Teaching you how to understand saddle fit!
Susan & David Hartje
Ten Elements of Saddle Fit
Element 1: Saddle Placement
First, the horse you are evaluating should be standing squarely on level ground. Then without a pad, place the saddle correctly on the horse’s back. This should be 1” to 3” behind the back of the shoulder blade for an English saddle, and slightly overlapping the shoulder on a Western saddle. While a Western saddle tree is longer and often overlaps the back of the shoulder blade by several inches, a properly fitting one should still allow free movement of the shoulder.
If you are not sure of proper saddle placement, place it really far forward and then push it lightly back towards the rear end. You will feel a place where the saddle wants to stop. This is the correct position for that horse. Repeat the process to make sure the saddle stops in the same place each time.
Many riders place their saddles too far forward, restricting the movement of the horse's shoulder. The equine shoulder blade moves backward as much as three inches when the horse is in motion, so saddle placement must allow enough clearance for the shoulder to move freely without running into the tree.
Element 2: Correct Tree Angle
The front angle of the saddle tree is one of the most important aspect of evaluating a saddle's suitability for a particular horse. When the angle of the tree does not match the angle (slope) of the horse’s shoulders, the saddle does not fit.
On an English saddle, lift up the flaps of the saddle and look for the points of the tree. On most saddles you can see what looks like a leather pocket. Inside this pocket, under the leather, lie the points of the saddle. This is the end of the front of the tree. The Western tree is easier to locate since it is only hidden by sheepskin underneath and leather on top.
With the saddle in place on the horse, look at and feel the angle of the front of the tree from where it starts to touch the horse on either side of the spine down to the lower end of the point or bar. Compare it to the angle of the horse's body. If the tree angle is parallel to his body, the tree is the correct angle for the horse. If the angle of the points is more narrow than the angle of the horse's body, the tree is too narrow. If the angle is wider, then it's too wide.
When the angle is too narrow, the saddle will pinch the horse at the bottom of the points, causing discomfort. If the tree is too wide, it either will fall down on top of the withers, creating little or no gullet clearance, or once loaded, it will fall down in front, putting pressure at the top of the tree angle.
If a tree is within 10 degrees of matching the angle of the horse’s angle, your saddle fitter may be able to adjust the stuffing on an English or the shimming on a Western to get a decent fit. If the tree angle is too far off it cannot be fixed with stuffing or ‘miracle’ saddle pads.
Although the front tree angle is the most important, the middle and back of the saddle tree also have angles that differ from the front. Only if the front angle fits, should you move on to checking out the rest of the tree angles.
A note about the ‘width’ of a tree: Some saddlers measure the width of an English saddle by the space in centimeters between the two points of the saddle tree (e.g.: 31cm). If you use only the width of the saddle between the points of a tree to determine fit, you may miss whether the angle of the front of the tree is correct for the horse. Two saddles with the exact same width measurements, may be dramatically different in their angles. If the angle is not right, it does not fit. The same goes for Western saddles, which are often labeled by the length in inches between the top of the bar angles.
Element 3: Consistent Contact
Next, Insert your hand in the gullet opening and then to the side of the spine, to check for consistent contact with the tree (or panels) from front to back under the length of the tree. If you feel less contact (extra space) in the middle, this is bridging, which means the saddle is not touching the horse in the middle.
An English tree has more give to it, so a little bridging may go away when a rider is aboard. But a Western saddle tree should have no give. If a Western bridges without the rider, it will bridge with one. This will cause pain to your horse as the tree displaces all a rider’s weight to the front and back of the tree only.
Also check for "rocking," which concentrates the rider's weight all in the middle of the horse's back, reducing the area of support and often causing soreness. With a hand on the pommel and the other on the cantle, alternately press down with one hand and then the other. If the saddle rocks excessively on the center of the tree, the saddle may not fit, or in an English the flocking probably needs to be adjusted.
Element 4: Balance of Saddle
On most English saddles, the cantle is designed to sit 1” - 2” higher than the pommel. Most Western saddles are designed so that the pommel and cantle are roughly even.
