once you have the double wrap through the cinch ring, don't waste time. Snug up the cinch. Once it is snug, even if the horse takes off, the saddle will stay in place until you bring him/her under control. Now just let the latigo hang there while you bridle and finish prepping the horse. Just before you mount, give the latigo one more tug and tie it off. The cinch should be just tight enough that you can mount without the saddle sliding completely to the side. If the cinch is properly snugged and you mount properly, the saddle will probably slip a little to the left side. Don't worry about it. Just step hard in the right stirrup and give the saddle a little tug to straighten it. That's it. I have ridden many a mile on mountain trails with the cinch so loose my buddies could see air between it and the horse's belly when she stepped. Then again, she had good withers. I had another horse, a mustang, that was so round I had to ride with a butt strap and breast strap to keep the saddle from sliding up on his neck when going downhill! His cinch was a little tighter. Still, the cinch should be no tighter than necessary to keep the saddle in place. Cinching too tightly makes a horse "cinchy" and often leads to a horse that "bloats" or will not stand still to be saddled.
Now, I wouldn't recommend roping or cutting with a saddle cinched up like mine, but for trail riding it's all you need.
I WISH western saddle fitting was as easy as picking one of 3 different gullet widths for your horse.
Gullet width is only one tiny detail. What about flare and rock for instance? And rigging.
I have had saddles that seem to fit in the tree and the horse gets white hairs from the rigging. OR, the gullet seems like a decent fit but the saddle is too flat for the horse's back and pokes the shoulders or rubs the loins. Or the saddle saddle has too much rock and travels forward on the horse (yup, I've had that happen too).
I still think that the VAST majority of riders have no clue how well their saddle fits their horse because they only ride for an hour or two at a time, once or twice a week. On a schedule like that, you can get away with a less-than-perfect fit.
For someone like me, who rides 3-5 hours a day in the summer and weighs about 200 lbs, if your saddle doesn't fit, it readily becomes apparent. And actually I don't think rider weight has a lot to do with it because I have a friend who is probably 60 lbs lighter than me and she still has problems with saddle fit and white marks. Although I'm sure the horses would prefer I lost some weight.
I have tried really, REALLY hard to get a saddle to fit my main riding horse, a BLM Mustang who is broad but also has a little dish to his back. I must have gone through 10 saddles. Some were obviously a no-go, but others looked like a good fit until he started getting some tale-tell roaning from pressure points. The good news is, when I switched saddles right away the roaning would disappear with the next season's coat change. And I would try a new saddle again and again. Finally I found one I can ride for 5+ hours and will not give him white hairs. Yay!
One of the problems is lack of consistency in saddle trees. Not that we want them all consistent, because horses are all different shapes. I think what we really need is tree and saddle manufactures to step up to the plate and do a better job giving the customer a clue as to what shape of horse the saddle will fit. A term like FQHB means nothing if one is made for a flat-backed horse and another has more rocker for a horse with a little more dish to their back. One has a 6 3/4 inch gullet, another 7," etc. I mean, if they can just say "wide and flat," or "medium width with a little rock" that would mean a lot more than a term like "FQHB" which really only gives us a guess on the gullet and bar angle.
So that's my opinion on saddle fit. A lot of folks think it is simple. Which it can be if you don't ride much. But if you DO, I don't think breaking it down into gullet widths really means much. Sure it helps, but it us just the very first step in seeing if the saddle might work. You really don't know how a saddle fits until you rack up some miles on it.
It's kind of like shoes. Your shoe size, like the gullet width, is just the first step in picking out a shoe. It gives you a place to start. But I bet there are a whole lot of shoes out there in your size that are NOT a good fit for you. And you might not realize how bad the fit is until you wear those shoes all day long. Almost any shoe in your size will fit for an hour or so. But if you had to walk all day, you will realize a lot of those shoes are not a great fit. Some will give you blisters or be too tight in certain places. That's how I see saddle fit. Gullet size is only a place to start.
And don't even get me started on how the saddle fits the RIDER. Some saddles let you find your natural balance point (yay!), some cram you into the cantle and won't let you lean forward, some seats are narrow, some are wide, some feel like sitting on a fence rail.
I mean, there are so many dynamics to saddle fit it's mind boggling!
Here is a link I saved that someone else was kind enough to post on this forum. THE SADDLE
There are even MORE factors to saddle fit that I ever imagined on this website.
Well, I won't argue with you, but the example you cite is one of those cases with unusual conformation. A horse's back will change from year to year, and even change somewhat from morning to evening on a long ride, so if you're looking for an exact fit, you are going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time changing saddles. The average cowboy, who rides long hours most days, may have at most two good saddles. One with a wide gullet and one with a narrow gullet. He will select the one he needs depending on the horse he will be riding that day.
I always thought it was telling that you don't see much talk about saddle fit with regard to pack saddles. In fact, many antique pack saddle bars were simply boards with the hard edges rounded off. Nowadays we have pack saddles with horse bars, mule bars, and even adjustable bars, selling for many hundreds of dollars. Sort of ironic...space-age pack saddles.
