What makes a saddle fit, and why does that matter?

Head Wrangler Sam

Sam, our Head Wrangler, is a wealth of knowledge in an area that isn’t on most people’s radar: Saddle Fitting.  Here, she shares some basic information about saddle fitting that gives a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes in the barn.

Have you ever been uncomfortable in a pair of shoes, or socks and shoes that don’t fit? Or for the avid hikers and campers, a heavy backpack that isn’t sitting in the right spot and makes you’re back sore? Well, that is exactly how a horse feels when their saddle or saddle pad doesn’t fit them well.

The past couple years I have immersed myself in research and learning more about this topic.  Everyone has different opinions on it, but more and more veterinarians are getting educated on proper saddle fit, and they are doing more studies and analyses to get scientific evidence on how to make horses more comfortable while we ride them. There are even certified saddle fitters and ergonomists!

Saddles are made with a base structure, called a “tree”.  This tree can be made out of wood (typically), and sometimes fiberglass.  Its purpose is to evenly distribute the weight of the rider over the horses back (on the proper saddle support area) and it keeps the saddle up off of the spinal cord and spinal ligaments.  However, the tree must properly fit the contour of the horse’s back, or it can create unwanted pressure points.  The anatomy of the horse proves where the saddle should sit.  The tree should not sit on top or too far forward, or the shoulder (scapula) cannot extend properly for full motion.  This causes the horse to compensate in other areas, creating pain and pressure points, unexplained lameness, kissing spine, and irritable behavior.  Moving down the back, if the gullet (space down the length of the saddle that keeps it off the spine) is too narrow or sits on the spine, the horse cannot properly lift its back, ribs and engage its hindquarters.  Most likely he will compensate by hollowing his back and raising his head, and putting more weight on the front end (which none of us want as that makes for an uncomfortable ride as well as leads to injury in the front legs).  At the end of the saddle support area, the tree cannot extend past the last rib. After the last rib are the lumbar (of the spine), and they have no support. Saddles that are too long can cause back soreness.

The tree and the gullet width are two very important parts.  The whole construction is important of the saddle, for English and western both.  Stirrup bars, girth placement are also important parts of saddle fitting.  When fitting a saddle, even weight distribution should be felt along the underside of the saddle.  Under a trained eye, you can take your hand and run it underneath the saddle and see if there are any points where there is a lot of pressure (remember this all should be done without a saddle pad).  Most commonly, you’ll see what we call “bridging”, which is high amounts of pressure at the front and the back of the saddle, leaving little or no weight distribution in the middle (where most of it should be anyway). You’ll see this a lot with sway backed horses, or horses with high withers.

Why should this all matter to riders?  It is important because it affects our horses behavior and long term physical health.  Saddles that are not fitted properly can cause extreme pain, and with some horses you would never know until it is too late.  If your horse has unexplained lameness, white spots on the withers, bad behavior, is “cinchy”, won’t stand still to be saddled and/or mounted, then saddle fit should be considered.

Saddle pads are a huge industry. You pay anywhere from $30 to $400+ for a saddle pad that may not even help the saddle fit.  The saddle must fit without a pad, so you would want as thin a pad as possible to not interfere with the saddle fit.  Sometimes (for sway backed horses for example), a thicker pad can help.  But, if you have pressure points, a thicker pad (which most think will eliminate the pressure points), actually makes it worse.  That is the most basic explanation for saddle pads – that is a whole other topic for the next time Steph bugs me to write a post for her!

At Vista Verde, we are spending a lot of time this Spring focusing on fitting the right saddles to each horse.  It is a time consuming process, but a great learning experience for all involved.  These horses take such good care of us, and it is our responsibility to take care of them and make them comfortable.

Interested in learning more?  Here are some Facebook pages that are great resources:

Schleese Saddlery Service

Saddlefit 4 Life

Fit Right Saddle Solutions