Step 3: Checking Saddle Fit
Proper saddle fit is a critical part of a harmonious relationship between horse and rider. Checking saddle fit should be a regular part of your routine and should definitely take place in the following instances:
- You have a new horse
- You are trying a new saddle
- Your horse's shape is changing due to growth
- Your horse's back is changing due to an increase in muscling from a higher work-load
- Your horse's back is changing due to a decrease in muscling during down time
Even if none of these directly applies to you, it is a good idea to check your saddle's fit every couple of months.
- Ensure that your horse is clean, relaxed, and standing on level ground
- Place the saddle on your horse's back without a saddle pad and girth it on normally. Ensure that the point of the tree is 2"-3" behind the horses shoulder blade. This applies to dressage AND jumping saddles since it allows the horse's front legs to move freely.
- The saddle should be evenly balanced - not tipping forward or backward. The deepest part of the saddle's seat should encourage the rider to sit at the center of the horse's movement.
- Check that the pommel has ample clearance above the withers. There should be at least 2"-3" of clearance so that when your weight is in the saddle it will not rub the withers.
- Check that the panels sit properly on the back. Look down the channel from the front and the back. The saddle should not be tipping, and should not be in direct contact with the spine. The panels should slope at the same angle as the musculature of the back.
- Run your hand under the panels from front to back on both sides feeling for changes in pressure. If the saddle feels particularly heavy in one place this will result in a pressure point for your horse. If the saddle feels particularly light in one place, this indicates a "bridge" and will cause pressure at two points along the back. Keep in mind that when a horse is working with his abdominal muscles engaged the back will lift up. Sometimes a saddle that is slightly bridging will not do so while in work. The easiest way to test this on the ground is by asking for a "belly lift" while running your hand under the panels.
- If the saddle feels like a potentially good fit a trial ride is the next step. Use the saddle pad and girth that you typically ride in. Pay close attention to how your horse reacts when tacking up - especially when girthing. When riding, ensure that there is still enough clearance at the withers. The saddle should stay in place without slipping or tipping forward or back. You should be able to maintain your position without difficulty and your horse should be willing to move forward.
- It is always a good idea to have someone else watch you ride in a potential new saddle. Eyes on the ground are often able to see issues that cannot be easily felt while riding. Position problems are not always easy to feel, nor are movement irregularities from the horse.
A correctly fitted saddle must provide total clearance of the horse’s spine and must not interfere with the movement of the horse’s shoulder blade. Assess the symmetry of the saddle’s fit on both the right and left side of the horse—the saddle panels should be even and symmetrical on both sides. If a horse has a history of one-sidedness or previous injury which has left him/her asymmetrical in musculature, then it may be appropriate to consider supplemental therapeutic padding and/or asymmetrical saddle flocking to ensure that the correct saddle fit is achieved.
If the tree is too narrow, the angle of the point will dig into the muscles, and the saddle will look “perched;” the pommel will appear too high in relation to the cantle. If the tree is too narrow, there is nothing you can do to make the horse comfortable. The horse will need a saddle with a wider tree. Lifting the saddle at the cantle with a riser pad will only force that much more weight onto the wither area, causing muscle atrophy.
If the tree is too wide, the tree points will end up dropped around the shoulder, and the gullet of the saddle will be too close to the withers. In this instance, the cantle of the saddle will appear too high in relation to the pommel. To help adjust the fit, you can use padding up by the pommel to lift the saddle in the front. While not ideal, it can prove beneficial if you anticipate that the horse’s shape will be changing or if you cannot buy a new saddle.
Note that not all tree shapes are appropriate for any horse. A horse with a swayed back will not do well with a saddle that has a flat, broad tree. Rather, it will benefit the horse to have a tree with a deeper seat and “banana panels.” Conversely, a horse with a broad, flat back cannot go well in a saddle with a deep and more arched design, as there will not be enough surface area in the panels to disperse the rider’s weight evenly.
When placed upon the horse’s back, the saddle must be evenly balanced—not tipping forward or backward. The deepest part of the saddle’s seat should encourage the rider to sit within the center of the horse’s movement. The saddle must remain balanced and centrally located on the horse’s back free of the spine and shoulder blade. As such, it should not sway side to side or exhibit any rocking or rotating when on the horse’s back. The girth should fit within the girth groove and when tightened it should not pull the saddle forward.
Not only must the saddle fit the horse perfectly, but you as the rider need to be comfortable and balanced. If you have to continually shift around to get into the right position, then not only are you going to be off on your aids, but your horse ultimately has to absorb your extra movement, which inevitably affects his/her back and legs.
Finally, make sure that you’re paying attention to how the horse behaves and moves under saddle. Sometimes it appears as though the saddle is fitting, but once in motion, the saddle ends up being inappropriate. It is for this reason that a “cross tie” fitting cannot be relied upon exclusively.
It is important to note that a horse’s body shape and musculature will change with training and conditioning and that as such, saddle fit should be periodically evaluated to ensure the horse’s comfort and saddle performance. It is common for saddle fit to need some adjusting as horses come in and/or out of conditioning. For this reason, we recommend that riders frequently inspect the fit of all saddlery and equipment on a regular basis.