Dusty Johnson, Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop, who has been making custom saddles for probably 40 years, will flat out tell you that all the hype about saddle fit is myth. I'm not quite as far into his camp as that, but close. In my opinion there are some general rules, like gullet width, length, and cinch placement, but there is no science to it. If it looks right, it probably is. If something looks wrong, it probably is.
One thing I have noticed over the years is that antique saddles tend to have narrow gullets. My 1947 Hamley doesn't fit a young Quarter Horse very well, unless he/she has narrow shoulders and high withers. However it fits great on a 20 year-old QH gelding I often ride, now that his musculature has thinned down and his withers are more prominent. The saddle that used to fit him now rides down to touch his withers. Modern horses seem to have wider, stronger builds than earlier breeds.
Now, with regard to fitting the rider, I will happily admit that there are saddles, and then there are saddles. The first time I ever sat in my Hamley, I knew my backside had found a home. The difference in rider comfort between a cheap saddle and a properly fitted custom saddle is amazing, particularly over a long ride. However, until I build my own, I'll never have a nice custom saddle. They're simply too expensive. I inherited the Hamley. It just happens to fit me.
Saddle fit is like discussing politics. Everybody has an opinion, they're all valid, and there will never be consensus.
By the way, I have been looking for a horse forum with real horse folks on it. Glad I found this one. It's great to discuss things with folks like yourself, who really know horses.
Saddle fit comments: I think it is fairly easy to tell if a western saddle fits good enough for most riding. Put it on the horse and see if it has even contact with the horse's back, clears with wither with weight in the saddle and doesn't go too far back. For most people who ride, including me, that is enough. If the pressure is even (and it can be a bit hard to tell in the middle of the saddle) and the saddle doesn't hit/rub anywhere, it will probably be OK.
Buying a western saddle sight unseen is a whole different ballgame. Steele makes trees for a number of saddle makers, and they have 9 basic forms they use. You can contact them and they will send you the forms so you can put it on the horse's back and see quite easily how close it matches. But there is no standard across the industry, and it certainly is a gamble to think an Arabian saddle will fit an Arabian horse!
I am a firm believer in space age saddles. There weren't a lot of 25+ year old horses being ridden regularly in the early 1900s. My goal is to be able to ride mine until they are 30. That would put me in my mid-70s & might be a good time for me to think about quitting...I doubt I have it in me to be ready to ride at 80+. I'm guessing my mare might calm down a bit when she passes 25. Maybe.
Truth in advertising note: I mostly ride an Aussie-style saddle. The Circle Y Arabian saddle fits two of my horses OK, but it is the only western saddle I owned (until yesterday...got an Abetta that might actually fit our little mustang on his weekly rides) and the females in my family monopolize the western saddle. I also just really like how the Aussie-style rides. The lack of water around here plus the rockiness of the ground keep my rides down to about 3 hours max...doesn't seem fair to the horses to push them further without shoeing them or trailering them.
J - Semi-Quarter Horse (Semi)/Arabian (Arab) - Steeper front and rear rafter angle and closer-spaced bars relative to Standard Quarter Horse fit when positioned at standard spread. In addition, sufficient bow (rocker) enables this fit to conform well to the short Arabian back having a narrow wither dropping off quickly to the shoulder.
D - Standard Quarter Horse (SQ) - Approximate 92º front rafter angle. Good front flare, bow and upturned tails to avoid bridging and bar edge pressure points.
TF - Full Quarter Spread (FQ) - Same bow (rocker) and wind (twist) as 'D' fit with an additional 1/2” front spread ('GW+1/2' or '+1/2') than standard.
NE - Straight-Back Quarter (SBQ) - Similar flare and rafter angle to the 'D' fit with much less bow. Developed for straighter backed, well collected horses. Also works well for mules that require a flatter front rafter than the 'SE'.
SE - Mule (Mule) - Reduced bow and steeper front rafter angle to conform to the distinctive mule back. Helps prevent the back of the saddle rocking up when cinched, which creates tremendous pressure under the stirrup leather when the rider's weight pushes it back down.
HA - Draft Horse (DH) - Approximate 105º front rafter angle. Flatter rear rafter also and less bow for broad, flat backs with little dip.
LT - Gaited Horse (GT) - Steeper rear rafter angle, additional front flare and more bow relative to the 'D' fit.
PW - Walking Horse (WH) - Similar to LT with steeper front rafter angle.
AW- Full Wither (FW)/Arabian (Arab) - Flared out front and rear to allow for full or mutton wither with no pockets. The resulting bow enables this fit to conform well to the short Arabian back having wide withers rounding out into the shoulder. The AW has also been found to work for more dipped-back draft horses.
X- (Fit Form not yet available) Performance Quarter (PQ) - Flatter front and rear rafter angle and less convex front bar pads allow for the broad wither and well-developed shoulder muscles of the highly trained, daily ridden working quarter horse. A more open waist facilitates collecting and core development.
