Crooked Saddles & Why Your Solutions Haven’t Worked

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:

 

Crooked Saddle Twist 1

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:

 

Crooked Saddle Twist 2

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.

A Solution

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:

Crooked Saddle Shim

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.

Last Resort

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!

Justin B

6 Comments

  1. Lesley Stevenson on February 5, 2016 at 11:09 pm

    Great article Justin!

    • tsf on February 9, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Thanks 🙂

  2. Jan Lear on February 9, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    I like to ride with the reins in my left hand but have learned that that throws my left hip forward, causing my horse to not want to pick up the left lead! When I ride straight (hard to do) he goes into the left lead with no problem.

  3. Max on February 13, 2016 at 6:59 am

    stupid auto correct, should read: After my mare had her first foal last year I noticed the saddle listing just as you say here. I ended up buying a schleese with flair panels these are great for adjusting as your horse builds muscle or has major body changes. After being shown by my saddle fitter I am able to inflate or deflate as my mare builds strength on her weak side and her natural asymmetry is reduced. If you have a good eye I strongly recommend the inflatable air flocking over shims as it’s more permanent and easily customizable.

  4. Nicole Chastain on February 22, 2016 at 7:34 am

    I would be curious to know what you think after reading Dr. Hillary Clayton’s findings on this matter…they find that most saddles will shift to the side of dysfunction of the hind leg- so an overdeveloped left shoulder could be from over compensation of a weak rt hind….among many orher things. This is not always the case. The most recent study has also suggested not shimming the low side so no pressure there allows muscle development and instead shimming the back quarter and sometimes even the larger shoulder side- have been struggling to get my mind around how that would work- let me know your take on it….(for example left shoulder dominant shimming left front quarter and right rear panel….)

    • tsf on March 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      In my experience when you shim the low side (assuming it is in the proper place) it actually reduces pressure from that area. Now it is important to shim in the correct place for the problem you’re addressing. You’ll notice my shimming recommendations are on the more vertical spots in the panels which has a different effect than using the same concept on a horizontal surface. Shimming in the vertical-most areas of the saddle can improve the fit/position/shifting without making a “hot spot” under the saddle. That’s not to say shimming the horizontal areas of the panels isn’t right, it just depends on what issue you’re trying to remedy.

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