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Western Saddle Fitting

western-saddle-partsFitting a Western Saddle

Western saddles have several tree sizes: Quarter Horse (regular bars), Full Quarter (FQHB) also know as Wide Tree, Arab, Gaited Horse, Haflinger, and Draft Horse.

Quarter Horse Bar or Semi Quarter Horse Bar is by far the most common Western saddle tree. It has a higher pitch and is best for a horse with a medium back, decent wither and often mixed breeding (1/2 Arab, Appendix or other mixes). Most Western saddles have semi QH/Semi QH bars.

  • The FQHB tree (usually 7" gullet) has a flatter pitch than the QH/Semi QH saddle and is often used for the "Bulldog" type Quarter Horse or horses with broad backs and those with mutton-withers.
  • Arab saddles are designed for Arabians; they have a narrow (usually 6 1/2" - 6 3/4" width) gullet like the Semi QH but a flatter pitch angle like the FQHB - sometimes flatter yet, than the FQHB. Some people find that Arab saddles work well with other breeds, depending on how they’re built.
  • Gaited horse bars have a higher gullet for high withered horses. They usually have a wider gullet front that narrows towards the back to allow shoulder movement. They usually have more rock to allow for the horse’s gait.
  • Haflinger saddles (7 1/2" gullet) are great for Haflingers or short backed mutton withered horses. They often have a flatter pitch and very little rock.
  • Draft Horse bars (8" gullet), are for the large Draft Horses.

Your Fitting Goal

Make as much saddle bar to horse back contact as possible.

How much is enough contact? This depends on a couple of things:
1.  How much the rider weighs. The heavier the rider, the more contact is needed.  A lighter rider can get by with less contract. Remember you are trying to distribute pounds per inch.
2.  How much bar surface is available to evenly distribute weight. If your saddle has small bars, it’s much important that all of that tree touches the horse for distribution. If your tree is very large then not as much of it needs to touch the horse for weight distribution.

Gullet Width & Bar Angle

The proper measurement of the saddle gullet is actually 2 inches below the narrowest part of the gullet, even with the side conchos.

Regular bars have a narrow angle and Full bars have a wide angle.

There are two major areas of concern when fitting a saddle.

  1. Gullet Width:There is no definition for tree width sizes in the saddle industry.  There are generic terms such as semi-quarter horse and full quarter horse, which give an idea of what type of horse the tree should fit, but there is no rule for measurement.  Each tree builder has their own idea of what fits each breed of horse the best.  There are several things to consider when fitting the wither.
    1. Width
      1. If the saddle is too narrow, there will be contact at the bottom of the bar and not at the top.
      2. If the saddle is too wide, there will be contact at the top of the bar and not at the bottom.
    2. Bar Flare
      1. If the bar is flat at the wither, it can cause the saddle to be pushed back as well as restricting shoulder movement.  This is more evident with gaited horses.
      2. Bar flare can be evident in the front and rear of the saddle.  As the front can restrict movement, the rear can dig into the croup if the rider is heavy and sits deep into the seat, or the horse is short backed, or sway backed.  Each of these could cause sores if the saddle doesn't have adequate rear bar flare.
  2. Bar Angle and Slope:There are two areas of concern when looking at the slope of the horse's back.
    1. Bridging:  Bridging occurs when there is bar to surface contact on the front (wither) and rear (croup) of the horse's back but not in the middle.  Usually, you can tell your saddle is bridging if there is a sore or white hair in the wither and/or croup area.  This is caused by one of two things.
      1. Bend or Rock:  If the saddle doesn't have enough bend in the bar to fit the sway of the horse's back, it will bridge.
      2. Length of Back:  If the bar is longer than the horse's back, it will bridge.  This is most evident on Arabs, Paso Finos, Missouri Foxtrotters and other short backed horses.White hair and sores are not always a sign of bridging, it could be a result of:
        1. Tree width - explained above.
        2. Rigging position:  As a rule, most horses do not need full rigging.  They need rigging that gives more pull toward the center of the saddle or throughout the whole saddle rather than the front only.  There are four rigging positions available in the industry. Click here to read about the different positions.
    2. Rock: The opposite of bridging.  Rock occurs when there is more bend in the bar than the horse needs, therefore it makes contact in the middle of the back before it makes contact in the front or back. Usually, when rock is visible the saddle will tip back and forth on the horse's back.  When the saddle is girthed up it will tip forward with the rear of the saddle sticking up in the air.  When the rider sits in the saddle it will force the saddle down in the rear causing pressure in the front of the saddle going toward the middle of the back.  This is most evident on mules.  Be aware if the saddle is sticking up in the rear it may not be a rock problem but could be a width problem.

Common questions:

What do white hairs mean?
Normally, white hair is caused by a lot of pressure in one area over a long period of time. What makes this happen is the pressure stops the blood flow to that area, which in turn kills the sweat glands and causes the hair to turn white. The horse’s hair may never turn to it's normal color. This alone is not something to be alarmed about and does not cause permanent long-term damage, unless you don't pay any attention to the problem.  (You should consult your veterinarian about any sores your horse may develop.)

What about padding-up or saddle pads?
Good saddle pads can cause the saddle to fit better. There is much technology in the pad industry to help a saddle fit better and you should take advantage of that technology. Padding-up to help eliminate sores from a poor fitting saddle is not a good choice. For example, if a saddle is too narrow, padding up to buffer the pressure will make the horse wider which will cause more pressure.


  • Lori Jenkins said:

    I have a 4 yr old QH mare. She is mutton withered (7 1/2″) gullet. Can you tell me the best tree maker for a mutton withered horse? I would like to have a saddle made for her and am not sure where to start looking for the correct tree.

  • dazzled (author) said:

    Lori, check into mule saddles. There are some talented saddle makers online that specialize in mules. I recommend Steve Edwards at Queen Valley Mule Ranch.

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