Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Wisdom of Wither Tracings

This blog entry has been many weeks in the making. One thing I have to say about the side saddle aficionados. You are all a most helpful and welcoming bunch.
Almost within hours of my posting my hoarder's dilemma entry, where I first spoke of moving on from this saddle to a possibly better fit, I found a very pleasant email in my inbox. It was from Sue Tobin of Side Saddle Heaven. She offered to help me in my search and suggested that perhaps my horse was simply not a Martin and Martin kind of guy.

Our conversation developed over the weeks of my sending a wither tracing, and her sending the results and explanations back. As I endeavored to fully understand the process, Linda Flemmer, from The Side Saddlery, was introduced into the email conversation through a clarification on point to point measurements. These ladies are patiently diligent in their explanations, and I have tried to be a receptive and understanding student. At one point I feared my blog entry may morph into an article, or worse, a whole book. Volumes could be written on saddle fitting. In the context of this blog, I hope, dear readers, to pass on some fundamental information that may be of help to someone just starting out. Someone like me who may have purchased, on a whim, the long dreamt of side saddle, or who is on the verge of doing so. You can read about tree measurements and wither tracings, but sometimes it doesn't sink in until it applies to your own situation.

The average shape of riding horses has changed over the past century. We have bred them larger and the overall shape has evolved over the years. For this reason, it can be hard to fit some of the larger well muscled, or over fed horses we ride today with a saddle designed 75 or a 100 years ago. And also, the principles of saddle fit have evolved. We all probably grew up reading cowboy stories where a well trained horse was easily distinguished by patches of white hair grown back from saddle rubs. That sort of horsemanship doesn't fly in this day and age. Heck, we now have equine dentists, chiropractors, and professional saddle fitters. Show up with a horse with rubbed hair, a girth gall, saddle sore or **gasp** fistulus withers, and see what kind of looks you get!

So, if you are new to side saddles, not an expert on saddle fitting, and don't have an expert within easy distance with a selection of saddles to try on... how do you be sure that tab A will insert into slot B? In other words...

How do you know that THIS...

...will fit into THIS?

Above is a diagram of a bare side saddle tree from the front, shown with a bare astride tree from the front. The aside tree is an older style tree with a considerably longer near side point for illustrative purposes. Click here for a series of photos on the ISSO site showing a bare Whippy tree with a bit shorter near side point.

Enter the Wither Tracing.

For starters, you will notice that the side saddle tree is built asymmetrically. The near side point extends further down the rib cage in order to stabilize the saddle and counteract the roll. when fitting, not only do you have to measure the gullet width, and the width between the shoulder blades, you have to somehow account for the curvature of your horse. Is he slab sided? Well sprung? Round as a barrel?

This link covers the basics of wither tracings for standard astride saddles.

How to create a Wither Tracing
(**Note: at a later date, I made a blog entry regarding making a "verified" side saddle wither tracing.  Find it here.)

But, like I said, side saddles are more complicated. You can't rely on a simple triangle measurement. Side saddles are typically measured across the gullet from Dee Ring to Dee Ring, and from Point to Point. But the location of the Dees varies from maker to maker, and saddle to saddle. And I think I would have to have a degree in geometry to understand how a diagonal measurement across my horse's barrel could tell me anything useful without knowing a lot of other measurements and angles. I learned to spell the word "hypotenuse" from Sue.

That will get you part way. But how do you take into account the degree of curve of the near side point? You know, the one that keeps your saddle from rolling off? How do you know the saddle tree curve will fit the horse curve? This is a problem that is thankfully absent from astride saddles.

Sue asked me to send her a "verified" wither tracing. Not just any wither tracing. There are two important points you need to be aware of. First is that you need to use a 36" wire to trace the curve of the ribs as far as the near side point will go. So a store bought artist's curve or your standard wire coat hanger will not be long enough. Secondly, after you cut the shape out of your card board, you have to put the scrap of cardboard back on the horse like a saddle to see if you got it right. If you didn't, back to the drawing board.

I always keep the backs of desk pad calenders around and they make great material for this project. When you trace the withers onto your cardboard desk calender back, you want to put the heavy glued spine at the wither tip as this will keep the cutout rigid when you put the negative space cutting back on the horse and you won't be bending it in the middle, rendering your verification pointless. Or, get a sturdy piece of corrugated that is big enough that it won't droop when you cut the horse shape out.

Then you need a long, flexible but stiff piece of wire. I raided my husband's garage for this and came out with some sort of ultra expensive coaxial cable I had to promise to bring back. I also used my artist's curve as a verification that I was not allowing the wire to sag between the horse and the cardboard. The artist's curve does very well at holding it's shape while the 36" wire is unwieldy and harder to manage. I took an initial 18" trace over the top and drew that on the board with pencil. Then I marked the center of the 36" wire with black marker, put that point on the mane line of his withers, and proceeded to shape the wire to the best of your ability. This may take some time.

