Barrel Saddle Fit: The Theory of Evolution

Barrel Saddle Fit: The Theory of Evolution

Considering the influence of racehorse blood, is there a need for an architectural adjustment in barrel saddle trees? A saddlemaker, breeder and veterinarian weigh in.

barrel racer on buckskin horse turns a barrel (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Stephenie Tanguay

Form to function plays a large role in a horse’s physical prowess. As sectors of the breed become more specialized, their anatomy diverges. It follows that the tack and equipment must suit the horse that wears it and the job the horse is asked to perform.

When hand carving the ground seat on a saddle, Dennis George of G Bar G Saddles in Riverton, Wyoming, says, “Tree makers need to take just an extra step or two to update trees to fit horses these days.”

While building saddles primarily for use on performance horses, Dennis has noticed a slight change in the physical traits of horses. Particularly in barrel horses, this change includes a slight shift in the angle and possible elongation of the scapula and a flattening of the back, due to a build-up of muscle.

Seeking a more comfortable fit for the horse and, in turn, an improved performance by the horse, Dennis is constantly scrutinizing saddle fit, beginning with its core: the tree.

Barrel Saddle Bars: The No. 1 Thing

“The ground seat (of a saddle) is the No. 1 thing to the rider,” Dennis says. “The bars are what fit the horse. Those are the two most important feature of a saddle.”

A naturally innovative former roughstock rider, Dennis has been building saddles for about 50 years. Initially, he only created bronc saddles.

“Bronc saddles had to fit cowboys,” Dennis says. “They had to fit horses to a point, to give the benefit to the cowboys for the spurring motions and that type of thing. Stock saddles and barrel saddles have to be made to fit the horse but also made so that horse is free to do his job.”

Eventually, Dennis was drawn into creating saddles for performance horses.

“You are not going to find a saddle that fits every horse,” he says decisively.

The frustration from the demand for such a unicorn weighs heavy on a man whose mind works continually in search of solutions.

The saddle tree is the bones of the saddle. The bars of the saddle tree are weight-bearing and the only part of the tree in contact with the horse. A saddle tree that properly allocates the weight of the rider assists the horse in performing required tasks with ease and comfort.

Without comfort, speed is out of the question.

A saddle that fits every horse is as rare as a unicorn, says saddlemaker Dennis George. Because every horse is an individual, every horse has unique needs from its saddle tree.

Saddle Fit and Horse Structure

Saddle tree builders have long known the bars of the saddle tree should have enough distance between them to prevent pressure from being applied to the horse’s spine. They also knew the gullet must provide space for the horse’s withers and shoulders. The curves on the bars of the saddle tree determine how well the saddle fit the horse.

However, in recent years, the slight changes in two areas of the bone and muscle structure of performance horses are altering saddle fit. Recognizing the pattern originally in barrel horses, Dennis first describes the shoulder area of the horse where change seems to have occurred: “That scapula bone, instead of sitting on an angle like this, like horses were for years and years and years; now they have more running blood and the scapula lays at a longer angle.”

From his observations, Dennis believes manes extend further back on the necks of horses and that the length of the scapula might also be increasing.

The pressure between the saddle and the scapula occurs when the horse is moving and changing direction quickly. A saddle that truly fits a horse will not slip, as the horse works.

Flipping a saddle tree upside down, Dennis highlights the area on the front bulbs of the tree.

“See the flair in the front of the saddle tree?” he asks. “That has been just enough to alleviate the pressure.”

These structural changes create an inadequate relief of pressure from the flare on the front bulbs of the saddle tree.

Where that outdated style of saddle tree is concerned, Dennis says, “It lets (the saddle tree) protrude a little over the surface (of the shoulder).”

The undesirable interaction between the front bulbs of the saddle and the scapula bone seems painful and restrictive.

“It also slides the saddle back,” Dennis adds, “and when the saddle is pushed back, it drops down into the hollow point, pinching the horse.”

Once the tree is behind the scapula, riders are out of position or “riding downhill.” The saddle also creates another source of irritation as it then hits the scapula from underneath.

Picking up another saddle tree featuring modifications for the modern horse, Dennis says, “This one here has the same flair in the front as the other one … but it is cut out right in here and it has more lift so that shoulder doesn’t have anything biting into it.”

The second saddle tree is slightly concave where the scapula bone usually hits in the middle of one of the front bulbs on the saddle tree.

“The reason for the concave is that scapula,” he says. “This little bit of concave (on the saddle tree) helps hold the saddle to the horse.”

Dennis points to the flair of the saddletree, which offers just enough relief to alleviate pressure.

Evolution of Performance-Horse Conformation

Open to either affirmation or contradiction of his theory, Dennis requested a vet’s view of his hypothesis. Dr. Chris Morrow, owner of Mobile Veterinary Practice and a veterinarian in the Texas Panhandle who specializes in equine sports medicine and equine reproduction, answers the inquiry.

Although Dr. Morrow does not see the changes across the broad spectrum of horses he examines, he adds, “That said, there are specific characteristics that we select for in the population of western performance horses.”

As a group, western performance horse breeders “select for short-strided individuals, making it easier to catch in roping events and, in most cases, easier to turn in barrel racing,” Dr. Morrow says. “The stride length is dictated by a number of mechanical factors but is dominated by the angle of the shoulder: That is, the steeper the shoulder angle, the shorter the stride, in most cases.

“Racehorses are selected for a flatter-sitting shoulder, allowing them to travel greater distances with each stride.”

