Beyond any doubt, the one thing that drives most people crazy when riding horses is saddle fit. In this article we will talk about why saddle fit is primary item to think about when even just buying a horse, let alone once you have one, and the pieces that make it all come together. While there are many articles out there that discuss this topic on each point directly, it’s hard to find one that puts the whole picture together, we hope to do that here. Direct and detailed points need to be reserved for visuals, like a video, but we’ll do our best to get as close as possible.
The first thing to think about when figuring out a saddle is what you’re going to use it for. Next is what fits you best for that purpose, and finally, if it will fit the horse. From experience the purpose of why the owner wants to ride the horse is an easy answer. Hunter/jumper, dressage, western disciplines which also includes dressage but then reining, roping, eventing and so forth. Some just want to ride around, maybe just to experience horse back riding, some for trails and then there is the combination of some or all.
Second up, which is dependent on the first item, is what kind of saddle you will fit in comfortably. Depending on what you want to do, you’ll either be buying a tree based English, western or endurance saddle. You may even be thinking of an Australian saddle, which essentially is like an English one in shape and style, except it will have a horn on it, like a western saddle. Then to top it all off, you can also get treeless saddles that come in all shapes and sizes too. There are a lot of choices, the conundrum is, which to pick.
If you get to talking to saddle makers, I have yet to find even one that will promote any other design other than their own. It’s rare. In my own opinion, and this is just purely personal, I find saddle makers the car salesmen/women of the horse world. It borders on overly obnoxious, so what do you do when you can’t even trust those that are making the saddles? The fact is that you can usually trust them on their own products, but not on their opinions of others. Asking questions and judging based on the answers or way the questions are answered is very important. Experience is imperative.
So, let’s talk saddles then. In the English world of saddles there are primarily dressage and jumping saddles. Different design, different purpose and look, but generally same idea. Small, light and minimal in most cases. A lot of the older ones have trees that are poorly designed for the horse with the middle channel too narrow for the spine, trees that come forward from the gullet instead of curving back and perhaps too much rocker or bridging. English saddles are very easy to fit as it’s obvious as to where a saddle may not be fitting right. To fit a saddle, put the saddle on the horse without a pad. If you have one on loan or something then just get a very thin towel or sheet to lay on the horse first to keep it clean and hair free.
Here are the things to look for in English saddles:
1. How does your pelvis feel when you sit on it? Really evaluate this, move back and forth, up and down, side to side, twist, rub, slouch, sit straight. Get a cup of coffee and just sit in it for a bit. Does it feel comfortable? Does it pinch in any area? Do you have any part of you that falls asleep? Do you feel cramped forward or back? Do you find you end up riding forward on it? Get pushed back? Hips hurt? Do your legs fall comfortably?
These are all things to think about when sitting in a saddle. You’ll find width, rise (slope) and length (size) all affect how you sit. Material is another big one, I can’t stand a suede saddle, some people swear by them. Leather can be nice but can wear out soft and sticky and then synthetic can be “slippery” for some. It all depends on the feel you are looking for. Do you need your seat to stick better or slide? Sit on a lot of saddles to see what you like. Some like a narrow saddle for the hips, some wider to not feel like you’re sitting on the edge of a fence. Length/size is imperative as you need to be back from the gullet/pommel enough to not be crowded and uncomfortable but you can’t be swimming in the seat if it’s too large or you’ll not keep your balance well.
For the horse:
When thinking about where to put the saddle to fit it, you must keep back about 2 fingers from the scapula and the farthest the saddle should go is the 18th rib bone in the back. Feel for it with your fingers and follow up to the spine. If in doubt, check out skeletons on the internet of horses to understand how the ribs work. Do NOT put the saddle on the loin of the horse, it hurts them. Same with the scapula, if you put the saddle too far forward then you’ll get a horse that won’t reach forward or turn well. It hurts them there too the same as if somebody put a board on your back between your shoulder blades and you had to reach backwards to get something with your shoulder blades crunching into it. Same idea, it’s in the way, limits and hurts.
Let’s take a look at some points:
1. Does the gullet touch the withers or come within 2 fingers width? If yes, it does NOT fit your horse. Get a different saddle.
2. Is the channel between the bars too narrow and touches the spine or even comes within an inch of it? If so, it does NOT fit your horse, get a different saddle.
3. Do the bars sit level with the body of your horse? This is the hardest one for most and the best way to explain this is to start at the front of the saddle and really look closely at how the gullet is formed around the withers and how it carries down the body towards the ground. The bars and pads should be parallel all the way from the point they start touching the horse at the top to the bottom. There should be a nice fall off on both the top, bottom and front of these pads, no sharp (relatively) edges. If you find that the top has much more pressure than the bottom then the angle of the bars is wrong and will pinch your horse, get a different saddle. If you find the bottom of the bar touches much more than the top then again, wrong saddle. Both situations will produce pain in your horse. This level of parallel contact NEEDS to carry all the way to the back of the saddle. If it doesn’t, it’s the wrong saddle.
