Thursday, January 12, 2012


For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This is a great old proverb that Ma used to quote often, about the the way something seemingly small can have huge consequences in greater events.  (Ma may not have known about the Butterfly Effect or chaos theory, but she by-god knew about paying attention to detail, and was probably the biggest influence behind my growing up to be such a nit-picking pedant.)  In saddle fitting, you need to make sure the Holy Trine (tree width, tree shape and panel configuration) are correct ... but sometimes a tiny detail can derail an otherwise fine fit ... a tiny detail like billet placement or configuration.  

To figure out just why this little piece of the saddle fitting picture is so important, let's start by taking a look at the horse's "girth spot" or "girth groove".  To put it simply, it's the flat spot on the bottom of the barrel behind the forelegs.  On some horses, it's fairly generous, as on this horse (the approximate girth spot is highlighted in green):

On some horses, it's a bit less generous:

But on some horses, it's far forward and quite wee:

On my mare, it's not quite as tiny as in this shot - her foreleg is hiding a good inch of it, honestly - but ...

She really is shaped like this:

If your horse has a long girth spot, you can get away with a saddle that has the "standard" billet set (though frankly, these billets are set too far back for most horses, and you'd probably have to use the two front billets rather than the first and last):

However, I see a good number of horses that have the short, forward girth spots; they tend to be broader, with very well-sprung rib cages.  They often seem to have big, laid-back shoulders, too.  Saddle placement on beasts with this conformation can be a challenge, since very often the billets will fall behind the natural girth spot:

This means that when the saddle is girthed up, it gets yanked forward along that big round rib cage until the billets line up with the girth spot.  This means the shoulders are constricted; even if the tree points are short, having the saddle jammed right in behind the shoulders can inhibit the use of the forelegs and create sores on the elbows.  

This can also throw the saddle out of balance, making it sit pommel high, which will throw the rider in the back seat and cause all sorts of problems.

So what can you do?  Well, you can try a saddle with a point billet, which is attached to the point of the saddle tree.  Of course, there are point billets and there are point billets.  Some come out of the rear of the thigh block, which may not be quite far forward enough for some horses:

Notice the curve in the front billet?  That can make the saddle scoot forward.

Having the billet come out of the bottom of the block can be a better choice if the horse has an extremely forward girth spot:

The saddle in the photo above also has a swing rear billet, which allows the rear billet to move into the correct position for pretty much any girth spot.  It also offers greater stabilization, thanks to the two attachment points on the "V" of the webbing.

Some saddles offer a choice of billet positions, like this Thorowgood:

The billets loop through the rings under the flap, allowing the rider to choose either a point or regular billet position, while the swing rear billet will position itself as necessary.  The Black Country Summit also offers a LOT of billet choices:

The good news about billet placement is that it can often be changed.  If your saddle is a great fit except for the billet placement, a competent saddler can retrofit:  remove or install a point billet, move a standard billet forward or back, or install (or remove) a swing rear billet.  And if you're buying new, most good saddle companies will make your saddle with whatever billet configuration your fitter thinks will be most suitable for your horse.


Val said...

Excellent post! Thank you.

Never saw the billet dropping directly out of the thigh block before. My horse has a forward girth spot, so that is nice to know.

Melissa said...

Any use for those 'anatomic girths'?

Anonymous said...

Good post. What do you think of the H-girth that WOW has come up with?

saddlefitter said...

Thanks, Val. The extremely forward-hung opoint billet can be a huge help with the really short, forward girth spots.

Melissa, I've seen times when the anatomic girth worked wonderfully to keep the saddle back ... and I've seen times when it was totally useless. Depends on the situation.

enhvithest, I haven't had a chance to get a hands-on with the H girth, so can't comment ... but if I do, I'll be sure to let you know.

Anonymous said...

My saddle came with the billets crossed so the rear billet is in the front. Do you have any concerns with this arrangement?

saddlefitter said...

Anon, I've known of this billeting configuration to be used to help secure the saddle. I don't think it's really optimal, but it could be a helpful "band aid" until you can have a fitter check things out and recommend a better fix.

Steph Bloom said...

Great post as always Kitt. I have seen so many wide cobs where lateral stability has been an issue and the owner has been advised to use the rear set balance strap which has been a disaster as you can imagine. The girth straps do more than one job and girth groove placement is probably the most important, stability should come more from the tree and panel set up of course, girthing is the final touch only!

saddlefitter said...

Thanks, Steph! Good point that if your saddle truly fits, you don't have to have the girth so tight your horse's eyes are bugging out. If you can't slip your fingers between the girth and your horse's barrel, it's too tight.

Anonymous said...

What is the brand of the humane girth on the picture with the grey horse?

saddlefitter said...

Anon, that's a Frank Baines humane end dressage girth:

One quick caveat on any humane-end girth: I love them, and use on on my mare, but it's VERY easy to over-tighten them. Be careful about this (and if your saddle fits properly, your girth doesn't need to be super tight).

Lisa said...

I have a mare who is a bit of a paradox: she has large, laid back shoulders and would be a candidate for a point billet, however I have tried a variety of PBs on her and she HATES them. Would having a traditional billet on a dressage saddle moved forward an inch or two cause it to feel like a PB to her or would that be a good option? Thanks!

saddlefitter said...

Lisa, IME, if a horse hates a point billet, it's usually because of one of the following reasons: 1) the girth is being over-tightened, 2) the saddle isn't a good overall fit, or 3) the tree points are too long. However, if your mare really won't accept a point billet, moving the front center hung billet might help.

Unknown said...

If a saddle has three billets on each side, and your horse has high withers, should you always use the rear two billets when girthing? Seems to me this would merely pull the back of the saddle down more than the front, potentially causing pressure underneath the rear of the saddle, but I could be wrong.

saddlefitter said...

Cheryl, the normal configuration is front and rear billet, but I guess the answer to your question would be, "It depends on the individual horse and saddle." Sorry I can't be more specific, but without seeing the horse and saddle in question, I can't really offer much more.