Saddle Fit & The Soundness of Your Horse.
When it comes to the mental, emotional, and physical soundness of your horse, saddle fit is an important factor that can be ‘make or break’.
Ill-fitting saddles can become instruments of torture and cause:
- muscle spasms
- nerve damage
- atrophy in the locomotion muscles of the back
- restricted range of motion, short-stepping
- negative self-carriage (“upside down”) and resulting stifle/hock problems
behavior issues, unwillingness, “laziness”, refusing jumps, unable to “step under”
- permanent skeletal changes (in young horses), leading to “acquired sway-back”
- sores and
- the respective slew of compensatory problems (tightness in the lumbar region, stress on the sacroiliac, tight hamstrings, etc.)
- behavior problems like bucking, rearing, rushing, crow-hopping or biting at the rider’s feet
All these issues arise as the horse tries to move in a way to keep himself comfortable or reasonably pain- free when moving under an ill-fitting saddle.
In general, I believe that saddle fitting should be left to educated professionals. Anyone, however, can learn the basic principles in a short period of time. Books, DVD’s and seminars are a good way to up your knowledge level. Whether you are considering the purchase of a custom-fit saddle, a brand new store-bought saddle or a good-quality used saddle, educating yourself about basic principles will help you choose the best possible saddle for your horse and yourself.
CAUTION: Some “Subject Matter Experts” (well-meaning barn friends, trainers lacking saddle fit education, etc.) can steer us in the wrong direction and we pay the price in $$$, our horse in many painful hours under saddle.
How to make good choices
Saddle problems are not always obvious…
…but spending a good amount of money on a saddle does not ensure the saddle fits the horse, especially as his body changes throughout his life.
1. Educate Yourself
- Educate yourself around the basic principles of saddle fit.
- Try a few saddles that barn friends may be able to lend you to put your new knowledge to the test.
- Answer questions ‘why this saddle fits’ or ‘why this saddle does not fit’ my horse.
It is important to consider the weight-bearing area of the horses back.
“Only after you have educated yourself (see resources below) and practiced some of the principles should you invite the help of a saddle fitter.”
2. Consider Common Saddle Fit Mistakes
In your quest to find the perfect saddle fit, please consider these common mistakes:
- fitting the saddle to the rider, without giving enough consideration to the way it fits the horse
- trying to compensate for a wrong fit with all sorts of padding (including ‘correcting’ pads etc.)
- underestimating the importance of balance (see video below)
- putting the saddle too far back, beyond the weight bearing area of the horse (!!!! Important !!!! This is a new ‘fad’ that does not serve the horse!)
- overlooking the fact that a saddle bridges
- choosing a saddle that is too long (possibly to accommodate the rider)
NOTE: The New Fad – Putting the Saddle Too Far Back – Is Harmful to Your Horse!
3. Remember Three Important Factors
- The horse’s shoulder blade (scapula) and the sensitive scapular cartilage on the upper edge of the scapula need ample room to move as the horse is stepping forward.
- The weight-bearing area of the horse’s back is limited to it’s thoracic vertebrae, meaning the part of the spine that has ribs attached to it. Going too far back will put weight on the weakest part of the horse’s anatomy, the lumbar region.
- The balance of the horse’s saddle should enable the rider to align his center of balance with the horse’s center of balance!
…and combine to determine optimal fit.
- The saddle needs to ‘flare’ in the shoulder area, meaning the cut of the saddle needs to allow for freedom of movement.
- The saddle needs to fit the horse’s back in length, meaning we do not want to put a long saddle on a short-backed horse. (Length of back is determined by the length of the thoracic spine.)
- The saddle needs to fit the rider and give him/her enough room and fit the horse at the same time, meaning that if you need an 18″ saddle but your horse can only accommodate a 16″ saddle, you have the wrong horse!
- Moving the saddle too far back often results in more pinching of the shoulder and puts the rider behind the horse’s center of balance.
Determine the center of gravity. This is a somewhat fluid concept as your horse develops. The blue line in this image represents the center of gravity for this horse based on its conformation.
“I have seen a lot of behavior and structural problems in horses that—after some investigation—could be linked to saddle fit. I can be a witness to the fact that fancy contraptions and high-priced designer saddles and pads can do just as much damage as an ebay purchase.”
More Thoughts on Saddle Fit
- Repeat: The saddle needs to fit the rider and give him/her enough room and fit the horse at the same time, meaning that if you need an 18″ saddle but your horse can only accommodate a 16″ saddle, you have the wrong horse!
- Repeat: Moving the saddle too far back often results in more pinching of the shoulder and puts the rider behind the horse’s center of balance.
A saddle should always…
- be made of good, solid materials (leather should be supple, not old, dry and cracking; tree must be flawless, not repaired or broken)
- manufactured by a specialist company or saddle maker (not a replica, made in an unnamed foreign country)
- fit your horse without a pad first (a pad, shim or cushion will not make your ill-fitting saddle fit your horse)
Saddle Fit Resources (English Saddles)
I recommend the following books:
For the horse owner, a great general resource, all you need:
For those interested in sport horse conformation, a great resource for saddle fit and beyond:
For the equine bodywork professional or enthusiast, who wants to understand how saddle fit affects the anatomy:
Armed with the knowledge you gain by watching the videos and reading a book, I hope you will feel encouraged to explore the topic of saddle fit further, even if you are not looking for a new saddle at the moment.
If you need help assessing your horse’s saddle fit, please contact me for an appointment. I am available for individual consultation or to visit your barn for a group consultation (up to 6 horses per day). I am also a Passier saddle fitter and can help you get a wonderful custom saddle for your horse or help find the perfect used saddle for you and your equine.
Enjoy your horse!