Saddle Fit Guide
Saddle Fitting for the Horse
Before beginning a saddle fitting on any horse, it is important that the rider discuss any issues that they are having with the horse’s back. If there are any unsoundness or soreness issues, it is important to know this before you begin a fitting. They may be caused by an ill-fitting saddle or they may not!
The main reason for the proper fitting of a saddle is for the horse’s comfort. The horse cannot perform well if the saddle is causing pain. If you are checking the fit of an existing saddle, it may help to see the horse under saddle before you begin the fitting to observe any signs of discomfort. These usually can be recognized by pinning ears, bobbing head, unusual high head carriage, and/or short strides.
When fitting a saddle, there are many critical factors to consider.
Evaluating the horse:
When you start to evaluate the horse, make sure you are on a level surface with all four feet on the ground and weight dispersed as evenly as possible. Take a thorough look at the horse; taking note of any conformation irregularities that might exist. Run your hands down the horses back starting at the withers and working down the spine to check for tenderness, lumps or scars. Look for rub marks anywhere the saddle may come into contact, particularly on the withers. We recommend trying all saddles without saddle pads for the most effective evaluation.
While evaluating the horse in cross ties is very important, please note that it is also vital that the horse be ridden for further evaluation under saddle. A properly balanced weight load is necessary for best results. Watching the horse in motion can be very influential in finding the proper tree width and panel design for an optimal saddle fit.
Position of the saddle:
"The points of the tree must remain behind the shoulder blade and should NEVER be over or on the shoulder."Be sure the saddle is sitting behind the shoulder blade (scapula). Some people insist on placing the saddle too far forward on the horse’s back. The points of the tree must remain behind the shoulder blade and should NEVER be over or on the shoulder. This will almost always cause problems in the shoulder and also in the back area below the cantle. If the saddle is placed too far back, it may rest on the lumbar vertebrae, which are weaker than the thoracic vertebrae, and will cause the back to become tender. You can find the 18th Thoracic vertebrae, which corresponds with the last rib, by running your fingers over the rib cage. Once you find the last rib, run your fingers upwards toward the spine. The saddle panels should not rest beyond this point. The only time this is usually an issue is when a saddle with a long seat is put on a short-coupled horse. The easiest way to accomplish proper placement is to place the saddle on the horse’s back on the withers and gently press down on the pommel until the saddle comes to rest just behind the horse’s scapula. If you use this method a few times, you will learn to get the feel for what is the most natural position on each horse.
Tree Design & Your Horse's Back:
Although many horses are fairly easy to fit with basic tree designs, there are some that are much more suited to more specific tree & panel designs. For instance, a saddle with a very flat tree will not be suitable for an older horse with a prominent wither and sway back. In this example, we would generally recommend starting with a tree that has a deep and more arched design to better accomodate the horse's confirmation. On the contrary, if your horse has a very flat back, a tree with more depth and arch will generally not provide a correct fit.
Angle of the tree points:
The angle of the tree at the points must be parallel to the back at the withers. The tree points fit into the pockets on the panel. If the tree is too narrow, the angle of the point will be too straight and the points will tend to stab into the muscles. If it is too wide, the saddle points will tend to drop down around the shoulder and cause the gullet of the saddle to be too close to the withers. This aspect of fitting a saddle is really the basis of insuring a proper fit. If the tree is not the correct size for the particular horse, there is only so much of a correction that can be done. Some padding can be added or some can be removed but if the tree fit is too far off, you simply must recommend a different tree size.
"...not only do you have to look at the tree width in the pommel, you also have to consider the opening of the gullet area."Another aspect of proper tree fit that you need to look for is the width of the gullet opening, especially in the pommel area. The saddle panel must leave a clearance wide enough so as not to interfere with the horse’s spine or connective tissue. Check for clearance by observing the saddle gullet width down the spine both mounted and unmounted. Make sure it does not rest on or pinch the horse’s backbone or it will definitely cause a problem. The panels will tend to compact under the rider’s weight so it is important to be sure that the panel does not fill in the gullet space as it compacts. Some trees have narrower gullets and are generally more suitable for thoroughbred type horses. If you try to use this type of tree on a broad warmblood or quarter horse type, it can pinch the spine behind the wither area and cause a good deal of discomfort for the horse. The opposite situation would be if you were trying a saddle with a wide gullet on the narrow thoroughbred type horse. It will sit too far down on the wither and can create pressure, sores and even spinal damage. Most every saddle we sell at Beval comes in various tree widths. However, not only do you have to look at the tree width in the pommel, you also have to consider the opening of the gullet area.
