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Back Shapes and Using Shims to correct saddle fit

By: Cathy Sheets Tauer - B.S. Animal Science, E.S.M.T

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Horses, just like people, all have different back shapes.  And just like us, as they age, gain or lose weight, their back shape changes.  Young horses tend to be rump high and until the age of 5 years their withers and shoulder continue to shoot up and change.  Then, as older horses, their withers become more pronounced and hollows may develop behind them and their back may begin to dip.

 Realizing how different horses’ backs are will help you better understand how important it is to properly fit a saddle.

 Remember, a saddle is designed to offer the rider support and, most importantly, distribute the riders weight over a large surface area, all the while allowing the horse comfort and freedom of movement.

 Below are photos  of various back shapes with associated problems that you may encounter. 

How to shim for the back is written below the photos of the horse.  For more on back shapes, fitting and shimming Purchase this All About Saddling DVD:

Sharp rise to croup with withers. 

rump high, both horses need center shims.


Saddle with longest panels... So need to put center shims in the middle and that will even the pressure and restore suspension.  No bottoming out).

Both backs are flat along the top line and both are roached backed.
 
 See the white hairs in the center of the back?  This is because the saddles bars had too much rocker (curve down into the back) and created horrible pressure thus an OPEN sore developed in the middle of this horses back.

Flat back, low rump, Prominent wither with hollow.


Prominent wither and dippy back

Look at top of wither - see the white hairs? This is due to a saddle being too low on the horse and the saddles gullet clearance DID not clear the wither but sat on it! You can so terribly hurt and injure a horse with a saddle that does not clear the spine by an inch or two!

 

Close up of wither.

Nice back but the saddle bars had too much rocker for this horse and is soring the horse.  You can see the white hair and injury happening.

A short back, prominent withers, sharp rise to the croup and a dipped back.  Horse is symmetrical side-to-side, but needs a saddle that conforms to its back or corrective padding to make sure the pressure is even through out the horses back while allowing the 2 inch spine clearance.


Flat backed / "Mule backed" - (Donkey actually). Narrow.


A straight top line or what is called a mule back with no wither

See the with sore.  This is from a saddle that has too much rocker in the bars.


Hollow behind wither.  You can also see white open sores due to the saddle bars having too much rocker or cure in them.  This saddle fell into the hollow and then wore holes into the horses hide. HORRIBLE.

Rump high, saddle making a dry spot behind shoulder.

Rump low.


High wither, sway back and high rise to the croup.  See the spine of the horse, look back towards the loin on the spine.  See where there is damage to the horse due to the center back of the saddle not clearing the spine (you can see some white hair also there).  A saddle needs to have 1 to 2 inches of clearance all the way down the spine of the horse!

 




Sway back

Well balanced, with adequate withers in both width and height. body somewhat narrow.

Balanced narrow shoulders, very short back, slightly rump high and roached backed. One hip lower than the other. (We simulated this by having horse stand with hind leg cocked - this is what you would see if you had a horse standing square in the rear - that had one hip lower than the other).


Wide broad shoulders and well sprung (rib cage).

Wide with broad shoulders, tubular in shape, well sprung in the rib cage and has a straight top line or what is called a mule back and mutton withers (no withers to speak of).

Sway backed, croup high - short back, pot bellied and slightly rump high.

 

 

Colina age 3 at the start of the riding season.
 Then below that, is Colina again after five months of riding and

maturing. Look how her top line and withers have changed.

(This photo is flipped "mirror image" so you can see her pointed the same direction at the first one.  It is the same horse.)

 


High withers (or thoroughbred type-razor withers) a narrow back, slap-sided, prominent backbone and narrow shoulders. 

Wide withers and wide tubular back


Widest horse I have ever worked with. "You can set a full course meal and never have your plate fall off". 

You can see a sore from an ill fitting saddle on the upper near side (left) shoulder of the horse.  This may or may not go away.  But you must always check the fit of your saddle.  Even if a company says it fits a wide horse.  Check it for yourself.  With a rider in the seat slide your hand under the front, middle and rear of the saddle, walk with the horse.  What you feel is what the horse feels.  Remember a horses shape constantly changes.

More broad shouldered - wide - big horses that are well balanced (Friesian crosses)

The dun mare (Mita) is 10 this year.    The bay mare (Reyna) is 9 this year.   And the black mare (Ria) is 3 this year.    Photo's taken February 2007 - northern MN  


Asymmetrical-shoulder on the near side is lower than the other.  Nice wither and croup as viewed from the side.

Wide shoulders and back with mutton withers.

Short back, with a rise to the croup, lower withers.  This horse may be subject to loin rubbing and many need corrective shimming.

