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How to make saddle fitting wither wires



How to make saddle fitting wires:

There are a couple options. You can purchase a “flexible curve” here: 

You can also use wire. Cut two wires in ~20 inch lengths. Copper works great, but even baling wire can work!


Fold the wire into a "V" with the top bend being ~1 to 1 1/2″ wide to accommodate the width of the wither bone itself. It helps to put a piece of tape on the bottom of the left side to keep the left and right separated. Place wires on horse so that the tape is on the left side.

Locate the scapula; get a dry erase marker, chalk, or pastel and draw a line along the top and rear edges of the scapula bone, or use a strip of masking or medical tape. Draw a line, or place the tape along the back of the shoulder/scapula to mark the rear edge of the bone.  

You can find it by having your assistant pick up the front leg and moving it forward and backward and watching the bone to find the edges. Be sure to place the leg back down next to the other leg… keep in mind the horse must be standing “square,” on a level surface, with head strait forward.” It helps to have a 2nd person to keep the horse standing square, with his head and neck motionless.  

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Wire #1: The widest part over the shoulders

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Wire #2: Just behind the scapula, in the gullet

WIRE #1 will measure the amount of front bar flare needed to guide your horses shoulder under the tree into the gullet: 

Once you have the scapula marked and the legs properly placed, then you can identify where to put each wire. Place the 1st wire on the wither over the largest part of the shoulders. 

Make certain the wires are touching the horses body snug from top to bottom. NO GAPS. When they are correctly shaped you will tape the end of the wire on his left shoulder and the other end should NOT lift off the right shoulder. Then you know they are snug enough to be accurate. Do not make them so snug that they make deep dents.

Gently form the wire over your horses withers OVER the largest width of the scapula..  

Keep an eye on your tape or your marker line as your horse shifts around to be certain it remains accurately placed.

Make certain the entire wire is formed to the horse all the way to the end of the wire. Mark the wire where the top of the scapula is( refer to the blue line in the picture).

This one is a bit tricky because the measurement needs to be taken at the top of the scapula, which is covered in muscle and difficult to find. On a very fit horse, with an average wither, the measurement may be around 2 to 2.5" from the top of the wither. On a less fit, or elderly horse with a tall wither, this measurement may be 3 to 3.5" from the top of the wither. 

From the top of the scapular bone, make a new mark 1/8″ down from that line. Move your horse around to be certain you are accurate in your assessment of where the scapular ridge lies.

Now,  have your assistant hold the wire in place while you step to the rear of your horse for the necessary visual reference to be  certain the wires vertical descent is the same on both sides. The width of your horses scapula determines the amount of front bar flare you will need in your saddle. The scapula MUST have sufficient room to pass underneath the front bars of the saddle, but not so wide that the front of the saddle sinks down under pressure and traps your horses shoulders.

***If you are even 1/4" off in your measurement, you will be searching for a saddle that is too wide/narrow and the issue of saddle fit will be ongoing and you won't understand why. This is why I recommend a qualified saddle fitter, because the wither wires are not a black-and-white skill with solid rules. It is a gray area that requires experience and training to get it right. In addition, a horse's gullet and bar flare width will change quickly with the seasons, the horse's current exercise regime, turnout access, and body condition. It will rarely be identical from season to season. So we have to use these measurements as a guide, and it isn't always EXACT. 


In some case, buying a 1/4" wider saddle than necessary is *acceptable* as long as you add properly placed shims, or in some cases a 2nd pad might work to elevate the front of the saddle and keep it balanced front to back. If you don’t balance the saddle front to back, you will be creating a new type of pain for your horse. It is NOT better unless you plan to over-pad your horse to help prevent your saddle from sinking painfully low on the shoulder. This will create additional pressure in the front under the conchos, so it really isn't an ideal solution! 

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WIRE #2: This is your gullet width.

Place the wire about a finger width BEHIND the scapular bone (refer to picture above). 

This wire is correctly placed if you can place a finger in front of this wire and not touch the line you drew on the back edge of the scapula bone.


The wires should fit snug and evenly on your horse on both sides of his body to be accurate. Make sure your horse is standing square, on a level surface. In some rare cases, a horse may be standing perfectly square, but one shoulder will definitely be farther forward than another. I do see this from time to time, and it has to do with the horse being unevenly muscled due to having a more dominant side - which will be the bigger shoulder, placed farther back. The weaker shoulder will be flatter, and farther forward. Again - make sure the horse is standing square, or you might mistakenly interpret shoulder placement. 

