arolyn Cohen is an unaffiliated, professional saddle fitter and certified equine massage therapist who specializes in understanding equine biomechanics, myofascial release and neuromuscular therapy. In short, she is an expert in how horses move, feel, and perform. She's also a problem-solver for common rider problems in the saddle.
Carolyn recently stopped by our private Facebook group for Equestrian Masterclass members to answer members' questions about their horses and saddle fit needs. Not a Masterclass member yet? Go here to sign up.
Q: "After splurging on a custom saddle that put my horse out of commission for over a month after just two rides, I'm trying new saddles again and think that we've found a used saddle that she likes. She's got big hollows behind her shoulders, so fitters have told me that she needs extra paneling behind the wither. The problem with the saddle that we've found is that it does not have this additional paneling and currently falls onto her wither when I ride (I can only fit barely 2 fingers in between her saddle and wither when I'm on her back).
Do you recommend using a shimmable half pad to correct fit issues like this one or should I steer clear of a saddle like this all together?"
A: It's really common advice for fitters to want to add paneling behind the withers in that scenario. The thought process is, 'Okay, the horse is hollow, has nothing to support the saddle, so we have to get the saddle off the wither.' The old school 'three finger rule' says that you have to be able to fit three fingers between the wither and the pommel to ensure adequate saddle clearance. (I've seen so many saddles where you can fit your whole hand under there!) In my opinion, the three finger rule is not the end all, be all.
Think of it this way. If we keep padding up behind the wither, the more narrow that space is underneath the panel of the saddle near the shoulder is going to become. That's going to put tons of pressure along the spinal column. The more we pad up to get the saddle off the wither, the more pressure we're putting on spinal column, the less blood flow that's going to get to the brain, the less feel that you're going to have of the horse. It can also cause some serious soreness.
Here's another thing to think about: when you have the hollows behind the shoulders and you pad up, it creates very limited room for scapular movement. If you have a horse with a lot of shoulder movement, they're going to hit that thick. fat panel when they move their shoulder back, which then jams the back of the panel into their lower lumbar.
So, in terms of padding and paneling in this scenario, I like to tell people that less is more. Yes, we want wither clearance, but when the horse is able to use their back and topline correctly, they're going to naturally lift the saddle while in motion. The biggest point I like to make is when you look at a saddle, it can fit perfectly standing still, but the thing is, we're not sitting on our horses at a standstill. We're riding them, so it's important to see how it looks in motion.
The fact that you can only fit 2 fingers between the saddle and the wither while you're riding is not such a big deal to me. You can use a half pad but if you have two fingers in there, that's probably enough. If your horse is able to lift her back while you're working, you'll probably feel the saddle rise off the wither even more.
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Photo by Shannon Brinkman.