High wither, roach back.


High narrow withers, with narrow asymmetrical shoulders and back and with even hips.

 

 

huge shoulders - short back


This horse is rump high, has a sharp rise in the croup. 


Notice the 5 inch dip. 

The Hill View Farms ® Evolutionary saddle without the use of center shims was able to fit this horse and the rider and horse are both now very happy!  If you have a traditional saddle you will need center shims

For Prince's Story Click here

Prince and Sue Mundy are VERY happy and contrary to what one Vet said, this horse DOES NOT have to be put down, as he can be ridden happily with a saddle that fits!

A totally even sweat pattern WITHOUT SHIMS using the Evolutionary saddle by Hill View Farms.

For Prince's Story Click here

How do I use Shims?

Shims come in sets of three for each side; they can be purchased for the front of the saddle, the center or the rear, each designed to help certain conditions.

The front shims are designed to raise the front of the saddle (if the horse is rump high), to fill in a hole behind the shoulder blade, or to balance the saddle from right to left. How to do this? With assistance of a helper, square up the horse so his front feet are even. Move the mane out of the way for a clear view of his shape. Then stand behind the horse and look over his rump to his shoulder and withers area. Look at his shoulders. Is one side significantly larger than the other? If so, front shims need to be put in on the smaller side. While your helper holds them (the largest shim against the horse, building to smaller up to the saddle), sculpt the low side to match the high side.

As a side note, a horse that has a weak side will benefit from posting off that weak side diagonal, encouraging him to take that lead. Lounging him in the direction to use his weak side (that is, weak side to the center of the circle), can also help build up that shoulder muscle. If this is done regularly, he needs to be checked monthly, because his shape will change, especially if he is being ridden in a flex-system saddle. At some point, he may no longer need as many (or any) shims and they could do more harm than good.

The center shims are designed for horses with hollows behind the shoulder or are sway backed. In this case, use the center shims to make a level saddling area. Depending on the degree of “hollowing”, the flex-panel system saddles will flex and "fall" into that hole bottoming out. If the panel is flexed to the point where it is "bottoming" out on the hard saddle tree itself, all of the saddle’s suspension has been used up. (Similar to filling the back of your trunk with concrete blocks and bottoming out the shock absorbers)  In this case, add shims (again, as in the front shims, put the largest next to the horse’s back and build up from there) to make a level saddling area. Put on the saddle and tighten the cinch. Put your hands under the saddle and test for equal pressure along the panels. Repeat with someone in the saddle. Add or subtract shims as needed.

The hollow is usually caused by muscle atrophy; as mentioned earlier, a horse’s shape will change so his body should be checked monthly. And, again, shims can do more harm than good if not properly fit.

Lastly, the rear shims are used to raise the rear of the saddle or to eliminate loin rubbing. For more on loin rubbing go to the horse-related questions   click here

Note: We recently discovered that many of the new saddles being marketed with the Delrin panels are not constructed to fit a wide range of backs.  We have seen and fitted these saddles. The simple act of cinching up the saddle will bottom out the panels.) Check this while someone is in the saddle. Walk the horse around slowly and observe the panels. They should NOT be banging or hitting the bottom part of the saddle. If they are, a special pad that has a "full length" pocket is needed, using shims to help restore the saddle’s suspension. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to get an entirely different saddle. Do not ride in a saddle that has no suspension. It may sore the horse.

When shimming for panel saddles, treeless or traditional hard tree saddles always remember to SHIM AWAY from pressure.  Test this with someone of your weight and height in the saddle. Slide your hand way up under the front of the saddle, then behind the rider’s leg in the center of the saddle, and lastly the rear. Do this on both sides, feeling for pressure.  You can also have the rider with your HAND still under the saddle walk the horse and move in figure eights so you can feel everything even as the horse is turning.  It is the area with the least amount of pressure that needs shims, thus creating equal pressure throughout the length of the panels or saddle bars.   Make sure the saddle distributes weight evenly.  Besides the saddle offering the rider support saddles were developed to distribute the rider’s weight.

For more on shimming click here and for a on line Video Click here.

Here is a horse that has been perfectly squared up The owner is holding the horses  head straight with one hand and holding the mane out of the way with the other hand. This horse has been looked at by a veterinarian who felt the horse had suffered shoulder trauma at an earlier age, thus causing the lack of shoulder development.  The front hoof on the same side was also one size smaller than the other. (Also noted that this horse had the hoof associated with this side, was smaller by one size than the other.) We gave the owners exercises  to help build muscle. Even with rehabilitation exercises this horse may always have a shoulder and back that dips lower on one side.