When I laid the long curve on the board I used the short top tracing from the artist's curve as a guide to make sure my wire hadn't sagged in transit closing the curve like a wish bone. It took more than a couple of tries before I was happy with the curve, and when I placed the cut out scrap over his back I was pretty pleased with my result. Both sides even looked like they belonged to the same horse, and that is hard to do. You will be tempted to cheat, and fold something to duplicate the one good side you think you've drawn but don't. It won't give you an accurate result.

Here is my big, round, well sprung barrel of a horse.

I transferred the form onto mail friendly newsprint paper, marking the near and off side and wrote my full address and William's data as well as the date the tracing was taken, and mailed it off. Then I waited eagerly for the results.

Sue made copies of my wither tracing and superimposed the tree templates she has made from her inventory of saddles, choosing the larger seat sizes which have the best chance of fitting me. She sent me both examples of trees that would fit, and trees that wouldn't. You can see how the trees in the above photo do not sit down on the withers. This will allow the saddle to roll in the direction of the arrow.

Sue's tree template is made by setting the saddle back on it’s fanny, and separating the padded panel extension and the near side flap to expose it’s ‘nether regions’. This enables the her to follow the line of the tree, bending a wire to match, until an accurate representation of the tree itself, without padding, is achieved. Then, she superimposes the tree template over the wither tracing, using her years of experience to judge how this tree would sit on this horse's back.

This is the only long distance method for predicting whether the tree and the horse have a compatible curve. Note the purpley line that ends highest up in this photo. This tree is still curving inward where Grey's ribs are curving outward. This creates a pressure point. That line also happens to represent a Martin & Martin Tree. Guess what I bought? A Martin & Martin.

What you want is a tree like this which is wide and smooth enough to follow the curve of the ribs, as both this Owen and this extra-wide Champion and Wilton tree do. The tree is still curving outward with the horse, and the top of the saddle is settling down over the withers not perching above them.

My saddle's curves are not compatible with my horse's curves. This is easiest to illustrate on the off side garage door hinge. While the hinge is not the tree, the curve must be assumed to be somewhat similar to the near side point. You see where the tip of the hinge hits his ribs? It makes a depression in his fat covering. It rumples his pudge, indicating a pressure point.

This is harder to see on the near side because the safe covers a wider area.

But when I ran my hand ALL the way around the saddle I could clearly feel the pressure point. The tip of the tree pushed down on my knuckles. The rest of the front of the tree, all the way across was comfortable and easy to slide my hand in, but that tip is a problem. Not only is it uncomfortable for the horse, but it prevents the saddle from settling down properly. It is part of my uphill problem. No matter how much flocking is taken out of the pommel, if the hard tree is too tight at any point for the horse, the saddle will not settle or sit straight. And if the saddle will not settle down on the withers, we are going to continue to have the saddle roll to the side.
Not to mention how that must feel when you hang one hundred and mumblemumble pounds of rider on it.
So that is where we are at right now. Regardless of seat length, or flocking issues, the tree of my saddle is not a good fit for my horse. Which means.... it's time to shop!


  1. Gee, looking your your boy's wither tracing makes me realize how NARROW and high withered Hattie is!

    LOL, I'm always doing wither tracings for Hattie and noticed when I went to Sandon Saddlery this year (when I was shopping for my Whippy), how Mayhews don't tend to fit Hattie as the long nearside point digs into her too despite her being a high withered Thoroughbred.

    Champion & Wilton is touch and go with how the trees are shaped as they tend to be TOO curved inwards between the D-rings.

    When I compared the tree shape against my Whippy in the shop, I could see immediately, that the tree followed the contours of her wither tracing, same with my Beck Morrow saddle.

    I made a wither tracing to send to the Side Saddlery as Linda informed me that she may be getting in an off-side Whippy. I'm really hoping that she does get one in for me as I'm thinking that Hattie is a Whippy girl!

  2. And I thought saddle-fitting an astride saddle was difficult. Good luck with the saddle hunt!

  3. The real fun is finally finding a sidesaddle that fits, using it for a bit, and then having your horse's back muscling change so you can go through it all over again.

  4. Wouldn't it be so much easier if there was a way to take a "slice" off your horse's barrel (I'm thinking of those butcher machines used to slice bacon) to send away to compare...? lol

  5. Great post Brita! So informative. =)

  6. Oh - keep us posted. I was so blessed to fall into the Knoud that fits Ollie so well. You are in good hands now Brita.