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Short Backed Horses and Saddle Position

What kind of saddle helps short-backed horses the most?

By Letitia Glenn – Owner and Master Saddle Designer at Natural Horseman Saddles.

Many of you have expressed concern and curiosity about the best saddle for riding horses with very short backs. Especially if you’ve listened to opinions of people who convincingly believe these horses need short saddles, it gets confusing.  So what kind of saddle helps short backed horses the most?  Length isn’t the only thing that matters.  Let’s explore ‘Short Backed Horses and Saddle Fit’.

Is Length an Issue?

We’ve been passionately committed to the scientific development of the best possible saddle tools for over 20 years while researching across a broad span of ridden horse breeds.
Horse after horse (gaited breed or not) consistently showed the more important issue is the efficiency of weight distribution, not the saddle length.

Don’t restrict their movement…

Horses do very well using their bodies to carry riders in well-shaped saddles that span farther back along their spines than they do carrying weight compacted in the center back region. Saddle and rider weight too far forward also present serious challenges for their comfort. biomechanics and ultimately overall health.
Riders who are crammed into too-small seats of saddles with short bars (weight-bearing part of the tree or saddle skeleton) unwittingly add concentrated, damaging pressure in the center and shoulders and restrict their own ability to move in harmony with their horses’ locomotion. This contributes to horses traveling with shoulders held forward to escape pressure, high heads, increasingly sagging backs, too much weight on the forehand, choppy strides, HQ strung out behind, inability to power up as nature intended and, worse: pain and likely, eventual lameness of some sort.

Test Ride to See…

We know it sounds counter-intuitive unless you’ve tried it. For those who are keen to keep an open mind, we invite you to TEST RIDE our saddle/saddle fit system and see what your short backed horse thinks compared to your current equipment.  Most who try feel the difference and quickly grasp what the benefits to their horse will be.  Length suddenly takes a back seat and the importance of a well-balanced and well-fitting saddle takes precedence.

Who agrees…

Our recent interactions and work with Dr. Roberta Ferro De Godoy [Senior Lecturer Veterinary Physiotherapy/Equine Science] and her team from Writtle University in the U.K. cemented our hypothesis.
As an equine researcher who has seen many brands of saddles and breeds of horses (along with solid data indicating comfort vs non-comfort) Dr. Ferro De Godoy noted:

The load of the rider is the same, so if the saddle is short the contact area is small, so the pressures are more concentrated. A larger panel distributes better this pressure. Think about high heels, if you step in somebody with high heels you can hurt much more than normal shoes as the forces and pressures are concentrated in a very small area. We know from research that  increasing the homogeneity of pressure distribution under the saddle seems to improve the back movement (flexion/extension) under the seat of the rider. Additionally, increase of pressure on one part of the equine back reduces the mobility of this region.

Case in Point…

Kate Charboneau of Minnesota USA, and her ‘short backed’ horse SKIPPER found comfort in one of our Western Models.  Here is her story of how SKIPPER found his canter, and Kate just didn’t see it coming!

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Kate Charboneau and Skipper with their Natural Performer Western Saddle.

I bought a Natural Performer [Part of the Parelli Saddles Range… Made exclusively by NHS] for my four year old, 13.1 hand, 800 lb, Welsh cross gelding who has already gone through a good handful of saddles in only four months of being ridden (when he began showing signs of muscle atrophy which is what prompted the frantic frenzy of saddle fitting/ purchasing/selling we’ve been involved in).

I have read & watched your video footage of all the “my horse offered thus & such” and “our horses tell us the saddle is great” and I always thought, “yah yah, blah blah, foo-foo, auras and crystals”. And now I have to take those thoughts back.

Skipper has been under saddle for four months and the canter has been a major issue – at first, awful temper tantrums to try to avoid it, then constant one, two, three tempi lead changes (without being asked). He always had to be significantly pushed into & then held into the canter.

Tonight, on our second ride with this NP, within 10 minutes of riding we were in a nice road trot & he popped up into a light & lofty canter. I nearly launched off, since it was completely out of character & I was 100% unprepared!

I pulled him down to the trot and a moment later he popped up into that same lofty, relaxed canter. I thought , “What the heck? Did I drive my hip into him? Did I accidentally jab my heel into him?” and brought him back to trot. Then I started to think “Oh my gosh, is this the saddle? This is amazing!” I cannot believe the changes in my gelding

Blog - Short Backed Skipper


Saddle Fit Improvement


Shims serve best when contained inside your saddle pad’s shim pocket, and the pocket should not have vertical seams which trap the shims too far forward or in the center. If you don’t have a pad with a pocket, you could experiment with shims tucked underneath your saddle and get a feel for how much they help. If you’re not in a position to buy a new pad, you could attach them with a little piece of velcro when you’re happy with the way you’ve positioned them. You may do well with just our thin ones…or the thicker ones might be better. Peruse our sample diagrams to build your confidence in which to select for your horse’s back type.

  1. As always, we would recommend using at least one set of VersaFit tapered foam shims positioned with their “lifting power” at the horse’s scapula maximum backswing point. This keeps pressure off the horse’s working shoulders, which sets things up for good biomechanics throughout his body. If you’re dealing with hollow back or other topline deterioration issues, we’ve got suggestions for you in the shimming section of contour
  2. If the balance point of the saddle isn’t perfect for your desired riding position, you may be well served to employ another shim to lift the front more or lift the rear, depending upon which way you to tilt the saddle. See our helpful diagrams or fill out our FREE SADDLE FIT EVALUATION if you need help being confident about this.
Talk to us more about SHORT BACKED HORSES AND SADDLE FIT via email.  CLICK HERE.
Need more individual help?  Be sure to complete and submit our FREE Saddle Fit Evaluation form online!