Tonka’s Saddle Fitting

By Terry Golson

In January I bought a new (used) saddle. It fit great and Tonka let me know he liked it by going happily forward when ridden. But, neither saddles nor horses stay static. The saddle is filled (the horsey term is flocked) with wool. The stuffing compacts and shifts. I try to sit plumb, but I ride crooked. As Tonka gets more exercise, and as that work becomes more physically challenging, he puts on muscles. He also gets sore spots. As do we all when we move! It was time to have an expert’s eye on my horse and saddle. A friend at the barn had a saddle fitter coming. Fortunately, Audra had time for Tonka and I, too.

Before Audra fit the saddle, she checked Tonka’s body for knots and sore spots that block movement. She found one on his right cheek. The release for that is in his mouth. I had brought Tonka into the arena wearing his bridle. It had to come off. No problem, no halter needed – not with this well-trained horse.

I could hear a pop when the jaw readjusted position. Tonka stretched and looked relieved. About ten minutes later, Audra did this bodywork again. Tonka showed no worry or resistance. Rather, he seemed to understand that it would make him feel better. When a horse is this amenable, it allows them to think, make connections, and become even more trusting.

Audra felt for sore spots. Tonka was rock solid for most of this inspection, but moved away from pressure on his right loin, and on one hamstring.

Audra checked the fit of the saddle (sorry, no photos, I was busy helping). She also needed to take a tracing of his withers. For that, Tonka has to stand perfectly. No problem. I’ve taught him that when I say square up and touch a leg that is out of place, that he adjusts his position, and then stays put.


Audra reflocked the saddle. It needed more wool in a few places, and smoothing out in other areas.

Then we tacked up Tonka. The cantle (the back end) of the saddle needed to be raised up a tad. To do that, we needed a shimmed saddle pad. Audra had one to try, and Tonka went great in the reflocked saddle and her pad. But, I have a lovely soft pad made from sheep fleece, that could also be shimmed to raise the cantle. Before I bought a new pad, we tried that one. I got on and the first time around the ring Tonka went ok, then it was if he realized that this was not Audra’s pad, he put his nose in the air, hollowed his back, and I could see him eyeballing me. Clearly he was saying, Stop, already! I did, jumped off, and we immediately removed the pad, which was too tight on his shoulders. It helps, when saddle fitting, to have a horse that is willing to communicate with you (because they trust that you will listen and not force them to keep going!) I went home and ordered the pad that Tonka approved of. It will arrive in a couple of days. When it gets here, I’ll get photos to show you how Tonka is now moving.

Tonka will surely be putting on muscle and changing shape. I’ve already asked Audra to come back the next time she’s in the area. (She travels up here from Pennsylvania.)

Tonka has a new friend, and even if what we need to do is just a minor adjustment, it’ll be worth it.

9 thoughts on “Tonka’s Saddle Fitting

  • Karen Pryor

    Awesome segment on saddle-fitting in action, with the horse and the expert and Terry all working it out. I had no idea keeping a saddle in shape and correctly fitted to the horse could be so complex and also so productive.

    Tonka really liked the saddle fitter lady, didn’t he. And it has to be pretty impressive that he can participate in the whole thing without a bridle or halter, just him communicating and the people communicating back. Bravo.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Yes, it’s very helpful to the fitter to have the horse responsive. Shut down horses don’t communicate enough. Fearful horses aren’t calm enough to accept the handling in order for the fitter to ask them the right questions.

  • Judy

    Hi Terry
    Amazing! Makes me wonder how in the world one learns to be an expert saddle fitter. I know absolutely nothing about horses, but I love reading about your and Tonka’s world.

  • Tracy

    Oh, and the jaw pop! Do you know how it became out of alignment? That correction alone was worth any fee for her visit.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      When I got Tonka four years ago, his jaw made a clicking noise when he ate. Had several professionals look at him, and couldn’t find a cause. It eventually stopped. I recently had a veterinary dentist take care of his teeth (the annual teeth floating and check up) and Tonka got a clean bill of health. Not even any unusual sharp points. Audra said that horses can get muscle knots along their jaw, like TMJ, and it will come and go.

  • Chicken Carol

    Once again your great communication with Tonker really helps smooth the way. What an amazing job a saddle fitter has. She must also be really good at communicating with horses and Tonker himself is such a good boy.

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