Crooked saddles plague horses and riders all the time with poor position and sore muscles. But a quick Internet search found somewhere between zero and nil in the way of effective solutions to fix this. Well, to be fair there are a couple answers our there… one recommends standing in one stirrup more than the other, and another suggests a “fingers crossed method” that someday a rider will shed her natural crookedness. Good news! We can do much better than that for a solution, and actually get you and your saddle straightened out without too much effort.
First, it is critically important to address how and why saddles actually get crooked. The mainstream perception is that a saddle lists off to one side almost as if the girth is too loose and the whole thing is just rolling off around the horse’s barrel. When you look at a saddle on a horse from the rear or try to line up the pommel over the withers while in the seat, it certainly seems like that’s what’s happening. But the truth is most of the time a saddle is actually twisting, instead of listing.
Why does this distinction matter? Because it shows us what is actually moving the saddle in contrast to what the saddle looks like it’s doing. A saddle twists for 2 main reasons. One, a horse has a bigger shoulder on one side which pushes the front of the saddle in one direction. Like this:
Two, a horse has a lower or steeper angle on one side of the withers/trapezius area which makes one side in the front of the saddle drop down more than the other. It is kind of like a car with one flat front tire, like this:
For either one of these cases, it is something going on in the front of that saddle that translates back and affects the saddle all the way to the cantle. In the first scenario above with the uneven shoulders, a trainer will see the cantle off to one side and assume the saddle is listing to that side. In the second scenario above, where the front corner is dropping, a trainer will see the same “listing” and a rider might also notice the pommel is not even along the horse’s withers.
Now that we know what the likely culprit is, we can come up with an effective solution. First, determine which direction your saddle moves. In this example we are going to assume the saddle is off to the right, and we can confirm this by getting a friend/trainer to watch us ride away from them in a straight line and observe which way the cantle moves. Regardless of which type of twist we have (asymmetrical shoulder or uneven withers), we will place a shim under the front right 1/3 of the saddle panels, like this:
This shimming position will give the saddle more support under the “weak” side, and will rotate the saddle back to center by undoing the twisting that was occurring. Depending on the degree of severity, it may take a shim anywhere from 10 – 25 mm thick to get the saddle straight. This means there’s going to be a little trial and error to get the thickness just right. For shims, anything from a folded hand towel, a piece of felt or memory foam will do the trick.
Shimming a saddle is the DIY way of addressing this, but it is worth noting that if you work with a good saddle fitter she will have another tool at her disposal. She’ll be able to remove wool from the opposite side of the panels, which can help compliment the addition of shims/wool on the weak side. This of course only applies if you have a wool flocked saddle. If you have a foam panel saddle, shimming will be your best option (if you don’t know anything about panels, read this – Click Here).
You might be asking yourself, “Wait won’t this make my saddle asymmetrical? I heard somewhere you should never do that.” First, that really only applies to the rigid weight bearing part of the saddle – the tree (and this includes all flex/spring/etc style trees). Making a tree uneven can be dangerous. But when you intentionally make the padding (flocking or shims) in the panels uneven to level out the saddle on the horse’s back, you’re actually promoting more even pressure distribution and better rider balance. And over time we hope that the shimming can be reduced as the horse and rider develop together more evenly.
If you try this strategy I just outlined and find it isn’t working, it is possible that you have one of the few saddles that is actually listing to one side. In that case feel free to pad up one whole side of the panels to lift up the low side. But I think you will be surprised how infrequently this is actually the problem/solution we have at hand.
I hope this sheds some new light on the crooked saddle dilemma, and gives you another piece to your riding puzzle. Happy riding!