You read that correctly.
In my practice as a Certified Equine Ergonomist, 99% of horses evaluated are in saddles at least two sizes too wide. As a result, there is pressure on the wither and thoracic trapezius muscles, creating muscle atrophy from lack of mobility. Eventually, this creates “shoulder holes” causing the saddle to fall further onto the body and block shoulder movement, perpetuating the problem.
Sorry, but it’s true. Modern horses are bred and ridden a little differently than 50 or 100 years ago. Unfortunately, saddle trees remain largely unchanged over time. There is a drive toward modernization among a number of brands, and yet the every day horse owner assumes their horse is wide and thus needs a wide saddle.
Misconception #1: My Horse Has Big Shoulders and Needs a Wide Saddle
It’s all about the angles, baby.
Horses with big bodies and muscular conformations don’t necessarily require a wide saddle. Case in point there is a Clydesdale locally that is in a limited work program. He is ridden and does not pull carts. More, he is mature, bordering on senior. All these characteristics combine to make for a narrow horse for his body type. The fit of the saddle is largely related to muscle. As my mentor, Jochen Schleese, once told me, “A horse’s muscle angle becomes flatter as they strengthen and flatten as they are out of work.”
For a visual example, click HERE.
What does this mean? This means that a horse can have large shoulders but lack muscle tone. The gullet of the saddle needs to clear the wither and thoracic trapezius muscles, but it is the angle of the tree and front shoulder panels that signify how easily the shoulder can slide through underneath the saddle and extend forward. The wider the saddle tree, the flatter the angle of the bars. When a horse is ridden in a saddle that is too wide at the shoulder, it fits too narrowly at the top and blocks the shoulder from moving up and back correctly to extend the leg. This creates a short-stride and accompanying muscle atrophy which makes for a steeper angle. It is a self-perpetuating circle. With a pinched shoulder, mobility is constrained and the horse is never able to build muscle to be able to fit correctly in the wider saddle.
Misconception #2: The gullet width is the same as the tree bar.
The gullet is the front of the tree. Have you heard of saddles with adjustable gullet bars? These affect how the saddle fits at the wither and shoulder in front, but not the tree of the saddle. These are two separate parts. The tree is the stabilizing area of the saddle that distributes the weight of the rider evenly. Often, these measurements do match, but don’t take it for granted because many saddle brands have gullet sizes associated with tree widths. In Western disciplines, most (but not all) Semi Quarter Horse Bar Saddles will have 6.75 inch gullets.
Gullet Size (Generally In Inches)
- Arabian Bar 6-6.5 inch
- Regular Tree 6.5 inch
- Semi Quarter Horse Bar (SQHB) 6.75 inch
- Full Quarter Horse Bar (FQHB) 7 inch
Gullet Size (Generally In Inches)
- Narrow 6”
- Medium or Average 6.5”
- Wide 7”
- Extra Wide 8”
There are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. For example, Dakota saddles, which are popular in Barrel racing only sell SQHB and FQHB. Yet, I have come across several stamped SQHB that actually measure 6.5 inches at the gullet and fit narrower horses well. On paper the fit wouldn’t be good, yet in actuality it does! This is just one of the reasons so many horse owners struggle with saddle fit.
Misconception #3: My saddle measures 8 inches in the gullet or I measured “Dot to Dot”
When viewing sales photos in Facebook groups, often sellers will include a ruler to measure the width of the gullet. This is a great practice because this fit is incredibly important. However, most sellers measure incorrectly, too low and buyers end up with a saddle that does not fit their horse. The trouble is most people do not understand where they should measure. Today I saw a post for a 9 inch gullet!
The measurement should be from where the tree points end on the inside, where they contact the horse. Thinline Canada has a great explanatory article here for detailed information.
In an English saddle the tree point is usually a few inches below the “dots”. Looking at the front of your saddle, bend the panels into the center. Where does the panel crease? That is the tree point. Measure there where it contacts the horse to find your gullet width.
In a Western saddle, the tree is marked by the conchos on either side. Measure from concho to concho on the INSIDE of the contact area.
I hope addressing these misconceptions have helped you, and more importantly, your horse. When in doubt, or if you have a question about saddle fit, please contact a local ergonomist or independent saddle fit evaluator. Often, but not always, brand representatives are familiar only with how THEIR saddles fit. More, they want to sell you a saddle. An independent evaluator is completely neutral and cares only for the horse’s health.
Visit our Saddle Fit Evaluations page to learn more.