Saddle fitting has become a hot topic lately, and for a very good reason – riders are beginning to realize that if a horse is comfortable, her performance is enhanced, whether she’s carrying you on the trail or into competition.

Correct western saddle fit is as important to the equine as correct shoe fit is to the human. We all know what it feels like to have ill-fitting shoes; we certainly don’t want to go for a jog and most often become a bit cranky as the day goes on. That’s not even taking into consideration the lingering pain that lasts long after those uncomfortable shoes are removed. No wonder it takes us so long to choose a new pair of shoes!

Since horses can’t pick their own saddles like we do our shoes, it’s up to us to ensure the best possible fit.

The horse comes first

Horses come in all shapes and sizes-from the tall, high withered thoroughbred to the short stocky quarter horse and all those in between. Therefore, saddles must offer varied saddle design options to accommodate these differences.

Use these five basic considerations to help determine if your saddle conforms to your horse’s back:

1. Structure is fundamental

Before you even place a saddle on your horse’s back, you must inspect the actual structure of the saddle. Unfortunately, many saddle manufactures seldom use quality control and therefore many new saddles are purchased with serious defects such as twisted trees.

Examine the saddle carefully from all angles, checking for balance and symmetry. Minor differences from one side to the other can be tolerated, but most visible differences will cause pressure points on the horse’s back or hinder the rider’s ability to find the correct position in the saddle. Hint: The initial cost of the saddle seems to have no bearing on the number or severity of structural defects found.

2. Please take the pressure off my shoulders

The positioning of the saddle is the most critical aspect of saddle fit. Many riders make the common mistake of setting the saddle too far forward. This positions the rigid tree over the top of the shoulder blade and exerts enormous pressure and pain, which restricts the horse’s movement. However, if the tree is not a correct fit for the horse, moving the saddle off of the shoulders may be tip the rider forward.

Saddles with shorter bars, such as those used in barrel racing and those designed for Arabians, can be easier to move back into the correct position. Unfortunately, many of the shorter bars are still too straight so they can dig into the back muscles. Remember: If the saddle does not fit, no change in position will correct the problem.

3. A strong foundation – the saddle tree

The saddle tree must fit the horse across the withers, without the use of pads. In fact, a bare tree with no leather should conform to the horse’s back, putting pressure only on the rib cage. Any part of the saddle extending past the rib cage should not put any pressure on the loins. The bars need to have enough rocker (curve to the bottom) and flair (curve at the ends) so the bar shape conforms to the shape of the horse’s back–very few trees have enough.

When saddles are too straight or narrow, it creates a “bridge” with four pressure points: on both shoulders and both sides of the back at the rear of the saddle. This causes the front to sit up too high, unbalancing the rider. If the saddle is too wide across the withers, the rider will tip forward and the saddle can make contact with the withers. Short, flared skirting will keep the skirting from interfering with the shoulders and loins.

4. Keep it on the level

Ensure that the seat is level when viewed from the side and that the rider comfortably sits in the center of the seat. If the seat is not level or the lowest point is incorrectly placed, the rider will be out of balance and may not even know it!

A too-narrow saddle sits up too high at the front, causing the rider’s weight to be pitched toward the rear. This places the rider’s legs too far forward – one of the most common faults. A saddle that is too wide will tip forward or down at the front, pitching the rider’s body forward, legs back behind the vertical.

5. A comfortable girth

The girth should always end up in the narrowest point of the rib cage, perpendicular to the ground and should naturally drop down into the narrowest part of the ribs. Keep in mind, some horse’s girth spots are just behind the elbows, while others are one to two hand-breaths behind. The girth should be as long as possible so it ends just below the saddle, but out of the rider’s way.

Don’t forget the rider If the saddle does not suit the rider, that rider then becomes the saddle-fitting problem!  Check your fit with three rider considerations.

1. Bottoms up! Seat size is important Some riders make the common mistake of buying a saddle with a seat size that is too small. This forces the rider to sit at the back of the saddle. Even if the saddle fits well, this position puts excessive pressure on the horse’s back.

2. How does your seat sit? On many western saddles, the ground seat (the area where you sit) is too wide for the rider’s legs to drop comfortably down to the side. This pushes the thighs out so the knees cannot lie against the horse’s side. In turn, this rolls the pelvis back and prevents the correct use of the lower leg, forcing riders to brace with their legs out in front of them.

3. Sure-footed placement Stirrup placement plays another critical role to the comfort and balance of the rider. Often, stirrups are placed too far forward which causes the rider’s legs to drift ahead, leaving them in a chair-seat position. If your ankles or knees hurt during a ride, check your stirrup placement. Correct saddle fit can make all the difference between an enjoyable ride and one that is miserable. Be pro-active to ensure a proper fit and save your equine partner the pain and frustration of an ill-fitting saddle. You’ll both be happier.

Physical signs of saddle fitting problems:

  • Obvious sores
  • White hairs under the saddle
  • Temporary swellings (after removing the saddle)
  • Scars or hard spots in the muscle or skin
  • Atrophy of the muscles on the sides of the withers

Behavioral problems related to saddle fit and back pain:

  • Any objection to being saddled
  • Hypersensitivity to brushing
  • Difficult to trim or shoe
  • Rearranging the stall bedding constantly
  • Unable to stand still

Training problems that may indicate a saddle fit problem:

  • “Cold-backed” during mounting
  • Slow to warm up or relax
  • Rushing downhill or pulling uphill with the front end – unable to use the back or hindquarters properly
  • Inability to travel straight
  • Unwilling or unable to round the back and/or neck
  • Swishing the tail, pinning the ears, grinding the teeth, or tossing the head
  • Starts ride doing well, gets more resistant later