The high, sometimes lopsided withers of an ex-racehorse occasionally pose a challenge to those wishing to correctly fit their OTTB with a perfectly balanced and comfortable saddle.
Jaime Kinnear, a onetime exercise rider for Suffolk Downs in Boston, and current saddle fitter for the Trilogy Saddle Company, demystifies the obstacles and approaches to getting a nice, snug fit without impinging on the horse’s movement, or worse, making him sore.
In this Clubhouse Q&A, Kinnear explains some of the basics of a good fit, some of the corrections, and best of all; she notes that balancing out a saddle need not be an expensive undertaking.
Q: What are the main guidelines you try to achieve when fitting a saddle to a horse?
There are seven points of saddle fit. Gullet width should be enough to allow for 2 ½ inches, or three fingers, to fit in the channel in the gullet. This space ensures there’s no pressure on the withers or the spine.
A good fit also requires adequate clearance from the pommel— you don’t it to rest on their withers. Usually three or more fingers should fit in beneath, after the horse has been cinched up with the girth.
Another important element is the angle of the tree. It should match the horse’s body angle, and this ensures that your tree point is not causing localized pressure. If it’s too narrow, it will hit right behind the shoulders. If it’s too narrow, the horse will feel a pressure spot, and digging in.
Next is saddle balance. Making sure you’re not too high with either the pommel or cantle is very important. This will ensure your rider can have the ideal shoulder-heel-hip alignment. The center of the seat of the saddle should be the lowest point of the saddle.
Panel covers are also important. You want to make sure that your panel of the saddle is evenly dispersed so that there’s no bridging, which occurs when the front and the rear of the panel is touching the horse’s back, and it’s almost bubbled up where it isn’t lying flat.
Another key detail is making sure the saddle is not putting weight past the 18th rib of the ribcage, because if you’re past that point, you’re sitting where there’s not support.
Q: What are some of the common challenges when fitting a Thoroughbred?
Although OTTBs come in a variety of sizes and shapes, for the most part, they tend to have a high wither and a loaded shoulder, which is when one shoulder is bigger than the other. The shoulder they use predominantly tends to be a little bigger.
I’ve found that Dressage tack generally rests behind the shoulder, so it can less of a challenge to fit than jumper saddles, which sit in a more forward position.
Another issue is with the natural leanness of a Thoroughbred, and accommodating it so that there isn’t extra movement with the saddle. We don’t want it shimmying out of place.
Q: What are some ways you resolve these challenges?
I flock the saddle evenly and then apply shims to correct where the slump in the balance is. The shim material is flat and thin, and I build it up beneath the saddle to accommodate the drop in the smaller wither. This helps to ensure the saddle is balanced with the height of the bigger wither.
Q: So not every horse requires a brand new saddle.
While ideally you should get the best fitting saddle you can, realistically, that’s not appropriate for every horse and every situation. And it is possible through flocking and shimming it to make the horse and rider comfortable on a saddle that would be considered borderline.
Q: When do you know that it’s time to call the saddle fitter?
Obviously, call when you get very bad reactions to a poorly fitted saddle. This would include bucking and rearing. Or even more subtle clues that the saddle is poorly fitted can occur while you’re tacking up the horse. For example, if he moves around a lot on the crossties while you’re trying to saddle him, or avoids the mounting block, these could be signs of a poorly fitting saddle.
Or, if he isn’t performing the way you want. For example, if you’re working on leg yielding and he’ll go in one direction but not the other, although it could be a soundness issue, it might also be that the saddle is kinking the wrong way, and his movement could be inhibiting his movement, causing a resistance to lateral work.
I always recommend any wool-flocked saddle be checked every six months to a year, depending on the use. This is because of changes in the horse and the saddle.
Q: What are the benefits of having a saddle fitted or made custom for a horse?
The benefit is that ideally you’re getting a saddle that is as close as possible, and you’re not creating discomfort or pain. Before you even start riding, you’re eliminating a possible negative factor. Just like you wouldn’t use a bit that’s uncomfortable in their mouth. Or a runner wouldn’t wear uncomfortable running shoes; you don’t want the horse to be uncomfortable. And a saddle that fits well also greatly affects your riding.
Q: Do you have any tips for recognizing saddle problems?
Watch for the saddle moving around, or for whether you’re struggling to get your position. It’s not always rider error. It could be the balance of the saddle is off. If the saddle comes off the back, and fishtails, and it comes up off their back if you’re posting. That’s a sign.
Q: You have a 30-year history with Thoroughbreds.
I grew up in a horse family and my mother, Jackie Kinnear, was a Thoroughbred trainer.
When I was a teen, I worked at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park, learning to groom and exercise racehorses. That’s where my love for racehorses began. I worked later on as a manager in a biomedical research lab, but found my way back to horses when I met Trilogy Saddle Company owner and founder Debbie Whitty at Equine Affaire.
I love it. It’s a great joy to help a Thoroughbred adjust to being under saddle in a new career.