What Makes a Saddle “Fit”? A Quick Overview

Understanding Proper Saddle Fit

It’s been my observation that many devoted and educated equestrians are ignorant about the importance of saddle fit until a problem arises.  Usually the problems manifest in a variety of all too common symptoms:  Rub marks, white spots, cinchiness, girth galls, sour behavior, lack of impulsion, and poor performance by the horse when under saddle.  Eventually, a poorly fitted saddle can lead to permanent damage of the horse’s back.  Deep hollows behind the shoulders and a pronounced dip in the spine are some of the unattractive and disturbing consequences of long-term saddle trauma.  Knowing what makes a saddle fit well–and more importantly, using a saddle that fits well–is very, very important.

The saddle’s main function is to distribute the weight of the rider over the strongest part of the horse’s back, which are the “meaty” areas on either side of the horse’s spine.  A saddle with a proper fit will give:

  • No pressure points (usually noted as dry areas in sweat marks)
  • Consistent, even pressure where the bars/panels meet the surface of the horse’s back
  • Complete spinal clearance (no weight directly on the horse’s spine)
  • Weight distribution and centering above the horse’s ribcage, on the muscles that run along the spine (the “meaty” area)
  • A stable, close-contact connection between horse and rider
  • Comfort for both horse and rider

If you ride a horse, then it’s your job to know whether or not the saddle you are using is doing a good job. A great place to start is by understanding the basic fundamentals of a properly fitted saddle.  Pictured below are pictures of a Western and English saddle, with the names of their “parts” identified so that the guidelines on proper saddle fit can be better followed:

1)  First Step:  Saddle Placement—Make sure your horse in on level ground.  Do not use a saddle pad.  Place the saddle on the withers, and then slide it back until it reaches a spot where it wants to stop.  Do this several times to make sure it’s at the same stopping point each time.  An English saddle should be 1” to 3” behind the shoulder blade; a Western saddle, being longer, will have the front skirting overlapping the shoulder blade by a couple inches.  The horse’s shoulder blade moves backward as much as three inches when in motion, so saddle placement must allow enough room for the shoulder to move freely without bumping into the tree.  Nutshell: When placed in the correct spot, the saddle must not impede shoulder movement or go past the last Thoracic vertebra.


2)  Second Step:  Tree Size & Angle – The most essential part of a properly fitted saddle is the tree! Critical areas for sizing are the gullet and the slope.  The size of the tree dictates the width of the gullet.  But, the front angle of the saddle tree is the most important fitting component. When the angle of the tree does not match the slope of the horse’s shoulders, the saddle does not fit. The tree size and angle dictate the width of the saddle and height of the gullet and thereby affects all other fitting factors of the saddle.

When the angle of the tree does not match the slope of the horse’s shoulders, the saddle does not fit. ­

Helpful Comparison between Western tree sizes and English tree sizes (sizes noted below are general, and may vary from one saddle to another):

Western Trees—Width & Angle English Trees—Width & Angle
Semi-Quarter Horse Bars = 6” – 6 1/2″/90° Medium/Regular =  30-32 cm/90°
Full QH Bars = 63/4” – 7”/94° Wide = 34-36 cm/94°
Draft Bars = 8” and up/98° and up Extra Wide = 38 cm and up/98° and up

Specialized Saddles offer adjustability in the width of the gullet by using different thicknesses of Fitting Cushions that fit onto the bars of the tree

 

(Specialized Saddles is one of the only saddle brands currently on the market to offer a patented 3-dimensional fit that’s adjustable in Width, Angle, and Rock.  Their “standard” tree is a Full Quarter Horse Bar tree, which enables a Specialized Saddle to go from 4 inches in the gullet area up to 7 inches.  Larger trees and mule trees are also available.  For more information on the adjustable Specialized Saddle, call 970-231-3299 or email Michelle Smith at info@trailwisetack.com)

Adequate tree width can be tested easily by sliding your hand under each side of the horse’s shoulders.  Your hand should not be pinched.  At the same time, the pommel and gullet should have at least three fingers of clearance over the horse’s withers and the front of the saddle should not interfere with the shoulder movement of the horse.  There should also be spinal clearance in the back—the back of the saddle shouldn’t dig into the horse’s spine when the rider is sitting in the saddle.

To check width in the shoulders, slide your hand under the front of the bars. Your hand should not feel pinched.

Wither clearance should be 2-3" fingers

You should be able to see a "clear channel" from front to back, indicating appropriate spinal clearance for the length of the tree.

Nutshell: The saddle must be wide enough, the angle of the tree must match the slope of the shoulders and there should be full spinal clearance from front to back.

3) Third Step:  Even Contact of Bars/PanelsWestern saddles have “bars” and English saddles have panels and their function is to distribute the rider’s weight evenly.  For this to be effective, there must be consistent, even pressure on either side of the spine, along the bars or panels.  To check for this, slide your hand under the front bar of the saddle and slowly run it towards the back of the saddle.  If there is space in the middle (also called the “rock” or “arch”), then the saddle will “bridge”.  If there is not sufficient contact in the front or back, then all the rider’s weight will concentrate in the middle, causing soreness to the horse.

