Saddle Fitting Savvy
The next time your horse misbehaves, you might blame your saddle
instead of his high-protein feed regimen.
"One of the benefits of a properly fitting saddle has to do with
how the horse performs and behaves. If the saddle is ill-fitting,
you'll see training problems,"says Deborah Witty, owner of
Performance Saddlery in Groton, N.Y. and a qualified fitter with
the Society of Master Saddlers.
Often problems seem like they originate in the horse's mouth,
when the cause is actually a pinching saddle.
"If a saddle fits poorly, it creates discomfort for the horse as
well as imbalance for the rider. The rider will constantly try to
correct his or her position, "explains Witty. "If the cantle is
too low, which pushes the rider's legs toward the front, it makes
the horse's back sore. Even a saddle that is placed a half-inch
too far back creates too much friction, shoving the saddle
forward and creating pain in the horse's back."
One of the most common problems that occurs is due to incorrect
placement of the saddle. It must be placed with a tree point two
fingers behind the shoulder blade, allowing freedom of movement
for the shoulder.
Behavioral problems could include bucking or the horse not
wanting to move forward. Witty says that what often happens is
that the back becomes sore from an ill-fitting saddle. As a
result, the horse hollows its back and carries itself in a poor
way, which in turn creates more problems for the rider, which
then creates more pain for the horse. It can be a vicious cycle.
A horse that shows agitation when the girth is being tightened
also may indicate a saddle-fitting problem.
"When you tighten the girth, do so gradually. Walk the horse
forward, then stop and tighten the girth in small increments,
repeating the process two or three times, "she recommends. "But if
your horse looks very uncomfortable when you tighten the girth,
or is difficult to mount, there's a chance that saddle is not
fitting properly. Remember that an ill-fitting point of a tree
can create so much pressure that it can pinch the horse and cause
"We can often accommodate a horse when the saddle is moderately
too wide with padding. But if the saddle is too narrow, we have
more problems—unless we widen the tree, the pressure will create
muscle atrophy as well as acute, then chronic, pain," Witty
explains. Saddles can be padded and shimmed to make a horse's
body more symmetrical. The danger point is when the tree is too
narrow or extremely wide where the saddle sits down on the
"These situations will create an imbalance and instability for
the rider as well as great discomfort for the horse, "says Witty.
Proper fit of a western saddle has the same basic concepts as any
other saddle fit. As with an English saddle, one of the signs of
an improperly fitting western saddle is bad behavior in your
"Keep in mind that when your horse turns, the right side of the
back arcs, but the saddle tree does not get shorter,” says Lisa
Brown, former co-owner of Ortho-Flex Saddle Company in Kansas
City, Mo. “This means that the shoulder blade turns into the hard
part of the tree."
"The saddle tree is the key, "states Brown. "Saddle trees today
are generally made out of a piece of wood that is about two
inches thick. There's only so much curve in a tree. You want to
have your weight spread over as many square inches as possible.
The larger you make it, that drops the pound per square inch."
Brown explains that the key is not to have pressure points. If
you have a tree that has a straight bar, it’s possible to have
pressure at both the front and the rear, although problems occur
more in the front.
"When you remove the saddle after a ride, look for dry spots in
an oval area on each side of the horse's back. Dry spots indicate
there was enough pressure that those glands couldn't sweat. A big
dry spot isn't a problem but if there's a little two-inch spot,
you’ll eventually see white hair there," Brown says.
Fitting a saddle
If you want to make sure your saddle fits your horse properly,
get a piece of solder or a flexi-curve tool. Mold the material
down the horse's body and withers, two fingers behind the
shoulder blade, keeping as close to the contour as possible.
Place the solder or flexi-curve on a piece of paper. Trace the
inside, then make a cardboard cutout and place it up inside the
front of the saddle. Remember that padding in the saddle will
compress. You can place the front of saddle over the tracing,
spread the flaps out and see if you can accommodate the angle of
"You may want to choose a wool-flocked panel rather than foam. As
long as the tree fits properly, the wool can be adjusted to
accommodate the horse's back and any changes that might occur in
the future, "says Witty. "Make sure that your saddle maker has
received training from someone who is reputable. Make sure they
use wool. There are many different products put inside saddles,
but sheep's wool is especially conditioned for flocking saddles."
When you're examining a saddle, turn it over and look at the
bottom. "The channel or gullet needs to be a minimum of three
fingers wide, "explains Witty. "Look for a gusset on the panel -
under the cantle is a wedge of leather stitched on called a
gusset, which gives you more height and adjustability to create
When examining a used saddle, put the pommel against your hip and
pull it towards you. If there's any creaking, the integrity of
the tree has been challenged.
Although pads can help, remember that they change the fit of the
saddle. "Pads artificially make the horse's body wider, so the
tree has to accommodate the fact that you've made the body
wider, "says Witty. "Often, more padding will give you two
surfaces in the front, and one in the back. It doubles the lift
in the front, creating an imbalance."
If you ride multiple horses with the same saddle, determine which
horse is broadest and pad the narrower horse. "This should work
as long as their shapes are similar, "says Witty. After completing
the wither tracings, place the tracings one on top of the other,
the widest on the bottom. If the difference in the width is more
than two fingers at the bottom of the tracing, you will need to
consider using different saddles with different trees because the
differences are too extreme. If you have more than two fingers
difference side-by-side, then you’ll need to consider using
different saddles with different tree widths.
Brown advises that to test a western saddle, stand up in the
saddle and put your fingers under the front of the tree. If, when
the horse walks, you feel pressure on your fingers, the saddle is
not fitting properly.
Another good test is this: when the horse extends its leg
forward, curl your fingers under the front of saddle. You should
feel the shoulder blade rotate back three or four inches.
"Every time a horse takes a step, that shoulder blade rotates
back three or four inches. Hopefully, there’s enough flare or
saddle position far enough back that it won't hurt your finger or
the horse, "Brown cautions.
"The seat shouldn't pitch you forward or back," she says. Also,
be careful with saddle placement. "If the saddle is too far
forward, it will hit the shoulder, but if it’s too far back, it
will hit the horse's loins."
Witty encourages anyone purchasing a saddle to find saddle
companies who will stand behind their products. "Make sure you
have a test-ride period. If saddle fitters say they're certified,
make sure you know by whom," advises Witty. "Find someone who
has been trained in that product or in saddle fitting and make sure
they have references."
My Aching Back
Lisa Brown, founder and former owner of Ortho-Flex Saddle Trees,
offers advice on how to probe the saddle area to discover
soreness in the horse.
Probe first for friction soreness then probe next for deep muscle
Palpate one side of the back at a time.
Use two or three fingertips with 25 pounds of pressure, holding
15 seconds. Next palpate both sides at once.
Know where the saddle lies and pay close attention to the area
where the arch rests, the center of the panels and the rear of
Watch your horse’s face.
Give the horse time to register a reaction when you probe each
Always probe the rear process of both shoulder blades with each
Always use fingertips, never finger nails, nor any narrow, blunt