Back Profile and Tree Selection – Part 1 – Horses with withers

Thanks everyone for your input on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I'm making a start on your suggestions for blog topics, here is I'll start by looking at tree selection for particular back profiles.

Now, I'm a different kind of saddle fitter as most of you know, I fit for wider horses, that generally have less wither.  However, I can talk in general terms about back shapes for more "average" shaped horses and the principals that will guide tree selection.I do fit for some horses that are "only" a wide fit and have a bit more wither and we'll be looking at those.

The first caveat to this discussion is that the side-on back profile really has bearing on only ONE aspect of tree shape but I'll be looking at the curve from front to back, what variations can be found in seats of similar depth and how all this affects the rider.  We'll be taking into account the back length too, as that will affect the choice of tree shape with taking into account the amount of space the rider needs.

I've used a couple of examples here, the lighter bay is my own horse Winni, Swedish Warmblood, Ramiro lines, who I owned from 2001 to 2006, and is still greatly missed.  The darker bay is Tia, a Trakhener cross, owned by my customer Janette Hilliar who I've fitted for for several years.  She's now moved away to Devon so is also missed!  Both horses had been out of work, or in very light work, for some time when these photos were taken. 

So, have a think, what factors are we dealing with?  It's not just about how high the wither is though that's so often the most obvious parameter.  This will directly affect how high the pommel should be, relative to the lowest part of the seat.  Also crucial is where the wither is in relation to the shoulder blade, how far it runs into the back, how short or long the horse's ribcage is and how much room the rider needs therefore what seat size range we are looking at.

Both horses are 16.2, both have a moderate wither, so we're not going to look at super flat trees with a low pommel designed for mutton withers.  Both need a moderately high pommel to accommodate the height of wither, and that will require a reasonably high cantle to balance it and help centre the rider.  The mid point, or the rider's balance point, of the saddle needs to be in the deepest part, a low cantle would allow the balance point to fall too far back.  Both horses are built fairly uphill, ie higher under the front of the saddle than they are under where the back of the saddle would sit, so would need a similar shaped panel, having decent rear gussets to stop any saddle tipping back.  Both these saddles have a moderately deep rear gusset, and Lia wears a Classic with the standard rear gusset.

If you look at our Classic dressage saddle, and the Elite VSD in the photos you can see that they have a similar pommel height, indicated by the red vertical line.Looking more closely you'll also realise how much difference the cantle height and seat shape makes; looking at the space available for the rider behind the red line, the Classic, as a dressage saddle, rides as a deeper seat for the rider, so it does have less space.  It's highly likely that a rider would need ½" bigger seat in the Classic compared to the Elite VSD.

The other factor in dealing with a wither will be the amount of cutback, the curve cut backwards into the top of the pommel.The more the cutback the more wither height the saddle is likely to be able to cope with.  A large cut back on a wide saddle is likely to make the tree slightly unstable so a high narrow wither to a wide back can be tricky (and for many other reasons).  Another reason why changeable headplate saddles won't work from N-XW across a range of horses, the mutton withered horse has different requirements to the shark finned TB.

Now onto looking at the major difference in the two horses, Winni on the left has much more space for saddle than Lia: the saddle platform is the area between the two red lines.  The back of the scapula/shoulder blade is marked on both with the blue line, the front red line indicates where the front of the tree points should sit, 2" behind the scapula.  The rear red line indicates the sweep of the back rib, the end of the weight bearing area (the white line on Lia is my tracing curve).  Lia, the dark bay, is very compact for her height and wears a 17.5" Classic, but in a saddle with a longer footprint she could easily be restricted to 17".  Winni would take at least an inch larger by the look of the photos (I owned him a while before becoming a saddle fitter but he was in a type of saddle that doesn't follow normal rules).

What I should emphasise is that photos can be deceptive, so these are not going to be 100% accurate, but hopefully you can see the difference.

So what difference does back length make?

We never want to put a rider in a too-big saddle just to spread their weight, but a longer back allows more choice of tree size and shape.  If the horse has more saddle space than the rider needs then we may be able to slide the saddle back a little further from the shoulder, which some horses really appreciate.  This means we're slightly more off the wither, and a higher pommel saddle may not be needed.  If we do, in certain circumstances, put the rider in a larger saddle, then there is more scope again for flatter rails, the bit between the pommel and cantle.

You will see, comparing the photo of the Classic to any photo you might find of a "high head" or "high wither" dressage saddle on the web that it has a distinctly open seat, even though it's deep – there is an almost horizontal line in the deepest part whereas many dressage saddles form a shape V or U at the bottom.  The photo is of a 16.5", if it was a larger seat size that flat spot would be even more obvious.  It is this slight flatness that we at AH feel allows us a more stable fit, that we think benefits the horse in ways I will explore in future blog posts.

The relationship of shoulder blade to wither is crucial; these horses are similar in that they have fairly high shoulder blades, there isn't a huge amount of wither above them, unlike in real "shark fin" withers.  Both withers run moderately far into the back – this is less likely to be accommodated for in tree shape, though some will have a more slopey pommel, but instead the horse is likely to need a slightly deeper panel to allow more flocking to lift the saddle slightly throughout.  As an example Thorowgood/Kent and Masters use the same tree for standard shapes and high wither shapes, they simply specify a deeper panel for the high wither shape.  If you tried to move the seat's deepest point back further, to allow the pommel to slope more slowly to cope with that long wither, you'd have the rider in the wrong place on the horse and the slope could interfere with rider comfort in delicate places!

I hope you're starting to see that a lot of information is needed before recommending a tree shape – you're playing off the back profile against the overall space available against the build and requirements of the rider.  What I haven't touched on is the style of saddle but it makes little difference when looking at tree shape selection.  A more forward cut saddle, in the case of prominent shoulder blades, may impact on the shoulder blades and get pushed back, or need to sit a little further back so, again, we may need to go to a smaller seat.

In part 2 we'll look at horses with low withers as well as dropped backs and croup high shapes.

Further reading – this post in Kitt Hazelton's awesome blog:

Back Profile and Tree Selection – Part 2 – Horses ...
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