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WHAT IS BALANCE? : Balance is related to tree width. Too high in the front means tree is too narrow. Too low in front means tree is too wide.

WHAT IS TREE WIDTH?: The saddle is wide enough at the gullet for the shoulder to rotate underneath without inhibiting movement. Similar to angle but serves different purpose. In western saddles, it is commonly referred to as Quarter horse bars, semi-Quarter horse bars, or narrow bars. Each company can be different, but the width is measured by the gullet. This is good, but don’t forget about the angle. Width and angle go hand in hand! Angle comes in later in the series.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?: If it is not balanced in the front and is too low, it can be pinching your horses shoulders, which restricts movement and can cause a horse to not want to go forward. It could potentially put a rider off balance and cause them to go into a chair seat, which in turn puts too much weight on the back of the saddle support area (and uncomfortable for rider). If it is too low in the back, it puts pressure (again, on the back of the saddle support area) and can cause a horse to not be able to engage his hindquarters, not being able to collect properly.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The lowest part of the seat to be in the middle of the horses back.


WHAT IS TOP & SIDE WITHER CLEARANCE?: Wither clearance is the space between the horse and the saddle that is in the wither area. [see picture with yellow outlined area)

[TOP]: Thoracic vertebrae extend above the shoulder blade and have no cushion around them. You do not want any pressure on those bones, it can cause a horse serious pain. Do you like pressure on your ankle bone?
[SIDE]: There are reflex points on the shoulders/side of withers. Trapezius muscle and cranial nerve 11 are in this area. If there is a pressure point here, it can cause the horse to hollow his back, raise his head and deactivates the front end. This is the area that a stallion will bite a mare in preparation to breed. If you pinch a horse here, it will most likely hollow his back with just a small amount of pressure. So why let a saddle and riders weight here? It can be detrimental to a horses longevity.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2 - 3 fingers on the top and side. “Mutton” withered horses will have a higher clearance, and higher withers will have less clearance. NO TOUCHING THE THORACIC VERTEBRAE



WHAT IS GULLET CHANNEL WIDTH? : Channel in between bars/tree. MUST be wide enough for the entire spinal ligament (most horses are 3-4 fingers wide).

WHY: Gullet channel is so important because of the bone, ligaments and nerve endings in the spinal ligament/spine. If there is pressure/weight there, the horse cannot bend properly.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 3-4 fingers (or depending on what your horse needs, please ask a vet or the right saddle fitter to tell you how wide your horse is), must extend the whole way through the saddle. English saddles – some tend to narrow at the back which is not good. No horse is 2 fingers wide.


WHAT IS FULL PANEL CONTACT? : The panel/tree should have even contact through the horse’s saddle support area.  Some may come up in the back to account for the horses back lifting when he engages his hindquarters.

WHY ITS IMPORTANT: Not having full contact can be detrimental to the horses overall back health. Do you know the term BRIDGING? This means there is only contact in the front and back of the panel/tree, leaving no weight in the middle. The bay gelding in picture below has a more "normal" back, so the chance of bridging lessens (but does not completely go away!!), compared to the sorrel horse. The red x's indicate where pressure points could develop on this horse, due to his back shape. 

Bridging can cause a lot of the same problems as uneven balance, improper wither clearance. There will be too much pressure on the shoulder – restricting movement, can chip away the cartilage at the top of the shoulder over time. It will also put too much pressure on the lumbar vertebrae, causing a horse to hollow his back, raise his head and not be able to engage his hindquarters/circle of muscles. (See  first 2 pictures, courtesy of Recognizing a Horse In Pain and What You Can Do About It)

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: This you can "look" at the horse's back shape first, then see what the saddle looks like as far as shape. However, it comes to more of a "feel" thing. Run your hand underneath the tree (NO PAD, horse needs to be standing square and straight), and feel for uneven, or even contact. A lot of times you will feel a gap in the middle of the horse's back. That is bridging. You can also get too much "rocking", which is where there is not enough contact in the front or back of the saddle.

Full Panel contact is so important!! It can be tricky to get a feel for, but hopefully this helps someone figure out what their horse needs/wants!