"How do you know if your saddle fits?"

  First of all, let’s just get this out of the way.  You cannot diagnose saddle fit by the sweat patterns or in pictures! Diagnosing saddle fit with a picture or a sweat pattern is like sending a picture to the Doctor and expecting him to give you a diagnosis and a prescription. My Grandson, Gentry had a fever last week, can you imagine how ridiculous and downright dangerous it would be to ask a Doctor for a diagnosis from a picture? Yet that is exactly what a lot of riders are doing.

  To evaluate your saddle fit put your saddle on without a saddle pad and stand your horse up square.  His head should be straight and at a normal height.

  Does the saddle sit level?  A saddle that is too high in the front equals too narrow tree.  If the tree is too narrow, there is nothing you can do.  No saddle pad can fix that.  If the saddle is too low in the front it means the tree or the tree angle is too wide.  Sometimes wide tree can be helped with a pad but it should be only a temporary fix until the horse returns to his normal weight or until a proper fitting saddle can be purchased.  A saddle that has too wide an angle cannot be fixed with a pad.

  Is there enough wither clearance?  The correct answer is there must be clearance on the sides and the top of the withers all the way back to the base of the withers.  It is usually 2-3 fingers on top and on the sides without the pad. There must also be clearance with the pad, girthed up with the weight of the rider.  There must never be pressure on the spinal ligament.  A lot of saddles would fit better without the big bulky pads taking up all the extra space.

  The withers are the longest vertebrae wrapped with the spinal ligaments.  They act as a fulcrum pulling the back up so the horse can engage.  Pressure on the ligament will prevent the horse from being able to lift his back and engage causing muscle soreness and lameness.

  Does the tree angle match the horse’s shoulder angle?  Looking at the front of the saddle whether it is English or Western the angle of the tree or the bars must be the same angle as the horse’s shoulder, not the angle of the wither area.  The shoulders need to have the freedom to pass under the front of the saddle.  Saddles that slip back or to one side usually don’t have enough room for the shoulders to pass under the front of the saddle so the shoulders simply push the saddle out of the way.   The worst thing we can do is put a breast collar on to keep a saddle from sliding back if there is no room for the shoulders.  At the top of the shoulder is cartilage, which can easily be damaged by a pinching tree.

  Are the billets or rigging in the right place?  After you have determined the tree width and tree angle match the horse’s width and shoulder angle, check and make sure the girth will fall into the right place approximately 4 fingers behind the elbow.  A girth that is back too far will drag the saddle forward then the shoulders will kick the saddle back then the girth will pull it forward. This back and forth, back and forth every step equals girth sores.

  Is the saddle too long?  This is a very controversial question.  Some say the saddle support area ends at the last rib where it connects to the last thoracic vertebrae.  However, the bars of most western saddles are longer than that.  So which is correct?  Well, the answer is different for every situation.  A good fitting western saddle has some of it’s tree over the shoulders and over the lumbar however, the weight is mostly in the center over the rib heads and the rider’s center is towards the base of the horse’s withers. 

  Saddles that bridge put painful pressure on the shoulders and lumbar area instead of on the belly of the longissimus muscle over top the ribs.  Bridging saddles causing muscle soreness, irritation to the spinal ligament and can cause kissing spines, hunter’s bumps, and chiropractic and lameness problems.

  Is the channel wide enough?   The channel down the middle of the saddle needs to be wide enough to allow clearance for the vertebrae and the spinal ligament.  Most horses are 3-4 fingers wide.  No horse has a vertebrae width of 1-2 fingers.  The English saddles with 1-2 fingers gullet width don’t fit any horse.  It is not possible.

  Is the horizontal bar or panel contact even?  It is best to go ahead and ride the horse without the pad for a few minutes to see the contact.  We would like to see even pressure on both sides with a nice 3-4 finger wide area on top that is untouched.  The goal is to have 1-2lbs per square inch. 

  However, it is very easy to see or feel if a saddle is bridging or not touching in the middle of the horse’s back.  If it is not too bad, a pad can be shimmed to fill in the space.  In my experience that is the only thing that can be fixed with a pad.  A saddle that fits in all other areas can be shimmed to fill in a spot on the horse that is hollow or not as big as the other side but, it must be rechecked frequently.  Shimming a saddle pad is definitely not a good long term solution.

  After you ride, take the saddle off and look at the marks on the horse’s back.  I like to see that the hair if flatten all the same on both sides with nothing touching the top or the sides of the withers or any where down the middle of the horse’s back.  There should not be too much pressure in the lumbar area or on the shoulder’s.  There should not be any hair ruffed up.  Both sides should match.  A little bit of sweat in the front and back is normal for a short ride.

  Remember, if the saddle doesn’t fit without the pad, you need a different saddle or a different horse to fit your saddle.  Joanna Robson DVM, said  “if you can’t afford a saddle that fits, get a cheaper horse.”

  In 1914, the US Cavalry handbook spells out these exact same guidelines. They depended on the horses to carry them into battle and safely home.  Sadly, the information has been lost over the past 100 years but we can help change that.  

  Horses communicate through behavior.  If your horse becomes grouchy when the saddle appears, bites while being girthed up, won’t stand for mounting, has trouble with leads, going down hills, refusing jumps, is anxious and hot headed, has unexplained lameness issues, requires regular chiropractic care or injections it could be your saddle.  To prevent needless suffering and possible long term permanent damage, please check your saddle fit regularly and if you are unsure, get some help.  Doesn’t your horse deserve to be comfortable?


Terry Peiper

Fit Right Saddle Solutions