Deadline for May issue is April 23
Bridging, Its Definition And Solutions Part Two - Saddle Fitting For The Trail Horse by Anne Fordyce By far, the most common problem with saddle fitting, besides wrong tree widths, is bridging. It is conformation related, and can lead to pain for your horse and an uncomfortable ride for you. Saddle trees should be load bearing down the length of the tree, nose to tail. This disperses the weight of the rider down the greatest area. Bridging describes when the saddle is only carrying the rider's weight at the front and rear of the tree. As the word indicates, the tree is forming a bridge on the horses back, like a small bridge would only touch either side of a creek, with nothing in between. Bridging occurs when there is more dip in a horse's back than the curve of a tree can accommodate. Dips in a horse's back can be from conformation defects, age, or lack of conditioning. A tree that is too narrow for a horse can cause the saddle to bridge. A short backed horse can experience bridging as the back of the tree sits on his loins and not on his back. A horse with a hip that is higher than his withers can have a saddle bridging problem. The too narrow tree is an easy fix. A wider tree allows the saddle to sit down on the horse's shoulders and the rear is flat enough to bring the saddle into contact with the horse's back. Symptoms of the tree that is too narrow include a saddle that sits perched up in front, with the horn appearing uphill. Others include a saddle that will not stay on the horse, no matter how tight you get the girth. You are constantly shifting your weight out on the trail to straighten up the saddle. The saddle will also travel backwards, even with a breast strap, which begins to rub the horse's shoulders. Not only does the horse become sore in the withers, rub marks appear on the back under the cantle, and the horse will be sore to the touch. The weight of the rider is digging in here, as he sits lower because the saddle is higher in the front. Its time to shop for a wider saddle. Don't make the common mistake of adding more pads, thinking you are helping the horse while trying to make do with a too narrow saddle. When you add more pads, you compound the problem, making your horse all the wider, and increasing the pressure. No pad can cure a saddle that is too narrow. If you are starting to see white marks at the withers, you have damaged the hair in this area with a saddle that doesn't fit your horse's back. Don't be quick to blame the saddle maker. No saddle maker can fit every horse. The horse with the dip in his back is a variable that cannot be built into every saddle. These hairs can be a good indication of bridging. Ideally, you would have noticed, when unsaddling your horse, dry areas in the same places these white hairs have appeared. The dry areas indicate pressure. The horse's back should be as uniformly wet under the pad as possible. If you are noticing the dry spots or white hairs, there are usually scrubbing marks in the hair at the back of the saddle, too. Your horse has a dip in his back. If you are unsure, take a clean bed sheet piece, folded under the saddle like a pad on your horse's back. Girth up and lunge him a bit without the rider, and raise a sweat. Then pull it off. The saddle will dirty the sheet where the weight is greatest. If the sheet is clean in any place, there is no contact being made. Bridging will leave the sheet clean in the middle of the saddle area. To correct bridging, in cases other than a tree that is too narrow, there are several different routes to take. If you have purchased your saddle from a manufacturer that has the capability to adjust the fit to match your horse, you can have the saddle altered. The company will need a facsimile of your horse's back, either in a form or patterns that you will do, and some photos of the horse. This will render the saddle specific to this one horse, and would sore other horses for the opposite reasons. If you intend to use the saddle on more than one horse, this customizing will not work. And, if you sell the horse, the saddle should be sold with the horse; the only humane thing to do. Another way to go is to use a pad or shims specifically designed to deal with bridging. The pads will usually have a pocket sewn on with foam pieces in variable thickness which you slide into the pockets, positioning them at the point where your horse's back dips. They can be cut and shaved to make it specific to your horse's back. The shim pads are the same idea, but are used between your pad and the saddle, and are placed in the low places on the back. Both of these solutions make the saddle usable on different horses, and you can keep your saddle with a clear conscious, after selling the horse. It is good to mention to the new owner what you have done to make the saddle fit, so that he doesn't go through the trial and error period that you have experienced. It would be a shame to have the horse acting up because of a poor fitting saddle, with the new owner questioning your honesty. Refer again to the sheet you used to determine the pressure points on the horse's back. You would put the shims at the places where the sheet is CLEAN. Remember, you are filling in the horse's back. Then repeat the process with the corrections. You should see a more uniform sweat pattern on the sheet. If your saddle is bridging because a saddle is too long for the horse's back, you need to be shopping for another saddle. Now, if you are trail riding in an old roping saddle, or other full sized, double skirted saddle, you do need to shop. Trail saddles are designed to be lightweight, and pared down. The trees are lighter weight because they do not need to stand up to the jerk of a calf on a rope, or other such work. They are shorter in length, and often have only one skirt that is no longer than the length of the tree itself. Other western style saddles will have as much as ten extra inches, in the front and at the end of the tree. They can weigh upwards of fifty pounds, where trails saddles are usually less than thirty. A young horse will often be higher in the hip. This will cause bridging, but is temporary. As he matures, he will usually even out to be more level in the back. The pad or shim fix would be the way to go with the young horse. Some breeds have been bred to be high in the hip, like Quarter Horses, and Thoroughbreds. If they wear a saddle that is too long, it will bridge. Hold a ruler at the withers where your saddle would sit and put the other end where your saddle sits in the back. Is there allot of air under it? That's a good indication you will have bridging. Even saddles with a round skirt might be too long for your horse. It will help not to have the skirt down in his flank, but be sure it is not beyond his hip on the back. If you are a tall person, or of size, try to consider where you will sit on a horse before purchasing him. Horses can be too small to carry a saddle in the correct seat size for the rider. English saddles have less of a chance for bridging because they are built on a stuffed panel that is shorter. But, you can ride up hill on them, and the rear can dig in the horse's back if your saddle is too narrow. All the same symptoms are present in the too narrow English style saddle as mentioned above. Bridging can cause, at the least, discomfort for your horse and leave permanent white hairs on his back. Ignoring the symptoms will eventually have your horse behaving badly, resulting in him becoming an unwilling partner on the trail. Take a second look at your saddle for bridging. Next month, part three will examine asymmetry in the horse, its causes and solutions, when considering saddle fit. This is the second article in a series on saddle fitting, specifically for the trail rider. Anne Fordyce is a sales and marketing associate for Tucker Saddlery, Inc in Memphis, TN. Among her responsibilities is the evaluation of fit in saddles manufactured by Tucker Saddlery.
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