Saddle Fit: A Crucial Piece of the Puzzle
If only horses could talk, they’d have plenty to say about how their saddles fit—or don’t.
Horse owners who pay attention notice that changes in behavior are a typical way horses communicate feelings of discomfort or pain. The smart horseman will realize that something is wrong and seek expert advice.
Unfortunately, there are many other riders who don’t stop to consider why their horses are acting differently. They get frustrated and either switch to a stronger bit and other equipment trying to “make the horse behave,” or they end up selling the horse because he eventually becomes unpleasant—or even dangerous—to ride.
“Bad behavior is the most common problem I see as a result of improper saddle fit. It’s a sad thing, but a lot of people have a really nice horse that was an appropriate horse for them when they bought him. The horse then gets grumpy or nasty, and they feel they have to sell him because his behavior gets worse as time goes by,” says saddle fit expert Joyce Harman, DVM, a veterinarian since 1984 and also a certified veterinary acupuncturist, whose Harmany Equine Clinic is located in Virginia.
Harman has written “the” books on saddle fit for English and Western horses (The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book and The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book, both from Trafalgar Square Publishing). She was the first veterinarian in the country to use a computerized saddle-fitting device that gives a color scan of pressure points under the saddle while the horse is being ridden.
Many people don’t realize that when a saddle doesn’t fit the horse, it can also hamper the rider’s ability.
“When the saddle doesn’t fit the horse, the rider ends up spending money on riding lessons because you’re trying to ride a saddle that puts you out of balance,” notes Harman. “As humans, we are always going to go where gravity sends us, so if a saddle is too wide for the horse’s back, that saddle will pitch the rider down and forward. If the saddle is too narrow for the horse and sits too high in front, it will push the rider to the back of the saddle. This puts you behind your horse’s motion and puts your legs out too far in front of you.”
Price Doesn’t Guarantee Fit
After the horse, your saddle may be one of your greatest expenses. In many cases, the saddle can cost more than the horse! An expensive saddle that feels great to the rider doesn’t necessarily ensure proper fit for the horse.
“I’ve heard many riders say, ‘Well, my horse will just have to get used to this saddle,’” Harman notes, adding that this is the wrong approach.
“When the saddle fits both the rider and horse, it’s fun to ride, the horse is happy and you feel safe,” she says. “When things are not right, the rider often feels unsafe. They might not know why their horse is acting up, but it makes them feel scared. What I often see—particularly with saddles that are too wide—is that people start to feel unsafe. This is because the saddle makes them tip forward, affecting their balance.”
If you’re constantly trying to stay in balance when you’re riding, this can indicate that the saddle doesn’t fit your horse.
“Tipping forward is very common in Western saddles that don’t fit right,” Harman notes. “People buy a quarter horse, so they get a saddle that has quarter horse bars, which are a very wide fit. Many quarter horses today have more thoroughbred in their bloodlines and are not wide across their topline.”
Because there are no industry-wide standards, saddle tree sizes can vary, sometimes significantly, especially with English saddles. What one manufacturer calls “wide,” another saddlemaker may call “medium.” The bottom line is that you want to find a saddle that matches the shape of your horse’s back as closely as possible.
With the prevalence of Internet tack sales, many people buy saddles online without ever trying them on the horse.
“This is a very risky idea unless there is a return policy,” Harman cautions. “The problem with buying on the Internet is that it’s a great place for someone to sell a bum saddle, one that is crooked or has a broken tree, but you also have no idea of fit. Because a saddle is assembled by hand, you can ride in your friend’s saddle made by a specific manufacturer and buy a saddle on the Internet that looks just like it, but it’s not the same. What you see advertised may or may not be the product you’ve seen elsewhere, and it may not fit the same.”
You always want to buy a saddle from a seller who lets you return it if you try it on your horse and it doesn’t fit. A reputable seller will allow this, provided you do so within a specified time frame and there is no damage or wear to the saddle.
Basic Saddle Fit Requirements
So, how can you tell if that saddle you fancy actually fits your horse?
Ideally, you’ll have a saddle fit expert (you can find one in your area using an Internet search) come out in person to see the saddle on your horse and evaluate fit. If this is not possible, you should educate yourself and check key areas to determine fit.
First, let’s look at saddle construction in a nutshell.
