Thursday, July 6, 2017

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts: Spinal Clearance

*This post is part of a 4 part series on basic principles of saddle fit. Please be aware that there are many other factors often present in saddle fitting for both rider and horse, and it is best to contact a professional to make sure your horse is fitted properly and all factors are taken into consideration. These posts are meant to help the reader develop a basic understanding of saddle fit, and to be able to recognize a situation where a professional saddle fitter needs to be called in. Enjoy!*

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts - Spinal Clearance


There are many factors to be taken into consideration regarding proper saddle fit for the horse. I've narrowed down the broad picture into four basic starting points for evaluating proper fit, and beginning to identify issues. We'll begin with Spinal Clearance.




To many it will be obvious that the saddle can not make contact with the horse's spine, especially the wither. A saddle sitting directly on the spinal column (remember these are bony structures) will cause the horse to be very painful and sore and he may refuse to work or act out with bucking/rearing/bolting as a result of this pain. However, once we have clearance what would "adequate clearance" entail?


I've heard lots of rules of thumb in the past, whether it be 2 fingers, 4 fingers clearance over the wither. Others say, just as long as it's not touching you're fine. What's important to consider is if you evaluate your spinal clearance in the aisle with the horse standing statically, you don't have the added factors like a properly tightened girth, the weight of the rider, or the movement/lift of the horses back to consider. Thus the best way to evaluate will be with a rider mounted and the horse in motion.


To get a general base, I do start in the aisle preferably with no pad and the saddle girthed down. What I'm looking for is room to get my hand down the gullet to the base of the wither (assuming the saddle is placed properly with the tree points either directly behind the scapula for a Stübben, or slightly further back for other models, depending on the manufacturer) which is especially important for a horse with a very long wither. We don't want to have clearance at the pommel and then make contact halfway down the gullet since this will still make the horse sore.


In addition to having clearance over the top of the wither, I also want to make sure I have some room on either side as well. It's difficult to see in the picture above, but I can put two fingers on either side of the wither with room before the panel makes contact (I would call that adequate). What people often forget is that the spinal cord and wither is very mobile in the horse and needs to be allowed to move freely side-to-side. If the saddle is too tight on either side, it will restrict the horse's movement and may appear lame or just unwilling to move out and forward.


Notice, I specifically haven't mentioned an exact measurement over the top of the wither for proper clearance. That is because the necessary amount of clearance will vary from horse to horse. In general, I would like to have at least 3-4 fingers clearance over the top of the wither with the saddle girthed and rider mounted to account for the horse's movement, compression of the flocking, and other factors depending on the individual case. However, if I'm dealing with a downhill or mutton withered horse, the amount of clearance may be higher to allow proper balance of the saddle from pommel to cantle. It may look funny to have a lot of room but we'll talk more about how important the balance of the saddle can be on those horses. Essentially if all the other factors are adequate, you really can't have TOO much clearance, but you definitely can be too close to the spine.





This picture above would be a prime example of a saddle with proper clearance above (I have room for roughly 4 fingers), but not at the sides of the wither (I can't even get one finger next to the side of the wither). I would expect this horse to be restricted in his movements. He may not present as totally sore, but may be less willing to move forward and work than he would in another saddle.



 These two pictures show a horse with a fairly high wither. Over the top of the wither I can get about 3.5 fingers and on either side about 2 fingers clearance. This looks fairly good, but with the addition of the rider's weight, I would recheck and see if we need more.





These pictures show a client of mine who is built very downhill and completely mutton withered. I have lots of clearance in the pommel (as shown by my fist) because I'm trying to achieve proper balance from pommel to cantle as shown in the pictures on the right (proper balance in this dressage saddle should be roughly a 1" drop from cantle to pommel on this saddle, which I'll discuss with more depth in an upcoming post on Balance).


U shaped tree
V shaped tree


Excuse the poor artwork but the pictures above are a rough illustration of two common types of tree shapes shown as a cross section of the horse's wither with the head plate/gullet plate shown on top. The V shaped tree on the left is the most common shape you'll find  in a saddle, while it can fit just fine on the shown horse's cross section we are a bit snug on either side of the wither and do not have even contact through the point. In this situation, it may be necessary to go wider with the tree size and add extra padding or a half pad to offer proper clearance, just to allow freedom of movement.


