Fitting The Horse

The first step in the English saddle-fitting process is to accept the humbling fact that your horse’s comfort and safety come first.  Fitting the horse always comes before fitting the rider. Man has learned this lesson the hard way through centuries of experience in the saddle, but riders today can benefit from the wisdom gained along the way.

Typecasting Your Horse
The following physical characteristics are important ones to consider when selecting a saddle.  Taken collectively, they represent a general physical type of horse and will determine the kind of saddle that is most suitable.  If you routinely ride two or more horses of very different conformation or size, simply switching saddle pads will not work.  Distinctive variations in these areas require different saddles to accommodate them.

•    Shape of the Withers: If horses were runway fashion models, the ideal on parade would be withers that are level with or slightly above the highest point of the croup (rump).  As is true with humans, not every horse conforms to the ideal that designers have in mind, so you need to eyeball your horse’s withers.  If they are higher or lower than the above standard, you must find a saddle that specifically addresses that deviation in the width of its gullet, angle of its points, and fullness of its panels.

•    Length of the Back: A less-than-ideal back is too short to fit the average saddle, whose flaps would dig painfully into the horse’s back as well as the more delicate loin and kidney areas.  If your horse has a shorter-than-average back, a shorter-than-average saddle is in order.

•    Shape of the Back: Here, departure from the ideal would include backs that are too narrow, too flat, or higher in the croup than in the withers (“downhill” back, which can prompt saddles to slip forward and create soreness).  The average saddle would be painfully ill-fitting for a horse with any of these traits, so you would need to find one that better matches the shape of your horse’s back.

•    Size of the Shoulders: On an especially narrow-shouldered horse, the average saddle can slip painfully forward onto the shoulder blades. On a large-shouldered horse, the average saddle can restrict free movement and push the tree base painfully against the shoulders. In either case, the saddle needs to compensate for the shoulder size.

Saddle-to-Horse Fitness Checklist
You can’t determine saddle fit without first placing the saddle on the horse, but many riders perform this crucial step incorrectly by positioning the saddle too far forward or back. With the horse on flat ground, you should put the saddle over the withers and then slide it back until its contours match those of the horse’s back.  Misplacement will cause problems for both the horse and the rider, and the saddle may undeservedly bear the blame for trouble that could be fixed by merely adjusting its position.

Here are the main points to cover when assessing saddle fit:

•    Ensure that the saddle comfortably clears the withers by inserting your stacked fingers into the area between the gullet and the withers while seated.  To avoid pinching of the withers, at least 3 but no more than 4 fingers should fit in the space when your horse is not wearing a saddle pad.

•    With the horse in motion, check that there is free movement of the shoulder blades.  You should be able to fit your hand between the underside of the panels and the horse’s shoulders, and the points should fall an inch or two behind the shoulder blades to accommodate their rotation.

•    The panels and gullet must clear the horse’s spine vertically and laterally, as direct pressure there can cause problems ranging from discomfort to vertebral damage. When you look through the gullet from either end of the saddle, you should be able to see light coming from the other end.

•    The back of the saddle should never rest behind the last rib, as that area cannot support the weight of the saddle and the rider.

•    From a side view, visually confirm that the saddle is well-balanced, appearing level throughout the flat area of the seat and distributing weight evenly over its bearing surface.  When the horse moves in a girthed saddle, the back of the saddle shouldn’t rock upwards.

•    Make sure that the flaps do not extend too far backward into the horse’s loin or kidney areas.

If the saddle fails any of these crucial tests, look for one that matches your horse’s conformation better.  Basic saddle-horse incompatibility is not something that you can ignore.

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