Panel Contact and Pressure:
With the saddle sitting on the horse’s back in the proper position, press down on the saddle with one hand and run the other hand between the panel and the horse. Check for good contact and uniform pressure throughout the entire panel. If the panel is too tight in spots, this could indicate too narrow a tree. If the saddle rests on the withers or rocks front to back, chances are that the tree is too wide.
"Ideally, the panel should fit the horse uniformly... if the saddle fits the horse properly, the type of panel used is not as important"Another thing to look for is how flat the panel lies on the horse’s back. Often there is too steep an angle from the outside of the panel to the inside towards the gullet. This causes more pressure towards the outside edge of the panel and little or no contact toward the gullet area. This can often be remedied by a saddler but only to a certain extent. Ideally, the panel should fit the horse uniformly from front to back as well as from side to side so that the pressure of the rider’s weight is evenly distributed.
The two most common type of panels used today are “form style” which are generally a foam and felt material construction or “flocked style” which is stuffed with either natural wool or synthetic flocking. While the flocked style is more easily adjustable, the form style offers thinner panels for closer contact. There are also newer panel designs, such as Bates Cair panel. We, at Beval, find that if the saddle fits the horse properly, the type of panel used is not as important. We can make adjustments on all styles and types of panels including Hybrid panels, which incorporate both wool flocked and foam construction.
It is important to keep in mind that the more evenly the panels rest on the horse's back, the more stable the saddle will be. A secure fit allows for optimal performance and limited movement when the horse is being worked. While some movement is to be expected, what you need to avoid is the saddle rocking from side to side or having the cantle tip forward, moving all pressure to the withers.
Bridging is also a problem you may encounter when checking panel contact and pressure. This is where the saddle is making contact at the wither/shoulder area and at the cantle. The panel is gapping in the middle under the seat and there is little or no contact with the horse’s back in that area. This is most likely caused by the saddle not fitting around the withers properly. This could be because the tree is too narrow; the panels are too thick or thin. The correction for this situation could be trying a different tree width. Or, sometimes, it is simply a matter of adding some additional foam or wool flocking to the panel. If the saddle is bridging, the pressure of the rider’s weight on the horse’s back is limited to the front and back of the panels. This can cause major soreness issues.
Here is a basic guideline for making sure that a saddle is sitting level. With the saddle on the horse, visualize a level line from the pommel to the cantle. This line should run from the top of the pommel to approximately one inch below the cantle on a typical close contact saddle and one to two inches below the cantle on a deeper seated saddle. If the cantle drops below this level line, then the saddle is not fitting the horse properly. It will cause the rider to sit too far back and have difficulty keeping their leg in the proper place on the flap. If the saddle sits lower in front, chances are that it is resting on the withers. In addition to causing pain for the horse, it will also cause the rider to be pushed too far forward to maintain a correct position. Because there are so many different types of saddles on the market today, remember that this is just a guideline and some styles will create exceptions to this rule.
There should be 3 fingers (2 ½ ”) between the gullet and the withers without any rider’s weight in the saddle. When mounted the saddle should not drop more than 1 finger, leaving 2 fingers (1 ¾”) worth of space. If the saddle measurement is less than 3 fingers then the tree is too wide for the horse. If there is space for more than 3 fingers, the tree is undoubtedly too narrow. Adding or subtracting thickness in the panel can correct the saddle fit at the withers, but a proper tree size is the best bet.