4. Does the saddle bridge on the horse? If so, you likely have the wrong saddle. When a saddle bridges, it means that the front and back parts of the tree and pads are touching much more than the middle. Hence, a bridge. You can see this easily if you shine a bright light on one side of the horse and look through the gullet. If you see light in the middle, you have a bridging saddle. If you can’t see under the saddle from the gullet, you likely do not have enough space between gullet and withers. The other way to test this is to put your hand under the bar and very carefully run your hand from the front to back and then back again. Place some pressure on the saddle with your other hand or have a helper do that and see if it changes etc. This is a hard one too as it can be confusing as to how much pressure each spot is producing. Close your eyes perhaps. We have found the light trick works very well. Anyways, anything more than maybe a half inch would likely be too much, you’ll need to accommodate another way or find a new saddle. Anything more than an inch is too much, don’t try to accommodate for this, find a saddle with more rock to it. Meaning the middle part of the bars comes down more than the front and back. Essentially if you put this kind of saddle on a flat surface, it will rock back and forth.
5. Does the saddle have too much rock to it? If so, again, wrong saddle. This can be proven easily by putting the saddle on the horse and pushing on the front and back. Does it move at all? If so, you will have a very hard time fixing this with some kind of pad and likely will just hurt the horse. Don’t do it, go find a flatter one, meaning that the front and back parts of the bars of the tree are more level and have less flare. This is by far the easiest item to catch when fitting a saddle.
These are the main points to getting a saddle to fit.
Here are a few additional items to think about for Western saddles:
1. Do the features of the saddle meet your requirements? Barrel racing, reining, roping, trail riding etc all have their requirements. Do you need a tall, short, large and/or wrapped horn? Will you be using the horn to just hang on or actually hanging a cow off of it? Perhaps just some saddle bags over top of it or for looks only. How about the cantle, do you need to be able to hang on to it too? Should it slope much or not at all? Come up high? Does the fork get in your way of your legs? Do the stirrups sit perpendicular to the horse? If not then you may find your knees and ankles hurting not too long in.
Sitting in western saddles is very important, again the same as english saddles, sit in as many as possible. Pay attention to the cantle, fork, rise and saddle width for hips and pelvis and then material for comfort and “stickiness”.
For the horse:
1. What size are the bars? Most western saddles are actually too big for a lot of horses. Amazingly enough. The bars will either get too close to the scapula or past the 18th rib. Both hurt the horse, if that is happening, get a different saddle.
2. How big is the skirt? Does it jam the hips of your horse at all? Do you have a horse with a curve to it coming anywhere in the vicinity of a swayback horse? If so, you’ll likely not find a good western saddle without padding heavily. A short skirt and/or rounded skirt may be a requirement.
3. How heavy is the saddle? Western saddles can range anywhere from about 20 pounds to 50 depending on what is on it. It can be a lot of weight on a horse. Pick the lightest you can.
4. Is the tree straight? Western saddles tend to get beaten on a bit more than English and this can warp the tree fast, maybe even break it. A broken or warped tree is garbage. Do the “level test”. Put the saddle on a level surface and see if it rocks on any corner. Look through the saddle from the gullet and see if it is symmetrical. This can be difficult and may require actual measuring. Measure from front left to back right and front right to back left of the bars. Measure off of the ground of the bottom of the bars to the ground on both back and front. Any fluctuation and you have an asymmetrical tree. Not good.
All of the points regarding bridging, rock, withers and ribs are the same from the English saddle points. It may be harder to tell under a big skirt, but they are all important to check out.
With that all said, there are of course ways to help shim a saddle if it rocks or bridges, and you can lift a saddle off of withers if you need to, but you shouldn’t. If you find the bars pinch and you’re thinking to pad to help it, you’ll only hinder. The optimal saddle is one that fits right without ANY padding. Pads are to protect the saddle, not make it fit. Pads assist in helping your horse be a bit more comfortable with a saddle that fits without one by just adding in a bit more cushion. From there it’s all riding with good balance so you aren’t bumping on your horse in particular spots on it’s back to make it sore.
The other two types of saddles, endurance and treeless will be covered in a different article as they have their own worlds that they live in. You can’t use either of them for western or (in most cases) english riding for competition. Not that you can’t practically use them, they are both good options for your horse depending on your riding style and purpose, but rules seem to disallow them as it’s a culture item. Just like you wouldn’t wear shorts to an English or Western event, there are clothes for the purpose and the show.
A poor fitting saddle hurts your horse and your riding. Worst case is obviously getting bucked off, for you, but for the horse it’s going to be long term back or shoulder pain. If your horse feels pain to move out under the saddle then get off, try another. If you find your horse just floats along after fitting, you have the right one. You WILL know when this happens, rest assured. Be patient, study, try lots and don’t settle. Keep in mind that this is just a portion of the information you can find on fitting saddles and there are lots of books and articles and videos out there to check out. Read, watch and try as much as possible.
On a final note of this article, saddle fitting is not a one time event, evaluate your horse and saddle every month. Make sure you are padding correctly and adjust as soon as you can. We’ll talk about padding in another article and likely cover some more points of saddle fitting then too.