Horse Training … Your Horse Saddle Fitting Guide
Your horse’s saddle is of prime importance in every aspect of your training schedule. Not only must it fit your horse well, but it must also make you, the rider, feel comfortable and secure. An ill fitting saddle can cause your horse pain and can lead to your horse resisting your aids.
Does saddle fitting matter? Definitely Yes.
Have you ever walked a few miles in a pair of ill-fitting shoes or worn a rucksack that was way to heavy and badly packed. If so, you’ll probably never forget the pain it caused you.
In this Section …
It’s the same for your horse when you ride in a badly fitted saddle.
And; that’s why it’s important you choose a saddle that is designed to do the job you want your horse to do, and that your saddle fitting is done properly.
The aspects of Saddle Fitting to consider while buying your saddle
Firstly; decide what type of riding you will be doing. Dressage riding, show jumping, showing or just general pleasure riding and research what saddles and saddle fitting services are available in your area.
Consider your own horse’s anatomy … This includes the size and shape of their withers, the shape and length of their back, the slope of their shoulders, the shape of their rib cage and their overall condition.
A saddle that fits properly clears the withers and spine. The tree should sit far enough behind the shoulders so the shoulders can move freely.
A saddle that’s too narrow will pinch the shoulders or the side of the withers and cause pain.
If your saddle is too wide, your weight will push the saddle into direct contact with your horse’s spine.
As there are really no standard saddle width fittings, proper saddle fitting means you should create a template which can then be used to gauge the correct width for your horse.
Placing the Saddle … When placing a saddle on a horse most horse owners tend to place it too far forward. If the points of the saddle tree dig into your horse’s shoulder blades, your horse will be unwilling to stride out.
This will also place you, the rider, out of position with your weight falling near the cantle and you will be unable to balance properly.
The Saddle Seat. The seat of your saddle consists of the seat and the twist.
The seat size is determined by the length of the riders thigh bones and the size of the riders buttocks.
The twist is the area of the saddle from the pommel to the centre of the saddle and is important in terms of rider comfort.
The length of the saddle should not extend beyond your horse’s 18th rib otherwise it will cause bruising of the lumbar area.
Indications of a badly fitting saddle.
Changes in your horse’s behaviour often indicate a sore back, which may be caused by bad saddle fitting. Signs of back pain include …
Normally sensible horses may start rushing over jumps or become strong in the mouth
A Reluctance to jump or canter.
Bucking is often a sign of back pain caused by a bad saddle fitting, as can tail swishing.
A horse may react when approached with a saddle, or try to nip as it is tacked up.
Normally easy to catch horses may become difficult or evasive in the field.
Your horse may sink suddenly when mounted or rush away from the mounting block.
Once easy loaders become reluctant to go up the ramp when loading.
Some horses can become agitated or nervous when mounted and set off on a hack or to start work.
He may feel slightly uneven, pottery or obviously worse on one of his leads.
Excessive movement and poor balance in the saddle
Indications of a well fitted saddle.
With the rider mounted and without a numnah or pad, there is a minimum of 3 to 4 cm clearance between the underside of the pommel and the top of the horse’s spine.
The points of the tree are parallel to the horse’s side
The points of the tree sit about two to three fingers’ width behind the horse’s scapula, not on top of it.
The gullet is wide enough so that the panels sit on either side of the spine, not on it.
The panels should be smooth and symmetrical and follow the contours of the horse’s back to spread the rider’s weight evenly.
The saddle should ride and sit evenly either side of the spine with the riders weight centred.
The saddle is stable. It does not bounce excessively or slip to one side.
A well-fitting saddle moves with the horse’s motion. A saddle that rocks will often "chase" the rider’s seat on a rising trot. That is, the cantle will actually move up faster than the rider and the action of the horse’s hip.
Why you should always try before you buy your saddle.
Always choose a few saddles to try before you decide to buy. Make your saddle choices from different types and different makes and never, ever buy a saddle just because you want that particular brand.
Proper saddle fitting is too important to restrict yourself to the latest fashion or fad or to the particular brand favoured by the new equestrian hero’s sponsor.
Choose saddles that roughly correspond to the type, length and width you require and then try them on your horse while it is standing on a level surface.
Trying your new saddle on your horse …
Place the saddle on your horse’s back and then slide it back ensuring the front edge is well behind the back edge of your horse’s shoulder blade.
Now take a step back, have a good look at your saddle and ask yourself …
- 1. Is the saddle level, not tipping forwards or backwards?
- 2. Is the tree size and shape conforming to my horse’s shape? Is it too narrow or too wide?
- 3. Is the lowest point in the middle of the saddle?
- 4. Is there sufficient space between the underside of the pommel and my horse’s withers?
This should be around 3 fingers width for traditional saddles and 1.5 fingers for a close contact saddle. Ensure there is sufficient clearance when the rider is mounted. You should also be able to run 3 fingers width along the entire length of the gullet so that it clears your horse’s spine.
- 5. Is the saddle pinching?
Slide your hand all the way down between the pommel and your horse’s shoulder to ensure the saddle does not pinch. Run your hand along the length and breadth of the panel to ensure it’s touching in all parts and that it does not bridge in the middle.
Trying your new saddle on your horse …The Ridden Test
Once you have reduced your saddle choices to one or two favourites, the next step in your saddle fitting is to ride your horse in the saddles.
A new or replacement saddle must always must be ridden before deciding to buy. A saddle that looked perfectly fine from the ground may fail for any number of reasons once you are seated on your horse. A saddle that fails the ridden test needs to be discarded.
- 1. Get on from a mounting block and then try your saddle choice in walk, trot and canter on both reins.
- 2. At rising trot, consider how the saddle moves under the rear panel, both up and down and laterally.
- 3. If your new saddle is to be used for jumping, then you must try the horse over a couple of jumps. Be sure to try fence’s that make your horse extend and not just small cross-poles.
- 4. Pay close attention to how your horse moves and how he behaves. Does he drop his back? Does he flatten his ears? Does he move with short steps or any other indication of discomfort?
- 5. Feel how your horse is moving. If your horse is happy, he will stride out boldly, lift his back and respond well to your aids.
Above all else … take your time with your ridden test and make sure you and your horse are comfortable and happy with the saddle fitting. Once you have established that your horse is happy with the saddle, then consider how you feel sitting in the saddle.
Ongoing care and maintenance of your saddle …
Remember that your horse can change shape depending on condition and workload and you must keep an eye out for these changes.
Shape changes will occur where a young horse is developing, where a horse is coming back into work or where a horse bought in poor condition will put on weight and develop muscle.
Be sure to have your saddle fitting checked regularly by an experienced saddler. Make sure the saddle flocking stays soft and smooth and any lumps or unevenness are corrected by your saddler. This will prevent any undue pressure on your horse’s back.
Take care to store your saddle properly use a saddle horse or pole rack and avoid the free-standing wire frame and wall mounted wire frame racks as they can crease the panels and distort the pressure immediately behind the shoulder, which is the most important area of contact in saddle fitting.
Regularly use a leather cleaner to improve your saddles condition and extend its useful life. Regularly check the condition of the stitching, especially around the girth straps to ensure your own safety while riding.
So you see, there’s a lot more to buying a saddle than first meets the eye. For a full appreciation of the importance of your horse’s saddle read our History of the Saddle.