Lately, I’ve encountered a lot of saddle fit issues. I recently helped two clients with their western saddles, a friend with her english saddle, and due to body changes in Doc, I need to replace my own jumping saddle as well. Many people find saddle fit a very mysterious art, but it doesn’t have to be. Pay attention to a few details and you will be well on your way to understanding how well your saddle fits your horse.
Listen to Your Horse
Often, your first clue that your saddle might be causing a problem are signals from your horse. If he becomes grumpy, cinchy, or downright irritable when you saddle him, there might be a saddle fit problem. Pay attention to her coat as well. Do you see any white hairs suddenly coming in where the saddle sits? Does he have sores developing anywhere in the saddle area? Does her coat lay smooth when you remove the saddle, or is it roughed up in places, or maybe even damaged? What does the sweat pattern look like on his back and the saddle pad? Do you see a regular, even pattern, or are they dry spots? These are important questions to consider when you think there might be a saddle fit issue.
Look for these first signs of saddle fit problems:
- Horse is irritable, frigidity, or girthy when you saddle him
- White hairs growing in clusters in the saddle area
- Open sores or bare spots in the saddle area
- A rough or damaged coat in the saddle area
- An uneven sweat pattern on the horse’s back or saddle pad
- Dry spots in an otherwise uniform sweat pattern
- Horse’s back muscles are tense, hot, or knotted
So if you’ve decided that your horse might be experiencing saddle fit issues, what should you be looking at with your saddle?
Start with tree size. The tree is the rigid frame the saddle is built upon. A tree can come in a variety of sizes. In English saddles, tree size will be referred to as narrow, regular or medium, wide, or extra wide, or a combination of those classifications. Some saddlers state their tree sizes more specifically, right down to the centimeter. In Western saddles, the tree size will often be quotes in the size of the bars: semi-quarter horse bars, full quarter horse bars, arab bars, mule barn, draft bars, and so on. Be careful with these broad classifications though…unless a manufacturer is stating an exact gullet size such as 34 centimenters, these widths can be different sizes from different companies.
A tree has a gullet at the front of it, and this is how the tree width is measured. The tree needs to be wide enough to allow room for your horse’s withers and the movement of the shoulder, but not so wide as to collapse down upon them. A tree that is too narrow, likewise, will pinch and perch on the horse’s back. Either way, a tree size that isn’t correct for your horse will cause problems!
The underside of your saddle has padded panels, which are the contact points for the saddle on the horse’s back. The channel that runs between these panels is the gullet, and it must be wide enough for your horse’s spine from pommel to cantle. A saddle that fits correctly in this area will sit on the back muscles and give the spine a few inches of room on either side. If the gullet is too narrow between the panels, the saddle may cause spinal irritation and inflammation.
Having the correct tree size isn’t the only factor to consider in saddle fit. You also need to look at how the saddle sits on your horse’s back. You want the shape of your saddle to follow the shape of your horse’s back. Some horse’s have flat backs from withers to croup, some have high withers that drop down to a flat back, and some have a dipped back. No matter the shape of your horse’s back, you want a saddle shape that fits it. Many people will find a saddle that fits in every other way, but forget about this piece of the puzzle. For example, if you have a saddle that is swooped up high in the back, it will not correctly fit a horse with a flat back!
You also want to consider the thickness of those panels. A horse with a straight, flat back from withers to croup will not need thickly padded panels. However, a horse with high withers that drop down to a flat back that sits well below the point of the withers will need a saddle with thick panels so that the saddle will sit level on the horse’s back.
Is It Level?
While you’re standing back looking at the shape of the saddle on your horse’s back, check to see if the saddle is level. Does it sit evenly on your horse’s back, or is the cantle sitting higher than the pommel? Is it the other way around, and the pommel is sitting higher than the cantle? Either way, you’ve got a problem. Chances are that if the pommel is sitting high, your saddle is too narrow, and if the cantle is too high, the saddle is too wide.
If the saddle isn’t obviously pommel high or cantle high, make sure you can draw a level line from pommel to cantle. This is a good indication that the saddle is fitting correctly.
Center of Balance
Did you know that it is also important to make sure the center of balance on your saddle is the same as the center of balance on your horse? Did you even know that was a thing? This was a revelation to me when a saddle fitter demonstrated it to me. . It is an issue that crops up most often in western saddles, but can also be problematic for English saddles.
To find the balance point of your horse, you will need a round object, like a small bottle. Place the bottle on your horse’s back and allow it to roll into a resting place. The spot where the bottle rests is the balance point for your horse, and is the ideal position for him to carry you. You want your saddle’s balance point to match your horse’s balance point, otherwise you will be placing undue strain on his back! Once you have found this balance point, mark it somehow; a piece of tape, chalk, your hand, something. Now place the saddle on the horse’s back without a pad and place the bottle on the saddle. The point at which the bottle comes to rest is the balance point for the saddle. Do the two points match? Are they close? If not, you aren’t sitting over the center of your horse’s gravity, and that will place unnecessary strain on her back.
Watch It in Motion
Once you feel pretty sure that the saddle fits reasonably well while your horse is standing still, girth up the saddle and watch how it fits while the horse is in motion. You will accomplish this best by lunging the horse. If the saddle is properly secured to the horse’s back, does it sit quietly on the horse’s back while he moves, or does it tend to bounce on his back, gapping at the front of back as he moves? Does it shift from side to side like it is too tight, or does it look like a well-fitted glove on her back? You saddle should not be moving around, flopping on your horse’s back. Instead, it should look like you wouldn’t even need a girth to hold it in place.
One last thing to consider for the English riders is the flocking in your panels. Are your panels wool flocked or foam flocked? The flocking is the stuffing inside the panels. A wool flocked panel can be repaired and reshaped much more easily than a foam flocked panel. Foam panel can become compressed and hard over time, and will necessitate taking apart the entire underside of the saddle to replace them. Wool panels, on the other hand, can be revived through a small hole by a skilled saddle fitter, and can often be done in a matter of minutes. Yes, a wool flocked panel will also experience compression over time, but you will not need to perform major surgery on your saddle to revive it. While foam flocked panels are considerably cheaper, I feel it is worth the expense to buy a wool flocked saddle.
Hopefully, these saddle fitting tips will help you assess the fit of your saddle. If you think there might be a problem, take the time to go through each of these steps. If your saddle seems suspect, consider hiring a saddle fitter to help you assess the current saddle and to find a new one. I recommend finding an independent saddle fitter, not one who is representing a specific brand of saddle. Independent fitters will have a variety of saddles available for you to try, while branded fitters will try their best to sell you their saddle…possibly to the detriment of your horse!
Saddle fit does not have to be mystery. Pay attention to the details and you’ll be well on your way to understanding how your saddle fits your horse. And don’t forget yourself! If the saddle fits the horse, how does it feel to you? A saddle that fits you poorly is just as miserable for the horse as a saddle that fits him poorly. Take your time to find the right fit for both of you and you’ll have many happy rides for years to come.