If the front is higher in either type of saddle, the tree may be too narrow. Likewise, if the front is too low the tree may be too wide. Whether a saddle sits a little high or low in front or back, a properly fitting saddle should always have a level flat spot in the seat so that the rider is not fighting the seat to stay balanced on their horse.
Element 5: Level Seat
With the saddle correctly placed on the horse's back, look for the lowest point of the seat. In most cases, this is a level area centered between the pommel (the front) and the cantle (the back). This is the ideal position because it allows a rider to sit comfortably balanced and effectively deliver seat and leg aids without shifting rider weight to the front or back of the tree.
When the flat spot is too far back, or worse – there is no flat spot, instead the seat looks like a wide ‘V’ – the rider tips back toward the cantle, shifting all their weight to the back of the panels or bars. This causes the horse to hollow his back. If the saddle's center is too far forward, the rider slides toward the pommel and feels out of balance.
If either of these balance flaws exit, the rider’s natural response is to brace with their legs, making the aids less effective and causing an unstable feel for both rider and horse.
A seat that is not level may indicate a serious saddle-fit problem, or maybe the saddle was not designed to have a balanced seat. As long as the saddle tree correctly fits the horse, it may be possible to adjust the balance with wool flocking in an English, or with shims or padding in a Western. However, if the saddle is built to sit you in some other position (which is common for specialty riding situations like racing or reining), it will be easier to start over with a better saddle for your needs.
Element 6: Wither & Spine Clearance
With no rider in the saddle you should be able to fit three fingers into the gullet space between the bottom of the pommel and the horse's withers without feeling cramped.
As long as the tree angle fits, if there isn't sufficient room, a saddle fitter may be able to add flocking to an English saddle or shims to a Western saddle to ensure that the saddle clears the horse's withers.
With a rider in the saddle, there needs to be at least two fingers (2”) of space to assure that the tree is not able to put pressure directly on the horse’s spine.
Look down the gullet—the part that sits above the tree or panels—from the front and from the rear, if you can. The gullet should clear the entire length of the horse's spine by 2” - 3”.
Element 7: Stability
With no pad, cinch up the saddle and check for excessive movement side to side. Look at the saddle from all angles to make sure the gullet lines up with the topline of the horse. Horses may be asymmetrical and so might a saddle. Closely check to make sure any unevenness is not causing an issue with this horse-saddle combination.
Element 8: Correct Saddle Length
The weight-bearing surface of a saddle should be from 2" behind the shoulder blades to the point where the last rib meets the spine. To find this point (known as T18), locate the last rib and follow it up to the spine. If the saddle sits behind this point, it will rest on the lumbar region--the weakest part of a horse's back--where it can cause injury.
Element 9: Horse's Response
Every horse is inherently honest. No horse ever lies about saddle fit, so listen to him. He will tell you whether he is comfortable by his movements and actions. This is the acid test of saddle fitting.
A horse that moves freely, calmly, without hesitation or rushing is probably wearing a saddle that fits him correctly. Most horses show an immediate, dramatic change in disposition and movement when an ill-fitting saddle is fixed or replaced with one that fits well. (Click here for more signs of an ill fitting saddle)
When a horse just isn't going "right", the saddle (the back), the feet and the teeth are the most important places to look for clues to answer why. Your veterinarian, your farrier and your saddle fitter will be your best allies in helping you determine what is creating problems in your horse.
Element 10: Elements 1-9 While Riding
This is the final test once you have a saddle that you think fits. Saddle up with a thin pad and check how all of the above elements fare with a rider’s weight and while the horse is moving.
Above are the basic elements of checking your own saddle fit.
If you would like to know more, contact us. Saddles That Fit! can help you gain a more indepth understanding of how to check your own saddle fit. We can walk you through the science and art of it with your horse in a private fitting consultation. Or, clinic participants can spend a day learning even more of the nuances of saddle fit.
The more you know,
the better off your horse is!