Six Ways You Cannot Tell If Your Saddle Fits
1. Sweat as an indicator. You cannot tell if your saddle fits by the amount of sweat on your horse’s back. There are many possible sweat patterns depending on weather conditions, your horse’s hair coat, the length of time and type of riding you do, and the material your saddle pad is made of.
If you use a rubber non slip pad on your horse (which I would never do) and it is 90°F and 90% humidity, you are likely to have a lot of sweat on the horse’s back, regardless of whether the saddle fits or not. If you are riding in the same saddle and pad on a 50°F day and 50% humidity, you will likely have no sweat. There is absolutely no way to tell if the saddle is a good fit by the lack of sweat.
Where did this idea about sweat come from? A few years ago I was looking at saddles at the Fort Worth Stock Show. I found one that I thought was pretty, so I sat in it. The salesperson approached, so I was curious to see how he would answer my question: “How do I know if it’s going to fit my horse?” He asked, “What kind of horse do you have?” Answer: “I have a Quarter Horse, 15 years old, about 15 hands.” His answer: “Ah, it will fit.” Question: “But how do I know?” He answered, “Just ride around for a little bit and if you have good, even sweat, it fits.”
If you do have a small dry area or an uneven sweat pattern on your horse’s back after you ride, it should alert you that something might be amiss with your saddle fit. You should check your saddle fit or have it checked by a professional saddle fit person. You may find that the horse’s sweat glands have been damaged and he never sweats in those areas; or the horse’s back could be uneven. The sweat or dust pattern should alert you to look further; but that is all it indicates.
Why would I not use a rubber pad? Rubber traps heat, which will actually make the horse sweat and melt away the fascia. Have you ever heard anyone say “we need to sweat some of that horse’s top line off?” Of course not! The opposite is true; we want to build up the top line. Right under the skin of your horse’s back is fascia. Fascia is there for lubrication. It looks like saran wrap and is made up of mostly water and hyaluronic acid. The fascia also transmits messages to the brain four times faster than the nervous system. That is why your horse’s back is so sensitive that he can feel and react to a fly.
2. Friends assessing photos. You cannot tell if your saddle fits by asking your friends on Facebook to look at photos of the saddle sitting your horse.
Thankfully, there are riders who are concerned enough about their horse’s comfort and long term health to look for help with saddle fit. I am grateful for that, but putting a photo on Facebook will only get you lots of different opinions. The truth is: you cannot diagnose good saddle fit by looking at a photo.
The good news is you can diagnose poor saddle fit with a photo. A really poor fitting saddle can be ruled out as an option, but without having a feel for what is under the saddle and watching the horse being ridden in the saddle, you are basically guessing at saddle fit.
When we evaluate saddle fit, first we look at the horse standing still. We place the saddle where we think it should go on the horse’s back and check for clearance along the spinal ligament; horizontal and vertical contact; tree length; shoulder angle; and saddle width and balance. But, if you place the saddle too far forward or too far back, that will greatly influence the clearance, evenness, length, and balance.
The placement of the saddle can be debated all day. There are strong arguments about placing the saddle over the shoulder or behind the shoulder. I don’t think it matters where you think it should go. The only thing that matters is where it actually goes while you are riding in it. If you need a big rubber pad or a breast collar to keep the saddle in place while riding on a relatively flat surface, your saddle probably does not fit.
The rigging or billets also have a huge influence on where the saddle ends up on the horse’s back. Even if the saddle looks like it would fit perfectly, if the rigging is in the wrong place for the horse’s conformation, the saddle won’t work.
3. Not riding in the saddle. You cannot tell if your saddle fits without riding in it. It is very important that the primary rider rides the horse in the saddle that is being evaluated. A saddle can fit a horse, but if it doesn’t fit the rider, it will not work. A rider could overweigh the front or rear of the saddle because he or she is not comfortable in the saddle. Or if a rider tries to squeeze in a saddle that is too small, there won’t be enough tree surface or rigidity to distribute the rider’s weight.
4. Trying a friend’s saddle. You cannot tell if your saddle fits by trying your friend’s saddle. Saddles are handmade, so it is very hard to find two exactly alike. Even within the same manufacturer and model, there can be different materials used, and different saddle makers creating saddles with the same name can still be essentially different.
5. The three finger test. You cannot tell if your saddle fits by using the three finger test. When I was growing up, the only thing I was taught about saddle fit is that you need to have three fingers between the top of the horse’s withers and the bottom of the pommel or swell. I now feel so bad for the horses that I rode using this test! While it is true that you need to have clearance at the top of the withers, and that three fingers is a good distance indicator, there is so much more that needs to be considered.
First, you do need to have clearance for the spinal ligaments that wrap around the top of the withers. That means there needs to be clearance on the top and the sides of the withers, and not just in the front, but the whole way down the middle of the saddle. There needs to be clearance with the saddle girthed up, with the pad, and the rider. Just because it looks like there is clearance on a relaxed horse standing in the barn aisle doesn’t mean there is clearance with the rider‘s weight in the saddle.
6. Stereotyping. You cannot tell if your saddle fits by stereotyping your horse. Just because you bought a gaited horse saddle for your gaited horse does not mean it fits. There are many different shapes of gaited horses and they all need a saddle that fits properly and allows for freedom of shoulder movement. The same holds true for hunters and jumpers. In fact, they need more room for the shoulders than any other horse because they are expected to bring both shoulders up and back under the saddle at the same time when jumping.
To reiterate: All horses need a saddle that fits properly and allows for freedom of shoulder movement.
So how can you tell your saddle fits? Getting a professional evaluation is the best option. Next option is to educate yourself about saddle fit using manuals written by veterinarians and other professional saddle fitters. Dr. Joyce Harman [saddle fitting resource center: http://www.saddlefitinfo.com/] and Dr. Joanna Robson [http://www.inspiritusequine.com/] are two good resources to get started. They are both veterinarians and they don’t sell saddles.
Saddle fit really does affect your horse’s behavior, performance, and ultimately the health of horse and rider. Doesn’t your horse deserve to be comfortable? We think so!