Is your saddle hurting your horse's back?

Pinpointing the root cause when your horse seems “off” can be challenging. Here’s how to figure out if his saddle is the problem.

Consider the differences between the wild and domestic horse. The most obvious difference is the treatment of their feet and the nailing of metal shoes, but saddles are also high on the list. They can be heavy, rigid and restrictive, and are often too narrow for the horse to freely utilize their shoulders. Learning how to spot the signs of poor saddle fit can help you correct the problem before it affects his health.

Learning to recognize the signs of poor saddle fit

If you listen, your horse will tell you that his saddle is causing discomfort. His movements will be stiff and unnatural. He’ll pin his ears when you approach with the saddle, resist picking up the proper lead, or swish his tail at the canter. If the problem persists, lack of circulation to the pigment will turn the hair follicles white.

Horses do not conspire to deceive or mislead us. They don’t pretend something is wrong when it’s not. It’s our responsibility to understand what they are saying, which can be difficult if we are accustomed to a stilted, tender gait. When you see a horse running with complete freedom of movement, it looks different from many horses we observe under saddle. The perceptive horseperson watches closely. She knows when something’s wrong.

Uneven saddle construction

Like a pair of human shoes, even good saddles may have slightly uneven construction. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is the tree symmetrical?
  • Are the stirrup bars placed evenly?
  • Are the panels stuffed unevenly, displacing the gullet or creating lumps or bumps?
  • Has the wool flocking changed shape over time? Place the horn on the ground and observe the centerline for a difference from one side to the other.

The construction of your saddle can affect the way it fits your horse, so make sure it’s even in all of these places!

Asymmetry of the horse’s body

Like humans, horses may develop differently on their left and right sides. For example, a short or long leg may cause uneven musculature in the shoulders or muscle sling supporting the rib cage. A horse’s musculature will also change throughout the riding day (as the horse tires) and over the season (as the horse ages, develops, tones or loses muscle mass). These changes can all affect saddle fit.

How a saddle fitter can help

At various points in time, you should have a qualified saddle fitter look at your saddle and evaluate whether changes are needed. A saddle is a static object, but your horse is a dynamic, living creature. Even slight changes in your horse’s body significantly impact fit (which substantially affects your horse’s riding experience).

Many riders forget that a horse undergoes these changes throughout time and put the same saddles on their backs year in and year out. Though saddle pads can help, most underperform when it comes to a customized and continually changing fit.

Allowing our horses a pain-free riding experience involves monitoring their bodies and our saddles. Keep an eye on both to ensure your horse stays comfortable – and performs at his best!


Carole Herder is the author of #1 bestselling books There Are No Horseshoes in Heaven and Hoofprints on The Journey. Her company, Cavallo, manufactures, and distributes Cavallo Hoof Boots and Saddle Pads to 26 countries worldwide, and all Cavallo products are designed and developed by Carole. She's an honored recipient of the BCBusiness Women Innovator Award, Royal Bank of Canada Woman Entrepreneur Award, a member of the Women Presidents' Organization and a certified Chopra University Yoga Instructor and Ayurvedic Teacher.