Heavens I hope I didn't come off as argumentative, because I didn't mean it to sound that way.
It was more like "if you think you can fit any horse based on a simple tree size of semi-QH, QH and FQHB I'm got a bridge to sell you."
Haven't you guys ever bought a saddle and rode in it a few times and thought it fit well, only to take it out on a longer ride and find a swelling or other problem spot on the horse? I sure have.
I think back in the old days, people had to make due with what they had. They couldn't afford to keep buying and selling saddles all the time. So the horse had to wear the saddle the owner had. I'm sure white marks from poor fit were much more common than they are today. Maybe I worry about things too much (and I admit I DO) but the second I start seeing a swollen spot or some roaning coming from the saddle fit I panic and do my best to fix the problem. So yeah, I would feel guilty if I gave my horses saddle marks. I'm a girl, I don't want to "hurt" them if I can help it.
BSMS, thank you for the info on the Steele trees. I should really print that info out.
The three saddles I love the dearest all have Steele trees. I think they must take exceptional care with flare and curved bar tips. Those trees don't dig into my horses like other trees have. Unfortunately I have never seen/used their forms in real life. But in an ideal world, a person could try the forms on their horse before ordering a saddle.
I read the info on the Steele web site. They make some pretty good points about the changes in horses over the years. I have handled Quarter Horses, Arabs, and mustangs. Haven't had much use for anything else for trail and packing. I'd like to give a walker a try one of these days. I can see where a tree built for a walker would be worthwhile. They have a very different back than a QH. Looks kind of funny to me after so many years with QHs.
Still, for most of the horse world, folks can't afford a custom-built saddle. Most folks with their first horse buy a saddle and have no idea what kind of tree it has. Most folks don't have any idea about whether a saddle even comes close to fitting. Much of the technical information that has come out in the last few years about saddle fitting, in my opinion, has confused and scared more people than it has helped. Much of it is simply salesmanship. I think it's great that some folks are extra careful about their saddle fitting the horse. In fact, if you can afford a custom saddle, I think that's the way to go. The problem with being so careful about fitting your horse, though, is that generally you fit him/her once and blow a wad on a saddle, then you ride that saddle for many years on that horse, never stopping to think that what fit him/her 7 or 8 years ago, doesn't fit him/her now any better than if it were just a cheap off the shelf saddle (think about how your own body has changed over the past few years). In fact, what fit him/her last summer, probably won't fit as well this winter. Most folks can't afford, or simply won't buy, a new saddle every few years for the same horse, or buy a new rig every time they change horses. They shouldn't be afraid to throw their saddle on a new horse, as long as they pay attention to a few simple things.
I still contend that if one will follow the guidelines I posted, they will be able to fit their horse reasonably well with off-the-shelf saddles, or use their own saddle on a new horse, and with the kind of riding most people do, they and their horse will be fine. Just to make sure nobody misunderstands, I'm talking about western saddles for general riding use, such as trail riding.
Steele mostly makes trees for other people. If you want a saddle from Dakota, for example, you could try their tree forms and then be able to tell Dakota you need an NE or AW or J tree, and Dakota could either tell you which saddles they had in that, or make one for you on the right tree. Big Horn, Crates & Rocking R are some others that use Steele trees.
For the most part, Steele makes 5 trees for non-gaited, non-mule/draft horses. That kind of makes thenrie's point - 5 saddle trees cover the large majority of horses in America. That certainly suggests that there are not 100 variables needed to be addressed by a professional fitter. The book I've got on fitting western saddles is, IMHO, pee-poor because it makes it much harder than it really is.
But it also makes the point that one saddle IS different from the others, and you DO need to take a look at it the first few times you toss the saddle on the horse's back. When you hear a salesman in a tack shop tell someone "All our saddles will fit any horse", he's lying. Or stupid. But the checks you need to make are not normally incredibly complex.
And you can use padding at times. I have an Arabian mare with a broad angle to her shoulders, but the withers themselves are narrow and tall. When I use an Aussie-style saddle, I use one that is too wide horizontally and add padding to make up the difference. That keeps the front of her saddle from falling down on her withers and also creates some artificial flesh around her withers - which makes her a happier horse. You can see the white pad filling in the gap below:
She also went once for 8 months without being ridden. By the time I started riding her again, she had lost muscle and the extra padding helped. After 8 months of regular riding, I could get away with a little less padding.
As a buyer, I would LOVE it if everyone would adopt the Steele forms as a standard, or at least list a description of what the maker is thinking when making the saddle. For example, Steele lists 2 trees as 'Arabian' - one for those with no withers, and one for those with tall withers. If Circle Y or Billy Cook would simply say, "This saddle is designed for a short backed horse with short, broad withers. It has enough rock to prevent bridging on most horses, but a very flat backed horse won't fit it", then I'd have some idea.