Straight Off the Racetrack

By blending old-school methods with modern technology, longtime breeder and AQHA Past President Johnny Trotter is quickly becoming a legend in the realm of Quarter Horse racing. Johnny’s racing interests include the ownership of 2018 World Champion Racing American Quarter Horse Bodacious Eagle, a horse whose lineage includes the names Streakin La Jolla, One Famous Eagle, Chicks Beduino, Corona Cartel and Dash For Cash. Not only do these bloodlines excel on the racetrack, they’re quite popular among barrel racers, too

Looking to Bodacious Eagle as his picture of ideal form-to-function conformation, Johnny says, “The angle of the shoulders make the withers look, at times, like they sit toward the middle of the back. This causes the neck to look longer and the back shorter. That is one of the main things I look at when looking for racing prospects.”

Team Roping Saddle Fit: Tree and Gullet Adjustments

An avid team roper, Johnny notices the ramifications of a poorly fit saddle in the arena, where many ropers have saddles with gullets that are too high.

“The physics of it don’t work,” he says.

Johnny relates the shift in the bone and muscle structure of horses and the need for a properly fitting saddle to a Ford pickup truck.

“Used to be when you put a big trailer on the back of a truck, the nose would pop up in the air and the tail end would sink,” he says. “Now, with more knowledge, the truck design has evolved and when you hook up, they stay flat and are able to pull more smoothly.”

Simply put: “It makes it easier for them to do their job.”

Dennis agrees with Johnny’s idea of maintaining the flat line. Analogies like Johnny’s ignite Dennis’ idea to reduce the rocker curve of the saddle tree.

From the saddlemaker’s perspective, the increase in muscle mass in the loins results in the structure of the horse becoming more flat both perpendicularly and parallel to their spine. Using a yardstick to assist in viewing the different pressure points, Dennis directs the attention to the back half of a saddle tree.

“When the back is flat by the kidneys, then the pressure points of the saddle tree are out here,” he says, indicating the widest point on the back end of the saddle tree bars. The remainder of the saddle tree bars are lifted up and off of the horse.

Increased muscle mass in the loins changes the horse’s structure and ultimately the pressure points of the saddle tree bars.

“If you put a back cinch on and tighten it up, and then go to pull here,” Dennis says, as he imitates the motion of mounting a horse, “the saddle is going to roll over to you. It won’t stay in place.”

By flattening out the tree, the goal is to create equal pressure along the bars of the saddle tree.

“You still want the curvature here (on the front portion of the saddle tree) because of the withers, and we are still having a little bit of curvature back here so it takes that pressure off of the kidneys,” Dennis says. “But it has equaled all that pressure down through the bars.”

A proponent of cutting away a large portion of the back bulbs on the saddle tree, Dennis says, “It is now more flat across here.”

To Dennis, when done correctly, this also allows more twist in the bars of the saddle tree.

“(Keeping) the saddle down level with the horse’s back, everything is solid on that horse so the horse is now packing the rider versus dragging the rider.”

Referring once again to racehorses, Dr. Morrow expands on the possible causalities of Dennis’ observations: “Racing genetics typically produce a flatter croup, allowing a stronger bolster at the attachment of the lumbar spine and the hind limb.”

This aspect of a horse’s structural design, Dr. Morrow says, “makes it more efficient to propel themselves in a straight line. Consequently, these individuals tend to not be as flexible in a turn and tend to lean. Rounder-croupped horses will not exhibit the same powerful move but will be able to flex and or turn while remaining vertical. This physical attribute will definitely affect how a saddle tree fits and performs for a horse.”

Ropers seek a low gullet. If a gullet’s too high, when it comes time to dally, the saddle will look like an older pickup with too much weight on its bumper-pull hitch.

Signs That a Saddle Doesn’t Fit the Horse

When evaluating a horse for saddle fit, Dennis advises checking for dry spots and swirls after riding.       

“Dry spots are a lack of pressure,” he explains.

To inspect for proper fit, Dennis removes the saddle skirt and “reads the signs left on the inside of the skirts.

 “All of the pressure points will have a little dark spotting in the leather, as it pulls the oils in the leather to that point,” he says.

A little indention is also left in the leather.

White hairs and swirls on the horse’s body can indicate poor fit, Dr. Morrow adds.

“It may be from abrasion or pressure or heat, all of which come with blanket and saddle fit.

“All feedyard horses have white hairs on their withers from someone leaning over to open and close gates hundreds of times,” he adds. “Logically, the better a tree fits the structure of the back with blankets to pad and absorb sweat, the better we expect the saddle to perform.

“It should be considered also, that there is a conditioning process for a horse's back. Not just muscular development but also the skin being used to being wet and hot under a blanket and saddle. The more conditioned the back is to work, the more forgiving it will be to equipment shortcomings,” Dr. Morrow says.

White hairs are the body’s response to significant trauma, says Dr. Morrow.

Does Saddle Fit Impact Barrel Racing Time?

The tree of the saddle is the largest and most solid piece of equipment used while riding the horse. When chasing the clock, as many performance riders do, every millisecond of improvement is sought to win the race.

In September 2018 at the 49th Annual Cowboy Capital of the World Rodeo in Stephenville, Texas, barrel racer Teri Bangart earned the $3,423 first-place check for her time of 15.59 seconds. The eventual Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champion, Hailey Kinsel, placed 13th after running a time of 15.92 seconds. Her check? $342. That 0.33-second difference breaks down to $93 per one one-thousandth of a second.

It seems the observations of an old saddlemaker are worth considering. Contestants are constantly evaluating and adjusting every aspect of their tack when looking to gain time. Why not start with one of the most crucial pieces first?