To balance a saddle the owner will need to use one or both of the following. 

·         Shims - full length covering the entire saddling area and in this case with additional front shims to build up the shoulder so that it is even with the other side. 

  • Adjustable System 4 (next photo) - Raising the front of the saddle, the owner can eliminate the need for the shoulder shims.

The owner will also have to have a special pad with a full length pocket to hold shims. Or use 2 way sticky carpet tape to hold the shims in place.

The photo to the left shows the saddle using the adjustable system 4 to balance the saddle. This eliminated the need for shoulder shims but not the need for center shims.  Without the Adjustable System 4, the saddle can be balanced and achieve the same effect using front and center shims.

With the horse perfectly squared up, this photo shows the saddle from the rear.  The owner rode this saddle with the adjuster extended but without the full-length shim or a center shim in the pad.  After riding with only the adjustment, it was apparent the center or full length shim was needed on the low side. The appropriate shims were added and the horse ridden again.  The fit and sweat pattern was perfect!

 

All riders MUST know their horse’s conformation and LISTEN to what they tell you.  It is so refreshing working with owners who address and know their horses issues.

Shown here is another example of a horse, which has a dippy, short back with a high rise to the croup. 

As wonderful as the panels on  (System 7 and others) saddles sometimes will need help curving down into a back of this nature.  Therefore, this hollow must be filled in with some shims to bring up the level of the back for even weight distribution and to avoid the loin rubbing from excessive rear pressure.  A pad that has a full-length pocket and two full length shims and/or center shims properly fitted in that pocket will correctly fit the saddle to this horse.

Checking saddle fit first without the shims and then with the shims comparing fit will make both horse and rider  happy.  What is really wonderful is that with these panel saddles as your horse's back changes or if you change horses, all that is needed to remove the shims and off you go again with the same saddle!  Absolutely remarkable.

 

Here is a horse that is rump high with a very short back.  Full-length shims may be necessary for the panels to evenly float on her back if using a saddle with long panels, or panels that are not system 5 or 7.  If you are using a rigid tree saddle, you will need to level her back and remember to always shim AWAY from pressure.

 

Also in the photo to the left, you can see that one hip is lower than the other.  This is because this horse is standing with one rear leg cocked.  BUT some horses are like this when standing straight.  A customer called once saying she and her horse did a 3-hour ride and the horse was so sore in the one loin area on one side that she had to leave early and was not able to ride the following day.  This is not the same horse, but the photo to the left shows how this horse looked.  A horse (like the photo) with one hip lower than the other needs rear shims to bring up that low side.  It is rare to have a horse with one hip lower than the other but they are out there.  After a corrective fitting our customer’s horse had no more back/loin issues. We tested this fit a week later doing a horrendous 5 hour - up and down - fast and slow - killer ride. After the ride I asked the owner to palpate as she had done weeks earlier and then again the following day, (I too palpated but more fully) and found that the horse and his back condition fantastic!

Here is a horse that is elevated in the front.  Many dressage horses are elevated in the front end and may need a rise in the rear of the saddle for achieving rider balance.  Use center and rear shims to accomplish this.  Remember the largest shim toward the horse and then tapering up to the saddle.

 


 

An example of loin rubbing and not a saddle bottoming out causing this problem.

This horse has a short back and sharp rise to the croup in relation to the panel length.  The saddle is a 17-inch saddle with 28 inch panels.  Because of the combination of this conformation the saddle has caused loin rubbing.  If not corrected this will cause extreme discomfort and eventually sore the horse.  Front and center shims are needed to raise the front 2/3 of the panel to help remove the excessive pressure that is now digging into the horse's loins area.

 LOIN RUBBING?

We have also found that by using COWBOY MAGIC applied ONLY on the rub area allows the pad to slide as if on oil across this area, sometimes alleviating or even eliminating this condition.  PLEASE only apply this product to this area, for if it goes off the target area saddle and rider will slide of the horse.

When a horse has a sharp rise in the croup, short back and is lower in the wither, the saddle will need a lift in the front and a partial center lift for the saddle to perform correctly. (such as a panel saddle, as the back rises so sharp that the rear of the panel will bottom out on the bottom of the saddle tree and the rider will loose all suspension.)

This horse has nice withers, but they are asymmetrical.  The saddle will need to be balanced with front shims and added as necessary to make sure there is enough clearance in the gullet of the saddle.

BELOW are additional examples

 How to use Center Shims and correctly stacking shims - largest on horse first.

Use of center shims

Use center shims and front shims or use system 4 on your saddle.

Use of front shims or use system 4.  Also use front shims to fill in shoulder.

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Web Master - Cathy Sheets Tauer