In western saddles these 2 measurements can be a tricky combination for some horses! (English saddles only require the measurement behind the shoulder, which is the gullet.) For example, you might be trying to fit a horse with really large shoulders that has muscle atrophy behind them in the hind trapezius (the gullet) area. When this happens, the discrepancy between shoulder flare and gullet measurement makes it extremely difficult to fit a Western saddle to! Or in some cases I see the opposite - a horse that is fuller behind the shoulder (gullet) than over the shoulders (bar flare). In other words, they are "potato" shaped. Yet another facet that increases the level of difficulty is if the horse is sway-backed, or has a shark-fin type of wither; the relativity of these measurements changes their application, and this is definitely why you may need assistance. Taking measurements with wither wires is difficult, not intuitive, requires patience, knowledge and understanding of the horse's anatomy, and the biomechanics of how those pieces fit together, affect one another, and change with time and exercise is all a necessary prerequisite. 

Wither tracings

Step #3: Remove the wires from the horse and lay them flat on a sheet of paper or cardboard.

It is common for 1 shoulder to be steeper than the other. This lack of symmetry in the shoulders will need to be corrected via shims on top of your saddle pad before ANY saddle will be comfortable for your horse. (This horse clearly doesn't have symmetrical shoulders and will require shims to balance the saddle left to right).


Step #4: Hold the wire firmly in place and draw a line tracing each wire before removing the wires from the paper.

Step #5:  Measuring wire #1: 

Here is where you will use the mark on the side of the wire that you made while it was over your horse's shoulder. The one that marks the top of the shoulder blade.

Use a ruler or strait edge to draw a line from one side to the other to mark the top of both shoulders on your diagram. It will likely be around 2 to 3" down for most horses. Here is another area that is sort-of "gray." I will take a look at the tracing, and you can sometimes see if there is a "Bell Curve," you can actually see the top of the scapula. This is a way to double check the accuracy of how far down you need to measure. In the photo above, you can see how the shoulder measurement on the top tracing is correctly placed a little bit below the bell curve. 

Now use a tape measure or ruler to measure the distance. Write it down. For the average narrow-bodied horse like a Paint or Thoroughbred, it may be between 6" to 8" or so. For the average large-bodied quarter horse, it may be 7 to 9" or so. 

That measurement represents the absolute minimum amount of front bar flare for your horse to wear a saddle and STAND STILL. It does not allow for any movement. So you will need to add 1" to that number, to get to the final measurement that will allow enough front bar flare for your horse to move, and turn, and perform as necessary. 

Next step: (We are still working with wire #1)

The bar angle is measured below that line, and down a couple inches. It may be anywhere from 80 to 90 degrees in a narrow bodied horse, or closer to 90 up to 100 or more in very wide or drafty horses. This angle is imperative to the comfort of your horse, and the angle of the shoulder will need to match the angle of the bar on the saddle. If the bar angle is too flat (wide spread), the top of the saddle tree bars will settle onto the top of the shoulder and cause a painful pressure spot on top of the bone. This occurs because the "foot of the bar" is flaring off the horses shoulder. The bottom of the saddle tree bars should be resting evenly and firmly on the horses body so the top of the bars allow the scapula to pass freely under the saddle tree and into the gullet. 

Wire #2 The Gullet Width (GW): 

This is another area where it gets tricky and you must make an important determination of how much drop there is between wire #1 and wire #2 on your horses wither. A high withered horse will have over an inch of drop, while a flatter or more mutton-withered horse, or a young horse will have less than an inch. If there is more than an inch, we may need to modify the distance that we measure down from the top of the wither. 

Measure down the same distance on your paper with wire #2, this will be your preliminary gullet width. There are multiple modifying factors with this number, and it is not a black-and-white process, nor is it easy to learn! 

For example, if the horse has a super tall wither, or a swayback, you will likely need to measure down 1/4" to 1/2" farther down to get an accurate gullet width. 

Many people are shopping for saddles with gullets that are incorrect and this is the main reason why. You have never been instructed to increase the measurement to offset the amount of descent in the wither. 

When a saddle is too wide, it sinks in front it changes the bar angles, and destroys the balance of the tree setting on your horse and causes  pressure spots.

When your horses leg extends forward, the scapula must have enough room to slide under the front bar paddle and into the twist without hitting the tree under the pommel. The bar angle over the ribs needs to mirror the rib angle not to trap the ribs and make them sore- (this occurs when a saddle sinks in front). 

The top edge of the tree should not pressure the spine, either. When a saddle tree is too wide the top edge of the tree causes painful pressure on the spine- even with a pad....and if a thin pad is used it can cause severe damage.

These are so many issues that a qualified saddle fitter should be able to detect, and have sufficient experience to properly advise how to come up with a better saddle and pad setup for your horse.

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The 2nd wire measurement indicates the gullet width If your horse doesn’t have enough room here he will short stride. This horse requires 5.25" gullet width. This saddle is slightly too wide as a there is a gap on the right side between the paper and the fleece. 

