Breaking Down Saddle Fitting
Saddle fit is one of the arguably most important aspects of riding, showing, training, and being successful. If you don’t have proper fitting tack, it can cause a world of hurt for both you and your horse. Follow along with our guide to learn everything you need to know about saddle fit.
Everyone always made saddle fitting so difficult for me. It was always something that everyone wanted to leave to a professional saddle maker or trainer. While both of those options for checking fit are great, they are not accessible to everyone. In this article, we want to help you understand all of the important things to consider when checking for a proper fit. It’s one of the easiest and most important things you can do to keep your horse (and you) feeling great and working well together.
Before we get started, you need to understand that checking the fit of an English saddle and a Western saddle can vary. We will walk you through how to check both in this article.
English saddles are categorized as all-purpose, close-contact, jumping saddles, dressage saddles, saddle seat saddles, eventing saddles, polo saddles, endurance saddles, and racing saddles.
Western saddles are also broken down into categories such as trail riding saddles, barrel racing saddles, horsemanship saddles, pleasure saddles, roping saddles, cutting saddles, western endurance saddles, Arabian saddles, and other specialized western saddles.
Horses and riders come in various sizes, so our saddles need to fit accordingly. In today’s world, there are many options to choose from for saddles. You can purchase a saddle used, custom made, online, in a tack store or saddlery, or at a sale. Whether you already have a saddle and you are wondering about the fit, you’re a trainer and need to have your saddle fit a variety of horses in your program, or you are currently entertaining the idea of purchasing a saddle, we will give you an ample amount of information to help your saddle or potential saddle work for your needs.
Saddle fit basics:
Saddle-fitting basics are fairly similar for both English and Western saddles, although they do have some variations between the two.
For both styles of saddle:
- The tree or “bars” should provide protection for your horse’s back and place the rider in a balanced and proper position.
- The panels that are underneath the saddle should conform to your horse’s back. This further helps in protecting your horse’s back from stress and soreness.
- The girth should always be placed where it can adequately hold your saddle into place.
- The seat needs to put you into a balanced and well-seated position for the style of riding you are doing.
The trees/ bars: These are available in multiple lengths and thicknesses; some may have customizable options as well. For a horse with a wide build, you will need to have wider bars, whereas a horse with a narrower build will need narrower bars. Some saddles, made mainly for trainers, have bars you can actually replace for the different widths of horses they are riding.
Specifically for western riders:
According to the NRS, they recommend that you look for three things specifically when checking your western saddle for a proper fit.
“Each horse is unique, so figuring out the correct western saddle sizing can be a challenge. Here are some key considerations when determining how to fit a western saddle to a horse:
Seat Size: The seat of the saddle should go beyond the horse’s last rib.
Skirt Length: The saddle skirt should end before the point of the hip and not stick out.
Saddle Width: The width of the saddle is determined by the size of the gullet. You should be able to place several fingers between the saddle and the withers.
Make sure the saddle is centered and level on the horse’s back. You want to sit as close as possible to the horse’s center of gravity because that is the strongest point on its back. Don’t try to use a saddle pad to fix a poor western saddle fit.”- NRSworld.com
Specifically for English riders:
According to Schneider’s blog, they recommend following these steps for hunt seat, dressage, and any other English saddles.
“First, put the saddle on your horse’s back without any padding. Ensure that the gullet of the saddle is 3 fingers away from the horse’s withers. If the saddle fits well, it should not touch any part of the horse’s spine. If the gullet is too wide, the saddle will press on their withers; if it is too narrow, the angle of the saddle will cause pinching.
Next, make sure the panels of the saddle apply even pressure on the horse’s back. You can do this by feeling underneath the saddle. The saddle panels should not have large spaces that don’t have contact with the horse’s back. If there are large areas not receiving pressure, there are other areas receiving extra pressure. Overall, the angles of the saddle panels should be parallel to the horse’s back, and there should be even contact throughout the saddle.
Finally, place the saddle on your horse’s back without pads and rock it side to side and then back to front by placing your hands on the horn and the cantel. A little movement is okay, but too much movement indicates a poor fit. If it moves more than a half inch off your horse’s back when you do this test, it doesn’t fit. The saddle must be almost perfectly level to ensure there is even pressure from back to front. In dressage saddles, sometimes the cantle may be a couple of inches higher than the pommel. If you are fitting a dressage saddle, simply ensure that the deepest part of the saddle falls in the middle of the seat.”-Sstack.com
For the rider:
Saddles are available in many seat and flap (fender if using a western saddle) lengths and designs. You want to make sure you use the right seat and flap/ fender size for correct positioning in your saddle. The seat and flap or fender size will vary based upon what type of saddle you use. For example, barrel saddles typically run smaller in size than your standard pleasure saddle will. Whereas if you are looking for a hunt seat saddle, your dressage saddle and your jumping saddle will have different things you look for. In a dressage saddle, you will want a deep seat, and in a jumping saddle, you will want your flap farther forward, seating you in the right position. If you are riding Western, you generally will want around a 4-inch gap between your body and the swell. Your personal build and height will determine what you need to look for in a saddle.
