I apologize for the lack of pictures in this post, but there will be many forthcoming in the next week as I try out new saddles.
Lately my little horse has taken to fussing and dancing around during saddling. Thanks to the forums I frequent and all the other reading I've done online, alarm bells went off in my head. Last Tuesday we got a saddle fitter out to take a look at several horses at the barn. It was an AMAZING experience, and I would suggest working with a saddle fitter if you ever have the opportunity just for the pure educational value of it, even if your saddle already fits. I learned a lot about the biomechanics of the horse in addition to detailed explanations about what a saddle does to impact those biomechanics.
One of the most interesting things I learned was about the way the horse's shoulder works. The fitter showed me how a saddle that is too tight in the shoulder limits her scapula from being able to rotate back, thus reducing her range of motion in her front end. He explained that horses experiencing that are likely to have trouble with canter transitions and tend to run into the canter because they can't move into the gait correctly. Instead, they have to speed up enough that they can fall into the motion. Obviously, that also makes it almost impossible to get a truly collected gait. Guess what Halo has been doing lately? Rushing into the canter! I thought she was just being a normal greenie, but he said that is likely only a small part of the issue.
He also took a look at my western saddle and showed me that even the FQHB are not wide enough and are pinching her under the yoke. He also didn't like how far the skirt came back, noting that she was extremely short-backed. Though he noted that the long skirt does not pinch, he said that it may irritate her and prevent her from being able to fully flex her body and turn on the haunches. Guess what we've been having trouble with when riding western? Turns on the haunches! His recommendation was that I look for a barrel saddle or reining saddle with a rounded skirt or single skirt that doesn't extend back as far as the current one. I'm heartbroken, because I loved my western saddle. But what is right for the horse is a heck of a lot more important than what I like. I know I will eventually be able to find something that fits both of us, but right now it seems like a daunting task.
I was amazed by the depth of his knowledge and how much he could tell me about how my horse was going without even watching me ride. He immediately identified problems we were likely to be having under saddle, and suggested that I look for an XXW tree english saddle. He specailizes in English saddles, so I didn't get a recommendation for a western one. I may look for a saddle designed for Arabians since they tend to be made with wider bars, wider yokes, and short skirts. I would like something like what I have now - nice enough for open shows or reining, but also casual enough for trail riding.
It seems to me that saddle fitting is a vital and often overlooked aspect of horsemanship that we should all know more about. It occurred to me that when I first started taking lessons, no one ever said, "hey, let's start out by taking a look at your tack and making sure it fits your horse." Don't you think there would be a lot more happy horses if instructors made a point of that?