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The Western saddle was developed to aid the American cowboy. Almost every part was designed to help catch cows, or make a long ride comfortable, or to keep you in the seat when the going gets rough. This saddle had roots in the deep seated saddles of the Conquistadors. The English saddle was actually developed by the Germans as a lightweight solution for war horses that could move faster and jump higher than the enemy. This was an effective scare tactic used against the enemy footsoldiers and would out-maneuver the heavy armored knights.
Recent history: During the 1950ís and 60ís, horses were usually rather narrow backed and not tall, as compared with the horses of today. In Western markets, the favored horse was the Quarter Horse. This horse was developed for a short quarter mile race, but became a favorite for all occasions. The standard saddle of the day was one that was built on "quarter horse" bars. It fit most Quarter Horses of the day. The bars are the runners that follow the line of the horsesí back and whose angle is determined by the angle that is used on the pommel and cantle where the bars join those parts. Reference to quarter horse bars is actually referring to the angle of the bars on the tree. English saddle fans, this would be your narrow tree.
During the late 60ís and early 70ís, there was a movement to grow bigger horses. With these larger horses came wider backs and the need for the semi-quarter horse bars. Semi-quarter horse bars had less angle than the quarter horse bars and thus fit more of these larger, wider bred animals. The angle chosen was one that sort of split the difference between the QH bars and the wider angle that had been developed to fit Arabian horses. Today, semi-quarter horse bars will fit better than 80% of all Western horses. English saddle fans, this would be your medium tree. These QH bars and Semi-QH bars are available on different gullet widths. The most used standard is a gullet width of 6.5". Custom saddles can be made with other widths of gullet. The gullet width is the measurement across the width of the opening under the pommel. It is measured before the skirting and fleece is attached. If you are measuring your saddle, press hard into the fleece to get a more accurate measurement. Fleece will compact, but the leather of the skirting will not. If you are handy, you can detach, then raise or lower the skirt's attachment to the tree for some adjustment in gullet width. If you are not handy, take your saddle to an experienced saddler for adjustment. This is great to know if you just changed horses and if a small adjustment will let you continue to use your present saddle. English fans, you can have your saddles adjusted too. Often, the stuffing in the bottom of the saddle can be added to, or taken out, to adjust for your horse. With the English saddle, you can adjust the stuffing anywhere in the bottom. This allows you to "lift" the fit as needed, front or rear!
Over the past two years, in an effort to be more specialized, many production saddle makers are offering some saddles in the quarter horse barsí angle on a 7" gullet width. This they call "full" quarter horse bars. It is designed to fit wide backed horses, those who tend to have a problem with saddles slipping sideways due to flat withers conditions or large bone structure. The saddle widens over the center back of the horse then has angles that hold the topsides. English saddle fans, this would fit the horse that needs your wide tree.
If, on the other hand, your horse has a high withers, you will not have problems with slipping sideways. Your saddle fitting problems will be rubbing on the top of the withers or poor fit on the sides of those high withers. Go to the quarter horse bars and request a high pommel clearance. This clearance is also called gullet height. English saddle fans, you have a distinct advantage with your English cutback pommel, open sky clearance!
The sad truth is that there is no true industry standards of measurements in tree widths or angles of English or Western saddlery. Often, in order to market to the masses, production saddlers will call the semi-quarter horse tree a "quarter horse" tree so you will better assume it will fit your Quarter Horse. Modern skirting techniques allow more general fitting than older styling. In todayís Western saddles, you simply assume that the saddle you order will fit 90% of horses. English saddles are often ordered by tree widths. The widths may be numbered, (1,2,3,4,5) or simply called narrow, medium and wide. This sizing varies by the maker and by the level of quality in the makers equipment and methodology.
Now that I have seemingly made everything sound hopelessly complicated, let me simplify in summation. Remember that the standard trees in most Western saddles will fit most horses. The medium tree width on English saddles will fit most horses with no problems. Most of this discussion is to help identify the problem fitting horses. Tell your dealer or saddle maker how your horses are built. Narrow backed and high withered, etc. Show pictures if you can. Discuss what saddles have or have not fit in the past. Has there been any injury that should be accounted for? What is the intended use of the saddle? With enough discussion, you will order a saddle that will fit your horse! Being an Internet source, and a location store, we suggest you call dealers with facts and questions. Be sure their sources use the same general theories that ours do, or have them explain the differences so that you can understand clearly.
Truth is that as your horsemanship needs get more intense and more specialized, you will need to consider this. If after discussion with the saddler, you still wonder about the fit, or if you have had problems fitting the horse in the past, follow these steps. Take a few tracings across the back of the horse at the top of the withers, and every 4" back from the first measurement, until you have the length of the back you will cover with the saddle tree. Do this by bending a wire across the back, then tracing the underside of the wire on paper that can be cut to slide under the saddle which you would like to ensure proper fitting. If your horse has an unusual top line, bend a wire to match it then trace on paper. Start from the mid withers. If the saddle is custom built, mail these papers to the necessary parties.
If you have a budget for one saddle that you need to fit yourself, but must use with all your horses, get a saddle built upon a medium tree, semi-quarter horse bars. Or if all your horses are wider backed draft breeds, or narrow backed gaited horses, buy accordingly. There are some wonderful pads made to adjust saddle fitting to an art.
If you have several varieties of bone structure with which to deal, use a cutback, built-up pad for the high narrow withered animals. Use a thin non-slip type of neoprene pad for those wider backed, flat-withered guys. There are also various wedge pads, pads with holes drilled for spine relief, contoured pads for the backs that seem to have more curvature, and gel pads that absorb the shock of hard work or a not quite fitting situation. Talk with your favorite tack dealer, Cultured Cowboy, about these needs in more detail.
Most all saddles are made with length of bars so that they fit almost all horses. Even when the seat sizes change, much of the change is done on top of the running bars. The cantle is moved forward or back on the bars, rather than elongating the bars to an uncomfortable position for the horse. Occasionally, you will have a short backed horse that is the exception to the rule. Semi-custom or custom bar lengths for trees can be made. We like to work closely with the tree maker and the saddle maker when this is the case. You do not want too much pressure on the kidneys. Or perhaps a round skirt will get the saddle off the flank area. Many Arab saddles are rounded for this reason.
Sometimes a "barrel racing type saddle will help fit a horse. They are usually made on the semi-quarter horse bars and are designed to fit a bit higher on the back of the horse. This is done to cut weight, but effectively makes fitting some horses easier. Most have a rather deep pocket and higher cantle designed for staying in the saddle on fast take-off. This tends to be very supportive to the lower back of the rider.