Ways to test saddle fit:
The best way to try a saddle for fit is to actually place it on your horse’s back. You will want to place the saddle directly on your horse’s back without pads in the way. You will need to slide the saddle back until you have around a two fingers space from the front of the saddle behind your horse’s withers.
Here is a short list of things to check for proper saddle fit:
- The pommel and fork (gullet) should clear the top of your horses whithers by about three fingers width.
- The front of the saddle panels or the fenders should be seated behind your horse’s shoulder blades. They should also be touching equally on each side. Sometimes it can be hard to determine this, so you may need to ride in the saddle if possible. Most saddles will shape to your horse once they are used. If the panels/ fenders do not fit properly, this indicates that the saddle does not fit your horse properly. If you are unable to ride in the saddle, just add a saddle pad and girth/ cinch and check to see what is happening with the paneling at this point.
- The lowest part of your seat should be directly in the center of your saddle. You want to make sure your saddle is fairly even or centered when sitting on your horse’s back. This means that the cantle should be about even or even slightly higher than the pommel of your saddle.
- The channel of the saddle, which is directly between the panels on your saddle, should be wide enough to accommodate your horse’s spine. You don’t want it pinching your horse’s back at all.
- Saddles can be too narrow OR too wide for your horse. Both issues can cause pain for your horse. A narrow saddle cannot be fixed with special padding, although too wide of a saddle may be able to be fixed with padding.
To get an accurate idea of what the saddle is going to do while your horse is moving, you can lunge your horse to see how the saddle fits, shifts, and moves on your horse as they move. Make a note of if your saddle is bouncing or moving around anywhere. The saddle, ideally, should sit evenly and not move around a whole lot. If the saddle moves too much, you are going to need to try a different saddle or use a corrective pad to fix the problem.
If you are able to ride in the saddle pre-purchase, you will want to make sure that when you mount your horse, you don’t rock the saddle out of position so that you can get an accurate idea of how it fits you and your horse. You will want to walk, trot, and lope in the saddle to check the fit and how it works with your body. You ideally will be looking for a comfortable saddle that aids in your balance at each gait. If you happen to feel unbalanced or uncomfortable, you may need to up or down a seat size or make sure that your fenders or stirrups are the proper lengths.
When assessing your horse under the saddle, ask yourself some questions.
- Is my horse comfortable?
- Are they moving freely and correctly?
- Is my horse sore at all after I rode?
- Am I able to communicate with my horse properly in this saddle?
If you need your saddle tree configured to your horse more accurately, there are multiple ways a saddlery or saddle maker can accomplish this. They can use either wood or synthetic materials to basically re-design your tree. There are also many saddle makers who will custom-make trees to fit your horse so that the tree does not affect your horse’s movement while still providing the stability you desire. You should also make sure that the panels of your saddle are lying on the muscles on your horse’s back instead of on any bone. The length and even material used in filling your panels will aid in the proper fit. Depending on how long or short-backed your horse is, you may need to adjust the material or length of the paneling. The shape of your horse’s back needs to be considered with a great deal of care when choosing a saddle.
Traditionally, panels were always filled with wool, but recently they have started using other materials such as synthetic wools and even foams. Some of these other options may work well for your horse or provide the ability to “morph” to multiple horses.
Fixing an ill-fitting saddle:
Now, you may be a bit concerned at this point, thinking, “I already have a saddle, and I have discovered it doesn’t fit my horse as it should!” Don’t worry too much. There are a couple different things you can do, and these especially apply to trainers (or people who are thinking of becoming trainers) on how to get saddles to fit your horse or multiple horses.
Ways to fix saddle fit issues:
No matter if you ride English, Western, or even both, you can sometimes fix saddle fit issues with high-quality pads that fill in gaps or alleviate pinching.
Have a saddle maker take a look:
You may need to take your saddle to where you originally purchased it, but many times saddle makers can adjust your saddle or add modifications in order to help it fit your horse or you better.
Saddle fitting can be easy once you get the hang of it and know what you are looking for and how to make sure you and your horse are comfortable. If you need any assistance with saddle fit, feel free to reach out to us, and we will do our best to offer suggestions.