The gullet of an English saddle plays a major role in determining how happy or miserable your horse will be when saddled. It’s the channel of open space that runs along the central underside of an English saddle, from the head to the cantle. The purpose of the gullet is to make the saddle as comfortable and safe for the horse as possible.
The gullet does this with the help of the stuffed panels and the gullet plate. Two separate pouches or panels form the bottom of an English saddle, with one panel for each side. These are padded with foam, wool, or air to give them enough height to lift the saddle up off the horse’s most sensitive area, the spinous process of the withers.
Between these panels lies the open space of the gullet, and the gullet plate which spans that tunnel from one end to the other. Because s the gullet plate attaches to the gullet between the panels, it determines the width of that channel.
The gullet width also relates to the structure of the inverted U at the head of the tree. That U is part of the framework of the saddle, so its dimensions affect how wide the gullet will be. The angle of the points (downward tips) of the U must be “just right” for the horse wearing the saddle.
That means that the points are far enough apart to clear the sensitive area of the withers even when the rider is sitting and riding in the saddle. At the same time, they must not be so over-extended that weight and force would cause them to press down onto the ribcage and withers.
The angle of the points, the shape of the panels, and the width of the gullet plate work together to create a specific gullet size, and that size in turn determines how the saddle sits on the horse. The problem in assessing this gullet width is that there are no industry standards, so different saddle makers may use different specifications.
One measurement that does boast standardization is the saddle tree size, which manufacturers express not in inches or centimeters but in angles. It denotes the angle of the U comprising the head and pommel:
• Narrow = 86 degree angle
• Medium/Regular = 90 degree angle (right angle or perpendicular)
• Wide = 94 degree angle
As the U’s angle has a direct bearing on the size of the gullet, it is one measurement you can use to get a general idea of the gullet that is right for your horse. However, there is no guaranteed method for predetermining the exact gullet size you need.
One thing that is easier to gauge is uniformity. The gullet under the saddle should be the same width from head to cantle. Some saddles feature gullets that get narrower down toward the cantle, and this is a particularly poor quality in terms of horse comfort and safety. Whenever you examine a saddle, turn it over and make sure that the gullet width remains true over the length of the saddle’s bottom. Any variation in width or lopsidedness in shape signals an inferior gullet.
Continue this visual examination by setting the saddle on the horse as you would when preparing for a ride. Look through the gullet beneath the saddle from one end to the other. You should be able to see some light peeking through from the opposite end. If not, the gullet is not high enough to clear your horse’s withers.
You can evaluate gullet width and height manually as well. As a general rule, you should be able to get three fingers between the gullet and the horse throughout its entire length, and possibly more for a wide saddle.
To put the gullet to the truest test, however, you must saddle up your horse and see how the air channel holds up under the stress of weight and pressure. The brunt of the force should never make contact with the bony projections lying just beneath the hide, such as the spinous process. Instead, you want the saddle to distribute the weight evenly across the horse’s thick muscles, which offer more protection from injury.
Don’t ignore the importance of the gullet to your horse’s health and well-being. An animal suffering from an ill-suited saddle has many unpleasant ways of making that discomfort known to you.
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