Horse riding is a joyous experience – if your saddle fits right. Whether you're on a trail ride or in a jumping contest, or just taking a trot around the paddock, the fit of your saddle will determine rider balance and posture. It also determines the comfort of your horse.
It's crucial for both you and your horse to have a well-fitted saddle so that you're not putting too much pressure on a horse's shoulder blades. A saddle fitter can adjust things for you, but you yourself should also know what a proper saddle fit is like.
Importance of Saddle Fit
We cannot stress the importance of a properly fitted saddle. It should be comfortable for both the horse and you, or riding will be painful for both. Poor saddle fit leads to riding discomfort and causes blisters for you or sores for your horse.
Think about how painful it is to wear ill-fitting shoes – an ill-fitting saddle is the same. A too-small saddle will pinch at the horse's spine and shoulders. On the other hand, a too-big saddle will slip around and chafe at your horse's shoulder.
Proper saddle fit also helps when riding! Since a saddle carries a rider's weight, it can convey different signals through the horse's back and sides. When you squeeze, sit down hard, or otherwise shift in the saddle seat, the horse can sense that and act accordingly.
Your saddle is an investment, and you can use the same saddle for years so long as it fits well.
Types and Parts of Saddles
There are many different saddles, and each has its own unique fit. The most common are the English saddle or the American/Western saddle, but other types include:
- Dressage saddle
- Trail riding saddles
- Jumping saddles
We'll focus more on the English and Western saddle fit, however, since these are more commonly used.
The foundation of a saddle is called the "saddle tree" – the T-shaped skeleton. The saddle bars pass over the horse's shoulders (the "withers"), then the centre stems pass down either side of the horse's spine.
Following the tree, strips of leather are cut to the saddle size and glued into place. Next comes the padding – for the English model, saddle panels are stuffed with foam or wool.
All saddles have a girth or cinch, which is the strap holding your saddle in place. These run under your horse's belly and are interchangeable. Then there's the saddle flap. Saddles may also have stirrups and knee rolls to keep a rider's legs in place.
Saddle makers fit each saddle to the horse using it, since each horse differs. Some have narrow withers, while others have high ones. A horse may have hardly any wither at all. Saddle models will be shaped for specific sizes and shapes.
How to Fit a Saddle on a Horse
To fit a saddle correctly, place it slightly forward over the horse's withers. Slide the saddle back until it's about 6–8cm (about four fingers' width) behind the shoulder blade. It should feel like a "natural" resting spot and fit snugly around your horse's back.
Keep an eye on the "wither clearance." You want enough space above and beside the withers so that the saddle gullet clears the top of the withers. Since the saddle settles lower after mounting, double-check when riding so that you're not burdening your horse's withers.
Visually check the saddle fit – it should be level, not tilted forward or back. Then note your horse's behaviour. If it seems happy, relaxed, and comfortable, then you've got a well-fitting saddle.
When evaluating a saddle fit, there should be no saddle pad. Check whether the saddle is:
- Level and even
- Parallel to the withers
- Behind the shoulder blade
- Above the withers
Shifting should not move the saddle forward or back.
Meanwhile, the gullet should clear the horse's spine with the rider in place. Then the stirrup bar should be in the proper place for the rider's leg.
Signs of Poor Saddle Fit
Recognising improper saddle fits is crucial, since it could lead to pain, discomfort, and poor riding. Check for the following warning signs:
- Muscle soreness around the saddle area
- Dry patches around the spine
- Swelling after exercise
- Depressions under the saddle
- White hairs around the saddle
- Saddle sores
- Uneven gait
- Reluctance to be saddled
English Saddle vs Western Saddle
Western saddles were designed for cowboys working long hours on their horses. They're heavier and larger than an English saddle, and distribute a rider's weight over a larger surface area. The Western saddle tree is often made of wood covered in fibreglass, with a seat covered in split leather or suede.
English saddles, meanwhile, are lighter and offer closer contact with a horse's back. The saddle trees are often made of laminated wood reinforced with steel or synthetic material. The seat cover is either unadorned leather or synthetic wool.
Western saddles have a "saddle horn" and wide bars, while English saddles have no horn and narrower bars.
English and Western saddle pads or blankets also differ. Western pads are squarish, usually made of wool. English pads are shaped to each saddle and made of wool fleece or cotton.
Proper Saddle Fitting
Proper riding discipline includes saddles that fit correctly. You'll be sitting on your horse's back for a long time, so both horse and rider should be comfortable. Always check your saddle's fit so you can adjust or get a new one as necessary. Once you're comfortable with how to fit a saddle on a horse, go on and ride with pride!