Saddle Fitting

Do you tip in the saddle? Do you find it impossible to keep your leg in the correct position? The design or fit of your saddle could be the cause. It could also be the reason why your horse may be reluctant to go forwards or to jump. Even if you don't think you have a problem, a badly fitting saddle can seriously damage your horse's back.

If you are uncertain of the parts of the saddle mentioned here please refer to our Saddle Construction article.

The need for frequent fittings

A well fitting saddleIf you put on weight you expect your clothes to feel tight and uncomfortable, but do you apply the same thinking to your horse? A saddle fitted when the horse is in work and muscled up is unlikely to be a good fit after several months off. A young horse may need several changes of saddle as he grows and develops.

The saddle as well as the horse, can change shape. The stuffing gradually compacts, sometimes forming hard lumps which cause pressure - rather like having a stone in your shoe.

Clearly then, the fit of a saddle should be assessed regularly and not be a one-off when it is bought. Make regular checks yourself and at least once a year have it checked by a qualified saddle fitter. Be aware that some saddlery shops that offer a saddle fitting service may have a qualified saddler but not a qualified saddle fitter working for them. To find a qualified person near you check the Society of Master Saddlers website.

You should avoid having the saddle re-stuffed without a fitting. Although it may be inconvenient to take the horse to the saddler's, or more expensive if he comes to you, it is well worth it. Prices vary but a saddler will probably charge about £50 to visit your horse and adjust the saddle. A small cost compared to the potential vets bills if the horse develops back trouble.

Buying a saddle

Saddles are expensive. However, the most expensive ones are not necessarily the best. Often you pay a premium for a well-known name, but even expensive saddles can be badly designed. Buy a good quality saddle second hand, rather than a poor quality one new.

Saddle gulletThe length of a saddle is measured from the rivet on the side of the pommel to the top of the cantle. It needs to be long enough to be comfortable for you but not so long that the pressure is too far back on the horse. The saddle widths are typically narrow, medium or wide but the exact measurement varies with different manufacturers. A good fit will depend on the shape of your horse's withers. The full length of the saddle gullet should be at least 2 inches (5 cm) wide to avoid pressure on the spine.

Whether buying new or second hand from a saddler, fitting should be part of the service. Buying your saddle privately, at a sale, or on eBay is more risky and you should always have it checked over by an expert. Even tack bought with the horse may not fit properly.

Synthetic saddles are light, easy to clean and, although not as long-lasting as leather, are significantly cheaper. Some are also partly adjustable.

Detecting a problem

There are some direct indicators of saddle problems. Lunging with and without a saddle can show whether the saddle is restricting movement. The horse should move as freely with the saddle as without it.

Horses which flinch or shy away as the saddle is put on are usually described as 'cold backed'. This is supposedly because the horse dislikes the feel of cold leather but, as the reaction is usually the same even with a numnah, this seems unlikely. The possibility that the horse is anticipating pain or discomfort should be investigated.

The saddle may appear to rub when the horse is changing his coat. Slight movement encourages the hairs to fall out more quickly in this area and is not a problem provided there is no soreness. Any rubbing occurring at other times of the year indicates a problem. Patches of white hair on the back suggest a poorly fitting saddle or rug, either currently or at some time in the past.

Fitting the saddle

A well-designed and well-fitted saddle spreads the rider's weight evenly over a large area without putting pressure on the horse's spine, withers or loins. There should be sufficient padding for the comfort of both horse and rider whilst allowing the rider to maintain close contact.

There really is no substitute for having your saddle fitted by a professional but there are a number of checks you can make yourself. (Don't use a numnah when fitting a saddle - it may disguise a problem).

A broken tree (which can occur if the saddle is dropped or the horse rolls on it) can seriously damage a horse’s back. To test the tree hold the saddle against your body and try to pull the cantle towards the pommel; then try to squeeze the points of the tree towards each other. The tree should not give in either direction or make any noise. Never use a saddle with a suspect tree.

Stand the horse on level ground and look at the saddle sideways on. The cantle should be between 1 and 3 inches (2.5 – 7.5 cm) higher than the pommel depending on style. If the cantle is lower, the tree is too narrow and will push the rider's weight back to press on a vulnerable part of the horse’s back. Also, the points of the tree will pinch the side of the withers and make the saddle pivot about this point causing soreness. If the cantle is very much higher than the pommel, the saddle is too wide and therefore too close to the spine. The deepest point of the seat should be right in the centre of the saddle.

View through the saddle gullet With a rider mounted you should be able to fit two fingers between pommel and withers. Three fingers is too much (unless the horse has flat withers) and one finger too little. This clearance should extend the full length of the gullet, which should be at least 2 inches (5 cm) wide. lf you stand behind the horse, you should be able to see right through the gullet.

The panels should be stuffed evenly on each side. This may be difficult to see but if you feel or (more likely) are told that you are sitting lopsided this may be the reason.

The most common fitting faults can be summarised as follows:

Fault Symptom Effect
too narrow the saddle appears perched on the back pressure on side of withers, rider's weight too far back
too wide the saddle seems to swamp the horse pressure on withers and/or spine
tilted to the front or back dip not central, cantle lower than pommel pressure concentrated in wrong place
too much padding panels feel hard saddle rocks causing rubbing
too little padding panel feels soft, poor clearance of spine pressure on spine
lumpy padding lumps can be felt in padding pressure points

Of course, the saddle should fit the rider as well as the horse. The most common problems here are the seat being too small (there should be a hand's breadth between the rider and the back of the saddle) or the dip extending too far back from the pommel.

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Posted on 6 July, 2011

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