Saddle Fitting

Aim of a correctly fitting saddle; the horse and rider are balanced and comfortable.

No saddle fits perfectly due to the dynamic nature of the horses back and the requirement of the back to be able to lengthen and shorten.
Saddle fitting is extremely important for the health and wellbeing of your horse and the quality of the performance you can obtain from your horse.

Why is saddle fit important?

The fit of your saddle will affect the comfort, posture, balance and behaviour of your horse and can contribute to lameness.

Pressure over a period of time causes tissue damage due to the restriction of blood flow, this in turn leads to the restriction in nutrient supply (oxygen, glucose etc) and the inadequate removal of waste products (lactic acid, HEAT, carbon dioxide).  The longer and more frequent the sustained pressure, the greater the damage to the tissues. 

The end result of sustained pressure is pain and tissue damage.  Low to medium pressure over a long period of time may go unnoticed until the tissue is severely damaged.
Research has shown that the pressure transmitted from the skin surface is not evenly distributed throughout the tissue, it is 3-5 x greater at the level of the underlying bones.   Therefore the vertebra and back of the shoulder blade are susceptible to severe damage.

In the wither region a saddle can apply vice like pressure if it is too narrow, too wide or if the panels are too high.

It is very important for the health of your horses back to not sit on him for long periods of time when you are not stationary regardless of how well the saddle fits.  Static sustained pressure is the most damaging. The pressure can be reduced by rising trot and interval riding.

What are the signs of my saddle is not fitting?

Physical signs

  • Heat bumps – hot swellings on the skin
  • Galls and wounds (heavy pressure)
  • Worn and broken hairs (abrasion)
  • White hairs (damage to hair follicles)
  • Scarring – skin or muscle
  • Dry spots (sympathetic nerve transmission disturbed)
  • Increase muscle sensitivity and spasm (restriction of spinal nerves leading to muscle tightness, tenderness and scarring)
  • Decreased back sensitivity and/or  atrophy
  • Sway back/ roach back posture – weak topline, dropped belly

Secondary problems

  • Kissing spines
  • Suspensory ligament strains
  • Tendon problems
  • Bruised heels
  • Navicular syndrome
  • Degenerative joint disease (arthritis)
  • Ringbone
  • Hock arthritis (bone spavin)
  • Chiropractic problems
  • Leg interference (overreaching, hock hitting etc)

Performance problems

  • Overuse of forehand – shoulders/pectorals overdeveloped in comparison to hind end, this will cause further stress on tendons and the heels/navicular area of the forelimb
  • Lack of hindquarter engagement  - hock problems, weak behind
  • Refusing jumps
  • Jumping flat off forehand
  • Bucks over jumps or on landing
  • Twisting over jumps
  • Ducking out of turns
  • Wide on turns
  • Difficulty with spins, slides, rollbacks or pirouette
  • Difficulty with collection

Behavioural problems

  • Difficult to groom/ won’t stand still
  • Girthy, bites, cow kicks when girthed
  • Flinches, kicks, bites, moves away when groomed or touched along back
  • Avoidance – bolts, backs, rears or wont stand still while saddling)
  • Tail swishing, head tossing
  • Cold backed (dips) when mounted
  • Resistance to the aids
  • Difficult to shoe or pick out feet

What other factors will influence the fit of the saddle?

  • Hoof balance/ length
    • low undershot heels encourage forward position of leg and dropping of the abdomen and back
    • club foot à shoulder imbalance
  • Shoulder/wither shape
  • Topline muscling/ core strength
  • Rider balance/symmetry
  • Girth pain syndrome and birth trauma
  • Sacroiliac issues
  • Spinal mobility
  • How the horse is ridden

What are the important factors in fitting a saddle

  • Horse standing square
  • Saddle placement -  weight bearing area 2-3 fingers behind shoulder blade and lightly girth
  • Tree points/gullet is parallel to wither with even pressure
  • Adequate wither clearance (1-4 fingers depending if rider is in place, girthed etc)
  • Saddle balanced with lowest point in the middle of the waist, cantle (back of saddle) higher than/or level with pommel (front of saddle).  No rocking.
  • Panels fit the arc of the spine – run hand, palm down under the panels and there should be even pressure from front to back depending on how much the horse is able to hold its back up. 
  • The angles of the panels match the angle of the chest/barrel
  • The length of the saddle – generally the seat bones of the rider should not be further back then the 15th rib and the panels of the saddle should not extend past the 18th (last) rib.
  • Ensure that the channel of the saddle is wide and deep enough to avoid pressure next to and above the spinal vertebrae tips
  • Girth fit is important  - if not fitted correctly the saddle will move and it will adversely affect the saddle fit

N.B. The above is a guide only and may vary depending on the type of rider, saddle, work and horse
A correctly fitted saddle should

  • Create even sweat patches with no dry patches
  • Not move forward of back during riding
  • Not lift/raise at the front or back (rock) when placed on the horse or during riding
  • Be comfortable for the horse and rider


How often should I have my saddle fitted?

Your horses body shape can change quite quickly depending on the type and frequency of work, bodyweight and any issues in the body which may be causing pain and compensation.

It is generally recommended to have your saddle checked every 3-6 months. It is recommended that your saddle is fitted by a professional saddle fitter. As the saddle fit can vary depending on your horse and type of saddle.

It is important that we ensure the horse is working and building muscle correctly, so that they can carry the saddle and our weight with a strong posture/core.  This will optimise the quality of performance that we can expect from our horse.

Please refer to stretches to help you build the core strength of your horse and assess for indications of soreness.