Observe the horse with the rider again:
"...the horse generally tells the story the best by moving forward smoothly in a relaxed and comfortable manner."Once you have determined that a saddle appears to fit the horse, you should then tack the horse up and have the rider mount up. Have them walk, trot on both diagonals and canter on both leads. Once again, watch for any signs of horse discomfort such as ears pinning, bobbing head, short strides or unusually high head carriage. Over the years, we have tried many different methods of testing panel pressure. However, the horse generally tells the story the best by moving forward smoothly in a relaxed and comfortable manner. That is when you know you are on the right track. The rider can at least express what he is feeling in words where the horse has to express it in attitude and movement. You can discuss the rider’s comfort and balance while they are working the horse. If they do not like the feel of the saddle or complain that it feels unbalanced, you should then move on to the next trial saddle. Try to take 2 or more saddles that you think will suit the horse and rider. This saves on time and frustration.
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Saddle Fitting for the Rider
Rider sizing is usually determined during your initial talks with the rider and trainer at the store. Have the rider sit in a saddle that is sitting properly on a sturdy saddle stand. The general rule of thumb is to be able to fit one hand sideways behind the rider to the cantle. This, however, can vary depending on the rider’s personal preference. Some people like to feel more cradled and prefer a smaller seat size. Some people prefer more length behind them so they can push back to get further behind the motion when driving a horse forward.
"...Butet saddles are fully customizable both for the rider and the horse."Flap size can also be a personal choice. There again, the rule of thumb and a good place to start is when the knee when in it’s normal riding position, it should not go over the front of the flap and the flap should not go further then 1/3rd of the way down the calf. Obviously, in dressage, the leg is in a straighter and longer position. In some other disciplines, like eventing, the riders often ride shorter in a little more protective position. This depends on the discipline you are riding as well as personal preference. Most of the saddles we sell have different flap sizes available. Generally, the more expensive the saddle, the more choices a rider has to make it more customized. For instance, our top of the line Butet saddles are fully customizable both for the rider and the horse.
Rider balance and the stirrup bar:
"The stirrup bar has to be in exactly the right spot under that particular rider’s center of gravity to prevent the rider from fighting with the saddle to maintain position."Rider balance has a tremendous amount to do with the performance of a competition saddle. The stirrup bar has to be in exactly the right spot under that particular rider’s center of gravity to prevent the rider from fighting with the saddle to maintain position. For instance, if the stirrup bar is too far in front of where the rider sits, the rider’s base will be behind their leg position. This will cause them to feel as if they are trying to ride up hill. When that happens, their shoulder has to come forward to accommodate this awkward “behind the motion” feel. We often see this with shorter riders and small children.
On the other hand, if this distance of the stirrup bar is too short from the rider’s base, the opposite will happen. The rider will feel as if they are falling forward over their leg, they will have an awkward feel and subsequently, a bad position. All of this shows up in flat work but is amplified when jumping.
The stirrup bar and the center of the rider’s body weight relationship is hard to measure. Generally, the best way to figure out what is best is by trial and error when you go to their barn for a fitting on their horse. It is always a great feeling when you are on maybe the second or third saddle and all of a sudden the rider says “Wow! This feels great! My position is better! It is much easier to post and stay in position!” The trainers or other ground people always will notice the difference immediately.
There is a lot to consider when trying to fit horse and rider properly so please do your best to follow all of the above points. Good luck with your saddle trials and if there is anything we can further assist you, with please don’t hesitate to ask.
Contact the Experts
If you have questions regarding saddle fitting, please contact our Saddle Fitting Experts. We offer saddle fitting services to customers around our retail store locations in Gladstone, NJ; New Canaan, CT; North Salem, NY; Saugerties, NY; and at many "A" Rated horse shows on the East coast! If you are not local to our retail stores or mobile locations, please call us at 800-524-0136 or email us and we will gladly assist you in properly evaluating and fitting your saddle.
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Saddle Fitting Services
Need assistance fitting one of our used saddles? We offer a variety of saddle fitting opportunities to ensure you find the perfect fit both you and your horse!
For customers located near Gladstone, NJ; New Canaan, CT and North Salem, NY, we offer on-site saddle fitting services. We're also available on the road at many A-Rated shows along the East Coast from South Florida to Vermont. If you are interested in scheduling a saddle fitting, please contact us at 800-524-0136 to schedule an appointment and let us come to you!
If your not local to our stores and need assistance fitting one of our used saddles, we're here to help! We have had great success working with our long-distance customers by aiding them in saddle fitting through the use of digital images and complete customer support. Please contact us at 800-524-0136 or email our saddle fitting experts for more information and assistance!
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