There are many factors to consider when fitting a saddle, and a professional saddle maker may be consulted to fit a saddle properly to a horse’s back. Incorrectly fitting saddles cause pressure points, which may result in bruising, soreness, and behavior problems under saddle. The saddle must also fit the rider, as security on the horse can be compromised when a saddle is the wrong size.
Correct saddle placement
Before fitting the saddle, it must be positioned correctly on the horse’s back.
The points of the saddle tree at the front arch should give a full three-fingers width of clearance behind the shoulder blade when the horse is standing straight, or a hand’s width with the foreleg fully extended. This can be done by having someone on the ground pull each of the horse’s forelegs as far forward as possible, holding the leg at the knee, while another person checks the shoulder blade.
The rider’s weight should be carried on the muscles that are over the horse’s ribs (from behind the shoulder blades to the last rib). The last rib of the horse should be found, and the saddle should not come behind it.
Many riders put their saddles too far forward, especially those that use jumping saddles. A properly fitting saddle will “find its own place” when put on over the withers, and then slid back until it will not easily slide further. Even a well-fitting saddle will cause discomfort to the horse and position problems for the rider if it is placed too far forward, creating problems that include:
Interference with the horse’s shoulder blades as it extends the forelegs, folds the legs over fences, or when the leading leg in canter or gallop is in the most rearward position (the top of the shoulder blade can move a full one and a half inches backwards from the standing position during canter and gallop). This also is damaging to the saddle, as it causes the tree to twist.
Incorrect angle of the seat. When the saddle is too far forward the pommel rises up, tilting the cantle down and moving the seat back, so it is impossible for the rider to maintain a correct balanced position. This not only makes it extremely difficult for the rider to stay balanced, as they are constantly trying to scramble “uphill,” but also places the majority of weight close to the cantle, and hence on the horse’s loins.
Harmful pressure areas because the tree points are more likely to dig into the withers. This causes extreme discomfort for the horse, and can produce bald spots and sores.
Improper positioning of the girth too far forward, which can result in rubbing behind the elbows and lead to girth sores.
The stirrup bars are placed forward of the natural drop of the stirrups, causing pressure from the rider’s feet to push them to go too far forward, resulting in a “chair seat” ” position, so that correct balance is very difficult.
Saddles that are placed too far back (a common error made by inexperienced riders first learning to saddle a horse), or saddles with a tree that is too long (for example, a horse-sized saddle placed on a pony) also cause problems for horse and rider, including:
High risk the saddle will slip sideways. The horse’s barrel becomes wider and rounder the farther back it goes, and the withers also become lower before blending into the back altogether, leaving nothing to prevent the saddle from sliding.
Pressure on the horse’s loins, which is not only uncomfortable for the animal, but may cause damage to the spinal column, particularly the lumbar vertebrae, which are not supported by the ribs.
Pinching and pain in the loins and hips.
Lack of balance by the rider in the saddle, as the rider will be perpetually behind the motion of the horse.
Misbehavior by the horse due to discomfort.
The pommel of the saddle will drop downwards, making the rider ‘slide downhill’ in the saddle and increasing the risk of a fall over the shoulder.
Fitting the horse
A saddle must be measured for width, length, and front arch height (clearance over the withers). In ideal circumstances, the saddle is tried on the horse prior to purchase, or is purchased with a return option if it does not fit. When saddle shopping, or if having a saddle custom-made, one method of sizing the horse is known as a “wither tracing.” To create this, an artist’s flexicurve or a piece of coat hanger wire is placed up over the withers about two inches behind the horse’s shoulder blade, then shaped to fit across the withers. The shape is then traced onto heavy paper or cardboard. An average horse can be fitted with just this measurement by comparing the angle of the wither tracing to the angle of the piping at the front arch of the saddle. However, horses with an unusual shape are measured in three locations, the second measurement approximately two inches behind the first one, and the last measurement nine inches behind the withers. Often for accurate measurements, a professional saddle fitter may need to be consulted.
The tree width, which dictates the width of the saddle and height of the gullet, is one of the most important factors when fitting the saddle, and can be tested easily by looking at the sweat pattern on the animal’s back after work. A tree that is too narrow is more of a threat than one too wide, as it pushes the points of the saddle tree into the horse’s back. This will often result in a hollowing if it persists for long periods of time. The sweat pattern will have even sweating along the panels, except for the points of the tree, which will cause round dry spots in the area of sweat, as a result from the pressure.
A saddle that is slightly too wide will not be as much of a problem. However, a saddle that is much too wide will not have adequate wither clearance, especially on a high-withered horse, causing pressure in this area. Too much pressure in the short term can lead to rubs and saddle sores, long-term problems may include damage to the thoracic vertebrae that make up the withers.
The panels need even pressure. The bearing surface of the panels should be as large and even as possible, within the confines of the saddle design. Poor flocking (stuffing) or pressure points from the saddle tree will decrease the bearing area. Uneven fit increases the pounds per square inch in a given area of the back, which can lead to soreness or even injury.
Distribution of flocking can be tested by running the hands down the panels while applying slight pressure. If the panels are stuffed unevenly (one panel higher than the other, or stuffing that is hard and lumpy rather than smooth), the saddle will have pressure points and could cause soreness. A saddle fitter can check to make sure see if the panels are correctly stuffed for the horse. The front panels should have pressure evenly distributed down their front, which can be tested by saddling the horse, tightening the girth, running the hands down the front panels to feel for even pressure. The back panels should not rise off the horse’s back when it is ridden.