Nutshell: For effective weight distribution of the rider, there needs to be consistent, even contact and pressure along both sides of the bars & panels.

"Panels" on an English saddle, normally stuffed with wool with the ability to be "reflocked"

4) Fourth Step:  Saddle Balance – The saddle needs to sit straight, i.e. not dipping down at the front or back, and positioned so that the rider is placed over the horse’s center of gravity. The deepest part of the seat should appear to be parallel to the ground, or level. If you were to take a pencil and place it on the seat of the saddle, it should come to rest in the exact area that your seat bones would be located if you were in the saddle. To check this, once you have put the saddle on the horse, look and see if where the rider is sitting the saddle is sitting horizontally. This area is quite small, and you may need to bend down and look at eye level to see this properly.  The saddle should feel balanced when the rider sits in it.  From the side, the cantle should be 1-2″ higher higher than the pommel on an English saddle, and roughly even on a Western saddle. If the pommel is higher than the cantle, then the tree may be too narrow; if the pommel is lower than the cantle, then the tree may be too wide.

Nutshell: The rider should feel balanced and secure in the saddle and the seat of the saddle should appear to be parallel to the ground.  Spinal clearance should remain with the rider’s weight.

 

5) Fifth Step: Saddle Stability – The saddle should fit without rock from front to back and without too much movement from side to side.  To test the front to back relationship:  From the side, the cantle should be 1-2″ higher higher than the pommel on an English saddle, and roughly even on a Western saddle. If you are on the left side of the horse, place your left hand flat on the pommel and your right on the cantle. Gently, but deliberately, alternate your pressure from hand to hand and see if the saddle rocks. It shouldn’t.  To check if the saddle is stable from side to side, use the same hand placement with your right hand rocking the cantle from side to side. Again, the saddle should feel secure and not move around too much.

Pommel should be about even with the cantle; the middle of the seat should appear to be parallel to the ground.

 

Nutshell: The saddle shouldn’t move around too much.  This will be easier to achieve on a horse with adequate withers; this is sometimes a challenge on a very round, barrel-shaped horse, and using no-slip pads, a breastcollar, and crupper is helpful.

6) Sixth Step: Horse Response & Sweat MarksFinally, the horse should be ridden to see how it moves and to evaluate how the rider feels in the saddle. Things to note:  Does the horse step out and move easily or is it short stepping?  “Short stepping” is when the horse doesn’t fully engage in its stride, and is an indicator that the saddle fit may not be comfortable.  Is the horse relaxed and happy, and comfortably moving forward?  Pinned ears and swishing tails are other indicators that something is wrong.

The final litmus test is to check your saddle pads.  Consider using a light or white colored saddle pad for this step, since it shows sweat and dirt marks better.  Ride the horse until a light sweat has been achieved.  Then take the saddle off and examine the pad.  Are the dirt and sweat marks making an even “picture” on either side?  If so, this indicates even pressure and weight distribution, and the saddle is doing its job.  If there are areas of dry spots or clean spots, this indicates that the saddle bars are not making consistent, even contact in those areas and the fit is not good.  You should never see sweat marks on the spine itself.  Dry spots indicate severe pressure points, where the contact is too strong.  This will eventually cause permanent damage to the horse, and will encourage the muscles to atrophy, the shoulders to hollow, and the back to dip.

Sweat marks on the saddle pad indicate "bridging."

Nutshell: Carefully evaluate your horse’s behavior and gait as you ride.  After you achieve a light sweat, observe your saddle blanket.  With a Specialized Saddle, you can usually make corrections as needed.  With a traditional saddle, you can use the Affinity Saddle Liner to adjust your fit as long as your saddle is wide enough and the tree slope is correct for the horse’s shoulder slope.

Upcoming articles to watch for:

  • Introducing the Affinity Saddle Liner
  • To Tree or Not to Tree….?
  • Basic Fitting Techniques for Fitting Your Specialized Saddle
  • Making the Saddle You Already Have Fit (Possibly)

About the Author

Michelle Smith has been an authorized Specialized Saddle representative since 2008 and is the owner of Trailwise Tack in Loveland, Colorado.  She is a life-long horse enthusiast, participating in 4H as a child, practicing Dressage in college, and eventually gravitating to the sport of Endurance racing.  She and her daughter, Jackie, are regular Endurance competitors in the Mountain Region of AERC.  Michelle gives saddle fitting clinics and demonstrations for Specialized Saddles and regularly fits about 20 – 30 horses a year.

To schedule a fitting appointment or to reserve a demo saddle, call 970-231-3299 or email Michelle at info@trailwisetack.com.  You can also get more information from the Trailwise Tack website:  www.trailwisetack.com.

For a helpful handbook on saddle fitting and other informative articles on saddle fit and horse health,  go to Galadriel Billington’s site: Lorien Stable, www.lorienstable.com

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