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Gullet Clearance in the English Saddle

By: Galadriel Billington

10:21PM May 6, 2004

narrow angle tree
showing the tree angle
wide angle tree
When we look at the gullet of an English saddle, we typically look at the front, and how the points of the tree sit on the horse's shoulders. This is quite important; the angle between the points determines whether the saddle is narrow, medium, or wide.
channel lines However, it is important to be certain that the gullet channel clears the horse from the front all the way to the back. There are an alarming number of saddles which narrow toward the back of the saddle.
dressage back You do not want to ever put direct pressure right on top of, or close to, a bone where it is near the surface. For example, at the point of the shoulder and the point of the hip, the bones come quite close to the surface of the skin. They're also rather narrow at these places, or even somewhat "pointy." A saddle which is too narrow at the back puts direct pressure on the tips of the bones of the spine.
cross section horseback The spine of the horse is nearly pointed where it is close to the surface. The actual vertebra is quite deep; all that comes close to the surface is the "spinous process," or the top part of the vertebra, which is thin and narrow.
celophane on pencil tip Putting a saddle close to, or on top, of the spinous process puts quite a lot of pressure on something that is not equipped to carry weight. The skin is very thin and the spinous process is very narrow. Putting weight too close to the top of the spinous process is like pushing the tip of a pencil (the spinous process) against stretched out cellophane (the horse's skin).
celophane on pencil edge The horse's back, to the left and right of the spine, is a fair amount of "meat" padding that sits on top of the rib. The rib is deeper below the skin, and also more of a horizontal surface. Setting weight on top of the muscle over the rib does not create the same kind of pressure point at the top of the bone. Where the rib supports the saddle, it's more like pressing a pencil sideways against cellophane. There is no point, and the edge is much larger. On top of that, the thick mass of muscle blunts the edge even more.
cross section horseback saddle You should be able to get at least 3-4 fingers in the gullet at the back of the saddle, more if it is a "wide" saddle.
center of panels The panels are the squishy padding on either side of the gullet. Most of the weight of the saddle rests on the panels, and most of that weight rests in the center of the panels. The center of each panel should be 3-4" off of the spine.
cantle If you have a saddle that is quite narrow at the back of the gullet, the the center of the panels is much closer to the horse's spine. Put two fingers on the horse's spine, and run your fingers up the back of the gullet. If you can feel the panels on the sides of your 2 fingers, then the edge of the panel is sitting much too close to the spine. The center of the panel will not be far enough to the side.
webring The horse's spine carries delicate nerves in the horse's back, just as in ours. The muscles of the horse's back are well suited to carrying weight, but only if the saddle is actually sitting on the muscle, rather than between the muscle and the spine. If a saddle sits too close to the spine, it can cause damage to sensitive tissues. It can also cause muscle damage over the long-term by causing the horse to tense his back when ridden. For more discussion of muscle tension, see equine sports therapy.
courbette Why are so many saddles narrow at the back?

For fashion or comfort reasons, there has been a lot of demand for saddles with a narrow "waist" (or "twist"). In order to make the saddle more narrow at the center, many manufacturers simply bring the panels closer together towards the back of the saddle. This could be accomplished in other ways, such as changing the shape of the panels themselves, but just making the panels closer is easiest.

If you have an older saddle, then it may well have a lovely clearance throughout the gullet. Some saddlemakers (particularly makers of custom saddles) remain adamant about making a quality product, and so continue to put out saddles that will fit horses better.
channel lines Many well-regarded (and expensive) saddles have this problem. If you have a little time to kill someday, I recommend taking a look at the English saddles for sale on eBay; this is the quickest way to look at a lot of saddles at once. Just scan through all the listings, and look at the ones with pictures of the saddles from below or behind. There are some saddles with a really nice gullet width from the front to the back. There are, however, quite a lot of saddles with a gullet shaped like a "V," and it's not just with the "no brand" or cheap saddles.
channel lines This is a prevalent problem in the saddle industry. It's not going to change unless we, as customers, TELL the maufacturers that we are dissatisfied. The first step is education; the more people who are aware of the issue, the more people will be looking for a solution. We must also vote with our feet: buy from a manufacturer who does put out a product that you'd like to have on your horse's back.
cantle What do you do if your saddle is too narrow at the back?

A saddle fitter can help you determine the quality of the fit of your saddle. If it needs alteration, your saddle fitter may be able to perform the alterations, or to recommend someone skilled in saddle repair. I don't recommend taking your saddle apart yourself :) Putting a saddle together requires specialized knowledge and tools. However, if you have a quality saddle in all other ways, it is probably worth having your saddle altered.
When flocking or altering a saddle, the craftsman must be very knowledgeable about saddle fit. He must be careful that, during his work, he retains the symmetry of the panels and the balance of the saddle. It is important to choose a craftsman who knows about saddles, and about how the saddle fit relates to the horse's back.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.