Height of the gullet
The saddle should provide adequate clearance for the spine and withers. With the horse’s heaviest rider sitting on the saddle, there should be at least three fingers width between the pommel and the withers, and when girthed up with a thin pad or no pad, it should be possible to look down the gullet and see light at the other end. The gap between the panels should also be about three inches wide all the way down, pommel to cantle, though heavily built animals may need four or more inches of width here to avoid pressure on the ligament over the spine.
Fitting the rider
The fit of the saddle to the rider is also critical, as a poorly fitting or badly designed saddle will disrupt the rider’s balance by either pushing the rider backwards, behind the horse’s center of balance, or lead to incorrect form as a way to compensate for a lack of balance in the saddle. Just as an athlete cannot perform their best if they have shoes that do not fit, even excellent riders have a difficult time riding well in a poorly balanced or ill-fitting saddle. Therefore, it is best to find a model that is comfortable and allows the rider to easily maintain the correct position.
All English saddles are measured from the nailhead below the pommel to the center of the cantle. In the USA, English saddles, other than saddle seat styles, are manufactured in standard sizes for adult riders ranging from 16½ to 18 inches. Standard Saddle Seat sizes range from 19 inches to 21 inches. Most styles also manufacture proportionately smaller saddles for children. However, seat measurement is not a hard and fast way to determine if a saddle will fit a given rider. No two saddles are identical; there can be 1/4″ variation between saddles of different brands with the same size designation. Length of thigh often plays a greater role in selecting a proper seat size than does rider weight or hip width. As a rough rule of thumb, sizes 16½ and below (19″ for Saddle Seat) are generally for youth riders and smaller women. 17 and 17½ inch saddles are usually suitable for adult women of average size, with the 17 inch seat more suitable for shorter riders and the 17½ for those with a longer thigh (20″ and 21″ for Saddle Seat). 18 inch saddles are the most common size for adult men and larger women. (21″ for Saddle Seat, with larger custom sizes sometimes available). Saddles are also manufactured with different flap lengths to accommodate riders of different sizes.
Factors in saddle fit for a rider include the following:
Pommel/Cantle height: the cantle should be slightly higher than the pommel, so the seat is not too far back (which would tip the rider backward and force the lower legs forward).
Seat: the lowest part of the seat should also be the narrowest part of the saddle, the waist or twist, in order to balance the rider over the horse. When the rider is centered in the saddle, the length of the seat should allow about one hand’s width both behind the rider’s seat and in front of the pelvis. A saddle that is too small is uncomfortable to ride in and does not allow the rider the security provided by sitting deep in the saddle. A saddle that is too big does not provide any support for the rider and allows the seat to slide around too much. However, flap size and length of the rider’s thigh bone also influence the length of seat needed.
Twist or Waist: the narrowest part of the saddle needs to fit the rider’s pelvic structure so that the seat bones properly support the rider. This varies by age, weight and gender. If either too wide or too narrow, considerable discomfort may result. Some saddle twists are designed more for the pelvic structure of men than for women and thus may be uncomfortable for the other gender.
Saddle flap: with the stirrups at the appropriate riding length (which will differ according to experience and riding discipline), the knee should not come too far behind the flap (so the flaps do not provide any support), or too far in front (which will force the lower leg back and severely disrupt the balance of the rider.
Position of the stirrup bars: The bars must be properly balanced under the saddle so that the rider is not put off balance when rising in the stirrups (such as when posting or jumping) Riders also should check that the stirrup bars are properly recessed and do not stick out in such a way that the buckles of the stirrup leathers will cause bruising or rubs on their legs.
Finally, particularly with used saddles, the rider must verify that the safety release mechanism works properly to release a stirrup leather in the event a rider falls and is tangled in the stirrups.
Consequences of poor fit
Long term, poor saddle fit may cause multiple back problems for the horse. It is possible for the horse’s topline muscles to deteriorate, or for the horse to develop the wrong muscles. The muscles of the back just rear of the withers may atrophy, causing hollows right behind the shoulders, giving the withers the appearance of being higher and sharper. Horses may also lose muscle tone from traveling with a hollowed back, leading to increased risk of lordosis (“swayback”), kissing spines, or pinched nerves. For riders, spending long hours in a poorly fitting saddle may result in lower back pain as a consequence of incorrect pelvic angle. Saddles that are too small may also cause discomfort if the rider’s seat is pushed into contact with the pommel.
Evidence of a saddle with a poor fit include:
Sore back or “cold” back
Hollowing of the back, raising the head, and tensing the jaw against the bit while under saddle
General stiffness or one-sidedness, shown by a reluctance to take one lead over the other at the canter or reluctance to turn in one or both directions
Shortness of stride
Uneven wear on the hooves
- Reluctance to be saddled, exhibited by fidgeting, tooth grinding, biting or kicking).
- Intermittent or unexplained lameness
Uneven sweat or dirt pattern under the saddle after a workout, particularly dry spots in an area that should normally be sweaty. For example, two dry spots just behind the withers on either side of the back are indicative of either excess pressure causing reduced circulation. Dry spots in the center of the back may indicate “bridging” of the saddle – no contact with the back in a location where the saddle should be in contact. Riding with a white cloth under the saddle is used as a diagnostic tool to make uneven patterns more visible.
Rub marks under the saddle. The hair may become sweaty, but shouldn’t be roughed up to the point it lays sideways or backwards to its direction of growth. Roughened hair may indicate either rubbing and instability due to poor fit, or it may be due to improper saddle placement (particularly putting the saddle on too far back and pushing it forward, pulling the hair the wrong direction).
In extreme cases, open sores or patches of white hairs (from death of cells due to abnormal pressure) sometimes called “saddle marks.”