I know a lot of people who could have written this letter. While there is a growing awareness of the importance of saddle fit for horses, many people don’t understand saddle fit for them! As someone who has very long femurs, I fought many saddles before I realized that I needed a saddle where the stirrup bars are set back. When you do find a saddle that fits you AND your horse, it’s magical.
Now, a saddle can’t fix all your riding problems, but if you’re having trouble keeping your legs still, if you’re pivoting on your knees or find your feet are always “on the dashboard,” take a good hard look at your conformation and your saddles components. Keep in mind that a saddle that is not level on your horse, will also put you off balance — so if you find that you are tipped slightly too far forward or too far back, check your saddle fit.
I decided to break up with my saddle and I am now making it public. I recently borrowed a friend’s saddle for a lesson and all my riding problems magically disappeared–sounds crazy, but it’s true. I had the “it’s not me, it’s you” phrase run through my mind when I gleefully realized I DO know how to…
I’ve always discounted people who said that their saddle fits “every horse” they put it on. And with two horses that look completely different in almost every way, it never occurred to me that the same saddle that fits Zelda could possibly fit Freedom. Especially since both horses changed shape this year
But after fitting Zelda with the Schleese, my fitter suggested we try it on Freedom. It’s a bit wide, but with an extra pad, it fits remarkably well. I’m thrilled because it’s a really comfortable saddle.
So at least for the immediate future I have one of those unicorn saddles — the kind that fits every horse I put it on.
I knew there was something wrong. I was crooked. I had to keep stepping hard in my left stirrup to stay even. It was particularly noticeable jumping. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t ride. Or at least that there was something wrong with her saddle (because I didn’t feel unbalanced on Freedom).
So I did what any “normal” person would do. I called my saddle fitter and bought another saddle. Actually, I bought two. I figured that one of the three should work out for her.
When my saddle fitter came and I described what I was feeling, we stood up on a mounting block and took a look at her back. It wasn’t the saddle. It wasn’t me. It was Zelda. She’s asymmetrical.
Zelda’s been a bit one sided since I got her. She is a “right handed” horse who is more balanced and comfortable tracking right. And I guess I haven’t been diligent enough
about working her more on her “off” side, especially during hunt season where it’s hard to keep track of how long she spends on each lead.
One of the “new to me” saddles that I bought looked like it was going to fit pretty well — it’s an older model
Schleese monoflap jumping saddle. It had been overstuffed so Gary removed a lot of the old wool. As you can see, some of what in there looked pretty compressed and nasty.
The saddle now fits Zelda well. We chose to pad the saddle, using a shimmed Mattes pad, to keep the saddle centered. The other choice
would be to flock the saddle up on the left, but that wouldn’t leave her the room to even out her shoulders.
Luckily I still have the Mattes pad on hand. It only needed one shim. It seems like a small thing, but it keeps the saddle from slipping. It’s great to finally feel even again!
I was talking to someone once who complained that her horse’s back was sore. I asked if she had a saddle fitter look at it. Her response? She’d had it fitted when she bought it . . . three years ago!
That begs the question, how often do you have your saddles fitted? Personally, I have them checked twice a year by an independent saddle fitter (someone who doesn’t sell saddles). My saddles don’t always need work, but sometimes the horses surprise me by changing shape.
Today was one of those times. When you have horses that are in constant work of a similar variety, once they are fit their shapes stay pretty constant unless they are very young (getting bigger) or very old (withers becoming more pronounced).
This spring I put off having my saddles checked because I hadn’t ridden much over the winter and the horses weren’t fit. Nothing fit right, including my clothes. However, as they got fitter, I noticed that their saddles were fitting less well . . . saddles pads weren’t staying put (I had one saddle where it looked okay from a distance but the saddle pad shot out the back like a watermelon seed as I rode), and another saddle was tipping me a bit off balance.
I’m not surprised that Zelda’s back has changed. She’s using herself better and her topline has improved a lot since last fall when she had several saddles that fit. Now they all looked a bit too narrow, perching on her back
And Freedom? One of his saddles fit fine, but the other was the one that was tipping me a bit more forward than it used to . . .
Today was saddle fitting day. Sure enough, Zelda’s saddles were too narrow, especially below the stirrup bars. Luckily, I’ve held onto my County Extreme. It was the saddle I used on my Trakehner and it was too wide . . . until now. A bit of reflocking and it will definitely do the trick. I’m happy too as this saddle is one of the most comfortable I’ve ever ridden in.
As I’d guessed, the cross country saddle that I used on Freedom isn’t fitting right any more. It’s a shame, because it’s a very handsome Kieffer monoflap, but the panels don’t have enough give in them to change the fit enough to work and I don’t like to use shimmed pads out hunting: there’s too great a chance that they will shift and I’ll end up with a sore horse.
However, the silver lining is that the jumping saddle I’d bought for Zelda (which fit her great last year but is now too narrow) fits Freedom perfectly!
That’s why it’s so important to have a “saddle library”. No new saddle purchases required!
How about you? How often do you have your saddles checked by a fitter?
A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Zürich and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences confirmed that saddle fit is dynamic and influenced by even modest increases in speed within a gait.
