How many ways can a saddle not fit a horse? It turns out there are many. In fact, there are probably more horses wearing saddles that don’t fit than which do. My evidence? Recently, I joined a saddle fitting group on Facebook. It’s a page where people post photos of their horse and saddle and ask for advice about fit. In the vast majority of instances, my first thought is, why did they think it fit at all? My second thought is that treeless saddles are a wonderful solution at solving a lot of problems. Sure, they have issues, too — but they are probably easier to fit (with a proper pad) than many of the treed saddles.
To be fair, many people don’t have access to a professional saddle fitter. Not a rep for a saddle company (many of them really don’t know much about fitting saddles; they are much better at selling them). Not even a trainer who understands saddle fit (I had a few who were clueless). Those are the people who buy a saddle that’s in their price range, put it on their horse and go. I know exactly what they are thinking because I started out like that. I didn’t have a clue that the fit of a saddle has a lot in common with the fit of a shoe. If it’s too small or too big, it’s not comfortable. I learned that lesson at a clinic when the (very kind) big name rider, looked at my saddle and told me that while it was one of her favorite brands, it didn’t come close to fitting my horse. In fact, it was sitting on top of his withers. That’s why I know that people who come to these forums genuinely want to help their horse but have either been given bad advice or have no idea how to evaluate how a saddle fits.
While I had the pleasure of working with a top saddle fitter for many years, they are thin on the ground in many parts of the country. While there are some good videos about the intricacies of saddle fitting, there is no substitute for having someone show you on your horse, with your saddle, what’s wrong.
There are a few key things to remember when evaluating a saddle: Is the deepest part of the seat level or is it at an angle? (if you placed a marble on the seat, where would it go?) Does the saddle sit naturally behind the horse’s scapula, giving him enough freedom of motion? Is there enough clearance over the withers? Does the shape of the tree match the shape of your horse’s back? And, does the saddle extend beyond the 18th vertebrae?
Common ways saddles don’t it
There are a few common themes that come up in the photos posted. Here are the first two that I see a lot.
Too Far Forward: The saddle is placed too far forward. It’s important to place your saddle forward and then slide it back to where it naturally sits on your horse. If left too far forward, the tree points will dig into your horse’s withers when the rider is mounted, and will restrict the movement of the shoulders. Often if a saddle is in the wrong position, it will look out of kilter in other ways. This saddle looks like it’s too narrow (pommel high) and the seat is not level. The fit might be improved if the saddle were slid a few inches back. Right now, the marble would roll back to the cantle. Riding in the saddle as it’s positioned would be uncomfortable for the horse, possibly manifesting in a short, choppy stride or stumbling. The rider would feel behind the motion (tipped back). Eventually, the horse might become back sore as well as the rider’s weight would be concentrated toward the cantle of the saddle and put too much pressure over the loins. To fit correctly, the tree points should be 2-3 fingers behind the top of the shoulder blade. Although it’s a good idea to place the saddle in a forward position, always slide it back to its natural stopping point on your horse’s back.
Too Wide: A saddle that is too wide, will lie on top of the horse’s withers, putting pressure on the nerves that run down the horse’s back. Add the weight of the rider and that puts a lot of pressure on the front of the saddle. (See “Three Finger rule for Saddle Fit to understand why you need clearance over and beside the withers).See how the whole saddle is tipping forward? The marble will roll to the front. If you were to ride in this saddle, the rider would be tipped forward. Sometimes, if a saddle is too wide but otherwise balanced (the seat is level), you can use a pad to provide enough wither clearance. I’ve used a saddle that’s a bit too wide on Freedom with a Mattes Correction pad and shims in all the pockets. It’s probably not the best solution for the long term, but it can make a saddle usable. In this case, the saddle is not balanced. You can see how the cantle is popping up in the back, even when the horse is standing still.
I’ll address some of the other common themes in my next post. What are the most common issues that you see?