This saddle I have owned for many years and used in my training barn, and it has a 6.25" GW and is still too wide for many horses and I have had to throw a 2nd pad on to keep the saddle level.

Notice the lack of symmetry in the shoulders of the horse in the picture below. This is a common finding! There is disagreement among the experts whether this is a "normal," or "acceptable" condition in horses. With my background in Veterinary Medicine, I can tell you he was probably born right-side dominant, and through the years, he hasn't been trained to even out the way he naturally moves. The mane will usually fall to the weaker, or "hollow side." 

Even the best fitting saddle will do damage to this horse unless a shim is added to the left (smaller) shoulder to balance the saddle left to right. 

Sometimes shims need to be added to both sides, but in different places. Often the smaller shoulder will need the shim farther forward, and the larger shoulder will need the shim farther back, to lift the saddle a little bit to make room for that larger shoulder. It is highly variable, and every horse is different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for these asymmetrical horses.

This is one of the reasons I do not like the shimmable saddle pads with "shim pockets," where there is a front, middle and back pocket that is separately sewn. It completely restricts the placement of the shims, and I have found that they are usually not in the right spot for what I need most of the time! 

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Now imagine how a saddle tree will set on those shoulders. It will be crooked and the horn will tilt off to the left. That larger left shoulder will be repeatedly pushing the saddle back, and to the left. Sometimes I see the hair rubbed due to friction, with the hair shafts broken off in a patch on the right flank. How very uncomfortable for the horse! If you have ever wondered why your saddle keeps getting shoved to one side, check your horse for asymmetry! Trainers will often tell their riders they look like they are riding crooked, and it may not be the rider's fault. 

A person would have to work incredibly hard to get this horse to take BOTH leads! The right lead will be really painful for this horse, so even though it is his dominant side, he will resist because he will anticipate pain. In my experience this horse has edema from ongoing impact damage in that right shoulder. Scar tissue is almost a definite. He won't want to take the left lead because it is his weaker side. 

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This is what a saddle looks like when its pulled too forward on the shoulder. This is horribly painful for the horse

I will usually start with the saddle placement like this, and then gently push back until you can feel the saddle slip off the shoulders, and sink into the "sweet spot" behind the scapula. The saddle will usually naturally find this place if you walk him out just a little. 

Determining maximum skirt length:

You will need to measure the length of the horses back from wire #1 to the front of the point of the hip, at the top of where the hair begins to swirl at the flank.

The saddle skirt should end 2″ before the flank swirl. Saddle skirts that extend all the way to the hip will interfere with the hip action in bends and flexions. The hip will push the saddle forward into the back of the shoulder and this will interfere with your horses ability to have a full range of motion (R.O.M). You may also see hair friction on the loin and backs of shoulders. This is caused by excessive saddle movement.  

Saddle support area has multiple determining factors as well. The acceptable tree length is generally measured from wire #2, taken at the back of the shoulder blade, to the last rib where it meets the spine.

In general, a full size horse with an average length back should be able to wear a 22" long tree (usually associated with a 16" seat). A horse with a really short, or downhill back may do better with a 21" tree (usually associated with a 15" seat). I do see smaller horses like pony crosses or small QH's, or a horse with a swayback, or a severe downhill back that need a 19" or 20" tree, (usually associated with a 14" seat, in general).

The seat size to tree associations are different with each saddlery, and the type of saddle, so those are only generalizations. 

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The picture above is a well fitted tree. The foot of the front bar pad is resting solidly on the lower shoulder creating a slight relief at the top of the bar pad to accomodate the scapular. The bar pad parallels the shoulder nicely.

This picture below is not a good fit. This horse will struggle to move his front legs. The excessive pressure at the top of that front bar will dig into the hind trapezius muscle, and reduce the amount of blood flow able to perfuse the muscle. Reduced blood flow means less nutrients and oxygen getting to the muscles, thus making them shrink - called atrophy. 

If a saddle that fits like this is used over the long term, it will create big hollows behind the shoulder where the muscle has atrophied from the poorly fitting saddle. Once that muscle has shrunk away, the saddle will sink in the front. With each step the horse takes, the saddle has to "step-up" onto that shoulder, and creates excessive pressure there as well. The heavy pressure on the shoulder blade will create swelling and edema over the scapular ridge, which makes the shoulders bigger than they actually are. So then you have a problem where the shoulders are huge, and the hind trapezius is small, which is the worse problem to try to address in Saddle Fitting, in my opinion. 

This is a terrible cyclical problem that will only get worse with time, and will not improve without significant time off, body work, chiropractic attention and Saddle Fit assistance. I also recommend PEMF, or Red Laser Therapy once a week during the rehabilitation period before the horse can be ridden again.  

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