Saddle Shims: What and Why…. A Quick Explanation
A saddle shim is a piece of material, typically felt or foam, that is used to help ensure proper saddle fit. Ideally, shims are not necessary because the saddle fits without them. However, in reality, horses, like humans, have various muscular and skeletal asymmetries, curves in their back, conformational issues, or are “downhill.” This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the saddle to fit properly without a shim.
One Size Does Not Fit All
When I am fitting saddles and open up my large gym bag full of shims, my 2 legged clients are often surprised, and my 4 legged clients are very happy to see the large variety. I have shoulder shims, center shims and rear shims (and combination shims such as center/rear.) I have multiple thicknesses for each shim and multiple shapes (length and width.) For example, I have over 12 different shoulder shims as depicted in the image below! This is important because the shim thickness, shape and the material it is made from must be taken into account to ensure the saddle fit issue is addressed and no new issues are created.
Think about buying an orthotic for your shoe. First, an analysis of your foot must be done. Then, the orthotic's size, shape, contour and thickness is determined.
Determining what type of shim is needed is similar. The saddle fit issue must be carefully and methodically analyzed. Then, I select the correct shape, thickness and shim material. Finally, I test it by having the rider ride with it in place.
3 Very Common Shim Use Cases (Among Many!)
1) Did you know that 60-70% of horses have asymmetrical shoulders? This means one shoulder is shaped differently than the other. It does not mean the horse is “defective.” (It is similar to the fact that one leg is often longer than the other in humans.) Check out our Facebook post from March 1st to learn how to check out your horse’s shoulders. While exercises can be done to try to address shoulder asymmetries and the hooves should also be checked, most of the time, a shim is needed on the sloped or less developed shoulder so the saddle stays level and does not tip to one side. If a shim is not used, this can cause pain, muscle damage and even lameness for the horse AND the rider! Also, the horse will not move forward freely and easily and have difficulty doing his/her job.
2) Use of a center shim to address bridging, meaning where is a gap in contact along the mid-back, is also not uncommon. This can occur on one or both sides. If the bridge is large, a better fitting saddle with a different tree shape is often well advised.
3) Rear shims may be an option if the saddle is not level and needs to be raised a small amount in the back. (This should not be confused with the saddle rocking front to back and not having even contact across the horse's back for English saddles. Shims usually cannot fix this.)
Again, for each shim use case, correct shim shape, thickness and material is critical for success.
Where Should the Shim Be Placed, and How Does It Stay in Place?
The shim needs to be placed in the specific area(s) needing attention. That often means a specific type of saddle pad is needed that can accommodate different shim sizes, shapes and materials. The pad also needs to keep the shim in place so it does not move. Some saddle pads do not have pockets or an envelope that can accommodate shims. Others have pre-formed and pre-placed pockets that may or may not be in the right place for your horse. Skito pads are an excellent choice when shims are needed (and even if shims are not needed.)
The bottom line… Shims are a very important and useful tool to help ensure proper saddle fit. Used correctly, they can be invaluable. However, they are not a magical cure for an improperly fitting saddle. My suggestion is to seek assistance from an experienced saddle fitting professional. Check out our saddle fitting page for additional saddle fitting information and key questions to ask when hiring a saddle fitter.
Please take our anonymous 4 question short shim survey:
Results will be published on our Facebook page and website.
Tell us…. Do you use a shim(s) and why?
Ilene Nessenson, JD, Certified Equine Bodyworker, is the creator of the Stretch Your Horse App. She has been an equine bodyworker, saddle fitter, and saddle reflocker for over 11 years.
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