“Get your tack and equipment just right, and then forget about it and concentrate on the horse.” – Olympian Bill Steinkraus
As mentioned in my previous blog, “These Boots Are Made For Riding,” I briefly mentioned the importance of 3 purchases any rider will make to benefit their riding ability – and safety – when working with horses. Saddles are the second item on that list.
Besides being a much more secure option versus riding bareback, saddles are designed to allow us to better communicate with our horses, giving us the ability to focus on pinpointing our aids and supporting us for various tasks – whether it be jumping, running barrels, flat work, pleasure riding, or hitting the trails. However, if the right saddle isn’t used, more harm can be created than good. Imagine putting on a pair of shoes that’s a size too small. Now imagine you’re put into a marathon and told to run in the same pair of too tight shoes. That same level of discomfort, pain, and contorting our body, attempting to find relief is the same scenario your horse goes through when being asked to perform in an ill-fitting saddle. No wonder some horses behave badly or develop “cold-backed” symptoms!
Your Riding Doesn’t Suck – Your Saddle Might
Do you remember the childhood story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? First, her bed was too hard, then too soft, but the third was “just right” The same concept applies to saddle fitting – both for horse and rider. What may be the perfect fit for you may be too tight in the shoulders for your horse; or the next saddle may not bridge/breach in the middle but is overly flocked in the panels, making the saddle tip down and throwing off its front-to-back balance, interfering with your ability to center yourself correctly in the middle of your horse’s back. It’s important to make sure the seat size and depth; as well as flap length and size are measured to fit your body type, rather than the other way around. Riding in a saddle that’s too small in the seat will create tight hips and drive uneven pressure into the pommel, while too long a flap will make it hard to communicate aids to your horse.
I struggled with finding a saddle that fit both myself and Rotti, due to my height and longer-than-average femur. As a result, I often sacrificed my needs in order to find something that supported my horse’s back, shoulders, and tree size. However, that negated any benefit due to the fact I was constantly “shimmying” in the canter, never seemed to find a comfortable two-point, and always felt trapped when doing flatwork and lateral aids. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I was fighting my body until I rode bareback! Riding in a saddle that didn’t work for me created problems with my riding, making me work twice as hard to fight against my own body to create the illusion of “correct” in the saddle and confusing Rotti with the aids I was trying to convey.
The FIRST thing I want to emphasize when finding a properly fitted saddle is that you do NOT need to go custom. Of course, we all would love to choose that option and have the funds available to make an investment purchase like that, but that often isn’t the case for many riders. In addition, you may be using the same saddle for multiple horses. Therefore, it’s important to understand the basics of what constitutes a proper saddle fit and have the necessary adjustment pieces available in order to make your saddle fit correctly on each horse. In that instance, I highly recommend working with a professional saddle fitter.
How To: Fitting Your Saddle
In my mind, a proper saddle fitting starts with the horse. Become familiar with your horse’s build and unique features. Is he a “shark-finned” Thoroughbred? Straight-backed or swayed? Are his topline muscles well developed or is he a younger horse new to training and will be filling out over time? Checking for sensitive spots like bulging disks and sore muscles, “collapsing” at certain points when you run your finger down his spine, and rubs will provide more information to determine how your horse has been using its body up to this point. Working with a chiropractor to adjust your horse around that time will help you be aware of any changes, pressure points, or conformation issues to address before the saddle fitter comes out.
Place the saddle on your horse’s back. A properly fitting saddle should be symmetrical from back to front and side to side. Check the integrity of the saddle, including examining the panels, tree, and leather. Too much “give” could be from a damaged or broken tree, collapsed panels could be a sign that it needs to be reflocked, and rotten billets or loose stitching is something that needs to be repaired/replaced to avoid a potentially dangerous riding hazard. In fact, each time you take your saddle out to clean it, do a regular inspection to make sure all pieces and parts are in tip-top shape!
At this point, you can slip your hand under the saddle and feel if there is even contact and pressure throughout. Pay attention to any gaps, rocking, or “bridging/breaching” in the middle of the saddle, as this can potentially mean there is uneven pressure distributed to the front and back of the saddle and once a rider is introduced, the center could sink down and possibly cause a disruption in the balance from the front and back. In this instance, check with a saddle fitter, as some bridging is could be normal depending on the saddle maker, conformation of the horse and the expectation that they will be rounding their back during exercise.
Another thing to check is the natural balance of the saddle. Look to see if there is a straight line from the top of the pommel to cantle that is parallel to the ground. The seat should also be level on the horse’s back, as an imbalance will make it difficult for you to sit correctly and without struggling to naturally maintain a proper position. A good rule of thumb is to put a piece of chalk on the saddle, if it rolls slightly forward or too far back, the saddle is not well balanced.
Other check points of ensuring proper saddle fit include the 2-3 Finger Rule. English saddles should have 2-3 fingers clearance on the top and around the side of the withers to accommodate shoulder rotation. A horse whose saddle pinches at the withers may be reluctant to go forward – and in some cases can cause nerve damage, leading to patches of white hairs or sores on the wither area. Also, consider the channel/gullet width of your saddle, accommodating to the width of your horse’s spine and vertebrae so that it’s positioned straight and centered on both sides of the horse. Next, check how your billets lay. These should hang perpendicular to the ground in the girth area – too forward or backwards will create unnecessary pressure on the panels or drive the girth into the elbows, creating sore spots. Lastly, ensuring the tree is either wide or narrow enough as well as follows the same angle as the shoulders are things that can be noted and corrected by a saddle fitter.
Correct Saddle Placement
Once the saddle is removed from the back, introduce a saddle pad and girth then fasten the saddle and note any changes that may occur. Note: a lot of times, people think that placing the saddle directly behind their withers is correct – DO NOT DO THIS. Once you introduce a rider, the additional weight will press into the saddle’s tree points and directly into the horse’s shoulder blades. Not only will this hinder your horse’s shoulder movement, it can result in pain and a very uncomfortable pony! To avoid this, I like to place my saddle slightly forward on the withers, then slide it backward until it stops at the natural resting place. This can vary from horse to horse depending on their confirmation, if the panels are too low, and topline development. Repeat this process until you find the “sweet spot,” located behind the horse’s shoulder blades. For English saddles, check that the rigid points of the tree are behind the scapula’s back edge. You can double check the positioning by sliding your hand down to where your girth is fastened. While your horse is standing square, you should be able to fit your hand’s width – roughly 2” – 2-1/2” – in this armpit area between the elbow and front of your girth.
I recommend checking the fit of your saddle at least once a year, as the fit can sometimes change due to various factors like exercise routines, illness, topline development, and weight changes. Thankfully, there are so many products available today that can adjust a saddle fit like shims and riser pads. In addition, a saddle fitter could recommend sending your saddle out to be reflocked or panels adjusted to refresh the fit. At the end of the day, your horse’s comfort and performance are the most important things to consider, and a properly fitted saddle will help to ensure that. Happy horse = happy human 😊
Email Big Dee’s Sporthorse Specialist and Professional Saddle Fitter, Lisa Gorretta, today to schedule a fitting for you and your horse at firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy the ride,
Colleen, Purchasing Associate