Researchers found that a 10 percent increase within each speed range resulted in a 5 percent increase in the total saddle force peak at the walk, and a 14 percent increase at the trot.
The Swiss and Swedish researchers based their findings on data gathered from sensors that monitored seven dressage horses ridden on a treadmill in their regular tack, walking at speeds from 1.3 to 1.8 metres per second, and trotting speeds from 2.6 to 3.6 metres per second.
The motion of the horse and rider, vertical ground reaction forces and saddle forces were measured simultaneously. The study showed increasing velocity significantly accentuates the basic motion pattern of the respective gait and consequently exerted a distinct formative influence on the saddle forces.
At the walk, increased velocity could accentuate a rocking type of movement of the horse’s back.
At the trot, saddle movement was influenced by the vertical oscillation of the horse and rider, the resulting higher ground reaction force peaks and the stiffening of the horse’s back.
The bottom line?
It’s not enough for your saddle to fit when your horse is stationary; you need to work with a fitter who understands dynamic fit and who can make sure that the fit will work even while the horse is in motion.
The study was supported by a grant from the Stiftung Forschung für das Pferd (Research Foundation for the Horse).
Influence of velocity on horse and rider movement and resulting saddle forces at walk and trot
S. Bogisch, K. Geser-Von Peinen, T. Wiestner, L. Roepstorff and M.A. Weishaupt.
Comparative Exercise Physiology, 2014; 10 (1): 23-32 DOI 10.3920/CEP13025
I suspect we’ve all seen saddles like this one — perched so far above the horse’s back that you might not even know you are riding a horse.
I’m sure that the rider’s intentions are good. But while they might want a pad to protect their horse’s back, too much of a good thing can cause problems.
Fundamentally I think people have lost track of the purpose of saddle pads, which used to be to keep your saddle clean. Now there seems to be more emphasis on the pad than on the fit of the saddle.
In this case, it appears that the folded towels are being used to prop up the cantle as well as lifting the entire saddle a good 6 or 7 inches off the horse’s back. Why isn’t this a good idea?
For one, stability. When you have that many pads under the saddle, it’s not really sitting on the horse and is likely to shift during riding. Certainly when you are doing any kind of riding that includes varied terrain or jumping the last thing you need is a saddle that moves independently of you and your horse.
For another, pressure points. Propping up one part of the saddle almost always creates pressure points under the opposite end. A saddle needs to be the right shape for the horse’s back — the tree points should follow the shoulder and the panels should touch the horse’s back evenly, supporting the rider’s weight.
Saddle fit is such an important part of keeping your horse comfortable and the rider balanced that it’s worth spending some time learning more about the basics. I’m lucky enough to have access to an excellent fitter. I’ve learned a lot from watching him over the years. But if you are just looking for some basics, this video is an excellent starting point.
I am lucky. I live in the land of saddle fitters. I have many choices of who to use and don’t have to wait months for one to travel to my neck of the woods. My fitter comes to my barn at least twice a year to evaluate how well my saddles fit. Even better, I have access to independent fitters — people who are not repping a particular brand so they are not trying to sell me a better, more expensive saddle than I already own.
However, many people live in a saddle fitting wasteland. Perhaps the only people they can get to look at their horses is a rep for a brand. Maybe they aren’t even that lucky! Those people have two options: learn to fit saddles themselves or work long distance. Given how many people I come across who have ill-fitting saddles (even when they think the saddle fits), choice #2 is a pretty good option.
To work effectively with a saddle fitter you need to be able to provide two things: a good set of photos and a wither/back tracing. You can follow the link to video instructions on how to do a wither tracing. And Kitt Hazelton (Panther Run Saddlery) wrote a great blog post that shows exactly what kinds of photos you need to provide but they include conformation shots, a conformation shot with the saddle girthed up, and a view that shows the tree points in relation to your horse’s withers.
Just remember not to compromise on fit. A poorly fitting saddle can cause your horse a lot of pain and can often be the root cause of performance issues. It’s definitely worth getting a professional opinion.
Reading the dust patterns on your saddle pad is the equestrian version of reading tea leaves. You study the marks that are left after riding and they help you evaluate the pressure points under your saddle and if it’s a good fit for your horse. Of course, it can also tell you that your horse is dirty!
In general, wherever you see dirt, there is contact. Where there’s no dirt? No contact. Analyzing the dirt patterns can help you see if you are crooked in the saddle (more dirt on one side than the other), whether the saddle bridges (no dirt where you would expect to see contact)
The dirt should accumulate in the areas of the saddle pad that experience the most movement: at the front of the saddle (where the shoulder moves up and back) and at the back (where horse’s back swings). No dirt should show in the areas where the saddle doesn’t come in contact with the horse’s back, such as the gullet or at the transition between sweat flap and panel.
Just remember to start with a clean, white pad and a clean horse. If your horse isn’t pretty clean, excessive dirty on parts of its back can skew the results. Also, if your pad slips at all during your ride, it will impact the patterns.
Finally, your horse gets the final say in fit. I had a saddle a few years ago that created dirt patterns that, to me, indicated saddle fit problems. My horse apparently hadn’t read the manual because he loved that saddle. So sometimes the tea leaves don’t tell the whole story.