Determining saddle fit is important to the comfort and safety of both horse and rider. There are many factors that affect the fit of the saddle. Saddles are made to fit typical conformation, so the horse that isn’t typical will need some specialized solutions to be comfortable. Your horse is one of the best indicators, so be aware of changes in your horse’s attitude or performance.
Here we outline the major points so you can evaluate your saddle fit.
FIT FOR THE HORSE
The goal in saddle fitting is to have the greatest amount of contact between the bar of the tree and the horse. Keep in mind there is no standardization in the industry as tree sizing-measurements differ between tree makers, saddle makers, and saddle styles.
The average, defined wither will usually fit a medium or regular tree. This horse will have a more refined body with definition in the withers – the modern version of Quarter Horses, Tennessee Walking Horses, Thoroughbreds, etc.
- A more rounded, mutton wither with a flatter back will usually fit a wide tree. This horse has a blocky build, heavier neck, often referred to as the “foundation” type.
- Draft horses and Draft horse crosses with a very wide, flat back and wither, will usually require a Draft or Extra Wide tree.
- A very prominent, narrow wither may indicate the lack of muscle behind the shoulder blade, and the need for a shoulder bridge pad. The shoulder bridge pad fills in this “hollow” area, allowing the saddle bars to make better contact with the horse.
- Large muscles behind the scapula can interfere with saddle fit. A wider tree may be needed. Flex trees also work well with this conformation.
The gullet measurement is important, but it is the most misunderstood. It is not the defining factor of saddle fit. Most importantly, not every saddle with a specified gullet measurement will fit the same. The angle and twist of the bars affect how the saddle will fit.
- A level topline, wither and croup being about the same height, is ideal.
- Higher haunches, or the horse built “downhill”, can allow the saddle to put more pressure on the withers and may require a pad that is built up in the wither area.
- A swayback causes “bridging” of the saddle. The bars only make contact in the front and rear of the saddle, putting excess pressure or rubbing the withers and loins. It can be seen in older horses, and poorly conditioned horses, and is a common saddle fitting problem. It can be remedied with the use of a bridge pad.
- A very straight back, often seen in mules, can cause the saddle to “rock”. Rocking is a condition where the tree puts more pressure on the center of the horses back, and less at the ends of the bars. A tree with a “mule bar” or a pad with shims may be recommended.
- A horse with a short back will require a saddle with short bars/skirts.
Condition & Age
- Significant weight loss or weight gain can alter the way the saddle fits; always evaluate your horse’s body condition.
- Also consider the age and maturity of the horse. A saddle you buy for your two-year old today may not fit as well when he fills out in another year or two. As a mature horse progresses into its senior years, changes in conformation can alter the fit of your existing saddle.
EVALUATE THE SADDLE ON THE HORSE
With the saddle positioned correctly-the bars of the tree behind the shoulder blades of the horse-evaluate the following points:
- Place the saddle on the horse’s bare back (no pad). There should be two to three fingers space between the top of the wither and the gullet of the saddle.
Levelness of Saddle
Step back and look at the saddle on the horse’s back. The saddle should be level.
- If the front of the saddle is high the tree may be too narrow.
- If the front of the saddle is low, the tree may be too wide.
- Ideally, the sweat pattern will be even without dry areas that indicate pressure points, areas where the hair has been rubbed off, ruffled hair or swirl marks that indicate excessive movement.
- Dry spots in the middle of the horse’s back can indicate bridging and the need for a bridge pad. Keep in mind that damage from past saddle fit issues can cause areas of dry spots or white marks.
AVOID THE COMMON MISTAKES OF SADDLE FITTING
The front of the bar of the saddle tree (approximately the front edge of the concho) should be behind the shoulder blade (scapula) to allow for freedom of movement.
Front Cinch Usage
- Do not over tighten the cinch – especially to compensate for a saddle that rolls. Check that the saddle is the correct fit for the horse.
Pads and Padding
- The more pads you use the wider it makes your horse and the higher your saddle will sit on the horse’s back. Excess padding will not allow you to feel the horse’s movement as well.
- Natural fiber pads and blankets such as wool are more breathable and comfortable for your horse.
- Horses get sore muscles especially in their back after long trail rides, weekend competitions, or once-a-month speed events when they are not in shape. If you feel heat or swelling after long or strenuous use of your horse, let the back rest and heal.
- For the tree to function properly the rider must sit balanced vertically with your legs under you in the saddle.
- Heavy riders require the tree to distribute more pounds per square inch on the horse. For this reason, proper saddle fit and equitation is even more important with the heavy rider.