On the right, I show a rough drawing of the shape of a Stübben tree. You can see that there is more room on the sides of the wither (still keeping clearance over the top) and the tree points are making more even contact with the horse's side for better bearing surface of the tree. In general I prefer this method of fit, though some horses can work fine in V shape tree I tend to find better comfort and results in a U shape instead.


To recap: we don't want the saddle coming into contact with the horse's spine especially on the top and sides of the wither. Adequate clearance may vary from horse to horse depending on his build, but should be reevaluated with the saddle girthed down and rider mounted to ensure proper clearance. When in doubt, call a certified saddle fitter to help evaluate your horse and take other factors into consideration.


Coming soon, Tree Width, Balance/Stability, Bearing Surface, and other notes!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thanks, Eric.




I'd like to share some thoughts about a very dear friend of mine that I cherish greatly, and after his accident last week I've really spent some time thinking about how much he's impacted my life. I first met Eric Dierks at a clinic in Ohio while I was in college. I remember being very nervous for my lesson with him (I'd heard so much about him through the grapevine in Illinois and ridden with nearly every family member of his back home, but never Eric before) and it amazed me at how well organized his thought process was within his training mantra. He broke down his system into bite sized pieces we could all understand, take home, and practice on our own. We spent much of that lesson focusing on the rhythm of the walk, something I'd never really given much thought before and I went back and practiced for months until Eric's next clinic hoping to impress him.

By the second trip he made out, I was absolutely hooked. I spent every moment of the clinics by his side drinking in every word he said and watching all the riders and horses progress in the partnerships under his tutelage. He's always been well spoken, firm but fair, and always on the horse's side to improve the rider's communication. When the third clinic rolled around, I nearly begged Eric to take me on as a working student. He agreed.

During my time as a working student
As soon as I graduated college, I drove back to Illinois to pack up nearly all my belongings into trailer and SUV and made the trek down to North Carolina with my mom to help me get settled. I ended up working at Renovatio Farm with Eric for 7 months and he truly changed my life. Not only did I find the perfect geographic location for me to settle down and make my home like the Chicago suburbs had never felt to me, but I had found someone who could really shape me as a horsewoman.

It wasn't easy. Being a working student means working hours well past sun up to sun down, night checks, pitching in on your days off, catching horses in that random 3 am thunderstorm and sometimes finishing a day where cereal was all you could eat because the idea of standing up to cook was exhausting. Eric took me apart to my basic essentials as a rider and started over, building me back up piece by piece. Am I a upper level professional now? No, but I never expected to be, with a pony cross I was told "couldn't jump" and my own fears and insecurities. What I have become is a much more compassionate rider, able to listen to what my horse is telling me and react in more appropriate ways.



I went from an ok Training level rider, to having some pretty crummy shows at Training level, to leaving Eric's farm to get a real job and having time to let all my education from him sink in and get fully absorbed, to winning our next Training level the following show season on our dressage score (our very first double clear) and eventually completing a Prelim event which I had never even dreamed possible. Eric pushed me to believe in myself, to believe in my horse, and to be able to rely on my own instincts as a rider.

I only have the budget to go lesson with Eric a handful of times a year now, and I try to squeeze every last drop of education I can out of every visit. We had the good fortune of riding with him the day before his water heater explosion accident, and once again he expertly coached Tristan and I around XC schooling at Windridge farm. The weather was perfect, Tristan jumped everything we put in front of him and we all just had a marvelous time together enjoying our four legged friends.



Eric, you have been a life-changing force to me and I can never repay you for how well you shaped me into a fairly respectable horsewoman. I hope you are teaching me lessons until you're at least 120 years old and then you might be able to think about retiring, but definitely not before then. If you really need a vacation, next time just ask, the airlift was a bit overkill. You have the whole equine community of Tryon and beyond rallying for your swift and full recovery. Thank you for all you've done, and I know you've touched many lives beyond mine too.

Thanks, Eric.