The saddle is built on a “tree,” and this is what determines whether or not the saddle will fit. If you removed the outer leather of the saddle, you’d find the skeleton of the tree. In a Western saddle, the “bars” of the tree are the portions along each side that rest on the horse’s back. If those bars follow the contours of the back, they will make contact all along the back. This gives optimal fit and comfort because it spreads out the weight-bearing area. Problems begin when the bars are not the same shape as the back, which forces the rider’s weight into a smaller area.
Here are some basic checks you can easily perform to test for good fit.
Tack up your horse and tighten the girth. Does the saddle tip up in back or behind? Either of these indicates poor fit. If the back of the saddle flips up, this usually means the saddle is too wide.
Stand back and look at your horse from the side. Is the saddle too long for his back? If so, this places excess weight on the withers and the loin area.
Slide your hand under the saddle and pad, palm down, so that your hand is under the tree bars (Western saddle) or the middle of the panel (English saddle). Starting from the front, slowly move
Ideally, you’ll have a saddle fit expert (you can find one in your area using an Internet search) come out in person to see the saddle on your horse and evaluate fit.your hand back to the end of the saddle. Notice if there is any change in pressure on the top of your hand. It should be the same, not different. If you don’t feel pressure on top of your hand in the middle of the saddle, this indicates the saddle is “bridging” the back, which is going to result in pressure points at the front and back, definitely something you don’t want.
With your hand under the saddle, locate your horse’s last rib, which is at the end of the rib area before the softer loin area. Is there pressure from the saddle tree behind this rib? That’s a no-no. It’s okay if the skirting on the saddle extends to this area, but you shouldn’t have pressure from any part of the saddle itself.
Now, mount up. Under no circumstances should the saddle make contact with the horse’s spine, particularly the withers.
“You’ll hear some people say you have to have three fingers’ space between the saddle and withers, but this is a fallacy,” says Harman. “With a high-withered horse, you might only have room for two fingers, and with a low-withered horse, you might be able to fit five fingers between the saddle and withers. The key is that there should be NO contact, and this is with the rider in the saddle.”
Even if your saddle is a good fit right now, be aware that your horse’s back will change through the years, if he gains/loses weight and if his condition changes. Keep in mind the importance of saddle fit and reevaluate fit on a regular basis.
Just remember: The right saddle fit won’t make your horse smarter or more athletic, but the wrong fit can negatively affect performance and attitude. You and your horse will have the best opportunity for success and safe riding when you choose a saddle that fits him well.
Signs Your Saddle May Not Fit Properly:
Any of the following may be signs that your saddle doesn’t fit your horse correctly:
- Horse objects to being saddled
- Sensitivity to brushing or being touched in back area
- Tail swishing
- Change in behavior when ridden, including bucking and acting up
- Pinning the ears
- Tossing the head
- Slow to warm up or relax
- Reluctance or refusal to change leads
- Lack of extension
- Excessive concussive or choppy movement
- Inability to use back and hindquarters properly
- Muscle atrophy or lack of development despite exercise
- Uneven hoof wear
- Hard-to-diagnose lameness problems
Don’t Rely on Pads to Fix Saddle Fit
You can buy a $250 saddle pad, but it won’t fix a poor-fitting saddle. The pad is meant to provide cushion and comfort, but it should enhance the fit of the saddle, not try to correct equipment that doesn’t fit. Choice of pad should be secondary to choice of saddle, and the most important factor is making sure your saddle fits your horse.
“Changing pads can initially give the horse relief because you move the pressure point to a new location, but if you have a problem, it will find its way through the pad,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, a widely respected expert on saddle fit. “I call it the Princess and Pea Syndrome. It may take three weeks or it may take six months, but the problem will find its way through the pad and your horse will feel it the whole time.”
Watch Saddle Placement
Be careful when you tack up that the saddle is in the right position on your horse’s back. There should be a natural “pocket” just behind the horse’s shoulder, and this is where you want the saddle to rest. Some riders mistakenly put their saddles too far forward or too far back, which can cause the horse pain and also inhibit his stride.
“The weight-bearing part of the horse’s back is from behind the shoulder blade to the last rib, so the weight-bearing portion of the saddle needs to fit this area,” Harman explains. “On a Western saddle, the skirting can extend past these areas, but no part of the saddle that bears weight.”